It’s Not About the Clothes

Modesty (5)

Gentle Reader,

In my post Sex and the Christian Family I touched on the need to discuss modesty of dress with children of both genders. As “modesty” is a buzzword with varying interpretations, I’d like to share with you exactly what I mean when I use it.

First, there is a huge difference between endorsing sensible modesty of dress and endorsing what is sometimes called “purity culture,” a culture that often goes hand-in-hand with Christian fundamentalism. While I do think that there are fundamentals of faith, things that must be believed in order to be a Christian (the literal death and Resurrection of Christ; the hypostatic union; the virgin birth; the inerrancy of Scripture, for example), I’m not a fundamentalist. I don’t believe in strict gender roles. I don’t think that the Genesis account of creation has to be interpreted as six literal days (though I also don’t accept naturalistic evolution, so basically I make nobody happy). I don’t think God has a problem with women preachers. (I wrote about this in the series Not the Fundamentals if you want more).

Purity balls skeeve me out. Frankly, they give off an incestuous vibe. I have no problem with fathers taking their daughters out for a special day as they near dating age and sharing with them how a young man should treat them (with respect, as an equal), but the whole idea of a father pledging to protect his daughter’s virginity and the language so often used at these events that reduces her to a piece of property…no thanks. I’m also not wild about purity jewelry; it’s meant to serve as a reminder, but I imagine it only impacts the sense of shame if a bad decision is made.

I don’t think that women should only wear skirts/dresses and never expose their shoulders. I don’t think that women need to have long hair. I don’t think that women should never wear make-up or jewelry. I don’t think that women need to cover their hair, as 1 Corinthians 11 needs to be understood within it’s context and the timeless principles removed from the static principles of time and place.(This is the practice of good interpretation and application).

Neither do I think that modesty of dress for women is all about men. (Sorry, guys). The “men as visual creatures” argument has been hyped to the point of ridiculousness. Yes, there is truth to it, but all too often this is used as a way of placing the responsibility for male sexual purity on the shoulders of women. I can’t get behind that. I won’t get behind that. Nothing in Scripture supports the idea. Men need to take responsibility for themselves.

So, why do I think that women should dress modestly? And what does that even mean?

The way a woman dresses reflects her sense of self. Every woman chooses what she wears, whether she claims to care about it or not. (In fact, “not caring” conveys a message about identity through dress). Clothes don’t just fall onto us haphazardly. We aren’t at their mercy. We make deliberate, even if occasionally hurried, even if sometimes detached, decisions. Pants. Skirt. Shorts. Heels. Flats. Flip-flops. T-shirt. Blouse.

My desire is that women see themselves as Christ sees them. I want to see myself through His eyes. From all that I have learned from Scripture and the impressions of the Spirit upon my soul, God sees women as beautiful, dignified and worthy. He desires that we navigate life in the knowledge of our royal status as His daughters.

And princesses? They don’t dress trashy.

Someone is going to object to my use of the word, but that’s my basic rule of modesty: Is it trashy? When women walk around with their breasts hanging out or their butt cheeks peeking out or their underwear making an appearance when it shouldn’t (intentionally; we’ve all had our moments when something slips), that says a lot. I’m not talking about what other people say about it. I’m talking about what she says about herself through her clothes.

Does a woman respect herself? Does she understand that she is more than a body? Is she so desperate for attention and affirmation that she’s putting herself on display? Those are the questions that matter, and they are answered less in words, more in actions. And the action of what clothes we choose shares our answers.

I love fashion. My closet is packed with clothes and shoes (almost exclusively from thrift stores, thank you very much). Modesty has nothing to do with eschewing color, cut and style. It has nothing to do with rejecting trends and being deliberately out of touch. It is not about being covered from the neck to the ankle.

Modesty is about understanding who we are. It is thanking God for every curve, every inch of skin, and recognizing when, where and how to share those curves and that skin. There are no hard and fast rules. A scoop-neck tank can be flattering on one woman while it causes another to share more information than is necessary. A pencil skirt can be great when paired with a drapey top. It becomes something else when paired with a cleavage-highlighting blouse.

This is because modesty isn’t really about the clothes, but how and why we wear them. Modesty is ultimately an attitude. One of its synonyms, interestingly, is unpretentious, which is defined as “not attempting to impress others with an appearance of greater importance, talent, or culture than is actually possessed.” If we really think about that definition, any system or understanding that deliberately rejects fashion and insists upon women being clad exclusively in long skirts and loose tops, or dresses, can actually be the opposite of modest. (It’s also legalism).

As I said before, there are no hard and fast rules. I have friends who dress very conservatively, and they do so out of personal conviction, which they don’t attempt to force on anyone else. I have friends who dress very fashionably, but this doesn’t mean they are lesser Christians than those who dress conservatively. Modesty is about the heart. It is about identity.

Modesty. It’s an attitude.

My journey to faith. (15)

Addendum: I don’t want men to think they’re off the hook, because they aren’t. Just as men cannot blame women for their sexual struggles, neither should they be (or claim to be) utterly clueless about what they wear or how they present themselves. It’s possible for men to wear trashy clothes. It’s also possible for men to get wrapped up in rules about what they wear. Everything that applies to women in terms of modesty applies to men.

Also, clothing and style are things that we cannot, repeat cannot, be judgmental about. We have no right to think less of someone because of her clothes. We don’t know what’s going on in her heart and mind, what motivates her choices. Everyone, regardless of how they dress, is made by God and bears His image. They deserve to be treated as such. No matter what. This means that nobody ever “asks for” any kind of abuse. Nobody ever “invites” or “wants” rape. Such claims are baseless and disgusting.

Not the Fundamentals: Modesty

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Gentle Reader,

Merriam-Webster defines the word modest as “placing a moderate estimate on one’s abilities or worth; neither bold nor self-assertive, tending toward diffidence. . .observing the proprieties of dress and behavior,  decent; limited in size, amount, or scope; unpretentious.”

The last in that string of phrases encapsulates the idea of modesty. To be unpretentious is to eschew attempts to impress others. It is to be natural; neither self-hating nor self-promoting. It is the ability to walk into a room without a sense of anxiety or superiority.

We might equate this idea of modesty with that of humility, a correct estimation of oneself in relation to others, including God.

Unfortunately, today’s squabbling over modesty has less to do with attitude and more to do with hemlines. 1 Timothy 2:9 is an oft-quoted passage on the topic: “women [should] adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing.” Add to this 1 Peter 3:3-4 (“do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God”) and you’ve got the perfect set-up for argument.

Legalistic, outward-focused argument.

I do believe that women should dress with dignity, as part of our understanding of identity. Eve came to be in God’s final act of Creation. She was not an afterthought, but rather the necessary, lovely culmination of His brilliant work. She was not merely ornamental or sexual; she had purpose. “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” (Genesis 1:28) As a steward of the earth alongside Adam, Eve had equal responsibility in caring for and utilizing everything, from plant to animal to dirt to water, in a God-glorifying way.

And she was naked.

I don’t speak with absolute certainty because I wasn’t there, but I believe that Adam and Eve weren’t conscious of their bodies in the way we are today. They were made to love and fit together in physical union, and so I am sure that they thought each other beautiful, but I don’t think they obsessed about it. That came with the Fall (Genesis 3), when shame and nakedness became inextricably linked. The first thing they did was cover themselves – and therein lies the seed of the argument.

How do we cover ourselves?

That’s what we get stuck on.

Oddly, we think that God places great value on what we wear. It’s as if we miss this theme entirely: ” the type of beauty that God values is the beauty of a godly character, not the passing beauty of an expensive outfit or opulent jewelry.” Or perhaps we twist it; because God values character above outward appearance, a mark of godliness is to deliberately shun fashion. Surely the woman who wears clothes without shape, who doesn’t ever venture onto the beach in a swimsuit and who never styles her hair is more in touch with God. Surely she loves Him more.

How sad that we can look at the beauty of the world, from the Bird of Paradise to fiery sunsets, and think that God condemns beauty!  If He took the time to make something as wonderful and precious as the soft, vibrant petals of a rose, how can it be that we believe He rolls His eyes when we purchase a new pair of shoes or put on mascara?

To read Paul and Peter and find an admonition against fashion is wrong. What the Apostles address in these verses, when considered in context, is the obsession with outward appearance. They lived in a deeply class-conscious society, just as we do. The type and cut of fabric, the type and placement of jewels, the type and nature of hair all revealed to what rank a person belonged. This competition has no place in the church. They were telling their readers, then and now, not to spend all their money on clothes. Not to spend hours in front of the mirror. Not to be fixated on the outward. They were urging the early Christians to be unpretentious, to remember that they were all part of the same family. The message is the same today.

Awhile back I wrote that God is not honored by an ugly, slovenly appearance. I hold to that. I also hold that God is not pleased when men blame women.

Modesty debates often center on a woman becoming a “stumbling block” to a man. No, women are not unaware of what they can do to attract a man. They are not unaware that short skirts and low necklines are enticing to him. But I believe that this has far more to do with a woman’s sense of self than it does with men. If she sees herself as merely sexual, she will operate out of that. She will find validation in his stares, whistles and suggestions. In many cases, this not about pulling a man toward sin, but rather a woman seeking to find her value in men. It is her ache that she seeks to soothe.

But the “stumbling block” argument is disingenuous. If a man is determined to lust after a woman, it doesn’t matter if she’s wearing a burqa. He’ll imagine her naked and go from there. The forcing of women into shapeless tops and drab, ankle-length skirts doesn’t do a thing to “guard” a brother. That’s not a woman’s job! A man is responsible for dealing with his lust issues before God. Blaming a woman for his problems reeks of infantilism and insincerity.

So, just as I would like to see women dress with dignity as a daughter of God, I would like to see men grow up. No man should be surprised that a woman has legs. How else are we to get around? No man should be surprised that a woman has arms. Or a stomach. Or any other part. If you can’t handle the sight of a woman in shorts, then I suggest you stay home until you’ve figured out how. Learn the art of looking a woman in the face, whatever she is wearing. Learn to see her as a person, not a body.

And as to the idea that women should only wear skirts, based on Deuteronomy 22:5 (“a woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for all who do so are an abomination to the Lord your God”)? Nice try, but everyone wore tunics and cloaks at the time that was written. Obviously this command pertains to things like style and cut rather than pants or skirts. This is not to say that a grown woman who feels a personal conviction to wear skirts, or simply likes them better than pants, is wrong. It is just impossible to say that God hates pants on women.

Final thought: Let’s all keep in mind that walking with Christ is a journey, and it is a journey that rarely finds each person at the same point at the same time. God speaks into the souls of His children. He will deal with things like clothing in His own time. Ladies, we can certainly encourage each other and we must avoid taking responsibility for men, but our fellow sister’s love for the Lord is not measured by her hemline.

My journey to faith. (15)

 For all the posts in the Not the Fundamentals series, go here.