A New Look at Modesty

I’ve never had much patience for discussions of modesty. In fact, the very word “modesty” makes me cringe. Of course there’s nothing wrong with the word, or with its dictionary definitions:

1. the quality of being modest;  freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.

2. regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc.

3. simplicity; moderation.

My problem is with the way some Christians teach modesty. I have five basic gripes. Each of these deserves its own post, but instead I’ll give a quick nod to each:

1. Teaching modesty exclusively to girls. Given the dictionary definition of modesty, why wouldn’t we want boys to learn about it? Why don’t we care whether men are modest? That brings me to my next point…

2. Unjustly burdening women and girls. Common teaching about modesty emphasizes only one aspect of modesty—dressing in a way  that will minimize the possibility that males will be attracted to females. It places on women and girls an enormous and unjust burden for the behavior, and even the thoughts, of boys and men. This kind of thinking lays a solid foundation for blaming victims when they are violated. In fact, it goes ahead and preemptively blames the victims for potential crimes. It also adds credence to the disgusting myth that  women and girls are somehow “asking for it.”

I once heard a Christian speaker tell preteen and teenage girls they’d better make sure their bra straps don’t show because otherwise “when your best friend’s dad picks you up at school to hang out at your friend’s house, he might lust after you.” I wanted to run up onstage and scream at that woman. Really? I don’t want to believe it, but I fear that roomful of girls figures their best friends’ dads are hot for them—and that it’s OK for them to be attracted to their daughters’ friends. If statistics hold true, one in four of those girls will be molested or sexually assaulted by the age of 18. They’re now primed and ready to take all the responsibility for their victimization—thanks to their bra straps.

3. Hypocritically focusing on the outward appearance. We’re fond of telling girls, “It’s what’s inside that matters” to keep them from vanity. And for every minute we spend telling them this when they’re little, we spend an hour talking about modesty as they grow. We quote, “People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Then we proceed to focus on the outward appearance of girls and women. And we distract them from what really matters—who they are before God.

4. Judging objectively by subjective standards. Modesty is completely subjective. It is defined by a person’s cultural environment, and people can and do disagree on what is modest. Yet we talk to girls and women as if there is some objective and biblical standard of modesty that applies to all of us. What is that standard? New Testament attire? The 18th century? Whatever Grandma wore? What about the burqa? Perhaps that’s the safest way to go. Some people might consider it modest to wear anything at all. We’re obsessed with hitting a moving target, and we don’t even acknowledge that it’s moving. Who decides what modesty means?

5. Denying reality. In an effort to convince girls and women to dress according to their standards, some people are fond of making ridiculous statements like “Modest is hottest.” Actually, immodest is hottest. That’s the point. Modesty is not about being the most sexually attractive, so why would we try to convince girls and women that they will be the most enticing ones at the party if they keep themselves appropriately covered? Girls who fall for this one are in for a big surprise when they actually show up at that party. And I’m thinking the “modest is hottest” strategy wouldn’t hold much water in the bedroom of a married couple.

OK, so now you know why I’m put off by discussions of modesty as we traditionally hold them. But this weekend something happened to make me to think about modesty in a new way.

This Sunday our church hosted a guest speaker, Bethany Hoang from International Justice Mission (IJM). She told stories of the work her  organization is doing to free people around the world from modern-day slavery. She spoke with joy and hope of God’s work in the lives of people who are redeemed from some of the darkest places on earth.

After church our family stayed to watch some films documenting IJM’s work and featuring some of the people who have been freed from forced-labor factories and brothels. We also saw some images of rescue operations and undercover investigations in process. In some of these images, seductively clad young women and girls, stolen from their families, lined the streets where they were forced to solicit clients to turn a profit for their pimps, who regularly beat, terrified, and drugged them into submission. Like everyone else in the room, I asked myself, What can I do?

That afternoon my husband and I watched Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos (our team of choice) put the hurt on the Chicago Bears (our home team). On the sideline were the ubiquitous NFL cheerleaders, adding their own dimension to the game. The sexist beer commercials added yet another. And I couldn’t help but notice some disturbing similarities to the images I had seen earlier in the day.

And I surprised myself with this thought: What if one thing I can do is to embrace modesty as a way of caring for women in slavery?

If, without prior knowledge of what I was seeing, I had been asked to watch the IJM footage and the football game and identify which women were forced to dress and behave as they did and which were voluntarily doing so, I’m not sure I could have told the difference.

Hear me out. I don’t mean to scapegoat NFL cheerleaders. They happened to come across my field of vision that day, but they’re certainly not alone in their sexually charged image. They may believe, like many women, that showing off their sexuality makes them powerful. Puts them in the driver’s seat in their relationships with men. Allows them to participate on equal footing in a man’s world. I can’t blame them for that. It’s a common misconception.

When I experienced the juxtaposition of images of women being rescued from brothels in Asia with the images of NFL cheerleaders deliberately making objects of themselves, teasing men and unwittingly making victims of themselves in the name of exercising sexual power, I felt sick. The truth is, women don’t win when we buy into the lie that flaunting sexuality puts us in the driver’s seat. We only play into the hands of people who don’t respect us and never give a second thought to who is in power. And perhaps we encourage them to believe that powerless women enslaved for profit are actually “asking for it.”

When women look and act like people with no self-respect, we celebrate victimization. We encourage the idea that it’s OK to see us as sex objects. To ogle us and grab us and conquer us and move on. We encourage people who believe this is what women want. And perhaps we make it easy for men with sick and twisted minds to justify their victimization of other women who don’t have the power to fight back.

So perhaps embracing modesty, per its dictionary definition, is something we powerful women can do to help women around the world who suffer daily abuse at the hands of men who see them as objects to be used and thrown out. Precisely because we have a choice, refusing to cater to sexual stereotypes might equal standing up for our sisters inslavery. How about instead of fooling ourselves into thinking modest is hottest, we exercise our power to stand up for oppressed women and girls by refusing to make sexual objects of ourselves?

  1. Cheryl Penner says:

    I appreciate your honest and thought-provoking perspective, Amy. There is definitely a lot of responsibility to be shared in this area. To pretend that it is any easy conviction to live by, is a mistake. We all should examine what God’s word says, and live in purity, without judging those around us.

  2. Scott Edgren says:

    Very well said. You have definitely attacked the root issues!

  3. This is so, so good Amy! I think you’re absolutely right–it all comes down to the commodification of women and sex. The church does it as well, with its emphasis on sexuality, both positive and negative. How many pastors brag about their “hot wife” who fulfills their sexual “needs,” and how many girls are shamed because of their clothing, while being simultaneously told to make themselves attractive to men? “Modest is hottest”–again, a woman’s appearance and sexuality (exploited or repressed) becomes a commodity that she is supposed to leverage to win the attention of men. Icky.

  4. Amy says:

    Excellent points, Jenny. Perhaps the growing focus on the exploitation of women globally will help us to see more clearly how we feed this sickness right here at home.

  5. Rae says:

    Awesome article. Thanks for writing.

© 2011 Amy Simpson.