Modesty Wars: Which Side Is the Right Side?

STORY BY Candace Bryan

Published: May 20, 2013

I recently read an article about a so-called “modesty war” taking place in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood. The “war” involves a billboard for the new H&M advertising campaign featuring, none other than, Beyonce. The billboard in question is located at a bus stop in the neighborhood , and every day in recent weeks, someone has censored  the singer’s bikini-clad body with a thick, white sheet; and every day, other people have taken the sheets down.

For those of you unfamiliar with New York geography, the Lower East Side is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community. The general assumption of people in the neighborhood is that some of the more religious people are offended at the image of her (admittedly almost naked) body, and are covering it up to prevent having to be exposed to its image. This sheet-covering actions mirror “modesty war” tactics used frequently in the also heavily-Jewish neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

I’m not religious, but when I read about this neighborhood dispute, I find myself siding with the conservative body-hiders. I live in New York, and in the past couple of weeks I have commented to friends that I am myself sick of seeing Beyonce’s image plastered all over the city. I can hardly blame H&M for wanting to take advantage of having lined-up  the women who is arguably the most successful female musician currently alive. Cashing in on her fame, they have bought ads in what feels like every subway stop, every bus stop, every billboard spot imaginable. And H&M has succeeded in that I am now fully aware that once at a photoshoot, Beyonce wore some cheap swimsuits.

But there is something I do blame H&M for, and that’s making all of the images of Beyonce so sexual. As I mentioned, I’m not very religious, and I’m not a prude. Seeing a mostly-naked Beyonce doesn’t offend me morally. But as the “modesty war” illustrates, these enormous photographs of exposed skin is not ok with everyone. The fact of the matter is that there are people of all religions who are offended by photographs of exposed bodies. Not to mention that there are children who see these pictures, as well. I don’t think kids should have to see a scantily clad woman with a sexually arched back and distant gaze on their way to school.

What good do these images do? What are they supposed to teach? Beyonce is a beautiful woman, but she is also talented. Why can’t her ad campaign focus more on her abilities, and perhaps show her wearing H&M clothing while recording a hit song in a studio, or being a wonderful mother, or enjoying the company of friends? Why must they instead show her alone and exposed, reduced to a sexual object with little emotion and little clothing? It’s obviously not just H&M. The whole fashion industry has made a habit of such objectification. Women should be allowed to dress as they want, and if women want to wear sexy clothing they have every right to. But until the fashion industry can diversify the kinds of images it forces us to see on a daily basis, I’m going to have to stay on the side of modesty in media.

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