“What I looked for in a wife,” as told by a grown man to a group of young teenage girls. There is something rather wince worthy about having older men tell young girls what qualities they should adopt to be attractive in his eyes, but I’m afraid as a young Christian teenage girl, one is rather inundated with such speeches. And while some points about maintaining one’s female attractiveness are rather self-serving for men to preach, I will defend that four out of every five points are usually universal human values. Good work ethic, a habit of self-care, cleanliness, empathy for other people –qualities that are universally good whether applied to a man or woman. And in some sense it’s a practical strategy to try and harness a teenage girl’s excitement for romance to motivate them towards thoughtful self-improvement. Surely there are better ways of doing that than having a grown man teach it to them, but it’s what happens.
There was one man whose version of this lecture I heard many times. I didn’t mind it so much from him, because of his list of ten things, nine were of that general good character type. But then, at the very end, was his last point: that she must be mysterious.
Mysterious? Since when was mystery a virtue?
Hearing this man list mystery among his wifely-way virtues was always rather puzzling for me. Quite frankly, “mysterious woman” only conjured up in my mind:
And that got me speculating into the nature of mystery, and why it would be considered desirable.
Unless you’re writing a murder, I think the most common application of mystery in real life can be found in advertising. Nothing advertises through mystery as hard or heavily as perfumery. You cannot visually sell the quality of a scent, so you have to create associations with the brand of that scent that make people want to investigate or embody it. This usually involves taking a highly attractive person, wiping their faces of readable emotion…
…and playing up the contrasts of dark and light, covered and uncovered.
These ads visually set up mystery. The contrasts and unreadability are all playing into the imagination and curiosity of the beholder. The model’s beauty is styled and emphasized, but she is simultaneously covered and framed so that you cannot see all of her. You’re invited to be curious about what the rest of her looks like, how she’s standing, what she’s looking at, the manicured sleekness of her hand inside that glove. Her expression is vague so that you can project onto her as you wish. Maybe you associate beauty with confidence, and you read her face as confident because she’s beautiful. Maybe seeing someone beautiful makes you feel desirous, and you read her expression as desirous. Maybe she looks brooding or demure, and you are left to wonder what deep thoughts occupy her. These methods are mixed in many varied ways, but through the following pictures you can still see how consistently these mystery-generating elements are applied.
The very nature of these presentations of mystery is to inspire envy. They aren’t just about piquing your curiosity, but of making you want to be that kind of person. After all, there’s a sense of control that can be felt in maintaining that balance, giving and withholding information so that the person beholding you cannot jump to easy conclusions and must ponder you. The advertisers want you to envy their model’s beauty and mysterious power, because inherent to all envy is the desire to likewise be envied. The point of a perfume ad is not merely to bait you into pondering their model, but for you to want to embody that mystery and to associate their brand with success towards that goal.
These ads are strategically harnessing the human fondness for mystery. We have powerful imaginations and enjoy using them. To be able to fascinate someone’s imagination is in itself a form of power, and one that has historically been associated with women. Sure, men have used it too (there’s the enigmatic sage, the strong-silent man, the cologne equivalent of these perfume ladies), but women are already advantaged in developing an aura of mystery. Our female bodily functions are so concealed that we can be mysteries to our own selves. It has only been in recent centuries that we’ve made real scientific headway on understanding the female body. Women have also been more historically restricted to private spaces, unseen and unknown to the public world of men and thus rendered mysterious. Fostering mystery involves a lot of aesthetic choices, another expertise long associated with women. Female mystery is also a permitted feminine power because it still gives pleasure and rewards to men. She gets a chance to hold a man’s attention and influence his thoughts, and he gets a chance to be teased by her mystery and let his imagination run with it.
So how is this a virtue?
Well, given the context of the these kinds of seminars (Christian youth rallies and summer camps) and some rather imbalanced rule-setting girls faced in these connects, I started to interpret mystery as a sideways reference to something else. It’s not a conversation exclusive to the religious, but I think you would be hard-pressed to find a religious community that did not have ongoing judgments and commentary about the ways women dress. And speaking for Abrahamic religions in particular, that conversation is likely to be directed towards getting women to cover up. Sometimes the idea is that women are too inherently sexual and thus must be restricted. More commonly though, the covering of women is done in deference to men and expectations that men can’t help but find women sexually attractive. Thus the goal is to de-sexualize women in the eyes of men by covering their bodies up. This ethic gets associated with the character virtue of modesty, and each culture has come up with its set of aesthetic metrics and behaviors labeled as Modest™.
Of course, the problem with Modesty™ is getting your women to comply with it. It is our human habit, our God-given calling even (if you subscribe to the Eden creation story), to be cultivators. When we find food we like, we enhance it. When we see a landscape that’s beautiful, we tend and shape it. So women are not being especially vain or petty should they want to cultivate their own beauty, yet modesty codes invent metrics that claim to identify when a woman is doing that, but too much, and in judging what counts as “too much” the permittable amount of self-expression gets set pretty low. Some women get really creative within their limits, but in doing so subvert the intentions of these modesty codes by breaking from the uniform and drawing attention for it. It’s the spirit of the law that people want to bring about, but they can only enforce the letter of the law, so they keep making their laws tighter and more restricting to choke out room for a subversive spirit to operate in. These metrics and rules are pretty easy to challenge as arbitrary, and it gets hard telling women why they should undertake the unique obligation to deny their own beauty and personality by dressing just. so. Sometimes it is easier to bypass the logic of your modesty codes, avoiding challenge, and just encourage the behavior instead. There’s also a paradox that if you make women unattractive to men you might –oh no!– make them unattractive to men. You have to find a way to tell women to cover up while re-assuring them that they still have some power of expression, that they are cultivating their beauty, and that they are in fact becoming more desirable.
Enter the use of the word “mystery.” Mystery depends upon strategic concealment. Mystery is expressive. Mystery is still creative and attractive. Back in the 1920s when women were starting to wear their hair down in short cuts, resistance to this trend promoted the idea that “Long hair is a woman’s mystery.” Mind you, the long hair being advocated for was not worn down, or else it wouldn’t have been mysterious. Long hair worn up left room to imagine not just the length of her hair but how that length would look in intimate settings. A more contemporary example is the current attitude of scoffing at modern actresses by saying they expose so much skin that “they leave nothing to the imagination.” This is trying to teach girls that revealing skin makes you less mysterious and thus ironically less attractive.
The nice thing about “mystery” is that it is rather contagious since it comes across as glamorous and enviable. This is why it’s such a favorite tool of advertising. Remember that perfume models aren’t just framed to be mysterious, but to make you want to be mysterious too. They invite attention and contemplation, and inspire you to want the same attention. If you can convince women that concealment makes them mysterious, then you have successfully made contagious an idea that concealment is an enviable trait that ironically makes them more attractive. Mystery is powerful, mystery is attractive, mystery covers up. Don’t you want to be mysterious too? Below are some memes advocating for aesthetic modesty. What I’m asking you to take note of in particular is the imagery.
Note that these pictures use the same components of mystery as you would find in a perfume ad. There is the high contrast of light and dark drawing attention to the women’s beauty. They are to greater and lesser extents obscured, emphasizing not what can be known about the woman but what remains unknown. Their faces, if seen, have no clearly readable expression (although that Chanel one cuts close to glowering). The elements you cannot see, including their emotional states, are available to the imagination. Though technically conforming to their respective brands of modesty, these images are seeking to implant envy and a desire to be as enviable as the one portrayed. You can be enviably modest, these memes tell you. Covering up will only make you more interesting and attractive in the end.
Mystery Implodes Modesty
Conflating mystery and modest dress only is acceptable if your only concern is the result of getting women to cover up. In the end, however, their intentions work against each other. Modesty culture aims to discourage the curiosity of men through strategic concealment. Mystery aims to attract the curiosity of men through strategic concealment. And whether you try to tap into the appeal of mystery to promote your modesty standards or not, the human inclination towards mystery will always undo the best intentions of modesty. Like Pandora and the box, we have a desire to uncover secrets –all the more so if those secrets are framed as forbidden to us.
Perhaps you’d argue that those pictures of “modest mystique” are failures because of how much they reveal, not what they conceal. The body-veil in that first image, after all, is too transparent and clings too much to the woman’s curves. Maybe the women look too opulent or still too attractive. It is not the concealing that teases the man’s imagination, one might argue, but the revealing of these attractive feminine qualities. The proposed answer is to double down on the concealment, reveal even less, reduce or remove the ornamentation, and this is how modesty standards escalate to greater extremes and narrower parameters. The trouble is that no matter how thoroughly you were to cover the woman’s body, one detail will always reveal itself:
The more we conceal women through special dress codes, the more we reveal that they are, in fact, women. The more inches of her skin we mandate need covering, the more we concede that those inches are sexually explicit. The more effort we put into roping her off, the more enticing the challenge to acquire her becomes. As long as the man has been told that women are sources of pleasure for him, as long as he’s been told that the parts they conceal would give him excitement, and as long as he knows there is a woman before him, and perhaps even more if he knows the woman is forbidden to him, then all concealment is rendered useless by the power of mystery. When you come to think of it, aren’t many of our fairy tales stories about men fantasizing about women who were modestly clothed–
The battle of modest-dress cultures is already lost because it embraces the same base truth as does sleaze culture: that women are sexual objects in the eyes of men. Sleaze tells women to find power and agency in their sexuality, encouraging them to uncover themselves, while ultimately serving to titillate men. Modesty culture tells women they can reclaim power and agency by concealing their sexuality from men, but fails because concealment also serves to titillate men. At the end of the day, modest-dress and sleaze cultures teach their men the same fundamental understanding of female bodies and the roles of women. As long as men are told that a woman’s body is specialized to give them pleasure, they will be prone to imagine and fantasize about women’s bodies, whether covered or uncovered. Indeed, imagining the process of revealing what is concealed becomes itself a source of pleasure. Perhaps the added danger is the risk this puts upon the woman who, once revealed, disappoints the uninformed fantasy the man has built up about her.
A False Promise
Stepping away from the conflation of mystery and modesty, perhaps the presence of “she must be mysterious” on this man’s list was not a sideways reference to the dress codes of some Modesty™. Perhaps it was his way of expressing depth of personality or character, the opposite of “shallow.” Perhaps I chafe a bit because I don’t think I’m very mysterious. This face could not play poker. I have lots of deep motivations and interests, but they aren’t so much hidden as I just rarely get asked about them. They aren’t immediately readable in me, but also aren’t anything a few questions wouldn’t bring out. To be “mysterious,” one has to be concealed or deeply layered, so that one’s motivations must be delved and sorted through a constant process of pondering and revelation. There has to be some amount of challenge. That could be entertaining to both parties, the woman laying puzzles for the man to solve and thrill over, but I also see in it a false set of promises.
I have called mystery a sort of power because it gives one a chance at holding someone’s attention. There is power in that, but mystery is dependent upon social restrictions and human decency in order to be effective. The ability of a woman to balance mystery cannot compete with the raw strength of a man. Men with no internal sense of decency who think they are in a situation where they will be immune from public accountability will find no obstacle in the feeble power of mystery. A woman might veil herself, but real power can always rip off her veil. She might have an unreadable expression, but that’s nothing a dose of fear cannot change. Concealment and mystery might help a woman hold a man’s attention, but they do not protect her or give her any meaningful ability to secure her own needs. Whether a woman is covered or uncovered, it always falls upon the decency of men and society to determine whether she will be safe and respected. If anything, prioritizing mystery only encourages women to stay concealed rather than report abuses from men, including rape. Abuse and rape inquiries do not honor mystery.
So telling women to be mysterious does not give them real power, and moreover it does not help them beyond the stages of attraction. Marriage is a long relationship, one that requires a lot of communication between partners. Mystery cannot hold up to that kind of close and prolonged interaction. If a man does not understand the woman he commits to, and then is disappointed or angered by the reveal of time, then they are both trapped in a bitter relationship. Mystery is initially attractive, but if the mystery never resolves, the intrigue will age into frustration. A wife’s “mysterious” traits will only become annoying quirks at least or provocations to anger at worst. And the wife is doomed to become frustrated for having a husband who does not understand her. It is the quintessential sitcom trope, is it not, that the spouses quarrel when the husband does not intuit the wants and needs his wife did not communicate?
Encouraging women to conceal themselves in order to feel special and to get the attention of men does not give women power that helps them function in society. It does not help them secure healthy marriages with men who know and respect them. It certainly does not help them stand before men as honest human beings rather that sensuous possibilities. Women are far more non-sexual than we are sexual. Our bodies serve far more functions than sexual pleasure. Our needs and wants are both relatable and readable. People will not believe that, however, unless we present ourselves honestly to them and do not tease them with strategic concealment of our actual motivations and desires. Save mystery for the birthday presents; women are not fodder for men’s imaginations.
Bonus material: Did you know that there are only two instances of women veiling their faces in the Bible? They are both in Genesis, and they both suggest a function of titillation, not chastity.
- Rebekah adopts a veil upon catching her first glance of her betrothed bridegroom Isaac. This is notable because she did not veil herself earlier when she encountered Abraham’s slave as a stranger at the well. For all evidence, this slave was an independent man of stature, carrying with himself jewelry and camels, and Rebekah calls him “my lord.” Nonetheless, it is only once she sees the man who she identifies as her bridegroom that she covers her face. By subtext we thus understand the veil serves to increase her groom’s anticipation.
- Tamar used a veil to seduce Judah. This is one of those messed up stories in the Bible, but the point is that Tamar adopted a veil to disguise herself. Judah then takes Tamar to be a prostitute specifically because she was wearing a facial veil. So the function of the veil that we can inference from this is a) to protect the prostitute’s identity, b) to harken to the veil of the unconsummated bride, and c) to pose a mystery to titillate men.