Saturday, November 2, 2013

the culture of modesty

I understand that I’m super late in weighing in on this conversation. The evolution of the swimsuit has already debuted, the myriad responses have already circulated and ya’ll are turning to turtleneck season and won’t care about this discussion for another ten months. So forgive me if this is annoyingly out of season, but I’ve only just caught up on this trending topic in America. (#bushdweller.)

I’ve learned two specific lessons from my Zambian ladies regarding modesty that have been very valuable to me and I think are worth sharing.

First. Modesty is culturally informed. When I first arrived in Fimpulu, I had to process the breastage that I was encountering everywhere. Boobs, boobs and more boobs. Where do I look? I remember riding in the back of a truck once, sitting across from a lady and a man. The (bra-less) lady somehow realized that her shirt was on backwards and so right there in front of me and next to this other guy, she whips her shirt off, flips it around and puts it back on the right way, flashing us all with breasts that have clearly nursed a small tribe of youngins. And I nearly peed my pants I trying so hard to stifle embarrassed laughter. 

Since then I’ve grown quite comfortable in this environment and have happily joined right in with the free and fancy flinging of boob-to-baby’s-mouth. “How long did it take you to get really comfortable nursing in public?” I’ve been asked. Well. The first week we had Bronwyn here in the village, people would come and greet us and if she was nursing, they would get down in her face to tickle her cheek and say hi. Inevitably, she would pull off leaving me fleshy and exposed with someone’s face two centimeters from my strikingly pink areola. Fantastic. But after this happened multiple times, I noticed the trend that not a single person was paying attention to my boob. Not the women, not the teenage boys, not the grandfatherly old men.

I love everything about this.

I remember listening to a sermon by a well known American pastor who was teaching on the topic of modesty and he was jesting about how ‘there are only three kinds of men: blind men, gay men, and breast men.’ Hmmm. Sorry MD but you forgot Zambian men, and doesn’t that make your statement sound foolish? This attitude perpetuates a false stereotype that American men are physically/biologically/humanly unable to not go crazy over breasts. Yet my experience here has taught me that this is simply not the case. It would seem that the breast obsession in America is a cultural obsession - an unfortunate one that is grossly drawn out in media frenzies, shooing nursing women into closets, and dragging the modesty conversation through piles of obnoxious muck.

However, a second lesson remains. Namely, culture still matters.  Zambian men may not be "breast men," but the ladies here know what kind of men they are. There is a very good reason why you will never see a woman’s skin above her knee. The thigh to belly button region is practically sacred, and women go to extreme lengths to preserve the intimacy of that skin for their husbands alone. In my good-wife training  (which I’ve never written about because: a) I don’t know who reads this blog, b) I was sworn to secrecy and c) the details of that event are totally not 'G' rated…) we were taught (and by taught I mean hazed) into a strict agreement that certain body parts are for our husbands alone. No man shall ever touch or gaze upon thine thighs, dear women, or we shall beat you. Kapeesh?

Little girls are given a certain amount of cultural latitude to wear shorts or run free in whatever outfit. But at a tender age, girls are expected to don dresses and wear panties and sit with legs crossed. Just the other day, nature-baby Bronwyn was gallivanting about in a diaper and t-shirt when a woman came up and only half-jokingly scolded, “she’s too old to not be wearing a skirt.” Yes ma’am. It’s a social contract that the rural communities firmly hold to. Men are socialized to be attracted to thighs and we agree to not tempt them with ours. No debating. No claiming our rights. No making a point about it. No whining and complaining that men should control themselves. It’s respect pure and simple. With the threat of a sever bamayo beating thrown in for good measure. 

These two lessons have provided a lens through which to observe this great American modesty debate. I now know that I do not need to feel ashamed of the way that God made me, and it is not my burden to account for every man’s action. The breast attraction is arbitrary (at best), which just makes all the fuss and argumentation and hooter-hiders seem silly.


AT THE VERY SAME TIME, as a member of society and a sister to my brothers, it is my responsibility to behave with a certain level of respect for my own culture. Both of these things are valid and both must be reconciled if we are to ever live in a society that is at the same time truthful and gracious. I will probably always throw up a little in my mouth every time I hear someone defend high necklines with the words, “that’s just how men are wired”...*and*... I’ll graciously cover up anyway, (or at least try and angle myself a bit) because culture is a powerful force in shaping the mind’s eye. Those forces are real and palpable and I’ve been trained well enough to respect that.  

1 comment:

  1. Bethany, I'm so thankful that you share so candidly and wisely about culture and modesty!