I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but modesty is NOT popular right now. And I don’t mean the typical evangelical clothing police that too often becomes legalism in the church, but the very suggestion that women and men should not dress with the purpose of looking “sexy” incites anger even from within Christian circles, with cries of patriarchy and female oppression and rape culture from one side and the instinctual digging-of-heels without regard to real pain and hurt from the other.
And this conversation has not gone well in the past. Ask any woman who’s been asked to cover up because her body was just too tempting to men. Ask any woman who’s been called a slut or told she clearly doesn’t value herself because someone more conservative considered her clothing choices too provocative. Ask any woman who has been a victim of sexual abuse and must endure comments about how women shouldn’t be “advertising goods they don’t want to sell.” As my friend Katelyn pointed out in her excellent post on modesty for The Atlantic, “When one in five women in this country reports being raped or sexually assaulted, and when paltry systems of recourse exist for women on many college campuses and military bases, the church must speak out against anything that justifies rape and sexual assault.” There is simply more to modesty than women covering up so men won’t be so gosh-darned tempted all the time.
The modesty conversation operates under a few basic assumptions: men are visual creatures. Men are attracted to the sight of women’s bodies. When women wear tight or revealing clothing, men inevitably see them as sexual objects. Obviously these are generalizations, there are exceptions to every statement, and women can struggle with lust as can men with modest dressing. But more often that not these are the ways it plays out, so these are the realities from which most people begin.
If you grew up in the church, or went to a Christian school, or have spent any time at all in an evangelical circle, the word “modesty” carries a lot more baggage. It probably conjures up memories of youth group pool parties where many girls had to wear baggy t-shirts over their two-piece bathing suits, or of reminders that “modest is hottest,” or of college debates over yoga pants, miniskirts, or even, I kid you not this really happened to me, purses worn messenger-style across the chest. These conversations all serve to continually remind women that their bodies are a problem, that their value lies in how much they can show or how much they can conceal. The whole “modest is hottest” concept reinforces the idea that women’s value lies in their hotness, it only serves to relocate the source of said hotness.
There is a legitimate problem when girls and women are made to feel responsible for the way men view them. Lists of rules that police girls’ clothing choices can contribute to this, especially when they are not accompanied by active attempts to help boys learn to control the ways they view and think about girls. We make it a female issue and paint boys as helpless lusting machines incapable of taking responsibility for their thoughts and actions. My friend Sharon Hodde Miller’s husband Ike wrote about this very well on her blog, where he writes, “There is a glaring inconsistency in the church, one that allows men to make judgments about the modesty of women without confessing and repenting of their own complicit lust in the process. Instead, a woman is accused of immodesty and shamed, all by virtue of the fact that a man has lusted after her; however, the man who engaged in lust does not experience the same public shame. In fact, he is sometimes considered praiseworthy for addressing such a “threat” to the community.” He affirms, “The true seat of lust is a man’s heart, not a woman’s body.”
Let me be clear. Telling a woman she is gross, skanky, or “asking for it” is wrong. Implying that women’s bodies are irresistibly distracting is wrong. Reducing women’s identities and worth to their physical bodies is wrong. Imposing cultural standards as universal truths is wrong. But just because the ways we have talked about modesty in the past have been harmful, hurtful, and even sinful, doesn’t mean the concept itself is flawed. As Christians we talk alot about freedom — when rooted in love for our fellow brothers and sisters, a redefined concept of modesty can free us from the legalism and objectification to which it has been reduced and open us up to a more selfless life, and more chances to love the imperfect people around us.
Maybe I’m just really, really lucky, that I grew up in a home and a church where traditional modesty was valued and often enforced without ever receiving the message that any unwanted sexual attention or activity would be my fault, even if I failed to live up to the established standards. Modesty was clearly communicated as a way to express love for our brothers and sisters by approaching the decision of what to wear each day as a choice that impacts more than just ourselves. It should be something we do not because we have to, but because we can. Living in community is a responsibility but also a gift.
If you came to this post looking for rules or even a definition about what is modest and what is not, I’m sorry. I can’t give you that. To me modesty is about cultivating a heart that cares for others so much that every decision takes into account not just what I want but what would be most loving and helpful for those around me. I do not think clothes are neutral; I do not think anything in life is neutral. But the choice is every woman’s (and man’s) to make.