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Is Modest Really Hottest?

Rethinking why Christians actually cover up.

I’ll be honest: Conversations about modesty make me uncomfortable.

I’m a guy. And let’s face it: our Christian “modesty rules” are sexist, putting far more responsibility on females than males. Most of us have grown up in a culture where men (regardless of their body size and shape) walk around on beaches in swim shorts without ever worrying about what they might be causing the female population to think about. Yes, I know—that’s because “men are more visually stimulated than women!”

We say that. But how true is that statement?

Could it be that women also have high standards of what they find visually attractive on men and are more sensitive in how they express that? Or could it be that we’ve grown up in a culture where the male physique—in all of its various levels of glory—isn’t taboo when seen in public?

Seeing a man mostly naked on TV has never been considered pornographic. Even when NYPD Blue showcased a few of their actors’ backsides, people hardly blinked an eye. Most of us thought it was funny. Certainly, in recent decades the male body has become much more sexualized in our culture—movies, advertisements, magazines, sports, modeling, etc. But nobody thinks anything about somebody like Tim Tebow pulling his shirt off in public.

When it comes to women, the modesty discussion has another tone entirely.

For one thing, people’s ideas about what is/isn’t modest vary greatly. One Southern Baptist church’s “godly girl” wearing shorts and a comfortable T-shirt can be a Pentecostal church’s harlot. Women often become labeled by the clothes they wear—or the ones they don’t wear. It’s difficult to talk about modesty without getting way too interested in details and lines and saying, “This is immodest and that is modest.” Modesty rules breed legalism, mean-spiritedness and pride.

Shame, Shame, Shame

Once a month for 12 school years, I watched my female classmates forced to line up in the hallway, one straight line of girls kneeling. As they waited, a teacher would walk by and measure the distance between the floor and the hem of their skirts, then the distance between the lowest point on their blouse and their clavicles. If the distances were too great, they were sent home or forced to wear the school’s official “ugly sweater,” my school’s version of the scarlet letter A.

I had three sisters. I watched all of them kneel in that line. And I have witnessed firsthand how my church’s modesty laws have affected various aspects of their lives, from insecurity, to parenting, to how they interact with other women with different modesty ideals.

Our ideas about modesty are mostly Puritanically American. No, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but we must remember our “modesty” is far more a cultural standard than it is a spiritual one. In a society with a history of making sure that women’s parts were things not to be talked about but rather covered up (for the sake of the male’s eyes/integrity!), is it any wonder our culture has grown into one that worships breasts and bodies as only sexual objects?

Our rules surrounding modesty have longstanding effects for some people. When I was doing research for the book I wrote about sex, I interviewed numerous married Christian women who confessed that sexual intimacy with their husbands was a struggle. They’d been told all their lives that it was a sin to be sexy. And turning that “rule” off when in the bedroom with their husbands was, for some, impossible. Many felt guilty for “feeling sexual.” And I think that’s sad.

The undertone of our definition of “modesty” is shame. Whether the words are ever said aloud or not, how we Christians talk about modesty makes many women feel insecure or shameful about their bodies.

Pornography and Modesty

While we probably don’t want to admit this, the Church is guilty of the same sin as the porn industry: We objectify women.

Sure, it’s different—but how different? The focus is the same—a woman’s body, her breasts. By helping create and maintain a culture that has made a woman’s body taboo, an object not to be looked at, we’ve helped create and maintain a culture’s interest, curiosity and lust for looking at it. Sadly, both sides miss the mark on what is truly modest.

Most modesty teaching sets young girls up to begin objectifying themselves. It creates a platform in their lives where “being objectified”—whether it's by our culture or the Church—is seen as normal, even expected.

If we’re going to offer our daughters lessons about modesty (and I think we should, despite it being a difficult topic to discuss), the conversation shouldn’t come laced with the clause “because we want to serve our Christian brothers!” This reiterates shame and reinforces the idea that men are only interested in a woman’s body. The reason for modesty shouldn’t only be respect for Christian brothers—a lesson that, however subtle, again casts the female as “not quite equal” to man. The reason for modesty should be self-respect.

Maybe we hate conversations about modesty. But let’s have one anyway.

How have you seen modesty teachings rooted in shame impact both men and women? How do you think the Church can start a different modesty discussion?

Matthew Paul Turner is the author of 10 books, including Churched: One Kid’s Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess (WaterBrook Press). He also blogs at Jesus Needs New PR and can be found on Twitter. This article originally appeared on his blog and is used by permission.

159 Comments

85,089

Liz commented…

Thanks for posting this. I went to a ridiculously conservative university and would get demerits all the time regarding my clothing...even clothing that I had checked first with the dorm supervisor. It gave me anxiety because I felt so self conscious and that I was being judged as a "loose" woman (because my shirt may have indicated too much that I have a figure...please!). Those who played it safe looked like they just left a mennonite compound. It's amazing the damage something like this can cause for a woman and her perception of how God views His daughters in Christ.

My friends' sister would alert her husband if they were out walking and a women was around wearing "immodest" clothing (as in, "OH! look to the left! Whatever you do, do NOT look to the right!). Now, I might change the chanel if my husband and I are watching tv and a VS commercial comes on butI won't be scrambling to cover my husband's eyes because a woman is nearby in a tank top and shorts.Further, my husband is a grown man and a believer in Christ...I am not responsible to control his environment and his reactions....he is accountable to God.

Melissa

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Melissa commented…

I agree with every part of this article except for the resolution. Making the reason for modesty "self-respect" still puts the focus on the woman. Even if it's positive, the focus is not on Christ. Anytime that the focal point of an idea or movement in the church is focused on the human and what the human can do, Christ is abated. Women in the church do need self-respect, but as a result of their known identity in Christ and their understanding of His love and His mercy towards them.

Nate Smith

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Nate Smith commented…

Great article! I have been thinking about this for a long time. The double standard, especially as someone who struggles with homosexuality.

Adrienne B.

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Adrienne B. commented…

I have 2 beautiful young daughters and they've grown up in Christian school and always dressed modestly but every now and then their skirts are high or tight etc...and I remind them (when going to a service) we are all there to worship The Lord and that should be the primary focus so dress in a way that won't "distract" anybody from that. It's not just about dressing in a revealing way but also with over the top clothing. Women can get distracted too! As far as being in public goes i reminded them that its not just the young man who might be looking at you. That 65 year old guy is checking you out too you know. "Do not cast your pearls amongst the swine". I'm not saying dress in overalls but use your head.

AprilCalvert

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AprilCalvert commented…

Well everyone has their personal opinion about modesty, but in my point of view it is real hot. Being a great believer in a religion, I follow the trends that have learnt from my family and indeed nothing is bad in that. I know women usually for grabbing attention of men; prefer to wear immodest dresses that expose their body part. Also many of us think that we will not look beautiful on modest dresses as there are not so many options available. But I can say this is simply wrong, because if you see the modest clothing collection of http://www.leelach.com/stunning-floral-water-color-dress-modest-dress.html shop, there are wide ranges of options available to choose from. Designers have done tremendous work to give this trend a new refined look. You will surely not get disappointed to see the fabulous modest clothing available these days on many other shops like that.

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