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Modesty: I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means by Rachel Held Evans

Actress and entrepreneur Jessica Rey’s recent Q presentation on the evolution of the swimsuit has generated quite an interest in her beautiful line of Hepburn-inspired swimsuits. And I couldn’t be happier to see this smart, savvy businesswoman succeed. (Well, except that I’ve got my eye on the “Holly” design and it’s now sold out … but otherwise, more power to her!)

Rey’s presentation has also generated renewed interest in the hot topic of modesty, so the folks at Q asked me to share some of my thoughts on the matter in order to keep the conversation going.

It’s no secret that women today are bombarded with mixed messages about what it means to be a woman in a woman’s body.

On the one hand, we are all familiar with the dreaded walk down the grocery store checkout aisle, where magazine after magazine boasts airbrushed photos of impossibly thin celebrities and headlines promising to teach us how to “please our men” with sexier bodies, more fashionable clothes, hotter sex moves and better flirtation skills. Ours is indeed a culture that tends to assign value to a woman based on her sex appeal rather than her character, and that’s something we must work to change.

But many of us are also familiar with the other extreme. We know what it feels like to have rulers slapped against our bare legs so our Sunday school teachers can measure the length of our skirts. We know how hard it is to do a cannonball into a swimming pool when you’re wearing a giant “Jesus Saves” T-shirt over your bathing suit. We know what it’s like to be told over and over and over again by red-faced preachers that our legs, our breasts, our curves, our bodies have the bewitching power to “make our brothers stumble.” So it is our responsibility to cover them up, to dress modestly to “please our brothers” by keeping them on the path of righteousness.

I grew up in such a culture, and I remember feeling bad for the tall girls who were sent home from my Christian school because their shorts were millimeters too short. I remember the tear-stained faces of little girls turned away from swimming pools because their bathing suits had two pieces. And I remember trying desperately to cover up the shape of my breasts, which despite all my turtlenecks and layers and crossed arms insisted upon showing up early. When I caught a male classmate’s eye on them, a wave of guilt would rush over me—Oh no, he noticed me! I’ve made him stumble. To this day, I have to deliberately avoid folding my arms in front of my chest because I made such a habit of it in my youth.

What I’ve only just begun to realize is that these two extremes represent different sides of the same coin. While popular culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to get men to look at them, the modesty culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to keep men from looking at them. In both cases, the impetus is placed on the woman to accommodate her clothing or her body to the (varied and culturally relative) expectations of men. In both cases, it becomes the woman’s job to manage the sexual desires of men, and thus it is seen as her fault if a man ignores her on the one hand or objectifies her on the other. Often, these two cultures combine to send out a pulse of confusing messages: “Look cute … but not too cute! Be modest … but not frumpy! Make yourself attractive … but not too attractive!” Women are left feeling ashamed of their bodies as they try desperately to contort around a bunch of vague, ever-changing ideals. It’s exhausting, really, dressing for other people.

But all of this takes the notion of modesty far beyond its biblical context.

In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, the apostle Paul writes “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.” The Greek word translated “modesty” here is kosmios. Derived from kosmos (the universe), it signifies orderliness, self-control and appropriateness. It appears only twice in the New Testament, and interestingly, its second usage refers specifically to men (1 Timothy 3:2). In fact, nearly all of the Bible’s instructions regarding modest clothing refer not to sexuality, but rather materialism (Isaiah 3:16-23, 1 Timothy 2:9-12, 1 Peter 3:3). Writers in both the Old Testament and New Testament express grave concern when the people of God flaunt their wealth by buying expensive clothes and jewelry while many of their neighbors suffered in poverty. (Ironically, I’ve heard dozens of sermons about keeping my legs and my cleavage out of sight, but not one about ensuring my jewelry was not acquired through unjust or exploitive trade practices—which would be much more in keeping with biblical teachings on modesty.)

And so biblical modesty isn’t about managing the sexual impulses of other people; it’s about cultivating humility, propriety and deference within ourselves.

With this in mind, there are three extremes those of us who value modesty should take care to avoid:

1. We turn modesty into objectification when we hold women responsible for the thoughts and actions of men.

It is important here to make a distinction between attraction and lust. Attraction is a natural biological response to beauty; lust obsesses on that attraction until it grows into a sense of ownership, a drive to conquer and claim. When Jesus warns that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he uses the same word found in the Ten Commandments to refer to a person who “covets” his neighbor’s property. Lust takes attraction and turns it into the coveting of a woman’s body as though it were property. And men are responsible for their own thoughts and actions when this happens; they don’t get to blame it on what a woman is wearing.

Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart, so ladies, be sure to dress more modestly.” Instead he says to the men, “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away”! The IVP New Testament Commentary notes that at the time, “Jewish men expected married Jewish women to wear head coverings to prevent lust. Jewish writers often warned of women as dangerous because they could invite lust (as in Sirach 25:21; Ps. Sol. 16:7-8), but Jesus placed the responsibility for lust on the person doing the lusting.”

People have expressed skepticism of the Princeton study cited by Rey, pointing out that it was drawn from a small sample size, included men who already held negative or sexist views of women, and used headless images of women either fully dressed or wearing a bikini to evoke responses. But regardless of whatever synapsis involuntarily fire in a man’s brain when he sees a woman’s body, he alone is responsible for the decision to objectify a woman or treat her with respect. Placing that burden upon women is unnecessary and unfair.

2. We turn modesty into objectification when we assume there are single standards that apply to all people in all cultures.

Interestingly, the same study cited by Rey has been cited by a popular Muslim site as support for encouraging women to wear the hijab, which reveals something of how different cultures and faiths view modesty. I spent some time in India, where women in traditional saris exposed their midriffs and navels without a second thought, but would carefully avoid showing their knees. Rachel Marie Stone recently wrote an excellent piece for Christianity Today about how, in Malawi, women typically nurse in public without shame of exposing their breasts. In many cultures, a one-piece bathing suit would be considered scandalous; in others, bikinis—or even topless bathing— are the norm. What is considered modest or appropriate changes depending on culture and context. It also changes from woman to woman, depending on body type, personality, personal convictions and season in life. While we may long for a universal dress code that would make all of this simpler, we aren’t given one. Perhaps this is why Paul encouraged women to “adorn themselves with good deeds,” and why the valorous woman of Proverbs 31 is praised because “she clothes herself in strength and dignity.” At the end of the day, the most important things we project to the world are strength, dignity and good deeds; the sort of things that transcend culture, circumstance, and clothing.

The truth is, a man can choose to objectify a woman whether she’s wearing a bikini or a burqa. We don’t stop lust by covering up the female form; we stop lust by teaching men to treat women as human beings worthy of respect.

3. Finally, we turn modesty into objectification when we make women ashamed of their bodies.

It doesn’t take long for a woman to realize that no matter what she wears, the curves of her body remain visible and will occasionally attract the notice of men. If this reality is met only with shame, if the female form is treated as inherently seductive and problematic, then women will inevitably feel ashamed of their bodies.

But our bodies are not something to be overcome; they are not dirty or shameful or inherently tempting. They are a beautiful part of what it means to be created in the image of God. These are the bodies that allow us to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, the bodies that feel sun on our skin and sand between our toes, the bodies that nurse babies and cry with friends, the bodies that emerge from the waters of baptism and feast on the bread of communion. They are beautiful, and they are good.

So my advice for women looking for bathing suits this season is this: Don’t dress for men; dress for yourself. It’s not your responsibility to please men with either your sex appeal or your modesty; each man is different, so it would be a fool’s errand anyway. Instead, prioritize strength, dignity and good deeds, and then dress accordingly.

Find something that makes you comfortable. Find something that is ethically made. Find something that gives you the freedom to run with abandon into those incoming waves—hot sand tickling your feet, warm sun tingling your skin—and revel in this body and this world God gave you to enjoy.

And if it’s one of Rey’s designs, go for it. Just please leave a “Holly” for me!

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