Power in Modesty?
I just read an online article on the topic of Evangelical clothing stores popping up “all over” Brazil. The author is quick to note that Brazil is “known for it’s tiny bikinis,” so there’s some kind of shock expected from the popularity (in number as there is no note on the sales) of these modest clothing stores.
The author raises the question, mostly in the title of the article, of whether there is power in modesty. If focus is taken away from the body and how “hot” it looks, can women accomplish more, go farther in socio-economic hierarchies, etc? The question is problematic in many ways, not the least of which is that a focus on modesty is still a focus on the body and how well it’s covered; and it’s safe to assert that we’re really only talking about female bodies in this discussion as well, so the question of whether or not a modestly dressed woman has more power than a less-modestly dressed woman is not the same question as whether or not a woman has more standing in society or culture as a whole.
In the comments of the article are a number of references to India and travel advisers recommending that western women dress conservatively when visiting the country, specifying loose-fitting clothing that covers knees and shoulders. One commenter, who raised the issue of Indian modesty to begin with as she will be traveling there soon and was planning to follow the advice, was irked that there is never any mention on advice for how men might dress conservatively or modestly in order to ease their travel. The responses to her comments were either of the “trust me, I’ve been in India and you want to dress modestly” sort or of the “men who wear tattered jeans don’t get as much respect as a man in a suit” variety. I find the latter a little irrelevant, as disheveled is to a suit as poverty is to money, not really a matter of modesty and sexual flashiness. There are assumptions made about class in both cases, I guess.
Men Inside the Camp
But the question of men dressing modestly is a reasonable one and I thought immediately of how some of the Thai men at the camp behave very differently in terms of social etiquette outside the camp. Chiang Mai is a relatively conservative area of Thailand and there are signs posted within the gym asking male westerners to please wear a shirt or “singlet” (that’s British for tank top) when running as it is impolite to go bare-chested. Within the gym, all the men are bare-chested all the time and those shirts come straight off (both Thai and westerners) the minute the body has crossed the driveway to enter the gym. All of the Thai boys and men are very diligent about putting on their shirts when they go out of the gym for a run, but there are three Thai males who don’t bother covering their chests when they step over across the driveway to a small convenience store next door (one of these fellows never goes in the store without his shirt, but sits outside on a bench for hours sans cover).
This convenience store employs young women, maybe late-teen to very early 20’s. I’m quite positive that the two Thai males (one in his 50’s and one turning 19 this month) who enter the store without their shirts are perfectly aware of the impact of parading around in front of young Thai women. The place is owned by a middle-aged Thai man and those two never go in shirtless when he’s around. I’ve passed into the store a few times while the men are in there kind of hanging out and chatting with the woman behind the counter and I have always noted the look of discomfort on the Thai women’s body language, even though they are being very polite and by Thai custom not making any kind of scene about it. In that situation the men are being immodest and impolite, but because of their position in contrast to these young women they are not at a loss of power for their transgression. Rather, they have quite a bit of power in that scenario. However, the Thai men at the gym who do not cross this boundary almost certainly have more power in the grander scope of social status, as gentlemen perhaps.
In my personal experience of spending 7 hours per day in a heavily male space, I can see the strong dissimilarities between conduct within the camp and without it. As one of the greatest indicators of the male-centric structure of the gym I point to the bathroom. On one end of the gym is a small concrete enclosure. One one side is a toilet and sink with a door that locks. On the other side of that (sharing a partial wall) is a shower with a door that closes (but doesn’t lock) and a urinal that is not obscured by any partition from the rest of the gym. So, when men go over to the urinal they are visible from nearly every part of the gym. A man’s back is turned when he’s using the urinal, but it’s pretty much the same as if he were relieving himself against a wall in the corner given the level of privacy awarded. At times some of the Thai teenagers will shower together in their underwear outside of the shower enclosure using a hose attachment.
All this is not to illustrate the exhibitionism of Thai men, but rather that the entire gym is a locker room where the bonding and not-directly-sexual physical proximity of male bodies is expected and greeted as casual. My being there is the oddity. It is very much the same as a woman being granted access to the men’s locker room and feeling that there is rampant immodesty. Outside of the gym, however, is like outside the locker room. It’s possible to assume that this convenience store is viewed as an extension of the gym given it’s direct proximity, but the fact that shirts are already on by the time the men reach the end of the driveway for a run – and that they never, ever enter the store without shirts when the male owner is there – pretty much dismisses that interpretation.
Social Conduct Outside the Camp
Physical contact between men and women is uncommon in public, whereas physical contact between members of the same sex is highly common and to a western eye appears oddly intimate or sexual even though it is not read that way by Thais. Boys will touch each other on the thigh in conversation the way I keep my hand on my husbands thigh when we sit next to each other – it looks weird to me to see boys do it and it looks weird to them to see me do it. And young women will stroll around the vendors and markets around the university holding hands – something I remember from my youth with my best friends, but something I don’t see among young women at this age in many parts of the west. I actually find both the male-male and female-female intimacy to be quite beautiful.
But given these social tendencies of same-sex public intimacy versus private intimacy, the transgression of going shirtless into the convenience store when there are young women there and not doing so when there is a middle-aged man (a demographic with equal or higher status than both Thai men who take part in this matter) being an issue of immodesty becomes pretty clear. The ubiquitous bare chests of my male training partners in contrast to my t-shirt covered torso is not simply a disparity in how men and women dress, but is also a visual expression of my difference and my position in that space.
A Question of Tone and Context
I don’t speak Thai casually as often as I’d like. The greatest reason why I hesitate is not strictly shyness, but more that I do not have the level of comfort and grasp of the more complex structures of the language which allow one to sound polite. Two years ago I was bothered that I kept forgetting to add the polite particle “ka” at the end of each sentence and my Thai friend Ying told me it’s no big deal – she doesn’t always say “ka”, but instead “you just speak politely.” I know what she means, it’s a tone of voice, but in the main and in every language I have familiarity with it requires more words to be polite. Take for example requests, which with too few words can come off as demanding and crude whereas just a few “if you would,” “please,” “when you have a moment,” “do you mind,” etc. make everything more polite because it’s less imposing.
I suspect there is something of this in the question of modesty. Rather than the expression of modesty being an algebraic equation of how much of your body you cover, it seems to me that the greater expression of modesty is the same as the more-words-to-express-politeness equation in which the additive practice of modesty speaks more to one’s standing than the size of the cloth covering one’s body. There are “tones” of this expression in the same way your tone of speech can make an otherwise polite request sound crude or a poorly constructed half-sentence come off as very polite. And I reckon that’s where the power lies – not in the Evangelical clothing store that seeks to hide the body, but in the way that body consciously interacts with other bodies in the world. In a gym where every man bares his chest, the power lies in those who also wear awareness of its context.
(For a follow-up article on the history of toplessness in Thailand, click through to “Keep Your Shirt On – Another Read on Thai Modesty”)