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You claim to be so modest
And I will not say you lie,
But no one wears a scarlet skirt
Expecting to get by
Without attracting notice
From the quicker kinds of eye
("Modesty," Anonymous, from the Manyoshu).†

I've been thinking about modesty lately—notions of naked and nude, public and private, sacred and profane. One dictionary I consulted indicates the origin of the word to be the Latin "modestus," meaning "keeping due measure." To be modest, it seems, means to be moderate, to maintain a certain perspective about one's appearance, abilities or achievements. Some synonyms listed in my dictionary include: "decent," "reserved," "humble" and "chaste."

A number of philosophers have written about modesty in the context of personal achievement (Ben-Ze'ev 1993; Nuyen 1998; Ridge 2000; Schueler 1997). Then there are those who write about it in connection with shame or privacy (Riezler 1942). There are those scholars who write about modesty within the context of sexuality (Ellis 1942 [1905]; Krafft-Ebing, Shalit, 2000). From all of these meanings and definitions and contexts, there is frequent discussion about modesty as it relates to dress.

Havelock Ellis wrote an entire chapter about modesty in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex. He asserted that to be modest one does not necessarily need to be clothed. He states, "many races[,] which go absolutely naked[,] possess a highly-developed sense of modesty" (Ellis v. 1, pt. 1, 6). In many societies where the climate is so humid or wet as to make clothing uncomfortable on the body, people feel the same emotions of modesty, shame and chastity as felt by people in societies where clothing the body is a normal everyday occurrence. To be modest does not necessarily mean to be clothed or covered, and even when it does, what parts of the body are clothed to express one's modesty (the genitals, the face, the hair, etc.) varies with culture. Ancient Greeks, for example, participated in sports while nude, but they drew the line at exposure of the penile glans. David Gollaher explains:

The Greek standard of modesty held that the foreskin should cover the glans. Visible glans in an uncircumcised man was taken as evidence of sexual arousal and was thus considered indecent within the arena. To prevent mishaps, many athletes wore the kynodesme, a strand of colored string that looped around the foreskin, closing it tightly over the glans. The Greek code of genital etiquette placed circumcised Jews at an embarrassing disadvantage in the public baths, wrestling matches, and competitive games (14).

Mounira Khemir also suggests that modesty need not require covering the pudenda. She relates this story: "A man was washing at a water hole, stark naked, when to his horror a woman herding goats suddenly caught sight of him. He grabbed his breeches and used them to cover not his private parts, but his face!" (Khemir 1998, 61).

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