I’m writing this post as part of the #ModestyRules Synchroblog. (Image source)
Modesty is, and always has been, important to me. Perhaps it’s because of my cautious nature and reserved personality. Perhaps we could find a more spiritual cause. In any case, as young as two and three years old, I was averse to showing my belly button. When I became a teenager, and a whole new world of clothing options opened to me, I was petrified of ending up in something indecent. As an adult, I now minister in contexts that regularly put me on a stage, in front of a class, or even in front of cameras — all of which require a conservative dress code.
I say this to affirm: I like dressing modestly. It’s my default. I find no “freedom” in the idea of wearing skimpier, flashier things.
Yet even so, as I think back over the messages I was taught about modesty in my teens, and the sort of messages that get blogged and reblogged today, I’m troubled. Any teaching about modesty must, of course, first define what it is. When you strip away all the lists of rules, the hemlines, the necklines, and the spaghetti straps, what exactly is modesty, and why do we care about it?
The answer to that question, almost universally, has been this: Modesty means adequately covering up your body so that you don’t cause your brothers to stumble.
I would suggest — in fact, I would insist — that this definition is a problem. A big one. There’s a lot that could be said about this, but for the sake of time, I want to focus on four reasons we need to change our reference point:
1. It treats women’s bodies — not their clothes — like the real problem.
The focus is not on avoiding clothes that are designed to attract undue attention. The focus is on making sure one’s body is properly hidden.
Although it’s usually couched in language elevating the female form, this sort of teaching ultimately talks about women’s bodies as if they are inherently tempting (and thus shameful). “God put so much beauty into women — which you should definitely save for only your husband — that guys can’t help but notice you. A little bit of cleavage, a little too much thigh, or an accented knockout figure, can trigger lustful thoughts in your brothers.”
No matter how positively this is worded, the message is the same: Your body is a problem. You’d better cover up in case someone likes what they see a bit too much. Nothing you can do can free you from being a persistent, involuntary force of temptation, so hide that part of yourself as best as you can.
This hits teenage girls particularly hard if they develop early, or have noticeably curvy figures. The more womanly their build, the more shame they feel. It’s harder to find clothes that adequately disguise everything in the first place. They are more likely than their slimmer, straighter-built sisters to get rebuked by a leader. They are more likely to feel those burning tears of shame that it will never be enough. And as someone who had more than one teenage meltdown while bra shopping, I can sympathize with that pain.
2. It makes women and girls the guardians of men and boys’ sexual purity. Male lust becomes, at least in part, the fault of women.
I don’t doubt that women can conduct themselves in a way to either help or hurt a man’s resistance to temptation. But it is deeply problematic to speak about men as if they are at the mercy of the women around them. At one level, this disempowers men, telling them that they really are hopeless in front of a smokin’ hot female body. They are not taught how to take their thoughts captive. They are fearful of every tug of physical attraction. Lust is not a sin that can be conquered, but one that is merely held at bay, that might be awakened at any time by a particularly flattering dress. This is not fair to our men and boys.
At another level, this puts a horrifically unfair burden on women and girls to try and keep their brothers’ sexual urges in check. If a man looks at me and begins thinking lustfully about me, then clearly I should have been wearing/doing/saying something different. If only my jeans were looser. If only my neckline was higher. If only I would have shown a bit more discretion when getting dressed this morning, anticipating this awkward moment. I could/should have prevented this, the logic goes.
At its most troubling extreme, this blends seamlessly into the victim-blaming which pervades the world at large. “If you didn’t want to get catcalled on the street, you shouldn’t be wearing that outfit.” “If you didn’t want that guy creepily staring at your breasts, you shouldn’t have worn that gaudy necklace.” “If you didn’t want to get raped, you shouldn’t have worn that skirt.”
In other words: That unwanted male attention? That time that man leered at you, touched you, treated you like a thing and not a person? That was your fault. Yeah, okay, he shouldn’t have done it, but really, you were asking for it. In fact, you can hardly blame the guy for getting carried away.
How are we okay with doing this to our girls? Are we really willing to blame them for a man’s lack of self-control? Is a fashion misstep (assuming there even was one) really sufficient cause to humiliate them?
We need to treat men’s lust like what it is: a problem that men have, that Christian men have the help of the Holy Spirit to overcome. Full stop. That’s it.
The more we qualify it (“Well, yeah, guys are responsible for their own sin, BUT…”), the more blame is pushed onto women, and the more men are seen as mere victims of the carelessness — or even outright seduction — of their sisters in Christ. It does a major disservice to the dignity and personhood of women, not to mention setting insultingly low expectations of men.
3. It makes men and boys the sole deciders of what qualifies as “modest”.
This is a problem, in part, because not all men have the same definition of modesty. In an older, but well-known survey, 1,600 male Christians, aged 12-50+ weighed in on what constituted “modesty”. This survey was 148 questions long. It covered everything from swimsuits, to jeans, to leotards, to cross-body bags, to bending over.
Not only is that an absurdly long list, it proved its own premise to be an unreliable mess. I’m sure it will shock no one to know that not all 1,600 participants could agree on what “modesty” looks like.
For instance, take the statement, “Wearing short skirts or mini skirts over jeans is a stumbling block.” Roughly 54% of guys disagreed with this (thus, wearing short skirts over jeans is fine), and roughly 28% of guys agreed (thus, wearing short skirts over jeans is immodest).
In another question, there was nearly an even split between guys who thought decorative stitching on the back of jeans was too distracting, versus guys who thought such things were perfectly fine.
Now, as a woman, what am I to do with this? Is 54% a good enough majority for me to wear a skirt over my jeans confidently? What about the fact that one out of four guys will still actively have a problem with it? Ah, but what if that skirt is covering up distracting decorative stitches; does that make it more modest? (Can you imagine that conversation? “Oh, see, I’m only wearing a skirt to hide those icky jean-butt decorations. So you can stop being distracted now.”)
Men’s preferences are not the same from culture to culture, era to era, or simply man to man. A man from Victorian England would have conniptions over outfits that are considered bland and frumpy today. A guy from a beach town might not blink twice at a halter top, while a guy from the Midwest might be immensely distracted by it. A guy raised in a Pentecostal Holiness congregation is going to have different ideas of modesty than a guy who grew up in a more casual tradition.
Women simply can’t be expected to meet all of those standards, all at once, all the time. Making men’s opinions the standard of modesty gives us a moving target, one that we will never be able to attain to everyone’s satisfaction. And if the only criteria is men’s opinion, we can’t even have a say in which of the conflicting voices we should listen to.
Even in addressing this, we must remember that modesty is not an issue that only women need to live out, and that only men benefit from. The way it gets talked about, you’d think only men lust, and only women can be immodest. I’ve rarely heard anyone preach against guys in Speedos at the beach, and those who do speak of how it’s “gross” — not tempting, not disrespectful, not flirtatious, but just nasty. I’ve only heard a few people dare to mention that women can be visually triggered into temptation, too. If we’re talking about modesty as a service to one another, then it needs to cut both ways.
Besides modesty being spoken of as a girls-only issue, it is primarily — and perhaps even only — about not being distracting to men. That’s the “why”. It is a sacrifice women make, a duty they perform, that overrides everything they want and feel like. It turns their bodies into a public display that anyone and everyone with a Y chromosome may judge. It has nothing to do with their value as people, or even their obligation before the Lord. It is their obligation before men — all men, any man, and only men.
I imagine it’s obvious why that’s more than a little screwed up.
There is a much higher vision for modesty to be had–one that applies universally to believers, and benefits those who embrace it in real, tangible, ways. More on that in a bit.
4. The problem with this brand of modesty is the exact same problem as the immodesty it decries. In short: It tells women that we ought to dress exclusively for the sake of appealing to men.
If I see my only value in my sexuality, being able to capture the fancy of any man who crosses my path, then I will dress in front of the mirror, asking, “What will the boys think of THIS one?” If I see my only value in my chastity, in never, EVER being “that girl” who all the guys in the modesty survey sneer about, then I will dress in front of the mirror, asking, “What will the boys think of THIS one?” And there’s nothing like throwing around confusing statements, like, “Modest is hottest”, or “Men may want to DATE sexy women, but they want to MARRY modest ones” to dig even further into that pit.
Is it any wonder this system hasn’t been working for us?
Whether I’m trying to attract all guys, be invisible to all guys, or just trying to attract the right kind of guys, this is a problem. I am putting on a performance for the eyes of men, cheating myself in the process, and leaving God entirely out of the picture.
A Better Standard
When the Bible talks about modesty for women (1 Tim 2:9), it is not even talking about sexual sin. Rather, it’s encouraging women not to dress in over-fancy, opulent ways. It’s a call for humility in one’s appearance, forgoing the showy in favor of the simple.
I think it is absolutely fair to apply this to modesty as it is more commonly defined today. If our aim is to not show off, and if we are called to purity and self-control anyway, then dressing humbly automatically means not trying to gain sexual attention by our clothes (or lack thereof).
However, I am convinced that we must change our approach to this subject. The stories of young women who have been scarred are numerous, and very real. We can do better.
Change 1 (the big one): Allowing modesty to be defined by God — not men. A major flaw in the modesty discussion today is that ever-present pressure on women to prevent men from stumbling. Men, due to that whole “living in a fallen world” thing, are sinful and inconsistent. Trying to define morality by the whims of fallen men is a constantly-shifting demand which is not only burdensome to women, but impossible for us to live up to.
Thankfully, God defines modesty much more simply: it’s humility. No matter your culture, no matter your time, dress in a way that is consistent with a humble heart of love. Only you (and trusted leaders/friends) can determine if what you’re wearing checks out with that. It’s not directly about how much skin is showing, or how sparkly the clothes are, or what shape and cut the dress is. It’s about a heart that is fully yielded unto God — a heart that isn’t wrapped up in finding one’s own glory in one’s appearance.
This is freeing for women. It liberates us from the performance mentality of having to look good enough for everyone all day every day. It frees us from the pressure to maintain the perfect public image, one that is better, flashier, or more alluring than any other woman’s. It knocks fashion off of its pedestal so that we no longer are slaves to it. It takes away our option to lean on our appearance as a source of power (or, by extension, being crushed under it in disempowerment). It makes clothing just that — clothing — lifeless things that may be fun to play around with and enjoy, but which have absolutely nothing to do with our inherent worth. It breaks with our culture’s lie that women are primarily valuable because of our sex appeal, and agrees with God’s truth that we are made in His image, of profound worth and dignity to Him.
Modesty thus becomes less about “You must not” and more about “You don’t have to”. It allows us to drop the facade and simply… be. Modesty is not a burden. It is a gift. We have something simple and concrete to embrace, rather than an endless, complex, confusing list of things to abstain from.
Change 2: Changing the focus from shame to honor. This may be news to some male leaders, and maybe even to some female leaders — but it is a dreadful thing to be called out for your clothing. Nobody (besides a handful of rebellious teens) shrugs, “Aw, rats, they caught me” when being rebuked for their clothing. It’s humiliating.
You feel exposed. You feel dirty. You feel like you’re being judged as a horrible, sleazy person. You’re one of those girls — the ones guys talk about being mad at and losing all respect for. And if you triple-checked your outfit before you left your house, your parents and friends assured you that you looked fine, and you’re really trying to do this thing right — well, such a rebuke can be genuinely devastating.
There is a way to look out for each other and cover each other without heaping shame on the person who made a misstep. Like one friend might casually and discreetly alert another one to the trail of TP streaming from her waistband, we can alert each other to wardrobe malfunctions without it being a monstrously shameful thing.
Again, prying modesty out of the the subtext of sexual temptation goes a long way for this. Saying, “Hey, you might wanna pull up your tank top a bit” doesn’t have to carry with it the weight of “EGADS, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO YOUR BROTHERS, YOU CARELESS BATHSHEBA?” It can be the harmless, mildly embarrassing “oops” that it is, and that can really be the end of it.
Historically, we have not been nearly as concerned about shielding a young woman’s heart from being crushed by shame as we have been concerned about shielding our young men from fleeting temptation. We can, and should, honor both groups, using much more care with our words.
Change 3: R-E-L-A-X. While modesty is important, it is not of life-ending, civilization-destroying consequence. The world really is not going to explode into a godless orgy because some lady’s blouse buttons gapped a bit when she stretched. We all slip up to varying degrees within the church. This is not even close to the worst thing that can happen. It’s not always worth addressing in the moment, and if it’s not a recurring problem, maybe not at all.
And, as a bonus, if we treat it like the secondary issue it is, perhaps it will become less distracting to begin with.
Change 4: Assuming that, for the most part, women are actually able to discern their own modesty. While it’s true we all can have blind spots, and we need to remain humble and teachable, it’s a myth that women just don’t understand the importance of modesty like men do. At its core, modesty is about not dressing in a way that needlessly distracts others–which, as we examined above, fluctuates greatly from culture to culture. A woman who lives in any given culture knows what it expects of her, knows what is acceptable, and knows what is frowned upon. Any woman who pays attention can usually discern if her outfit is going to raise eyebrows. We really aren’t all clueless about this. And while teenagers probably need parental input, moms can do just as well as dads when it comes to determining an outfit’s propriety.
While some basic guidelines can be helpful, and while there are plenty of situations in which official dress codes are appropriate, in general, I think we ought to trust women to make good choices about clothes (assuming they value humility). It’s really not that hard. I believe that trusting women to do right by their own bodies will do wonders for them being more at peace in their own skin. With nothing more to prove, and with no more vague pitfalls to panic over, what better context could there be for nurturing joyful humility?
Modesty matters. Modesty is good. But let’s get our reference point out of the raging cultural tide and into the unrelenting grace of the Holy Spirit. He can lead us into humility if we cooperate with Him — and it really is as simple as that.