Modesty – Part One

I’ve probably wrestled with this more than any post I’ve ever done. Hardcore feminists may find me too soft, and the more conservative Christians may find me too radical. I guess that’s fitting because that’s where I find myself sometimes – in the middle, trying to make peace with the two sides (maybe it’s because I’m a middle-child and I have those tendencies….)

So let’s have a discussion. Let’s be kind. This is something that has been on my mind for quite a long time. I have things to say if you’re willing to listen. This ended up being a two-part blog. Today I’ll go into some of what I think modesty isn’t and in Part Two I’ll give you an idea of what modesty really means to me in my life. 

The Misplaced Emphasis

Being raised in Christian culture has given me a unique perspective on the issue of modesty and feminism.

The church is an interesting place to be learning about sex, purity, lust, modesty, and personal responsibility.

I’ve come to the conclusion that while there is a case for modesty, it isn’t the same case that I was taught as a young woman.

In the church, the focus is usually on the rules.

It’s easier to diagnose and control external factors  – like what someone wears – than it is to see and repair the inner brokenness that leads to sin.

But I believe it’s missing the point.

The Lord looks at the invisible.

The Lord looks at heart.

I think he’s asking us to spend more time on our hearts than our adornment.

More time on our souls than on our dress codes.

The Blame Game

The verse often quoted in churches about not letting the things you approve cause your brother to stumble wasn’t about modesty. It was about eating food sacrificed to idols.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

1 Corinthians 8:9-13

In the previous verse, Paul mentions that it’s not about food at all. Food doesn’t bring us near to God. It’s about the heart of whoever is eating it.

No, we shouldn’t intentionally go around trying to tempt one another, but I think it’s safe to say that temptation is part of life. Therefore, women shouldn’t be blamed for causing someone else to stumble based solely on her clothing choices.

It is about a whole lot more than just clothes.

I have talked to several women who are victims of abuse and I’m completely confident that it had nothing to do with the way they dressed. No amount of “modest” clothing could have prevented the trauma that happened.

Abuse is never the victim’s fault.

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.

James 1:13-14, emphasis added

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.

Hebrews 4:15

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:13

Jesus was tempted, yet he never sinned.

He said if your eye causes you to sin gouge it out.

He didn’t say to blame what you’re looking at.

The sin is in the eye of the beholder.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Matthew 5:27-30

I recently came across this excellent article on rethinking modesty. The author, who was also raised in the church, points out that both the over-sexualizing of women and the over-emphasis on modesty are objectifying – just in different ways.

What I’ve only just begun to realize is that these two extremes represent different sides of the same coin. While popular culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to get men to look at them, the modesty culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to keep men from looking at them. In both cases, the impetus is placed on the woman to accommodate her clothing or her body to the (varied and culturally relative) expectations of men. In both cases, it becomes the woman’s job to manage the sexual desires of men, and thus it is seen as her fault if a man ignores her on the one hand or objectifies her on the other. Often, these two cultures combine to send out a pulse of confusing messages: “Look cute … but not too cute! Be modest … but not frumpy! Make yourself attractive … but not too attractive!” Women are left feeling ashamed of their bodies as they try desperately to contort around a bunch of vague, ever-changing ideals.

Rachel Held Evans

Context and Intent

Context is everything.

I tend to dress for the weather since we rarely use our air conditioning or heat.

This means I’m pretty practical – showing more skin in the summer and wearing layers upon layers in the winter.

Yes, I wear leggings almost daily and I love them! (Apparently leggings are the source of a fairly big online debate.)

But I think the intention behind the wearing matters just as much as the clothes themselves.

I don’t prefer to run in an outfit that will overheat me on a 90 degree day.

Leggings offer necessary support and compression for circulation when running.

If I were wearing leggings only for attention, it reveals a deeper problem.

At that point the culprit isn’t my outfit, but the lack of self-confidence and respect I have for myself.

This is the issue I need to deal with.

Merely covering up won’t fix it though.

The clothing doesn’t matter as much as the intent behind it.

I breastfed both my boys when they were little.

I’m no stranger to the topic, and I daresay women breastfeeding their babies isn’t immodest.

Intimate, yes.

Sexual, no.

The context matters.

It’s nurturing.

A mother feeding her small child isn’t what causes someone to stumble.

It’s their own heart.

Their own selfishness.

Their own addictions.

It’s pornographic images on the Internet and sexually charged advertising on TV and billboards.

It’s a culture that thinks our porn-saturated culture is okay and won’t have lasting implications for the next generation.

I believe it’s inconsistent for someone to point an accusing finger at a runner who just wants to be left alone, or a mother trying to feed her baby…then go and ogle women on the internet.

Maybe it’s not that simple.

Maybe that person is really struggling and trying to face their lust.

But again, the issue isn’t skin deep.

And can you even set a “standard” for modesty in the church when what’s acceptable varies so much from culture to culture?

I spent some time in India, where women in traditional saris exposed their midriffs and navels without a second thought, but would carefully avoid showing their knees. Rachel Marie Stone recently wrote an excellent piece for Christianity Today about how, in Malawi, women typically nurse in public without shame of exposing their breasts. In many cultures, a one-piece bathing suit would be considered scandalous; in others, bikinis—or even topless bathing— are the norm. What is considered modest or appropriate changes depending on culture and context. It also changes from woman to woman, depending on body type, personality, personal convictions and season in life. While we may long for a universal dress code that would make all of this simpler, we aren’t given one. Perhaps this is why Paul encouraged women to “adorn themselves with good deeds,” and why the valorous woman of Proverbs 31 is praised because “she clothes herself in strength and dignity.” At the end of the day, the most important things we project to the world are strength, dignity and good deeds; the sort of things that transcend culture, circumstance, and clothing.

The truth is, a man can choose to objectify a woman whether she’s wearing a bikini or a burqa. We don’t stop lust by covering up the female form; we stop lust by teaching men to treat women as human beings worthy of respect.

Rachel Held Evans

To sum it up, I do not believe it is the job of a woman (or a man) to dress for the opposite sex in order to appeal or not-appeal to them. Since every man and woman is different, that is simply asking the impossible.

Furthermore, I don’t believe there is a standard set of “modesty rules” that can be applied to everyone. Cultural and personal differences make this impossible. The Bible doesn’t give us one-size-fits-all answers in this category. It does, however, give us some interesting guidelines that I’ve never heard talked about in churches. I’ll go into this in Part Two.

How did your upbringing affect your decisions for or against modesty? How do you wrestle with this as an adult? Do you give yourself guidelines or simply “wing it” when it comes to modesty? What do you plan to teach your children regarding respect and self-esteem? 

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2 Comments

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  1. Can’t wait to read part two. As my kids get bigger I think about how I communicate about bodies, modesty, respecting others and self esteem more and more. Also, the ad at the bottom of your post was for Magic Mike Live…sadly on topic.

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