Modesty, as I understand it, is a form of respect we show to other people, acting and dressing in ways that address their higher faculties and do not arouse their carnality against their wills. Obviously, what arouses in one culture may not in another; and within one culture, what arouses one person may not arouse another. But there are limits to what one can do about this. It could be the very presence of someone else, even modestly dressed, that arouses.
Look, however, at the upholstered women of Victorian times, and the buttoned-up men as well, and photos of them swimming almost fully clothed. This is no longer modesty but an unholy alliance between Puritanism and the fashion industry. And of course it was not effective anyway. Sigmund Freud tore away layers of both Victorian dress and unconscious ruse as he laid bare the sexual secrets of that age.
I can remember being somewhere in the world, swimming suit in hand, wanting to plop into a swimming pool but not being able to because I couldn’t find a place to change. In Germany, and most Slavic countries, I would have just turned away from the crowd and done the change, pronto. I have seen this often in those parts, with many a naked bottom flashing for a second as people switch garb with dispatch but without neurosis. In the US this could conceivably get you arrested.
I think the Germans are more natural about this, and that we all would do well to relax about such matters. For better or for worse, we are now cumbersomely enlightened about our bodies and about sex. We shall have to make the best of it. But there is another dimension to all this as well.
During a visit to Syria, I was once riding in the front seat of a small bus, on my way from Damascus to Palmyra. I crossed my legs, such that the sole of one of my shoes was slightly turned toward the bus driver. A Muslim passenger tapped my knee, pointed to the sole and wagged his finger at me, not rudely but quite insistently. While not exactly immodest, my upturned sole was in the same spirit – exposing to someone the “less noble” parts of our body, in this case the filth on our feet. This is particularly Middle Eastern, as Biblical foot-washing reminds us. But strange to say, I instantly empathized with the practice, and have since avoided turning a sole in anyone’s direction.
This anecdote brings to mind the other side of modesty: that we not only cover parts of us that might unduly arouse someone’s passions, but also parts that are unsightly, even ugly. As a rule, most of us are quite homely, even alarming, in our birthday suits. We cover our nudity most of our lives not to keep the opposite sex from going “Oo la la!,” but rather to keep anyone from going “Yech!.” And of course there is the matter of hygiene and odor, too.
The naturalists, of course, will proclaim that their brazenly naked and well-ventilated frames avoid the malodorous problems consequent upon wrapping things up with layers of cloth. Perhaps, but one should remind them that ours is the only species that spontaneously produces complex dimensions of culture, and a prominent part of this is that we by nature wear clothes. Nudity is the exception; for us it is quite simply natural to get dressed. It does not take long for even small children to get the message.
Anyhow, most climes of the globe militate against sporting our naked skin as if it were a coat of fur or feathers. Our undraped epidermis calls out to be covered, pampered and adorned. And again, as most of us would just as soon not feast our eyes upon the inside of our mouths or take a look up our noses, we likewise prefer that the various functional intersections of our bodies, and their general plumbing and hygienic apparatus, be hidden from view. This is not because they are bad or sinful; they are just unsightly. The mimes of the world got it right: our face and hands possess all we need to fully communicate. They have the full repertory of our five senses, with the rest of the body serving as a supporting cast. That cast can spend most of the time off-camera without affecting the plot.