Modesty is a word I’ve heard too much and for too long. Ever since the concept of modesty was introduced to me somewhere around the 3rd or 4th grade, I’ve been perpetually confused by it. I grew up in a very Christian community which has created a very solid foundation for my relationship with Jesus but it also formed some misconceptions. From a religious standpoint, modesty was explained to me as “dressing in a way that is respectful to you, God, and men” though some explained it in a much more brash way (“don’t make your brothers stumble”, “don’t dress like a slut if you don’t want people to treat you like a slut”, etc). And since modesty is Biblical, I took this very seriously. This proposes a question of what lines considering modesty and vanity am I not allowed to cross as a Christian and how does this affect my feminism as well.
When I started to form into a feminist in the 9th grade, all the unsettled and misled feelings I had about modesty felt validated. Generally, feminism is supportive of women dressing how they want, and for themselves and after having been exposed to strict and somewhat traumatizing tactics of dress-coding, I had decided modesty is a bunk concept. This change in attitude didn’t cause me to buy a closet full of plunging necklines or mini-mini skirts, but it did generate contempt within me, especially in my Christian school. I still loved God and wanted to serve him but hated the idea of dressing myself for men’s comfort and many of my friends had also been feeling this for years.
At this point in my life, my Christianity and feminism were very separate and I was letting my social beliefs take precedent over my moral compass. It wasn’t until Muslim women started talking about modesty within the feminist circle that I had to reevaluate my thoughts. Many feminists, at the time, were labelling Muslim women as “oppressed” because of their religious choice to wear hijabs, niqabs, or just generally wearing higher necklines and longer skirts. Muslim women spoke up and made it clear that women should be entitled to dress in what is comfortable for them, and as people under religious conviction, modesty is their choice. After listening to this discussion I really had to contemplate on Biblical modesty once again. I conducted multiple interviews with teachers at my school because of their experience with dress coding and knowledge of the Bible and to get individual takes on the concept. Some teachers reiterated the fact that modesty is first and foremost to help out Christian men (which still makes me wince a bit). But other teachers had a much more nuanced view. One female teacher explained that while modesty can have a positive effect on the surrounding community, it’s first about the heart. Christians believe that the body is sacred which explains such an emphasis on purity and taking care of it. Our bodies are important and I think it feels healthy to showcase it appropriately and in a way that sits right with you and God or even just you can your moral compass.
While I think many Christian and non-Christian women have to come to a positive conclusion about modesty, there are still 2 important issues we are left with, that I’ve yet to see dealt with well.
1.) Modesty is relative!!!
Modesty is 100% going to look different on different people. Some women consider knee-high skirts and revealed shoulders immodest and other women still feel modest in shorts! Modesty is not a dress code or a set of rules, it’s a conversation between you and God or with yourself and you how you best feel comfortable. I do admit that there will be times where I’m unsure about whether I think something is modest on me or not and these situations have caused me to gain a trusting 2nd opinion: my mom. Whenever I question an outfit I think if my mom would be fine with it or not and that always gives me an answer. Along with modesty’s relativity, context is also important. Personally, I think if I wore a bikini top to a grocery store I’d feel pretty revealing, but on the beach, I’d feel perfectly appropriate.
2.) The world doesn’t subscribe to modesty!
This is just another topic that reminds me how important it is for religious people to understand the separation of church and state. As much as I think personal modesty is a healthy and positive thing, I cannot impose this on people who don’t care! It is not my place to police or judge those who aren’t into modesty and this is especially important because of point 1. I might look at someone and think they’re immodest when in reality they might just have different parameters. And as for those who couldn’t care less about dressing modestly, it’s totally their choice. I know the world doesn’t run on Christian ideals and I’m so not entitled to look down upon others for that.
Listen, I’m not saying we should stop preaching modesty or destroy all school dress guidelines but I do think we should stop making the conversation gender specific. Women were called out for modesty more in the Bible because women, at that time, were only viewed as sex objects. We live in a much more enlightened and equal world which means it’s time to start balancing the conversation. Men are able to be immodest and women are also capable of lust; the responsibility is individual.
1 Peter 5:5 “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
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The last thing I would like to say is can we make this conversation, especially in the church, a little kinder? This world is hard and there are a lot of different pressures coming from different places and a really good way to destroy a teenage girl’s self-esteem is to tell her she’s being seductive or impure or dirty. We need more grace just generally.
All the best,