Perhaps one of the most interesting cultural phenomena to observe while traveling is the concept of modesty. What body parts are deemed to be too sexy to be seen? What kind of outfits are considered racy? What is “appropriate attire?” It varies wildly the world over and figuring out what’s what is an important step to fitting in to your host culture.
Yesterday I was wearing a funky long, purple and gold tunic that covered my bum and sported a modest neckline. I was also wearing a shawl, despite the warm weather, because the shirt was sleeveless and showing bare shoulders is not acceptable at Woodstock (or Mussoorie generally—in a big city like Delhi the rules change). And yet on Friday I will don a sari that will expose massive swaths of my lower back and tummy to the world—and that’s no problem. Stomach display is considered perfectly normal and nothing to think twice about, whereas in the US (though the category of “unacceptable dress” is shrinking daily) that kind of midriff baring would probably raise some eyebrows, particularly in a school setting. But Americans don’t bat an eye at naked shoulders. That’s fine.
Perhaps what makes these differences so interesting is that really there’s no “reason” for any of the cultural fashion mandates. There is nothing inherently more sexy—or even sexy at all—about a shoulder, or a stomach, or an ankle. It’s just that particular societies have deemed some body parts titillating and others not. I’d love to find out how or why these cultural norms came about but I suspect the answers are lost to history.