The talk around modesty and clothing, particularly for Christian women (and only women), has been a conversation (or class/seminar/conference/workshop) that ladies experience routinely from middle school through adulthood. It usually sounds like: “Girls, you must understand that boys are visual creatures”, “Girls, *insert clothing article* are not godly options”, “Girls, 1 Timothy 2:9 states, *insert interpretation that lacks historical and literary context and has absolutely nothing to do with the status and wealth that Paul was referring to, and everything to do with yoga pants…which did not exist in those days*”, “Girls, adhere to the 3 finger width rule when wearing tank tops”, “Girls, one piece swimsuits are more godly than 2-piece swimsuits”.
Classes/Lectures/Workshops/Blog sites & posts like these have always bothered me for several reasons.
1) The idea that there is an absolute right and wrong on the issue of modesty.
2) It’s based on the premise that men are visual, women are emotional, and women would never, ever struggle with the same sexual temptation
3) The fact that no one is looking at the heart of the matter
1. Absolute Right and Wrong vs. Relativity
First and foremost, I’m not saying that morality is relative nor am I pushing some sort of evolutionary theory. I am merely saying that modesty is relative, which is something I realized around age 16. While participating in one of many conversations about modesty during a church youth group meeting, my youth leader told me that she believed the only women that wear jeans with heels are the women who go out and get drunk every weekend at bars and go home with random men. I looked at her blankly and told her that I wear jeans with heels. “Well, you’re the exception, LySaundra. I know you don’t do that!” Right…
Swimsuits have also been used to determine modesty. Apparently 1-piece swimsuits are much more modest than 2-piece swimsuits. Apparently men cannot lust over woman if she is clothed in 1-piece swimsuit. Yes, but what about the men who fall into wanderlust over a small portion of a woman’s butt being exposed (because not all 1-piece suits have ‘boyshort-like’ bottoms)? The solution: wear shorts over your swimsuit. Yes, but what about the man who allows his thoughts to go too far after staring at a woman’s toned legs? The solution: Wear beach pants or a scuba diving suit. Yes, but what if a woman’s curves are still visible despite being fully clothed at the beach, and, again, a man allows his thoughts to take over and fall into lust. The solution: Ladies, don’t go to the beach. Seriously?! Where do we draw the line?
Wearing a 2-piece swimsuit is not the sin. Alternatively, wearing a 1-piece swimsuit will not be the solution. There will always, ALWAYS be somebody out there who will lust after you. There will always be someone in our culture who, in some context, believes what you are wearing is immodest. If I walked into a Pentecostal church with my normal church wear and makeup on, I would be out of order. It wouldn’t be a sin, but my idea and personal conviction of what “modesty” is would be drastically different from their ideas and convictions.
One time, while in college, I was hosting a dinner party at my apartment. One of my dear friends, while getting his plate together, saw that I had an assortment of wine for drinking. He told me that he used to struggle with the party scene and would often get drunk on the weekends. The solution was simple, I’d make a quick run the store and get a couple bottles of pop (or “soda” for you non-Midwesterners). I put the wine away and continued with the party. Granted, I could have monitored his drinking, but I figured the only way to be sure no drunkenness occurred was to get rid of the alcohol completely. There was absolutely no way in the world he would get drunk if his only options were water, Sprite or strawberry Fanta. No way he could fall into temptation whatsoever. Drunkenness was the temptation, no alcohol was the solution. Easy fix. Not so easy, however, when the sin is lust. If lust is the issue simply deciding not to wear makeup or not wear a 2-piece swimsuit or not wear heels, etc, etc is not the absolute fix. That fix is going to vary from denomination to denomination, from generation to generation, from person to person, and from culture to culture. Asserting one clothing article over another, with no biblical mandate behind it, is straight up legalism. And yes, I know, don’t worry. I will address 1 Timothy 2:9-10. Keep reading 🙂
2) Men are Visual, Women are Emotional.
I read a post which agreed that lust is the temptation and men should run from that, but “the level of their lust is directly related to how much of our bodies is available to lust after. The less we advertise, the less opportunity we give them to covet our bodies.” (Source: 5 Myths About Modesty) I’d have to disagree for two reasons, 1) Job (from the Bible, not one’s profession) 2) I have eyes, too. I urge men (and women!) to take their cue from Job, who chose to make a covenant with his own eyes, refusing to look at a woman lustfully. Sometimes I like to wonder what life was like during the Old Testament times; how did people dress? How did women dress? What was it about their apparel that made him make a covenant with his eyes? Maybe it was leggings/yoga pants, maybe it was a 2-piece swimsuit, maybe it was a dress that wasn’t quite fingertip length, maybe… Maybe Job valued his relationship with his Creator much more than falling into sin. Maybe Job made that covenant to, despite any temptation that he may come across – on TV, through magazines, walking to work, working out in the gym – take responsibility for his own actions and make a choice to turn away from temptation while living in a fallen world.
Much talk about modesty often fails to address men as well. We are taught from a young age that men are visual and women are emotional. Men get caught up in sexual sin because of what they see and women – if they get caught up in sexual sin – was due to how they feel. Men are horny, women are lonely. This is such a false notion! I have eyes. If I had a dollar for each time I struggle to look away when I’m driving in my car during Spring or Summer and see an attractive (often shirtless) man, running with sweat running down his perfect
6-pack 8-pack, I’d pay off America’s debt, which mind you is somewhere in the trillions. I have to make a covenant with my eyes when I’m at the annual church picnic, and they guys decide to go shirtless as their basketball game becomes much more intense. I have to make a covenant with my eyes when I see a man in a nice tailored suit, because let’s be real ladies, there’s something about a man in a suit – amirite?!
Yet, no one tells men that, they too, must cover up their abs when they’re at the beach (because that’s literally the only difference in a 1-piece and 2-piece). No one tells men to be mindful of anything dealing with appearance; only with how they interact with us. Yes, hugs and long gazes into the eyes or wanting to hang out can be misinterpreted or over-analyzed by some, but not all, women. However, if no one else will admit it, I will, that women are just as visual and we struggle with lust just as much as men do. No, I’m not asking that men start policing their clothing items as well. I honestly do not believe that that will be the absolute solution. All I’m saying is that a lot of women have been quiet about their struggles with sexual temptation, while almost every church in America has some sort of “Men’s Recovery Group” – and we all know about these recovery groups. Meanwhile, women are policing their clothing and pretending as though we only struggle with emotional closeness and thoughts of relationship, while many of us are trapped in the same sins spoken of during the “Men’s Recovery Groups” – sexual immorality, pornography, masturbation, etc. Both, men and women are image bearers. Both of us are wired for relationship. And both of us struggle with distorted views of sex and relationships due to The Fall, and sometimes in very similar ways.
Clearly, I’m on the brink of beginning another blog post and another topic, so let me drive it home with the heart.
3) A Heart Issue
I briefly talked about modesty in a previous blog post after reading a book about being a “[Audrey] Hepburn in a [Paris] Hilton World”, and talked about the heart of the matter.
You can be dressed like an Audrey with prideful and arrogant motives. Where’s your heart in the way you dress – be it in a short skirt or a business suit? A bikini or a one-piece (Cause y’all know that’s a debate in the church…)? Leggings with an oversized shirt or a little black dress? Are you looking for applause from people (*cough* Galatians 1:10)? Or have you really had a change of heart?
Even in the widely used and misquoted 1 Timothy 2:9-10, women are encouraged to “dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God”. So many people use this passage as a basis for judging clothing, but the passage is not about merely covering up the body as it is about displaying wealth and social status. In those times women showed off their husband’s wealth by wearing jewels and elaborate braided hairstyles. It is so important to understand both the historical and cultural context of the scripture. This passage encourages character over vanity. The heart over the physical.
Another Downton Abbey example would be Lady Mary Crawley, who has been on a SkankFest (coined by the ladies in my Community Group!) since Season 1, Episode 1. Remember the young fellow who died in her room or her recent
rendezvous adulterous affair with Lord Gilliam? Yes, her clothing is so “modest”, but she’s got a messy heart. I’m waiting for her to be written off the show, but another blog post, another day. #TeamEdith #SybilLivesOn #iWantThatBatesAndAnnaLove *steps off of Downton Abbey soap box*
Modesty is not just a clothing issue. Modesty cannot be taught solely to women. Modesty is not a black and white/right and wrong/appropriate and inappropriate argument. That argument will change by country, culture, generation and denomination. A change in clothing without a change of heart produces legalism, arrogance and vanity. Modesty is godliness on display, and that goes far beyond articles of clothing.