A Return to Modesty: Interview with Wendy Shalit

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Janet Sahm Easter
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2099

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Startling, shocking, and healing. These are just some of the reactions readers have had to A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit’s controversial book that articulates the deeply confusing cultural message of what it means to be powerful women in an age where we're told to keep nothing private.

Now, Shalit is continuing the conversation by releasing a new edition of the book, complete with an insightful new preface addressing the unique challenges women and men are facing today. We caught up with Shalit to get her thoughts on today's cultural climate and why she feels that "a return to modesty" is more needed than ever.

Fifteen years since the release of A Return to Modesty's first edition, why did you feel the need to issue a new edition with a new preface? Has there been a major shift in society's view of modesty?

There is so much that has happened since 1999—the advent of Facebook and social media, sexting, and Internet porn taking off the way it has—I felt that the book was crying out for an update. The theme of modesty has become more relevant and even urgent today. Where do we set boundaries, and why? In public discussions, everyone is really talking about issues of personal modesty, but without calling it that, which causes a lot of confusion. Parents don't want their teenage daughters to be "sexting" naked pictures around, but on the other hand, they don't want to "interfere with their sexuality," so very often these girls get no real guidance. If we think of these issues in the context of modesty, I think that's helpful.

There seems to be a paradox with the simultaneous rise of society's recognition of over-sexualization, and the media's increasing production of graphic and violent sexual entertainment. Why do you think there is such a disparity?

That's a really great question. For the most part, it's because there is no alternative in people’s minds. It's really hard to reject what the media sells as "sexy" when there is no competing ideal. No one wants to be the prude. So part of what I try to do in this book is to build the case for modesty from the ground up—take it apart, and then rebuild it to show that it has nothing to do with prudery. Havelock Ellis, for example, was a physician and one of the first comprehensive sexologists of the nineteenth century; he even published works on transgender psychology. But in his history of sexuality, modesty was the first chapter.

Keeping a part of yourself in reserve used to be part of the story of healthy sexuality—it is what allows for real intimacy and makes it more than just scratching an itch—but in the wake of the ideological attack on modesty, we've lost so much. I wanted young people to understand this history, and to have a vibrant alternative to the media's in-your-face portrayal of sexuality. I wanted them to see that there was nothing wrong with them if they wanted to be choosy; in fact, there are many advantages to keeping sexuality private.

How much of the book did you change?

In a few cases, if there was a typesetting error, I fixed it, but for the most part, I resisted the impulse to edit the original book in any significant way. It was a huge test for me because going back and reading something I wrote fifteen years ago—have you ever done that? I was very much tempted to take out entire paragraphs.

But in the end, I decided to leave all the girlish, personal stuff in there, mostly thanks to my eight-year-old son. One day I was fretting in the car: Should I take out this part, or that part? You know you're going nuts when you're asking your eight-year-old for advice, and he doesn't have the slightest clue what you're talking about. But he said with total confidence: "Mama, the book has sold already for fifteen years—just leave it the way it is!" That pretty much settled the matter. So my original book still builds the case for modesty in the same way it always did, but my new preface invites the reader to look at more current problems through the lens of this "lost" virtue.

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Why the cover change?

The original cover for A Return to Modesty was from a famous Dürer painting. It's a wonderful depiction of the archetypical Biblical scene of the first cover-up, but whenever you have a depiction of a person (even Eve), the visual representation can limit things. And since there was nudity, I would go to book signings and sometimes a girl would ask me to sign her copy, and it would have a brown paper wrapping around it. It was pretty hilarious, especially for a book about modesty! So now it's more of a symbolic cover with a simple fig leaf, which I like because it hints at the fact that modesty can mean different things to different people.

What are some recent examples you've noticed of women and girls being told by society to change toward a more hyper-sexualized norm?

Where to begin? Sexy lingerie being peddled to little girls, the pressure on tweens to take provocative selfies, and the fact that becoming a porn star is now considered an empowered way to pay for your college education. "If you've got it, flaunt it" is the slogan of our time.

Do you think girls today face more challenges on this front than fifteen years ago or are the challenges the same?

On the one hand, I do think many of the challenges are worse, but on the other hand, precisely because things have gotten so bad, there is also widespread recognition that maybe the whole ideology of sexual entitlement was flawed from the beginning. When I attended university in the late nineties for example, the hookup scene was just revving up and it was totally idealized. No one does that anymore. Yes, it's the entrenched status quo, but that's also what makes it so depressing for young people who want more, and studies are showing that many young women and men do hope for more. When I first wrote A Return to Modesty, I was on my own, but now there are countless campus groups out there challenging hookup culture, and doing so successfully.

Even think about the way in which the cult of women’s magazines has been broken up. True, the usual suspects still dole out patronizing and awful advice, but now Verily (and others) are around to present a much more vibrant and intelligent vision of womanhood. That’s pretty exciting.

I know you've been attacked a lot personally over the years for writing this book. Has that been difficult for you?

Well, I know that my speaking out has made it a bit easier for others to come forward, and that gives me strength. I also try to take the personal attacks as a backhanded compliment, because when people have a good counter-argument, they generally will make it. So I guess, apparently, they didn’t have that good of a counter-argument! But there was an aspect of the whole brouhaha that was somewhat surreal. I used to laugh to myself how ironic it was that I became this public advocate for modesty, since anyone who knows me knows that I'm the most outspoken person.

But now, looking back at my life, I actually don't think it's ironic at all. Because what modesty is, in essence, is having an internal sense of self. It means not relying on others to feel good about yourself—not needing their approval of your body to feel happy, and in general, knowing that what you're doing is worthwhile whether or not people "like" it on Facebook.

What would you say to a girl who has been influenced by media and society to treat herself as an object for others' attention?

I think that the way we talk about modesty today has become a bit of a parody, centering as it does around what others think. Look at that girl from Virginia who was just kicked out of prom because of her short dress, told that she might cause others to have "impure thoughts." We've really lost sight of the main point here. Modesty isn't something that women do for men; it's about having a deeper sense of yourself. To me, the real harm of being preened to be a sex object for strangers from age five is not with the male strangers. The real harm is that which is done to the girls' sense of self—never having that opportunity to develop herself personally, with the constant emphasis on looking "hot." That's the real tragedy here, and that's why I was motivated to try to paint a picture of a compelling alternative.