I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve started to write this post and chickened out at the last minute. Modesty is an institution and, in many circles, it should never, ever be questioned. But hear me out.
For the past few months, I’ve been struggling with the idea of modesty.
This has been my first Nashville summer. The temperatures here are consistently several degrees warmer than they are in my hometown. Some days, it’s really uncomfortable to go outside, even just walking to the car. I have lived in tank tops and shorts. I often wondered if I should be covering more skin, even though many days have been 95 degrees or so, and covering more of my top or bottom half would have meant being even more uncomfortable. (To be clear, I am careful not to show cleavage, torso, or bra straps, and while my shorts are the shortest I’ve ever worn, they have a longer inseam than many in stores).
Growing up, my youth group leaders preached modesty — not the brand that says women should only wear skirts, not show knees, etc. (a la the Duggar family), but what I would call the more common evangelical view: none of the three B’s (boobs, butt, belly), not too much thigh, and, ideally, as little shoulder as possible (interestingly, there are no rules for guys aside from no saggin’ pants).
I took modesty very seriously. In dressing rooms, I did lots of bending and squatting to make sure there would be no mishaps in the clothes I was test driving. I always wore jackets and sweaters with sleeveless dresses, even if my shoulders and back wouldn’t have shown regardless. I spent most of my summers roasting in capris. And at pool parties, I was an over-achiever: rather than wear a one-piece suit OR a two-piece with a shirt, I wore a tankini with shorts (for more coverage than a one-piece) AND a t-shirt. Even then, I felt guilty about showing my legs.
Modesty was ingrained in us from a young age. Why, then, did the rules change with the fashions? I remember being extremely confused when the same people who encouraged us to wear skirts to the knee or longer changed their message once above-the-knee dresses became more popular. Even more confusing was the message about pants. First, they didn’t want girls to wear pants in church at all (you wouldn’t believe the nasty looks I got from girls my own age when I wore dress pants to church one night when temperatures were lower than my age; even then, I “should’ve” been in a skirt). Then, we could wear them as long as they weren’t too tight. So basically, no skinny jeans — although the flared jeans we wore weren’t much different; they just concealed the shape of our ankles. But once skinny jeans became almost all that was available in stores, there was silence from our youth group leaders, and we could wear them anytime we wanted — even leading worship on the stage, the one place it had been completely forbidden not long before.
If that doesn’t sound so bad to you, I would agree, kind of. It was SO exciting to finally be able to wear pants to church, even some of the time, and wearing cute, stylish dresses that were slightly above the knee was fun. What bothered me was that, the more I thought about it, modesty was both legalistic and a moving target.
I have wondered how I should teach my daughter about modesty one day. She’ll have rules while she’s living in our house, but I want her to have a better understanding of why she’s dressing herself the way she is so she can make the decisions for herself, as a teenager and an adult. As a believer, I wanted to know what the Bible said about how to dress, rather than only looking at our modern norms. A quick search of the Bible for “modest” or “modesty” only yields one result regarding dress (although I’m sure this isn’t the only reference in the Bible on how to dress).
“I also want the women 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.” – 1 Timothy 2:9-10
Often, I think we see these verses and think, “See! The Bible says we should dress modestly. So cover up!” I never dared question this, but… what does this verse actually say about “modesty” as we know it? Very little. There is no “thou shalt not wear skinny jeans” or “thou shalt wear a cardigan over thine sundress.” We are to dress with decency and propriety (sounds like more of a judgment call guided by the Holy Spirit than a list of rules), and we are not to be lavish and showy.
According to this, it seems to me (as someone who is definitely not a Bible scholar) that modesty is mainly about choosing from the heart to not draw special attention to your body. Many of the standards we’ve formed over the years can absolutely serve that purpose. However, I think we need to get back to the heart of why we do what we do. As believers, our number one job is to bring glory to God in everything we do. And since clothes are a requirement of everyday life, they should be a reflection of that aim. Not that we necessarily need to wear (often corny) Christian tees or buy our clothes a size too big, but nothing we wear and nothing we do should say to those around us that my life is all about ME. It is no longer important to a believer to have people admire us for our bodies. It’s not even important to be perfectly in style. It is important that our love and deeds show Christ to others.
This isn’t to say I’ve thrown the whole idea of modesty as we commonly know it out the window. I still do lots of bending and squatting in dressing rooms to ensure that I can comfortably do anything I need to in any clothes I consider — which includes not showing my boobs to the world. In a way, I still do have guidelines I follow. More than that, though, my aim is to examine each item I wear and ask myself why I’m choosing it. Is it comfortable, functional, and flattering? Or is it designed to make people look at me?
This is absolutely a complex issue; the more I think about it, the more I realize there may not be a simple answer to any aspect of it. I’m still chewing on it myself and realize that there are many aspects I haven’t touched on here, but I wanted to get my thoughts thus far written out. What are your thoughts about modesty?