Modesty: Revisited

Modesty is a touchy subject these days. While I have already discussed the backlash surrounding the purity conversation in a previous post, I deliberately left modesty out of that post. The concept of dressing modestly is a complement to a lifestyle of purity, but I have intentionally separated them because I think that the way they are inextricably linked in conversation can be problematic. A quick glance through social media reveals that special attention is reserved for dressing modestly, but also special vitriol. Last year this mom let every teenage girl on Facebook know they weren’t allowed to be friends with her sons if even one picture was posted that was deemed indecent. The Rebelution Blog believes modesty is so key in preventing lust that they asked teenage guys to rate clothing and behavior on a scale of modesty to serve as a guide for girls who had questions on the matter. In response to criticism for only targeting women with their modesty survey (which is now no longer up on their website), they later decided to hold men to the same standard and put what is modest dress and behavior at the mercy of what women say “causes them to stumble.” On the other end of the spectrum, this post has made the rounds on social media, along with myriad other articles talking about how “modesty culture”  idolizes virginity, idolizes fathers, dehumanizes women by making them object lessons, and has lied to women about sex. Emotions run high, and there are no clear, definitive rules provided in Scripture to simplify the issue. But while some of the conversation on both sides has merit, there is so much arrogance and condemnation that most of the discussion flies in the face of the virtue that is in question. We need to create some new dialogue around this issue that lacks the haughty judgment that has marred the conversation thus far. To do so, we must first understand where the problems with the current discussion lie.

Moralism and Manipulation

“Modesty,” as some in the church mean it today, refers to dressing and acting in a way that aids us in our pursuit of chastity, and is also intended to help Christian men keep their thoughts pure. Unfortunately, it is often reduced to the length and looseness of the clothing women wear; nothing can be too tight or too short. In limiting the use of the word “modesty” to simply “dressing in a way that cannot be perceived as sexy,” the virtue has been reduced to less than it is. In this reduction, men and women are also reduced to less than they are. As you can see from the litany of flaws listed above, many in my generation are displeased with the way modesty was presented to them. Much of that outcry has been aimed at men imposing standards of dress on women, and how this objectifies women and puts the burden of responsibility on our shoulders for preventing men’s lustful thoughts. But I would argue that women are not the only ones being objectified in the traditional argument for modest dress. Men, in this discussion, can be reduced to lust-bots who cannot be expected to control their thoughts and actions. This objectifies the responsible, respectable men who are endeavoring to keep their thoughts chaste and characterizes them as helpless, at best, and monsters, at worst. In this scenario, it is a woman’s job to control those thoughts through dressing in a way that prevents them. And while this shifting of blame may have originated with men, some women have embraced and perpetuated it.

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In a culture where being seductive is hailed as the highest of all virtues and women live in a constant state of cutthroat competition, the traditional modesty conversation has created the perfect scapegoat for our insecurities about both our bodies and our relationships. It is not just men who use immodesty as an excuse to objectify. Women do, too, when they judge other women to be “sluts” and blame them for “causing their husbands to stumble.” Requiring a standard of modesty in other women and condemning them for lack of adherence to our own standard can be a security blanket we cover ourselves with when we fear that we do not measure up. I was blessed to not hear this moralism of modesty preached from the pulpit. While I know that some of my sisters in Christ experienced men enforcing dress codes on them, the only man who ever had a say in what I wore was my father, and I know his rules were out of love rather than objectification and blame-shifting. My experience in that may be unique, but as a woman who has been both the judger and the one who was judged, my heart and my experience tell me that much of the anger my generation has against modesty is the result of the harsh judgment they experienced at the hands of other women. Too often the harshest judges and the biggest modesty tyrants are women, not men. In a situation where there are no black-and-white standards of what modest clothing truly is, women too often embrace the role as arbiters of modesty and then judge other women. Modesty, here becomes a prop, both to hide your insecurities and to make you feel superior. This is not modesty, but pride in disguise.

Another potential issue in the traditional presentation of modesty is the concept that being modest is what earns you the “right kind of man.” Modest clothing is presented as a “particularly perverse method of reverse psychology” that forces men to be more attracted to modest women because there is “mystery” and “room for the imagination” involved. It can be an attempt to manipulate men, because the practice of dressing modestly gives you the power to only attract men who will love you for the right reasons and who will stay for the right reasons.

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Not only can this become an attempt to exercise control over men, but can also be viewed as a bargaining chip with God for the prince He owes you if you behave chastely and dress modestly. The problem in all of this manipulation is that it requires men to judge women by the way they dress, and concludes that “real men” should only respect modest women. Men can lust over you no matter how modestly you dress, and God’s gift of a good husband is not a prize to be earned, but a blessing given out of His grace.

Though there were shortcomings in the traditional approach to women dressing modestly, these things are by no means the experience of every woman in the Church. Some of the problems with the traditional rhetoric also lie not in the teaching itself, but in the way many girls understood it. There are those who dress modestly and do so without moralism and manipulation. Just because there are those who held up their standards with judgment and hypocrisy does not mean that we should abandon everything that has ever been taught about modesty completely. And that leads me to the other side of this debate.

Anger and Abdication

So many of the articles I linked above are written by young women who have become embittered by the problems they have found in “modesty culture.” They are angry at the men who have shifted blame to women for their lustful thoughts. They desire to show men how it feels to be told how to dress, as in the “suits are a stumbling block” blog post. They despise the feelings of shame and fear they experienced as a result of their inability to “guard their hearts” enough and meet the standards that were set for them. Some are so embittered that they have rejected purity outright, while others are simply jaded and weary of being responsible for something over which they have no control. I was in the latter category for a while. I dressed in bermuda shorts and oversized polo shirts in high school because I thought they earned me healthy romantic relationships and made me better than the girls around me who were not so fastidious in “following the rules.” When I discovered how wrong I was on both these counts, I adopted short shorts, bikinis, and yoga pants. Why bother with trying to help keep men from stumbling if even frumpiness couldn’t accomplish that task? But that angst often leads to a complete abandonment of valuing modesty at all.  As I have said before, while in some situations the anger at men may have merit, a great deal of this anger stems from feeling judged in general, and much of this judgment was often experienced at the hands of women. This anger is not an end unto itself. If we are Christians who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, we cannot simply forsake the virtue because we have been browbeat with moralism in its name. Unless you believe that we should forsake modesty altogether, then dissecting the flaws in the way we have been taught cannot be the final word on the matter. Once again, women on this side of the issue too often set themselves up as judge and jury on the way that modesty was taught to them.  They ridicule and scorn those who still adhere to the traditional approach to modesty with the same harsh condemnation and standards that leave no room for the fact that we are all fallen and need grace. Yet this kind of judgment is often what drove many of them away from that viewpoint in the first place. It repeats the same mistakes, but in the opposite direction.

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This “eye for an eye” is not an appropriate response to past problems, nor should those who find fault use this as an excuse to become puffed up with pride. We have enough “this is why everything we were taught was wrong” posts and “men are pigs” tirades. A recognition that men are responsible for their own thoughts and that there is too much moralism in traditional modesty rhetoric does not create license for unfettered condemnation of those who came before us. This side of the discussion needs fewer hissy fits and more humility to recognize that while there are failings and flaws, much of what we were taught by our parents and teachers in the Church was done out of a genuine desire for our good. There needs to be a measure of grace extended through realizing that even though self-righteousness and pride tainted prior teaching, it was usually not done with the intent to harm and shame. Responding to pride and self-righteousness with more of the same does not help the situation or create better ways of teaching modesty to future generations. It is easy to stand on the backs of those who have gone before and judge them for their failures and shortcomings. It requires much more thought and discernment to create new ways of moving forward. “We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Cor. 8:1) There comes a time to stop throwing temper tantrums about being told to wear tankinis, and start thinking of ways to build girls up, instead of simply tearing past teaching down.

Moving Forward

I think that a lot of the reason we don’t know how to approach modesty well is that we don’t have a good understanding of what humility is. The two are actually as interconnected as we often make modesty and purity. Modesty is a facet of humility that works itself out in the way we dress and behave. The Bible may not give us detailed rules for the length of our skirts or the height of our necklines, but it does give us instruction on how to dress:

“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” 1 Peter 5:5

So while we may not want to repeat past mistakes, neither should we decide to simply throw the baby out with the bath water. Women are still commanded to “adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control.” (1 Timothy 2:9) We need to start having constructive discussions that create good rhetoric for encouraging modesty in the Church and teaching it to girls without passing on unnecessary shame and judgment. And while I definitely don’t pretend to have all the answers on this issue, there are a few things that I believe can improve the modesty conversation going forward:

First, we need to stop limiting modesty to a certain style of dress. If you look back at the verse from 1 Timothy quoted above, women are not commanded to “adorn themselves modestly.” Modesty is, instead, something we are supposed to have when we dress ourselves in “respectable apparel.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines modesty first and foremost as “freedom from conceit or vanity,” and only secondarily as “propriety in dress, speech, and conduct.” Synonyms for modesty include humility and meekness, and without these qualities a person cannot be truly modest even if they are covered from head to toe. Limiting modesty to a mode of dress is what makes room for moralism and self-righteousness. This limited view of modesty is also a straw man that is too easily torn down because it is hollow rather than holistic. Even the definition of modesty that includes the dressing chastely also includes our words and actions, as well. And I do not only mean not being seductive or crass in our speech and behavior, though that is part of it. Modesty extends to things beyond sexuality, and that is where our discussion too often falls short. Modesty is about our entire lives being “free from conceit or vanity.” It is that virtue which allows attention to be drawn to other things and to other people. We need to be teaching girls not only to be modest with their bodies, but also with their talents and their blessings. And we need to be teaching boys this same modesty of character. A truly modest person does not need to shove their talents and blessings in the faces of others, either as a point of pride or to receive affirmation from others. A modest handling of talents and gifts is to use them for good works (I Tim. 2:10), rather than to inflate your own ego. Especially in a culture defined by social media, where we are constantly told to flaunt all of our purchases and accomplishments, true modesty is desperately needed.

Secondly, one of the key things that needs to change is that we need to take the inherent judgment of others out of teaching modesty to children and begin to model true modesty for them instead. I have known 4 and 5 year old girls who can point out when other girls or women are wearing something that is “not modest.” We cannot teach modesty exclusively by pointing to others and saying “we don’t dress like them,” and when our children vocalize such judgments on their own, we need to be quick to discourage them. When our method of instruction is comparison that puffs up our own stance, this is the exact opposite of modesty. I realize that with children a central part of their logic is “my friends are doing it,” and they are more prone to think in absolutes than in principles. But we need to find some way of answering that question without essentially saying, “because your friends are sinning when they wear [insert article of clothing here].” We need to find a way to encourage modesty without tearing down the girls who don’t meet the standards we have set down for our own children. Finding a way to frame the modesty conversation in a way that focuses less on judgment is vital to having a healthy rhetoric around this virtue. And while it may not answer all of the questions children may ask or eliminate the problems in the modesty discussion, the best way to teach without pointing out flaws in others is to model modesty for children. You cannot teach a girl to dress in a way that does not actively draw attention to her body if you do not have a cohesive thought process on this that teaches modesty in word and deed, as well as dress. If we are quick criticize others, and we do so in front of children, we reinforce their sinful tendency to judge others. We teach boys that it is permissible to judge women by what they wear, and we teach girls that they will be judged by that standard. We need to start actively promoting it as a virtue that should permeate our entire lives, including the way we talk about others. If we treat people with whom we disagree with respect and honor, we reinforce modesty in our children. There is nothing wrong with creating standards of dress for our own daughters. Requiring modesty in young children may require setting rules and boundaries, but it is much easier for them to begin to grasp the heart of modesty if they see the women in their lives are not self-seeking and critical in every aspect except what they wear.

Finally, modesty needs to be oriented not around others, whether it be as protection from men’s lustful thoughts or disapproval of the way other women dress, but around Christ. Because only when we are grounded in Christ and His completed work on the cross can we have the necessary confidence and ability to abandon critical spirits and judgment of others. And the same applies to children. Modesty comes not from us mustering up the strength from inside us, or making ourselves martyrs with false humility. Instead, we must recognize our position as servants of the King of kings, and then take that humility that comes from the recognition of His holiness and apply it to our dress and our actions. We have been forgiven much, and we have no right to be unforgiving of others. Scripture commands us to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also the interest of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:3-5, emphasis mine) Christ Jesus is the one who empowers us to live modestly, and He is also the source of grace and forgiveness when we fail.


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