Trying to Figure Out Modesty

Sophie and Lacy

Meet Sophie. She’s wearing a floor-length dress to school every day. Her bathing suit of choice is a burkini. She never goes out with her friends, but instead stays home to sew, clean, cook, and tend to her father and brothers. She also doesn’t date; she is arranged to marry a hardworking lumberjack (he’s pretty great-looking, they tell her, so she’s excited).

Now meet Lacy. She’s wearing, well, not much of anything, just some shorts half the length of their pockets and a bikini top. Should she go swimming, she’ll drop the shorts and use the floss-like cloth underneath. Most of her nights are spent carousing with drunken perverts, and at home she’s a rebellious brat who hates her parents. For that reason she rarely sleeps at home, preferring instead to sleep with strange men until she gets pregnant and aborts the baby before moving on.

[fquote align=”right”]Sophie is a radical stereotype of girls who follow the dictates of traditional modesty, and Lacy is a similarly radical stereotype of those who do not. And like all stereotypes, they should be annihilated if we want to have a rational discussion.[/fquote]

Finally, take the images you have of Sophie and Lacy, and then kill them both like they’re on Game of Thrones (see, I can make relevant cultural references even without actually watching that porn, er, I mean nice TV show). Both are what we call stereotypes, and in this case these are really, really extreme stereotypes from the modesty debate. Sophie is a radical stereotype of girls who follow the dictates of traditional modesty, and Lacy is a similarly radical (though perhaps more likely to exist in this culture) stereotype of those who do not. And like all stereotypes, they should be annihilated if we want to have a rational discussion. So my request: read this post as though this debate is completely new to you. Hopefully that will give my voice a little more credibility.

The Vantage Point

I am trying to tackle the question of modesty from a particular perspective, namely a conservative one. However, it’s not exactly the clichéd conservatism of youth groups on this. I want to give serious respect to tradition and the wisdom of the humanity past, while also giving a fair hearing to whatever legitimate points may be found in new arguments. In addressing both, I’d like to follow a philosophy of moderation and reasonableness, following the golden mean.

Of course, that idea may well just sound like pretentious drivel, but I do think it is an attainable goal. Such prudence isn’t extremely difficult to work through, mainly because much of the work has been done for you by ghosts. So I will be addressing each side first by examining their strengths, and then their flaws. Finally, I intend to carve out a middle way that combines the good and rejects the bad. Sound too idealistic? Good, that’s my favorite. Too pretentious? Then please suffer me a chance.

“Modest is Hottest”: The Traditional View

Summary

In what I deem the “traditional” view of modesty (though it really wasn’t developed in its current form until relatively recent conflicts), people (especially women) are morally obligated to keep their bodies covered for the sake of common decency and protecting their peers from lust. While there is not necessarily anything inherently wrong with being attracted to someone, too much of a glimpse will inspire lust, and for the sake of goodness this should be avoided strongly. Shorts, skirts, and dresses shouldn’t be all that short, midriff is a definite no-no, bikinis are usually pretty iffy, and make sure your clothes aren’t too tight! Otherwise someone may lust after you, and if you respect them you should do your part to help prevent that. As well, your body is a valuable treasure meant to be saved for your spouse, so exposing much of it before that point to other people is a waste and lacks self-respect.

The Good

Right off the bat, the traditional view has the benefit of, well, tradition. We are basically just coming out of a transition phase on what is socially acceptable to wear, and the traditional view recognizes that not all changes are improvements. It recognizes some of the forces that went into play in changing these norms aren’t entirely benign. The sexual revolution was a disgusting and cancerous change, and there is no doubt that it played a part in the way acceptable dress has changed. 

[fquote align=”left”]The traditional view recognizes that some of the forces which went into play in changing dress norms aren’t entirely benign.[/fquote]

The traditional view also has the benefit of repudiating individualism. We are not, in this case, concerned all about individual rights but also with how the individual relates to society and other people. He or she is challenged to show respect for the good of others and not blindly exercise their autonomy just because they like it. This is something almost entirely lost on people with a more modern take on this issue. Too many people buy into the lie that individual rights and autonomy are the only considerations which matter.

The final advantage to the traditional view is that, at least in my experience, it seems to put more effort into aligning itself with Scripture. Who can forget how often they use 1 Timothy 2:9-10? “Also, the women are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive apparel, but with good works, as is proper for women who affirm that they worship God.” While their interpretation and application of Scripture can be debated, I do find as a trend that they are more willing to let it be their guide.

The Bad

There are problems, though, with the traditional view. For one, it often makes someone else’s weakness the responsibility of an otherwise innocent party. Because Johnny has a porn addiction, Sophie must wear a hot, uncomfortable burkini to the pool. Yet even Paul protested, “For why is my freedom judged by another person’s conscience?” (1 Cor. 10:29) It’s not entirely fair for someone to have to always regulate their apparel based on what someone else might do because of it, much like it is not fair to say someone should not buy an iPad lest their friend become envious. Moreover, this tends to lead to downplaying the lusting party’s personal responsibility for his sin, even sometimes shifting a great portion of the blame onto the other.

Another problem with this view is that it often leads to complicated rules and regulations. “Wear shorts this short, but not that short,” or “Yes, that bikini might be okay at your friend’s house, but not at the beach.” It threatens to become its own legalistic structure. This is obviously not acceptable. If you find yourself having to a modesty checklist on your outfit, it probably means you’ve found the far end of the traditional view. Jesus came to set us free from the such a code, and we need to trust His working in our hearts through the Spirit on its own without these extra barriers to keep us in check.

[fquote align=”right”]It’s not entirely fair for someone to have to always regulate their apparel based on what someone else might do because of it, much like it is not fair to say someone should not buy an iPad lest their friend become envious.[/fquote]

Another problem the traditional view faces is the tendency to make a woman’s body into a dangerous think which men need to be protected from. It’s just too powerful for our weak, sex-wired brains! Urm, that’s not a good way to go. Women can develop shame and feel that there bodies are somehow bad, especially naked, which can be a problem when they get married and try to head into the awesome sex they’re usually promised by the same people who promote the traditional view.

The Ugly

I decided to also mention the worst of each view, because all things can go really, really badly if taken too far. For the traditional view, you can have some seriously damaging effects. Sometimes women develop serious insecurities because of how much they are commanded to cover up their bodies. Males can go on and on without ever developing self-control to subdue their minds if they do see anything they usually wouldn’t.

Of course, the real ugly side here is the crazy side, where women are blamed for their own rapes because they were dressing promiscuously. Blech. Now, I suspect that doesn’t happen as often as feminists would like us to believe, but for the sake of God’s mercy we should never, ever go in that direction even in the slightest. Just don’t go there. Unfortunately, there are a few people who hold to the traditional view that at least lean that way, and there are a handful who blast all-out that kind of message.

“The God-Honoring Bikini”: The Modern View

Summary

A trend rather recently has been for what I call the “modern” view. To these people, the traditional view is just clinging to cultural standards of yesteryear and making them into law. Instead, the modern view emphasizes the goodness of the body, the freedom of the Christian, and the necessity of self-control. While you probably shouldn’t dress like a stripper, and you shouldn’t dress specifically to attract sexual attention to yourself, you should embrace your body as God’s good gift and not be afraid to wear what you like. You are not expected to hide yourself just because some people have sin problems. Bikini, shorter shorts, or low cut dress, wear what feels comfortable because you have that liberty. As well, the traditional view is criticized for focusing almost exclusively on women covering up and not men.

The Good

[fquote align=”left”]Your body is not something to be ashamed of, nor something dangerous, nor something that necessarily needs to be hidden away.[/fquote]

The modern view does have some credibility. Like I said before, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to say, “Because someone will sin if they see me like this, I should never be seen like this.” There is a legitimate question as to why this applies to lust and dress but not other things, like envy and technology. It is generally understandable why it would not seem completely just to limit one person’s liberty on the basis of another’s vice.

Another benefit to the modern view is that it is holds an explicitly positive and non-Gnostic view of the body and sexuality in general. These things are good and to be received with thanksgiving. Your body is not something to be ashamed of, nor something dangerous, nor something that necessarily needs to be hidden away. This isn’t to say that the traditional view would disagree, but these truths are often neglected by adherents of the traditional view while made very clear here.

Finally, the modern view is good about trying to balance the field between men and women. The traditional view, while not more directed against by nature, is often discussed almost exclusively on women. Yet there is a lot of room to address guys on modesty, especially in a post-Jacob culture. Somehow I feel that muscle-selfies aren’t substantially different from bikini ones. Perhaps even more tied to attractive intent.

The Bad

The modern view has its shortcomings, though. For one, it does seem strongly tied to our culture’s radical conception of individualism. Even though it uses sanctified terminology, it often sounds as though it is saying the exact same thing as the world: “Let me do what I want; it’s not your right to tell me what to do!” Moreover, this is done specifically excluding the concerns of others. We are told in the modern view quite clearly that the sin struggles of fellow believers are just not our problem.

There is also the issue of association. Now, we all know that just because an idea has some connections to really wrong people doesn’t mean it is itself wrong. However, it does warrant caution. Looking at the history of the change in modesty ideas, the modern view seems connected to the sexual revolution and modern pop-feminism, both are which are scary, morally damaging things. The ever-controversial bikini arose as a prime example of this, as it was praised by feminist activists as helping sexually liberate women. Needless to say, this is not good company.

[fquote align=”right”]Even though it uses sanctified terminology, it often sounds as though the modern view is saying the exact same thing as the world.[/fquote]

My final issue with the modern view is that it, overall, seems to leave a lesser voice to Scripture in this discussion than the traditional view does. This isn’t saying there are no Biblical arguments on this side, but that they tend to be treated as secondary to the popular rhetoric on this, which draws noticeably from individualism and feminism.

The Ugly

The ugly side of the modern view is ugly, indeed. At its worst it is associated with the radical feminism of such crazies as Jezebel. Yippie. I don’t think I even have to explain how bad those people are.

The other ugly part of the modern view is that it can facilitate social hostility towards people who dress with traditional standards of modesty, whether out of conviction or personal preference. They can easily fall victim to stereotyping, and people who actually hold to the traditional view can be accused of quite a great many things, including legalism, body-shaming, and even misogyny. But in the more common, less extreme results of these same negatives, you can face social stigma for being dorky, backwards, or unattractive for not dressing as freely as people do more commonly.

Bulldozing a Middle Way

Defining “Modesty”

Now that I’ve gone through my thoughts on the two mainstream views of modesty, I want to start explaining (and, to some extent, creating) my own. First, we can all agree on one thing: some kind of modesty is important. Why? To cite something I did before:

Also, the women are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive apparel, but with good works, as is proper for women who affirm that they worship God.

1 Timothy 2:9-10

Here Paul explicitly tells women to dress modestly. This refutes anyone who ignores the entire deal. But what is modesty? Defining modesty will be key to my entire argument. To help me define modesty, I would like to bring in one more passage very similar to this one.

Your beauty should not consist of outward things like elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold ornaments or fine clothes. Instead, it should consist of what is inside the heart with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very valuable in God’s eyes.

1 Peter 3:3-4

From these two texts, I will try to present a very straightforward definition of modesty:

Modesty is the quality of humility, especially in dress and demeanor, shunning special attention, especially from superficial sources.

I would like to think that this definition does justice to the verses above and to the entire concept of modesty in general, along with Biblical humility. So how would this definition address the issues of the current modesty debate? At this point I think bullet points are the simplest way to examine the implications.

Some Application

  • Modesty is a heart issue before it is a dress issue. You must have humility to be modest. The modest person is content to be quietly out of eye. They do not try to draw attention to their own talents, appearance, or character, but instead take praise and recognition involuntarily and without thrill.
  • Immodesty in dress is defined by attention-seeking, not necessarily skin-showing. When Paul spoke to the women in the church on modesty, he told them not to wear fancy hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive clothes. This was immodest because it attracted special attention, making people notice, “Wow, she has style and can afford it!” It is not as though the fancy clothes in fashion in Paul’s day would be all that revealing, either. Ironically, I can guarantee you that many women, especially youth, speaking on modesty in churches today are actually still dressed for attention, just not using skin.
  • Seeking attention through revealing clothing is certainly immodest, no matter how little or much it shows. It doesn’t really matter what or how much your clothing shows if you’re trying to get your body noticed. Aiming to attract attention is immodest.
  • If you’re not seeking attention, you’re not being immodest. If you’re just dressing as you do for fun, comfort, style preference, or some other innocent reason, then you cannot necessarily be charged with immodesty, even if the stuff is somewhat revealing. Example: I work in an Amazon warehouse. The temperature in the summer averages over 80°F, so it gets uncomfortable to wear a lot of clothing, especially if you’re moving a lot (like people in my department). Because of this, most of the girls who work in my department wear t-shirts or tank tops with either pretty short shorts or yoga pants. Are they being immodest who dress this way to avoid heat stroke or sweating buckets? Of course not, regardless of how males actually respond.
  • Just because you’re not being immodest doesn’t always mean your clothing is appropriate. Regardless of why you dress as you do, a speedo is not appropriate attire for a funeral (unless the deceased had a beach party in his will). And even if you’re just doing because you think it’s cozy, I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with walking down the streets dressed like a stripper.

At this point I must break to address the last thing I said. How do we know what is appropriate regardless of intentions? Well, to be honest I don’t think there are many easy rules here, mostly common sense. But I do think there is something to be said for cultural standards of decency. We are called as believers to treat other people with love and respect, which means we should not needlessly offend or disturb them. Most of the time, we know how other people will respond to what we wear, and so we should take that into consideration. Of course, this also does not mean we need to dress for the lowest common denominator, wearing clothing that will be acceptable to every single person, mainly because this is not practical and will not help many/any people.

What about Lust?

The question that is burning on some minds is how my view addresses the question of lust. After all, aren’t we still obligated to respect our fellow believers in how we dress? I would like to address this from two points. The first is the value of self-control. Certainly this is a good, conservative value and a fruit of the Spirit. Therefore I think it is important to bring into this discussion. See, people need to learn self-control. This value is one that will help in the modesty question. After all, if you can learn to control your thoughts and responses, you will be able to conquer lust. However, if you are never exposed to any sexually attractive sights, you will never face the temptation of lust. If you never face temptation, you can never conquer temptation and better yourself through self-control. Moreover, if this goes this way for quite some time, and then you find yourself suddenly faced with a sight that may stimulate lust, you will have no built up guard or defenses. So total shielding from potential lust-driving sights is perhaps dangerous.

[fquote align=”left”]The situation is akin to that of antibiotics. If we never use antibiotics but remain exposed to all manners of nastiness, we will get sick and die. If we always use antibiotics and protect ourselves from every possible infection, then we will be altogether unprepared to deal with any ill which makes its way past our defenses.[/fquote]

Naturally, we cannot go to an extreme on this argument. We could not say, then, that we should expose people to as much tempting imagery as possible. Should people be made to watch hours of pornography just so they can learn to control themselves? That would be absurd. The problem is that overwhelming someone not yet ready for defenses will destroy them. However, no chances to fight will lead to weakness. The situation is akin to that of antibiotics. If we never use antibiotics but remain exposed to all manners of nastiness, we will get sick and die. If we always use antibiotics and protect ourselves from every possible infection, then we will be altogether unprepared to deal with any ill which makes its way past our defenses. Likewise, if we try to protect ourselves from all possible images that could inspire lust, we will grow unable to deal with anything, but if we use no caution we will be destroyed by lust. It is more helpful to strike a reasonable balance.

On the other side of this, lust is a seriously difficult sin to crush. This is something most people know personally. So we should show, as fellow members in this fight, some concern for others. While we need not bind ourselves into a particular code because of the weaknesses of others, we should make sure, for one, to never even semi-intentionally try to attract sexual attention to ourselves. This applies whether you’re posting lots of shirtless ab selfies on Facebook or showing off your new bikini figure. While it is not wrong to show these things in any circumstance, if you’re putting yourself on display for attention, you are wrong.

There is a less intentional side of which we ought to be cautious, though. Generally speaking, you have a decent idea of how other people will respond to how you dress. So if it occurs to you that you may really be a stumbling block when you tweet a picture of the freckle in your cleavage, I would at least advice taking a second consideration as to what you will do. This must never be a law of any kind, but just a thought. Just try to do unto others what you have them do unto you.

Concluding Remarks

Honestly, modesty is a complicated topic when both major sides have so many arguments. And while I think (or hope) that I have found a happy medium, I am not certain of this, and even with my ruminations (which are probably not as original as I imagine) there are plenty of practical points of application that could be debated. But I think if we adopt an attitude of proper modesty, respect others, and do not judge our fellow believers, we will be alright. Thanks for reading this endless post!

Trying to Figure Out Modesty

So what do you think?