Recently, you may have heard of the modesty debate being revived on Facebook, and other social media sites. This topic had been brought up through a Youtube video that went viral called “The Evolution of the Swimsuit.” It was a presentation given by a woman named Jessica Rey. She walks out in a sweet, modest, but not at all unstylish dress, demure heels, and smilingly gives you the history of the bikini, and the statistics of a study done at Princeton on how males brains worked while viewing women in different amounts of clothing. She claimed that when the image of a woman in a scantily clad bikini showed up, the men’s brains “were responding to these images as objects, not people.” She then went on to show her designs for modest, but flattering swimsuits, and called for us to go turn back to modesty and that women should cover up “not because covering up our bodies are bad. Modesty isn’t about hiding ourselves, modesty is about revealing our dignity.” While I appreciated that she didn’t want girls to think that their bodies were bad, isn’t that what she’s doing anyway? She’s claiming that we need to cover up so the men won’t see us as objects, so that our dignity which was apparently hidden if we wore a bikini or any other revealing clothing, would make a reappearance. She’s saying our value shouldn’t lie in wearing skimpy clothing to attract men, but also with that she plants the idea that we are only of value if we are dressed modestly.
Rey’s video started popping up all over my news feed with many people agreeing enthusiastically with her and a few others posting articles they had found that disagreed with her video. As I watched and read, it brought back many memories of my days of legalistic, fundamentalist rules that were pushed on me and my girlfriends growing up about purity and modesty. The word modesty, leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth as it does for most of us Christian girls brought up in conservative circles. As I wade through these articles, my own opinions and thoughts, and try to find what the Church and God have to say about it, I hope to find a happy medium because modesty is to me one of the many grey areas of the Bible and life as a Christian.
I grew up moving around about five or six times before I was eight years old. This resulted in me being in quite a few different churches, most of them Calvary chapels. My mother was a former Episcopalian, and my father a former heathen. They were now happily married and not really any denomination at all. They had never been interested in tying themselves down to a specific label. When we moved to Pennsylvania where we still live, we found ourselves in a non-denominational small country church that for all it’s intents and purposes was actually Baptist if anything. I was excited about this church, because not only were there families with lots of kids (and I mean lots, a small family had 7), that were homeschooled like me! For this only child it was a dream come true. However, as I got to know the different families I began to notice that they dressed very differently than I did. Rachel Evans in her article Modesty: I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means, summed up my experiences growing up in a nutshell: “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.” As I got older and wanted to fit in more with my girlfriends, I made my mother buy me jean skirts from thrift shops and blouses that were not my style at all. Mothers began to look at me with more approval and I was invited to more events. As a teenager, it just got worse. My girlfriends and I were constantly being lectured for running around too much at picnics so our skirts went up too much, or our capris were too tight, our shirts were too form fitting across the chest, too low cut, we had too much makeup on, etc. We were getting pulled aside at every picnic, potluck, or showed up with tear stains on their faces for getting yelled at at home for picking out their own outfit choices. This wasn’t just going on at my church, but in the Church culture everywhere. Ed Young talks about how if you were visiting America, from the media you would believe that it was the most sexually active country and that people and children of all ages were engaging in it: “Unless they happened to visit the church. Then they would probably wonder whatever became of sex. They might never hear it mentioned at all- or perhaps only spoken in whispers or condemning tones. Historically, to it’s shame, the church has either ignored the God-given gift of human sexuality or smothered it with an avalanche of “Thou Shalt Nots” (130: And The Bride Wore White). All it does is hinder us from enjoying anything, always worried about our clothes or if the men were looking at us, and nine times out of ten, they were more concerned about other things anyway. Even if they were looking at us, it may only be that they find us attractive. There is a differentiation between a healthy attraction and lust which the Church often fails to make.
After a while, I realized enough was enough. I was tired of being ashamed of my body and wearing things to please other people. I realized it was not my responsibility to try to control how men looked at me. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. Men are going to look if they want to look. They will lust after a girl in a floor long dress, or a miniskirt. And sadly, no matter how covered up and conservative a woman is, she can still get raped. What needs to change is not how we dress, but our outlook and upbringing on how to view women and men’s bodies and truly understand what God sees when He looks at us. How many times have we been told that “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart?” (1 Samuel 16:7). When are we actually going to learn to adopt that mindset? It starts when we stop judging what others are wearing, but instead focus on their actions and spirit.
As I started college, I observed the effect that such a strict standard of modesty had on myself and my friends. I was ashamed of my body, couldn’t accept a compliment from anyone worried that it was because I was dressed inappropriately, and as I began a relationship with my boyfriend it hindered me from being affectionate in even the simplest and most non sexual of ways. I also realized the more controlled my church friends had been in their clothing choices, the second they got away from their parents, they went wild. Suddenly it was all about dressing as skimpy as possible and engaging in lots of sexual experiences. Because they had not been given any honest talks about having a godly, but healthy outlook on clothes, dating, and sex and instead being told nothing and given lots of rules, the curiosity of what it was like outside of that bubble of confinement was ten times stronger than ever would have been if they had been properly informed and their parents honest with them about body changes, sexuality, etc. I admit myself that although my parents were more open and honest with me in later years, up to a point I had been left in the dark and I had an unhealthy curiosity to see what it was like to go to the opposite extreme which resulted in some behavior that I now regret. Next thing you know, your body shame/self hate that has grown out of that can result in eating disorders, cutting, depression etc, which every single girl I have ever met who has dealt with the hardcore modesty/purity lifestyle has dealt with.
Tina Schermer Sellers, a instructor of marriage and family therapy is one of the few scholars that researches the purity culture and it’s negative effects. She says: “ I started noticing about ten years ago that I was seeing more and more amounts of sexual shame, of religious sexual shame...horrendous amounts. The self loathing that people were feeling and describing about themselves really paralleled the kind of self-loathing that you often see with somebody who’s experienced childhood sexual assault” (Naked and Ashamed). The results, she claimed for those who had experienced the purity movement culture firsthand were psychologically devastating. To this day none of my girlfriends can please their families if they are not dressed in ankle length skirts and drab tops that hide the fact you even have a figure. As I look at my closet and try on a cute summer dress, I have to push back the feelings of anxiety that threaten to overtake me worried that some judgmental person will see my dress and think: “What a tart, she obviously doesn’t have a godly spirit.”
What does the Bible have to say about modesty? I Timothy 2:9-10 states that women should “adorn themselves not in the braiding of the hair and gold or pearls, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness, with good works.” 1 Peter 3:3-4, “ Do not let your adorning be external...but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight it very precious.” Proverbs 31:30 “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” and Proverbs 11:22 “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.” The first thing I notice about all of these verses and that the focus is not on their clothes, but on their spirit. A woman can be dressed as conservatively as possible, but if her spirit and personality are abrasive, crude, unkind and ungodly, then she is truly not pure of heart and mind. Some of the godliest people dress more freely than I do, but they attract people to the kingdom not through their adornment, but through their souls that are rooted in God and his love and teachings. Amy Grigg states: “Times change. Culture changes. And acceptable dress standards are bound up in culture and they change, too.” God is never changing, even though the world is, and I hardly think, he is concerned about what the length of your skirt is. He is concerned about your thoughts, your feelings, how you treat others, and how you follow Him.
In response to Jessica Rey: “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.” (Evans: Modesty).
I say that you should “Trust in the Lord with all Thine heart, and lean not on your own understanding. Acknowledge all his ways, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Wear what makes you comfortable, happy and what makes you feel beautiful! Discard the shame and guilt that God never meant for you to have. When we follow Him, we should with open and unashamed hearts. He has set us free! Spend your days enjoying life and all the things the Lord has to offer you and do all the good you can for His glory.