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Modesty comprises a set of culturally or religiously determined values that relate to the presentation of the self to others.

It can include:

  • Moderation in one's actions or appearance, not wishing to attract undue attention to oneself;
  • Downplaying one's accomplishments (see humility);
  • False or Sham modesty, a form of boasting through excessive self-denigration;
  • Modesty about sexuality and the display of the human body, especially taboos against nudity in many cultures.

This concept of modesty is of great importance to many people, and is the topic of the rest of this article.

Body modesty


1868 diagram from Harper's Bazaar, showing a mid-Victorian idea of how the hemlines of girls skirts' should descend towards the ankle as a girl got older

Body modesty is the wish or requirement not to expose too much of the human body; this applies to the bare skin, but also to hair and to the display of undergarments, and especially to the intimate parts; it involves not only covering body parts, but also obscuring their shape. It is accomplished by suitable clothing, special ways of changing clothes (see beach), closing or locking the door when changing or taking a shower, etc.; it varies according to who could see it, with categories such as

  • spouse, partner,
  • friend or family of the same sex,
  • strangers of the same sex,
  • friends or family including those of the opposite sex,
  • people of the same social class,
  • people in general.


Modesty can be controversial. An alternative term for modesty used by some critics is body shame [1] or gymnophobia. Excessive modesty is called prudishness. Excessive immodesty is called exhibitionism. Proponents of modesty often see it as respect for their bodies and the feelings of themselves and others, and some people believe it may reduce sexual crimes. (This is based on the widely-held belief that victims of sex crimes are at least partially accountable for the crime, if they were immodestly dressed and thus "baited" the offender). Modesty is conditioned by culture, and also by occasion and who is present; for example, a Finnish person who might happily take all one's clothes off in a mixed sauna would probably not want to walk down the street naked.[2] Similarly, someone who might wear a bikini to the beach would not wear it to a business meeting.

Western norms of modesty

Western culture in general requires the intimate parts of the body to be covered in public places at all times. Exceptions are made for situations such as public changing rooms, which tend to be single-sex venues, and saunas, which tend to be mixed-sex venues.

Traditionally, there is an expectation that shirt and trousers or dress etc. be worn in public places. In particular, it is generally unacceptable to be shirtless in most public spaces, except places designated for bathing or in the vicinity of these places (such as beaches, and on deck near a swimming pool). However, it is common for formal spaces like restaurants, etc., to overlook a beach or pool, in which case the boundary of modesty is spatial, but not visually segregated. For example, at a poolside or beachside outdoor patio restaurant, there is usually a railing. On one side of the railing, barefoot and shirtless people can converse with those dining on the other side, and may even be part of the same group. More recently, multi-use spaces such as urban beaches are beginning to emerge, washing away even the above mentioned boundaries between more and less modest space. Thus it is now, in many places, acceptable to sunbathe in beachwear next to waterplay fountains located in the heart of a city or business district.

In private homes, the rules may be more relaxed. For instance, nudity among immediate family members who are cohabitants of the home is sometimes permitted, especially in the bedroom and bathroom; or wearing undergarments casually, which would not be done outdoors. Elsewhere in the home, particularly when visitors are present, some simple casual clothing is expected like a bathrobe which can be quickly donned when full clothing is not required, or if it's unavailable nearby depending on convenience.

Wearing less than the Western norm

Other cultures, such as some African cultures and traditional Australian aboriginal culture have far less requirement for modesty, though how much exposure is acceptable varies greatly, from nothing for some women, to everything except the glans penis for men of some tribes (see foreskin). In other African cultures, body painting is used for body "coverage" as well and is an "attire" considered by many.

In the West, the subculture of nudism regards complete nudity as acceptable within the nudist community.

Wearing more than the Western norm

Many religious and cultural traditions have greater restrictions. Islam, and the Amish culture, for example, require "modest dress" to be worn by both sexes. Many Muslim women wear the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, as a way of expressing modesty.

In some Islamic sub-cultures, this is taken to extremes, in particular in some Islamic countries where some women wear the burqa, an all-encompassing garment intended to conceal every part of the body, including the eyes. Wearing a burqa or abaya as it is called is quite common in many Islamic countries. However, not all women cover their eyes. Instead, they wear the 'abaya to cover their bodies. Most Islamic interpretations require a women to cover everything with the exception of hands (from wrist) and face.

In most Islamic countries, such expressions of modesty are voluntary. In others, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban, they were enforced under pain of death.

Orthodox Judaism and Sikhism both require men to wear a head covering, in the form of a yarmulke or turban respectively. However. a yarmulke (also called kipa) is not related to modesty; its function is as a religious physical reminder of God. Orthodox Judaism expects married women to cover their hair; this is achieved by scarves, hats, or — in many communities — wigs ("sheitel"). The Jewish "dress code" is referred to as Tzeniut; this applies to both men and women, and is also seen as a way of drawing attention to the internal while de-emphasizing the physical.

Catholics, especially women, must dress modestly, but often this is overlooked for the sake of fashion. Women are to cover their upper arms and shoulders, and the neckline should not reveal anything. If they are to wear trousers (and many traditional Catholic women do not), they should not be tight. In general, they are not to wear clothes that flaunt their bodies and make them sex objects.Our Lady of Fatima said in 1917 that "Certain fashions will be introduced which will offend My Son (Jesus) very much." Men are required to dress modestly as well, but demands are not as strict for them as for women.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also live by a modesty code.

Modest versions of nudity


Cupidon (French for Cupid), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1875; the tip of the right wing "happens to cover" the boy's genitals.

In art, ways of reducing the depiction of nudity include:

  • fig leaves
  • a piece of cloth (or something else) seemingly by chance covering the genitals
  • in a movie, filming a supposedly nude person from the waist up (or from the shoulders up, for women)
  • in a movie, maneuvering (turning, having objects in front) and film editing in such a way that no genitals are seen (Mike Myers consciously mocked this technique several times in his Austin Powers films, and decades before, W.C. Fields had done the same thing in one of his films)

See also


  1. Body Shame
  2. Nakedness and the Finnish Sauna

de:Bescheidenheit fr:Pudeur io:Pudoro

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