Pitching Modesty

June 18, 2013    By: Geoff J @ 3:37 pm   Category: Evolutionary psychology,Modesty,Mormon Culture/Practices

Has anyone seen this video before? It is a young entrepreneur pitching her line of modest women’s swimwear. She obviously has a financial incentive here but her arguments are provocative and sound pretty compelling to me. She cites studies that claim that the more skin women show the less the male brain tends to see them as people. Some sort on evolutionary instinct thing I would guess. Check it out:

So what do you think? Do you find her arguments persuasive? (See her business site here: http://www.reyswimwear.com/)


  1. Her claims sort of fly in the face of arguments that energetically preaching modesty objectifies women. She basically is claiming that men’s brains instinctively objectify immodest women while they end up seeing more modest women as people rather than objects. Of course that is surely over-simplified and these sorts of things can be taken to ridiculous extremes like demanding full burkas and whatnot, but it seems that there has to be some healthy middle ground…

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

  2. You should look up the study by Susan Fiske and colleagues. There is apparent evidence hardwired, less socially constructed tendency to objectify women women found in the study which involved 21 male heterosexual undergraduate students at Princeton.

    At the same time the scope of the study is limited.

    The study does not rule out the ability of men to exercise control and choice.

    Comment by writerteacher11 — June 18, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

  3. The most disconcerting thing about the Fiske study is the extend of objectification by men who tested as being given to sexist attitudes already.

    This is a limited study. It means that in one study conducted with a group of college age students men were prone in brain scans toward the objectification of women in scanty bikinis. That is a concern and it deserves to be discussed and known. It does have serious implications. I’d like to see more research.

    Let’s also not take it to mean that if I look at my girlfriend or in the future my wife, in a bikini, all I see is an object and I don’t register any concern or care at all for her as a person. That’s not what the study is saying.

    Comment by writerteacher11 — June 18, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

  4. I’m guessing this Fiske study was probably discussed at length in the Bloggernacle when it came out. I just don’t remember participating in those discussions.

    Here are a few articles about it:

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

  5. Seems to me that a lot of the most vocal critics of modesty teachings in the church deeply discount human male instincts. We all may be spiritually children of God, but our physical bodies are still large primates. Forgetting or ignoring the latter seems imprudent to me.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

  6. This video was also making the rounds when the study came out. It is from a non-Mormon Christian, which I think is interesting.


    Comment by Tim J — June 18, 2013 @ 5:26 pm

  7. Still cracks me up how closely aligned evolutionary pyschologists and conservative Christians end up being on so many of these issues. I posted on that a couple of years ago.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

  8. Geoff J, if you think we should act like “large primates” then you are suggesting we don’t wear any clothes at all.

    Also, saying the study shows anything is “hardwired” is absurd. Run the same study on some tribe that is near-naked all the time.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — June 18, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

  9. Sigh, more naturalizing Western culture in the name of controlling women and excusing bad male behavior (and, in this case, trying to hawk a product). No wonder conservative Christians flock to this silliness. Cynthia has the right of it: National Geographic puts the lie to the whole argument.

    Comment by Casey — June 18, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

  10. Here’s my question as devil’s advocate (slightly). So what? Every single girl I’ve ever been attracted to I first objectified her. Then if I was interested in pursuing her, we talked. Then we dated. Then she dumped me. Okay, not every time.

    Even if men objectify women wearing bikinis more than women wearing more fabric, they still have to change that if they want to pursue her.

    After I let the initial shock factor subside, I’m just not sure why this is necessarily a problem. It seems to me that whatever harm bikinis do to society will be done quite sufficiently even if there were no bikinis. No?

    Comment by DavidF — June 18, 2013 @ 9:44 pm

  11. Several key points need to be made:

    1. As I already stressed, this is only one study, and all studies do have limitations. It shows that when shown pictures of women in skimpy bikinis, 21 college-age heterosexual males tended to objectify the women. That’s worth noting. More research is needed before stretching the implications beyond that. Let’s remember how science is conducted please, one research study is part of a very large puzzle not the entire puzzle in itself.

    2. When talking of how we are “hardwired” you are leaving out other issues. For example, brain imaging showing reactions in the split moment of viewing a woman in a bikini doesn’t necessarily mean a particular man will behave in an abysmal manner. You haven’t discussed research related to altruism for instance, and even if a man does react with an initial moment of objectifying a woman (show me a picture of a woman I don’t know wearing a bikini and I might have a given reaction I admit), his sense of altruism is capable of influencing him to counter-act that objectification. There are morals and values that come into play which the brain imaging didn’t account for. That was not considered in this study which limits its implications.

    3. When speaking of evolutionary psychology the point by another commenter is correct, culture – and cultural psychology – needs to be considered. That was not considered in this study. This is why such research should include multiple studies over time across various cultures.

    – Not sure if the board will let me sign in but this is writerteacher11.

    Comment by writerteacher11 — June 18, 2013 @ 9:56 pm

  12. David – You make a very good point. And that’s the important thing to keep in mind when we discuss evolution. It’s not just a matter of what is in the genes or what comes across in brain imaging (those are aspects). We’re not slaves to that. We do have the ability to make choices. There are entire fields of study (sociobiology, cultural anthropology, and cultural psychology come to mind, and of course as mentioned evolutionary psychology) related to ways in which behaviors that are beneficial toward adaptation are passed on, and culture is viewed as having an influence. That’s what is being ignored here. I love it when people bring up science but I wish we could talk of how science is actually conducted and include the full broad range of research on a topic before leaping to overly broad conclusions.

    Comment by writerteacher11 — June 18, 2013 @ 10:14 pm

  13. Geoff, you might like to look into the positive psychology literature. But not just one study or one book. Look into Martin Seligman’s work and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work as well as Peterson and Nakamura(it’s late, I’m blanking on their first names). You cite one blog and one study by one scientist in your blog from two years ago. If you want to know what science is saying about “happiness” or “fulfillment” or leading an “engaged life” (quotes are to indicate key terms you could look for in a literature review) please consider not just jumping on one single study as if it’s the only thing being written.

    Comment by writerteacher11 — June 18, 2013 @ 10:23 pm

  14. Cynthia,

    Well since we are large primates it is safe to say we already do act like our variety of large primates. But luckily our brains are large too. And more importantly, we Mormons believe these primate bodies are driven by eternal spirits/minds. So regardless of what we might instinctually feel inclined to do we are all still free to choose what we will do.

    As for that “hardwired” thing, I didn’t use that term but interestingly a feminist quoted in that Daily Princetonian article did. Here is her quote:

    “This research appears to provide evidence of a more hardwired, less socially constructed tendency to objectify women, which will make eradicating the problem that much harder.”

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2013 @ 10:30 pm

  15. One last thought.

    Please be specific about who you are branding as “critics of the Church’s modesty teachings.”

    Do you think that the discussion on the board about BYU was in opposition to Church modesty teachings? That’s not the impression I had. I had the impression it was about (a) the dress code, and (b) how we can better treat women with dignity and respect.

    I know that nothing I said was ever intended to argue against modesty.

    Comment by writerteacher11 — June 18, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

  16. Casey,

    “Culture” is often exclusively blamed for this sort of bad behavior. Is it so hard for you to believe that evolutionarily driven instincts are a major influences too? (Aside from the free choices people make, of course.)

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

  17. Geoff see my comments. I already addressed that. It’s one single study of brain imaging in the moment of viewing women in bikinis. Yes it is evidence of hardwiring. But it’s a limited study in scope which took no account of factors such as culture, altruism, upbringing, and moral values.

    Comment by writerteacher11 — June 18, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

  18. DavidF,

    Lots of women in the bloggernacle very justifiably discuss how degrading and awful it is being objectified. That is your “so what”. This study suggests one strategy to help reduce some of that objectification.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

  19. Geoff – you are making an argument against claims no one is making in the scientific community. No one in the scientific community is saying evolution doesn’t play a role. No one is blaming culture exclusively. It’s more complex than that.

    Comment by writerteacher11 — June 18, 2013 @ 10:40 pm

  20. This study wasn’t discussing strategy to address the topics on the board related to treatment of women in the church or at BYU. The study was about reactions of college men to images of women in bikinis. I don’t see women in bikinis in church or in college classes. Come on. Be realistic here. Stay within the limited scope of the study.

    Comment by writerteacher11 — June 18, 2013 @ 10:42 pm

  21. writerteacher11: You cite one blog and one study by one scientist in your blog from two years ago.

    Uh yeah. I know. I wrote the post just today. Big deal. It is just a blog post used for a jumping off point for a discussion.

    Please be specific about who you are branding as “critics of the Church’s modesty teachings.”

    Why should I? I don’t have anyone specific in mind.

    Do you think that the discussion on the board about BYU was in opposition to Church modesty teachings?


    My advice to you: Mellow out amigo or amiga.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2013 @ 10:46 pm

  22. writerteacher11 (#19) — I never said the scientific community made such claims. I asked one person what her opinion was.

    (#20) The study directly didn’t discuss a strategy to be less objectified but it did point out that the male brains instintively objectified the scantily clad women much more than the fully clothed women. It is no major leap of logic to suspect that is a cue for a strategy on being less objectified.

    You must be new to blogs, huh? The point is to throw something out and then yap about it. Your attempts to tamp down any and all discussion here are making you seem like a major bore. Lighten up, Francis.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2013 @ 10:52 pm

  23. Casey (#9),

    Your comment has piqued my interest. What about that study do you think is excusing bad behavior? It simply reported on how those brains functioned. It didn’t talk about any actions one way or the other.

    Also, there is no doubt a cultural aspect to the study. Are you of the opinion that if the same tests were conducted on young men a different culture using culture-specific pictures of less modest and more modest women that the results would be different? I would be surprised if it were the case. I suspect the brains of members of our species work pretty similarly in every culture.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2013 @ 11:37 pm

  24. Geoff no offense was intended. It’s a topic of interest so I jabbered too. Take care. That’s all I’ll say from now on and I won’t comment here again.

    Comment by writerteacher11 — June 18, 2013 @ 11:50 pm

  25. You’re welcome here, writerteacher11. You seem like an interesting and insightful person. Don’t take my directness as an invitation to leave.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2013 @ 11:52 pm

  26. I began watching the video, but quickly realized I could not comprehend anything she was saying. Frustrating, I know. I wanted to treat her ideas with respect. But I was too distracted by her bare shoulders. Perhaps if she would dress modestly I could give serious attention to whatever she was saying.

    Comment by Dave K — June 19, 2013 @ 6:48 am

  27. Ha! You had trouble thinking of her as a human, didn’t you Dave K? (Well played)

    Comment by Geoff J — June 19, 2013 @ 9:50 am

  28. Geoff – I don’t like ending dialogue on a negative note, even with strangers. Perhaps we both could have done better last night (or at least I could have, I’ll let you be the judge about whether you were appropriate in your commentary to me).

    I tend to respond bluntly to scientific claims because for one thing I’m writing the last bit of my dissertation right now and this commentary is during breaks, so if a claim is made about research or science my first instinct is to analyze it and critique it, though this being a blog the detail I write is limited. Maybe that’s a social flaw but it’s honesty that if research or science is put in front of me my first reaction is to pick it apart for its strengths and limitations. When a person asks a question about science or research that I may have studied I’m tempted to comment. For example, you last question to Cynthia goes directly to the fields of cultural psychology and biocultural evolution, both of which I take an interest in to inform my own work in educational research. The answer to your question of Cynthia is that I’d hypothesize there would be a measurable difference, but to what extent is unknown without the experimentation. Nature and nurture both are factors in cognitive development after all.

    I’m going to zone in on work the rest of the week and weekend so likely won’t comment here or on the other board. So I want to say that I appreciate and value the devotion you clearly have for the church and for bettering society as best you can. Take care and be well. I wish you happiness.

    Comment by writerteacher11 — June 19, 2013 @ 11:54 am

  29. Yep, these sorts of studies certainly can’t be used as definitive proof of much. But they do serve as thought-provoking data points to add to the discussion. Good luck with your dissertation!

    Comment by Geoff J — June 19, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

  30. #18. Geoff J.,

    Sure, no one wants to be objectified. But it’s one thing to be treated as an object, and another thing for a man to have objectifying thoughts. If women don’t want to be treated like objects, then that’s fine. If they don’t want any man to objectify them in his thoughts…uh, move to a different planet, because a one-piece won’t save you. If we’re talking biology, objectifying is natural. And in fact, I’d say it comes close to being a critical first step in forming a romantic bond, since you typically see a person as physically attractive before moving on to a deeper connection. If that isn’t a bad thing, then I don’t know if bikinis are bad either.

    Also, I wouldn’t lean to heavily on evolutionary psychology. I don’t know if there is much uniformity in the field. Also, much of evolutionary psychology rests quite heavily on circular reasoning. We have ten fingers. Why? Evolutionary psychologists have an answer. What if we had twelve fingers? They would have an answer. Basically, they start with the conclusion. Then they make an argument explaining why it is. Then they justify their argument because the conclusion proves it (and some other ideas that can’t be very easily proven). I’m not an expert in the field, but I’ve seen a lot of evolutionary psychology arguments follow that exact logical fallacy, and I’m not even sure that the field isn’t just one big question begging fallacy at it’s very core. But again, I’m no expert. And I’m sure I offended any psychologist reading this.

    And, just to be clear about my bikinis argument, men should never treat women like objects. Obviously, I don’t support that.

    Comment by DavidF — June 19, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

  31. Just for total transparency, my ideas on modesty are still forming. I’m not sure I like everything that we often teach about it, but I’m still working through that. I think I’ll do a post on it soon when my ideas are better formed. I’d enjoy some thoughtful critique.

    Comment by DavidF — June 19, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

  32. Turns out this entrepreneur used to be a Power Ranger. Who knew? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessica_Rey

    Comment by Geoff J — June 19, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

  33. DavidF,

    Yeah I know the arguments against evolutionary psychology. But despite those gripes, it still has its appeal. Mostly because so many of the EP theories seem to describe the realities we see among us (rather than the way people think we ought to be) in really plausible and intuitive ways. So of course we should take EP speculations with a grain of salt, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider them at all.

    As for the objectifying thing — seems to me that little bikinis obviously attract a ton of male attention. If they didn’t, wearing them probably would never have become so popular. The question is the quality of the attention rather than the quantity.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 19, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

  34. Geoff, you’re correct that the original Susan Fisk study doesn’t, as far as I’m aware, make any argument excusing men’s bad behavior. I wrote imprecisely: I was reacting more to how the study has been represented by this video and others like “Should a Christian Woman Wear a Bikini?”, not to mention countless comments by Facebook friends.

    I’ll grant that it’s entirely possible that when confronted with a “sexy” image, whatever that might be, an average heterosexual dude’s brain might light up the “object” part (I believe the study’s author said the effect was more pronounced in guys with more patriarchal/sexist attitudes, but we’ll set aside the implications of that). What I get offended by is the implicit assumption some people seem to make that because the “object” part of the brain lights up that it’s expected that the man will then view or treat the woman as an object–possibly that the woman even deserves to be treated as such. But that only happens if we teach that objectification/dehumanization is okay, which comes down to cultural factors.

    So, I’m sure sure evolution plays a big part, but evolution also gave us big ol’ brains that can be taught and sometimes rewired by the stimuli we surround them with, and that’s why I’m more inclined to point the finger at culture rather than throw up my hands and say, “oh well, brains will be brains!” :)

    Comment by Casey — June 20, 2013 @ 9:06 pm

  35. Thanks for the explanation, Casey. It is entirely understandable to feel repulsed the implicit assumption you described.

    If we are talking about “oughts”, the fact that all people ought to be treated with respect is non-negotiable. In fact The Gospel has “love thy neighbor as thyself” as part of the two great commandments so anyone who tries to use any physical instincts as an excuse for breaking that great commandment is just wrong.

    So since it sounds like you also think culture and evolution (nurture and nature) influence us all we are probably very much in agreement.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 20, 2013 @ 9:55 pm

  36. Reading around on the internet, the study has some flaws. The biggest of them (in my opinion) is that the pictures shown to the men were cut off at the neck. So men only saw the bodies of women wearing bikinis. I think that seriously weakens the power of the study.

    -Do men show similar results when they see images of reasonably clothed bodies without heads?

    -Do men show different results when they see the whole body of bikini wearing women, including their faces?

    -How do women react when seeing these pictures?

    As far as I can tell, the study didn’t control for any of these. So where I think we had a chance to find out something really interesting about the male mind, we end up getting something that doesn’t really tell us anything interesting. We don’t know how men react to women wearing bikinis, we know how men react to bodies of women wearing bikinis. In short, we have a study showing us what men think about realistic mannequins.

    Comment by DavidF — June 21, 2013 @ 8:10 am

  37. DavidF,

    As I understand it from reading the articles I linked to in #4, the study did sort of answer two of your questions.

    1. Participants were shown women with more and less clothing. The images reportedly fired up completely different parts of the brain.
    2. Researchers speculated that women’s brains acted differently (though sounds like that wasn’t tested)

    I don’t know that the headless thing is as big of a deal as you think. The fact that all that extra skin fired up a completely different part of the brain is interesting in itself. It definitely came as a surprise to the researchers.

    But you are very right that a small study like this has to be treated as just one interesting data point in a field that needs much more research.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 21, 2013 @ 9:39 am

  38. There is an alternate hypothesis that fits this evidence, which is that men are constructed to respond to signals of sexual availability. “Modesty” could still be culture-specific if that’s the case. Showing more skin than your culture normally does is a signal of sexual availability, and naturally enough men respond to that signal by thinking about the woman in sexual terms.

    Of course, my guess is that woman are also so constructed so as to want to send signals of sexual availability (not in all times and all places, but certainly at certain times of life) and to want to be thought of in sexual terms.

    Comment by Adam G. — June 21, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

  39. *Still cracks me up how closely aligned evolutionary pyschologists and conservative Christians end up being on so many of these issues. *

    Even if Christianity weren’t truth, this would make sense from a Burkean perspective. Any cultural system that’s been around for thousands of years should have come to terms with the brute facts of human existence.

    Comment by Adam G. — June 21, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

  40. I agree, Adam. With both of your comments.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 21, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

  41. Here’s a well done deeper analysis of the Fiske study over at FMH. This blogger points out that it was only the men who tested high on the hostile sexism scale that had the significant objectification brain response. That is a valuable qualifier in the discussion.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 21, 2013 @ 7:05 pm

  42. I found that post really interesting too. A couple of articles that I read mentioned that hostile sexist men ranked higher for objectifying, but nothing I read said they were the only ones to show a difference.

    Comment by DavidF — June 22, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

  43. Thinking about things in evolutionary terms is kinda scary. It occurs to me that there could be evolutionary reasons why some men would be so constructed as to see (or be easily induced to see) women as objects and that pious public campaigns against objectification would do little to remove those reasons. Just speculation, fortunately, and evolution isn’t everything.

    Comment by Adam G. — June 24, 2013 @ 4:27 am

  44. That mishap led to a sequence of events that culminated in an Andrew Ference floater finding its way through a crowd of players and into the net.

    Comment by prada ??? — September 27, 2013 @ 11:47 pm