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Modesty a matter of perception

| June 29, 2010 9:00 PM

Beauty isn't the only thing in the eye of the beholder. Modesty, including what is and isn't considered sexually inviting or immoral, is probably the aspect of human life most dependent upon culture and individual interpretation.

Take one of the most natural things in life: nursing a baby. In the U.S. women are only recently starting to feel comfortable breastfeeding in public. In some cities, it's still illegal. A breast even partially exposed to a nursing infant in a mall or on a street bench still makes passersby uncomfortable.

Some think it's sweet or feel neutral. More find it inappropriate, even admonishing the mother. Yet Americans are so used to bikini tops and short shorts on summer days - what would result in stoning elsewhere - that we hardly notice. Time is also an influence; consider the typical swimsuit of 1900.

In stark contrast is the culture of Jordan. With Muslim standards of modesty women are expected to cover themselves almost entirely, with little exposed skin regardless of temperature. However, publicly nursing an infant is accepted as holy in this and other cultures more cloth-covered than ours.

More bizarre perhaps is what Coeur d'Alene pastor Bill Peterson told me of his surprising experience while living in Jordan: a woman or a man urinating in public, with some accompanying exposure, was culturally considered "no big deal."

In Brazil, a man opening the door in his underwear is not considered rude. A naked breast at Carnival is par for the course. Nudity is not shocking, but natural.

Decency is as culture dictates.

A father giving a young daughter a bath is innocent in one culture. In another, it's immoral, dirty, even criminal.

In the U.S. parents still hesitate to discuss sex with teens. Germans are much more open on this subject. Going beyond discussion, mothers wait for daughters to indicate what's perceived as a natural readiness, then accompany them to a doctor for birth control.

Another area of striking difference in how cultures perceive modesty is dancing. Dancing is used to express joy, for religious epiphany or ritual, or, as in the animal kingdom, for courting.

In our culture, morally acceptable dancing is typically quite rigid by comparison to other places. The feet move and sometimes the arms, but nothing else. The joints above the knees simply aren't involved. If a woman moves her whole body - swaying hips, shoulders, and even the wrists - she may be called "slutty" or the dancing "dirty."

In other cultures, moving the entire body, with every joint involved and all parts swaying and shaking, is normal for both genders and all ages. It's beautiful to watch people dance in India, Russia, Iran, and other Eastern countries. Everyone from toddlers to grandpa gets into moving at the simplest of gatherings.

The whole body seems to celebrate music, emotion, and shared happiness. No one is believed to be of loose morals or of inviting sexual contact by dancing this way. It's simply a celebration of life and togetherness, cross-gender and cross-generation.

This wide variety of opinion on what is and isn't acceptable boils down to a form of communication - a perceived message. We thus judge people by what they do or expose while in the company of others, attaching to these a presumed communication of intent with a corresponding offense taken. Perhaps this is the root issue; modesty in practice is less about the subject than the perceiver, less about what's actually intended than it is about what is presumed by others.

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Sholehjo@hotmail.com

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