A Two Pronged Approach to Modesty
By Amanda Markel
I’m going to admit to something that may not be popular in Christian circles…I no longer use the word “modesty” when talking to my daughters.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of modesty…it even appears several times in the New Testament. But modesty is another one of those words that our modern culture has twisted to mean something other than what the Bible expresses, and like many other things in American Evangelicalism, I want to stay as far away from it as possible.
First of all, there is a tendency when we emphasize modesty, for Christian women to act in a less than Christlike manner toward other women, Christian or not. When you are so concerned with the amount of clothing everyone is wearing it becomes easy to make fun of or be condescending to women who don’t meet your criteria of modesty. There’s a few problems with this, however, starting with the fact that mocking women for how they are dressed is just as sinful as dressing in a provocative way is.
Modesty is also very subjective. While the word does appear in the Bible, it is not accompanied by a definition. The Bible does not tell us we need to be covered from neck to ankles to be modest, nor does it say collarbones to knees, or any other list of body parts. This is one of those issues that can be cultural…what is considered “modest” in one place might not be in another, even in different parts of the same country. It is not our job to impose whatever definition of modesty we have in our head upon other people.
Another problem with emphasizing modesty to our daughters is that we put the burden of two people’s sins on one girl. Usually, when Christians talk about modesty, they are talking not only the girl making sure she’s covered enough (sin one), but also making sure she doesn’t cause men to sin (sin two). There is not only no Gospel in talking this way, but a double helping of the Law! We leave our daughters worried that not only are they going to sin by how they are dressed if they don’t have the right parts covered, but that they will also “make” the men who see them sin as well. Not only is this unfair to women, it’s insulting to men in two ways…either because we’re letting off the hook for their own thoughts, or because we’re assuming they’re no better than animals in how their brains work.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when you over-emphasize modesty, you offer a false sense of safety. The implication is that if you’re modest enough, you don’t have to be worried about being harassed by men, or even worse. Modesty doesn’t protect you! No matter how much skin you cover, how loose your clothing is, or how many layers you wear, it’s not your sense of modesty that will protect you from men bent on evil. It’s too easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, a thought of “that could never happen to someone as modest as me!” when in fact, bad things happen even to those whom we would consider to be super modest women.
Instead of talking about modesty, then, I talk to my daughters about being comfortable and appropriate.
Comfortable actually has two parts. First of all, will they be comfortable with how what they’re wearing fits? None of my girls like wearing short shorts or skirts, so when they’re looking at new clothes, I remind them of this preference. If they’re going to be self-consciously tugging an item of clothing down the entire time they’re wearing it, it’s probably not a good choice for them. They need to consider how they will feel when they’re wearing an item of clothing.
I also ask them if it will be comfortable for what they’re doing. If an item of clothing is so binding that they won’t be able to move about comfortably for whatever activity they’re involved in, it’s also probably not a good choice. This concept, in particular, is very subjective. What is comfortable to wear for a sports activity may be very different from what you would be comfortable in when going out to dinner. And that’s OK! Different places and activities have different comfort levels.
I also talk about clothes being appropriate. When you go to the beach or pool, you obviously wear less clothing than you would at the grocery store. This has as much to do with safety as anything else…wearing too much, too heavy clothing is a risk when combined with water, and would be inappropriate. Can this be taken too far? Of course! But it’s not our place to decide what “too far” is for other people in terms of their dress. The same goes for other places, such as a ballet or other dance recital. Dancers tend to wear less clothing, or more form-fitting clothing, than we usually see in public. This is born out of necessity…in practices, the instructors need to be able to see the dancers’ limbs well, to make sure that they’re doing movements in a technically correct way, and in performances, the audience needs to see the same thing in order to appreciate the movements. Again, this can be taken too far, and that’s why it’s important for girls to know what makes them comfortable as well as what is appropriate.
Like so many things that have come with the rise in American evangelicalism, the modern idea of modesty is a very law-based proposition. If we stop focusing so much on how much clothing girls are wearing, and instead help them figure out what makes them feel comfortable and what is appropriate for the occasion, we can help remove the burden of another’s sin from their shoulders, and show them God’s grace in the process.
Good thoughts. It’s been easier to use the word “appropriate” than the word “modest” with my daughter as well, but I hadn’t thought of the comfortable part as well.
I love this! Thank you.
As a Lutheran mom of two teenaged girls, I afraid I can’t agree with much of what you’ve written, particularly your discussion of whether girls bear any responsibility in tempting boys through their dress. What about Romans 14:13-23?
It’s well known, both through common sense and everyday living and through scientific study, that one of the main ways men are sexually aroused is through visual stimulation. A girl flaunting her body in front of teenaged boys, in particular, isn’t unlike wafting a glass of wine beneath an alcoholic’s nose. How is that kind of action in keeping with Paul’s admonishment to not tempt those who are weaker than ourselves?
In a perfect world, a boy might not be tempted. But in a perfect world, a girl also would not purposely tempt him. Both have responsibilities, so to speak.
I haven’t seen anyone with “too much clothing” on the beach in 50 years! I am too old, I guess, to understand why the proximity of water entitles people to go as nearly naked as only emphasizes the difference!
Believe it or not, there are some fundamentalist Christians that require so much covering for a girl to swim that it truly becomes a safety issue. I’m not sure how often people like that frequent public beaches/swimming pools, though. It’s still a hazard, wherever they are doing their swimming.
I turn sixteen in four days, and your comments about dressing comfortably caught my eye. I personally don’t think that it’s a good idea for parents to always let their child dress for what the child feels is comfortable. Sometimes, being comfortable isn’t what is appropriate. If a girl was required to go to a formal event, a dress would be the appropriate clothing. When she says that she’s not comfortable in a dress and is going to wear sweatpants and a T-shirt, how is that appropriate for the occasion?
Being comfortable is sometimes not the most important thing- not once you become a teenager, anyway! When your daughter wants to impress a boy, she will go through pains to look good for him. Not necessarily immodest, but most women still have the desire to look nice. She’ll pluck her eyebrows, get blisters from wearing heels, and burn her hand from curling her hair. She’ll go through that pain for a boy, and while she may be uncomfortable, she will be happy. She will be happy that he noticed her, and all that “being uncomfortable” will be worth it. Just as an extra note, a lot of girls think that short shorts are comfortable. If we tell them to go with what’s comfortable, are we telling them that short shorts are fine? For that matter, some people are quite comfortable naked, lol!
Another point I’d like to make: Our human feelings, even feeling “comfortable”, aren’t always God-pleasing. Sin infects all parts of us. I’m assuming that as a fellow Lutheran, you believe God’s words against homosexuality. A lot of transgenders claim that they finally feel comfortable once they have changed genders. I don’t think that “Comfort is number one” is the right message to be sending to younger girls, because teen years and younger are the most important for shaping their future.
Comfort is not my number one priority, and I’m okay with that.
Sorry if it seems like I’ve been rambling, I just wanted to share my opinion as a teen girl :)
Hi Paige! I do agree with you that the “comfort” emphasis can definitely be skewed (such as in the examples of short shorts or other behaviors). But I think it’s a matter of not just leaving it as “comfortable” but discussing with our girls (and boys even) on what we mean by that word, and what it does and doesn’t mean. And when we disagree with our kids’ assertions on what is “comfortable” we then turn back to “appropriate” or even God’s Word (especially with issues like homosexuality or cohabitation, etc).
On the topic of attracting boys, man, I could definitely relate to your statements. I was especially boy-crazy as a teen (even into my 20s). Though I didn’t grow up in a Christian home, I’m sure my Christian friends struggled with this desire to please and attract boys all the same. Unfortunately, though this is normal behavior for teen girls — especially when ingrained in a secular culture which pushes for it — that doesn’t make it right or okay. Yes, it will make her feel good that the boy noticed her, but just as you said in your later paragraph — just because it made her feel good (or was comfortable) doesn’t make it good or God-pleasing. I think this comes down to how we teach our children about dating and seeking a spouse. My own experience with seeking these relationships when I was too young (and ending up with immense emotional scars I carried into my marriage and spent years to work through and move on from) drives me to express to my two daughters (and my son) that dating is not something we do for fun until we’re old enough to get married. We don’t enter into a dating relationship until we’re ready for the prospect of marriage. This hopefully will lessen the pressure to turn boys’ heads — though I’m no idiot and know it won’t completely alleviate it. That is a pressure that will likely always exist as our Old Adam wants to be diverted away from Christ crucified to focus instead on our own desire to be loved or married or have a family, etc.
The other thing to keep in mind, too, is that there is some level of discomfort we all endure just to be a member of society. Sure, we could argue that brushing our teeth, combing our hair, showering, and wearing clean/nice-looking clothes isn’t comfortable for us, but if we don’t do these things, well….. ahem. Yeah.
Thank you, Amanda, for inviting conversation on this important subject.
Being modest quite often simply means refraining from calling attention to ourselves. Modesty in dress and behavior harmonize with purity, chastity, humility, moderation, and self-control. To be modest is not to be prudish, but prudent.
When the first man and woman tried to cover themselves after their sin, God gave to them coats which, some believe, covered them from neck to knee and seems to suggest that a bikini of leaves was not enough. More importantly, He fully covered them in Christ’s Robe of Righteousness. As believers, we, too, wear the full covering of His Robe.
However, we are people with a sinful nature living in a fallen world. We need to be honest about the way we’ve grown comfortable not just with our bodies and the clothing we do (or don’t) wear, but with certain habits, choices, behaviors, communications, beliefs, and attitudes. The Israelites grew so comfortable living in Babylon that when released from captivity, many did not want to return home.
To be “comfortable” means what? It likely means different things to different people. And what I think is comfortable might very well make someone else feel uncomfortable. Girls and women I know claim they are very “comfortable” in skimpy clothing. They feel “free” and “uninhibited.” The girls we see at our family life pregnancy center have been told since pre-kindergarten that they should be “comfortable” with their bodies… and they are! They long for the attention of boys and they’ve been schooled in how to get it. Or as a 50-something, church-attending woman told her sister, “I’ve worked hard to get my body to look like this. Now I’m comfortable showing it.”
For some 50 years, girls have been told that being “equal” means that men and women are “the same.” But we are not. Male and female visualize, think, feel, love, communicate, and respond differently. A young man at one of our Concordia Universities serves as an example. He was very fond of his Christian girlfriend, but her comfort in short shorts and skirts made him very uncomfortable. One day, he could contain himself no longer. “Do you know what you’re doing to me, girl?” No, she admitted. She had no idea. But out of respect, she adjusted her comfort level to help guard his heart and soul.
So how shall I, as a daughter of God, properly act and dress? 1) With glory to God (not myself); 2) with love for Christ (He covered me and first loved me so that I can love Him through my behavior toward others); 3)with resistance of my sinful self that doesn’t want me to be comfortable as a “temple of the Holy Spirit;” and 4) with love for others, the desire to encourage their purity/holiness, and the prayerful effort not to be a temptress.
“Therefore, if anyone cleanses [herself] from what is dishonorable, [she] will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21).
Your grandmother would probably have been “comfortable” in similar garb (and survived the water, too, although she wouldn’t have been a competitive swimmer). :)