The biblical concept of modesty seems like the perfect antidote to pop culture’s objectification of women. And it can be. The trouble happens when the broad and nuanced idea of modesty becomes reduced to a new set of policies and procedures. The trouble is when the sense of value, freedom, and community meant for all of us is lost on us.
I am, for the record, a fan of modesty. I’m grateful for having been taught at a young age to be humble, to value people for who they were and not what they looked like, to cultivate inner beauty and a strong mind, to focus on what lasts in relationships, and to lead confidently, knowing that I was much more than a body. Even so, I missed out on the main tenets of the biblical idea of modesty, and if I could reteach it to my younger self, I would add a few things:
1. Your body is a really good thing!
In the Creation account, the breath of God mixes with the dust of the earth to make the first person. Isn’t that the essence of the human body? We are dust and bone plus spirit. It’s a mystery, a gift, and a good – not a shameful – thing.
2. We don’t need to be ashamed of biological processes, in and of themselves. God made them.
It’s one thing to rein in our reactions to biology and anatomy; it’s another to deny that those processes exist altogether. We really can acknowledge that another person is beautiful and attractive in a wholesome, respectful way; that’s part of how a healthy couple begins. The moment that we treat natural attraction or hormones as a license to think or act inappropriately is the moment that lust can take root, and that’s where the problem lies.
3. Self-control does not equal others-control.
This misconception surfaces in many teachings on modesty. In conjunction with treating the body as a bad thing, this teaches that we don’t just influence others but actually micromanage their reactions to us. The boundary of personal responsibility, understood to exist in other situations, too often gets blurred when it comes to what women wear.
I think this boils down to our fear of things that are out of our control. We want so desperately to believe that if we just wear and say and do the right thing (and teach our children to do the same), we’ll be safe, respected, and well thought of. But the truth is that even if we were above reproach, we still wouldn’t have insurance against someone else’s harmful thought patterns or behavior.
Make no mistake, we are responsible to one another to be honorable in all ways. But that does not entail that we are responsible for each other’s behavior. (If this dichotomy is puzzling, I recommend reading Boundaries.)
4. Everyone defines “modest” behavior and clothing differently.
We’ve spilled a lot of ink over the millennia in trying to dictate the exact terms of a modest outfit. The only things we agree on are that 1) it seems important and 2) we don’t know what it looks like.
Because standards of modesty ebb and flow, most of us will take a stab at them and fail. Some of us will trust that an article of clothing, perfectly acceptable in one context, can be transposed onto another with comparable results – and find that we’ve guessed wrong, and that a slight fashion faux pas has swayed someone else’s opinion of our character.
Sometimes it seems like the only way to do right by everyone is simply not to show up. But that’s not what we’re here for.
5. Biblical modesty is so much more than a dress code.
Scholars have noted that the original meaning of the oft-cited modesty passage in 1 Timothy 2 refers, at least in part, to the flaunting of wealth and the early church’s preference for simplicity. When we frame the discussion this way, it helps us take a step back and consider modesty in the context of the relationship restoration that is so central to the Kingdom of God. If our goal as members in this Kingdom is to treat one another honorably, then it follows that we should steer clear of flaunting anything: besides square inches of skin, perhaps our wealth and accomplishments, too.
6. If the goal of modesty is relationship restoration (to each other and to God), we need to stop treating other people as the enemy.
If we choose to frame teachings about purity in warfare language, we need to clearly identify what we’re setting ourselves against. We have to be especially careful to combat the age-old notions that women are inherently predatory, seductive, or dangerous and, conversely, that men are helpless, animalistic, or out of control. Lust is the enemy. People are not.
Of course, someone might need to walk away (or, as in Joseph’s case, flee) from a certain person or situation, but these negative experiences don’t call for blanket condemnations on whole groups of people.
Women are also not the enemy of other women. Popular media outlets do a good job of pitting famous women against each other, ranking them according to their looks, income, or perceived parenting abilities. I wish we were immune to this joy-zapping habit of comparison, but sadly, sometimes being in the church supplies us with extra ways to size each other up. The sooner we can view other women as sisters, not as threats, the sooner we can replace any insecurity with mutual respect and encouragement. We’re in this thing together, after all.
7. A hyper focus on modesty is still a hyper focus on self.
Instead of finding freedom in self-forgetfulness, we continue to view ourselves through others’ eyes, in a practice fittingly called self-objectification. It casts us as objects in our own lives, not as agents of change, which is what we, as children of the God of restoration, have been called to become.
Whether our desire is to be seen or to be unseen, fixating on how others view us isn’t a healthy way to live. Being a Christian woman doesn’t mean putting a Christian twist on the things that our culture expects of us. It means trading up for something better. As we’re bombarded with the belief that women are decorative rather than powerful, we need something else to hold on to remember that Christ has a vision for each of us that’s better we’ve allowed ourselves to believe.
As we’re inundated with conflicting messages about what the body is for, we need a compelling alternative. Unsure of how to cope, our solution often is just to submit ourselves to rules upon rules, all the while feeling uneasy in our skin.
In rediscovering our bodies as good, the conversation about modesty becomes less about shame and more about restoration. In those frequently quoted biblical passages on modesty, the authors don’t create a set of culturally-bound standards and leave it at that. They praise a woman’s strength and inner beauty, acknowledging these traits as timeless and godly values that have survived countless debates on outer “modesty.”
My prayer is that we’ll pursue modesty heart-first as a tribute to creation, in an effort to live at peace with one another, and understanding that only God knows our hearts in freedom.