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A society ashamed of shame

Unsplash/Sara Kurfeß
Unsplash/Sara Kurfeß

Two weeks ago, Adidas released its new sports bra line with an ad campaign that features pictures of 25 pairs of naked breasts. The campaign has ignited a debate predictable in both its polarization and its content, with the focus on whether the nudity is appropriate.

The ads may be just another sad example of an attempt to grab public attention without the inconvenience of using much imagination or effort. But they also bear witness to an era in which a sports clothing company cannot rest content with doing what it has always done — selling sports clothing — but has to teach the rest of us how to think about life.

In a telling Twitter exchange, Adidas declared that, “breasts are a natural part of the anatomy. It’s time to remove the stigma to allow future generations to flourish.” A follow-up tweet added that “it’s important to normalize the human body and help inspire future generations to feel confident and unashamed.” There is an odd irony here, given that a product designed in part to keep breasts private surely either indicates the importance of privacy or militates against the “normalization” the campaign claims to be promoting. And it is interesting that in our society, someone can claim with a straight face that this kind of campaign is removing some stigma rather than cynically using women’s bodies to boost profit margins. But beyond the irony, Adidas is playing to the intuitions of a culture that has lost all notion of modesty.

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Modesty, in an odd inversion, is now seen as shameful, unnatural, and a stigma, no less. This makes sense at a cultural level. Performance, not formation, is now the order of the day, with YouTube and TikTok being far more important to self-image and self-understanding than families, schools, or nations. In such a world, reticence and self-restraint are seen as deformations of the person, not appropriate realizations of the same. One only has to listen to politicians to see this in action.

Where once the phrase “expletive deleted” in the transcripts of the Watergate Tapes damaged Richard Nixon, the use of obscenities and crudity is now the hallmark of many leading figures, including the current president and his predecessor. Modesty toward the body is simply one more casualty of a culture that sees “letting it all hang out” as central to that most important of contemporary character traits, “authenticity.”

One question surely worth asking is who benefits from this abandonment of modesty. The answer is: nobody. It certainly isn’t women. The loss of modesty seems to have fueled nothing but the further sexualization and objectification of the female body. The plague of pornography is mutilating the emotional development of young men and scarcely liberating young women. Combine the death of modesty with the technology of the smartphone and you have such recent cultural developments as “sexting.” This both reflects and reinforces a culture that has demystified sex and rendered girls horribly vulnerable to humiliation on the internet. How many young women who have been exploited through revenge porn see this as removing a stigma? How many see it rather as something that will leave them stigmatized for life? 

Nor does this loss of modesty liberate children. To teach children that modesty is unnatural is to demand that they be sexualized long before they even have the intellectual and emotional maturity to handle it. Today, our billboards and store windows contain images that would have been considered soft pornography in the recent past — to shove these into our children's line of vision is merely to confuse and potentially corrupt them. It serves no useful social or cultural purpose, however much it helps companies like Adidas boost profit margins.

And, perhaps most tragic of all, it strips bare the mystery of erotic love in a manner that will leave young people impoverished as human beings. Pornography turns sex — which should be the seal of the beautiful relationship of a man and a woman in marriage — into a commodity for audience consumption. Adidas’s campaign, by making the sexual and private into the public and commercial, is not so different.

A sense of shame is nothing of which to be ashamed. Shame and modesty are not in principle oppressive. On the contrary, they are the means by which children learn to grow up, and to handle their emergence as sexual beings with responsibility. They are the cultural codes that help keep women safe. It is shamelessness that is really shameful, and Adidas’s cynical exploitation of the female body for commercial gain is a prime example. The company should be, well, ashamed of itself.

Originally published at First Things. 

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern SelfThe Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.

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