There are definitely pitfalls in the teaching of modesty, and I appreciate you opening them up for consideration and discussion. In the past such criticism has made me uncomfortable, firstly because I fear a straw-man representation of the culture I was educated in (for the first 20 years of my life), and secondly because I believe it is reasonable to draw a line somewhere and I’m not sure how best to approach that. Your post bypasses both these concerns, particularly by pointing out that you do put some kind of restrictions on what your daughters wear.
You’ve laid out the problems of the “Modesty Doctrine;” could you please offer an alternative approach for one who, like yourself, is “hardly a libertine when it comes to clothing?” – Kate, in a comment on my first post on modesty
Kate’s question has prompted me to do a lot of thinking, trying to articulate something that probably operates more by instinct in our house. In response, I want to share open “letters” to my sons and daughters which I’ve written in light of this discussion. I hope this will serve as a partial answer to Kate’s question. I don’t imagine I’ve said everything here that needs to be said, and I’d also like to stress that these are my ideas. I’m not suggesting that other parents must do as we do at our house.
My dear daughters:
Perhaps you’ve been “reading in” on this conversation – or will when you get a bit older. Here’s the most important thing that I want you to know as we talk about modesty in appearance: God has given you your body. Does that seem too obvious? Listen to me anyway. What I mean, first of all, is that your body is a gift. The energy to act, the agility to move, the simple pleasures that come with being embodied are all a gift to you, packaged in that wonderful body of yours. And it’s a unique body that you have. Don’t get caught up in comparing your bodies to your sisters’ bodies, or to anyone’s. You have each been given just the right, beautiful, strong body that you need for the life that awaits you.
But I mean something else in saying that you have been given your body. I mean, it’s yours. Your body does not belong to anyone else. As you grow older you will be the only one who can decide how that body will be cared for, whether it will be pierced or tattooed, whether your hair will remain “natural” or be altered in color or texture. Those are your bodies, my dear girls. But you live in a world that will tell you otherwise, often. You will encounter people who will act as if your body is theirs – theirs to comment on, theirs to whistle at, theirs to touch or grasp. Don’t believe it. You have the authority to reject their attention, their advances, their assumptions. I don’t want you to go through life on the defensive, but I want you to be willing and able to speak for yourself – to declare that your body is yours, and only yours.
We taught you when you were very small that no one except your parents and the doctor should see your “private” parts. You know now, I’m sure, that we were trying to protect you from abuse. But even as your grow into adulthood I hope that you will choose to keep your “private” parts private. This is not because they’re shameful: they are not. But there is great meaning and power attached to those parts of the body. They are yours, and yours alone, until you choose to share them with someone. You dad and I hope very much that when you choose to share all of your body with another it will be with someone who loves you deeply, unselfishly, permanently. In fact, we hope very much that it will be with a husband – because we believe that the sharing of oneself in the covenant of marriage is a great gift. But that is a subject for another day…
Clothing is art: putting an outfit together is an act of self-expression. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look pretty, or interesting, or fun. Be quirky, try new looks, have a good time! Just remember that your clothes do not make you: they are not the most important thing about who you are. They should not consume all your time, attention and money. In fact, when St. Paul encouraged women to be “modest”, I think this was part of what he was concerned about. Clothing can become a status symbol, used by people to assert their superiority over others. Never, ever, do that, my dears.
Because clothing is a means of self-expression, sometimes people will look at skimpy clothing – a bikini, a short skirt, a top that shows a lot of cleavage – and think that the wearer is seeking sexual attention. Those assumptions are often wrong and unfair, but there’s no sense in pretending they don’t exist. For now, while you are still kids, your dad and I will continue to provide some guidance on what you wear. Sometimes you’ll think we’re being too fussy and conservative, but please know that if we err it’s because we want the world around you to remember that your body is yours, and that you are a young woman deserving of respect.
Remember, the day is coming when you will make all of your own choices about how you dress, and whatever those choices may be, we will always love you!
P.S. – Please read what I wrote to your brothers. There’s some good advice in there for you, too, but I don’t want to repeat myself too much.
My dear sons:
Did you read over what I just wrote to the girls? It applies to you, too, you know. Your body is yours, your choices are increasingly yours to make (in fact, given that one of you is an adult, this letter comes a bit late to you). And, yes, you also will be judged by certain people based on your clothes, your hair, your weight, your skin color, etc. It’s unavoidable.
But you, my sons, are called to do something better. I am asking you, as young men who follow Jesus, not to judge others by what they wear. For the sake of this discussion, I would ask you especially not to judge young women who – it seems to you – are dressed “provocatively”. Remember, the young woman who attracts your attention is not yours to possess, not yours to manipulate in your thoughts. She is, like your sisters, deserving of respect.
Still, I recognize that the world around you can seem sexually charged. For a young man trying to avoid lust, it can look like the deck is stacked against you. In my first post on modesty I critiqued the strategy of averting your eyes every time an attractive girl passes by. I don’t think that’s healthy or necessary. But if someone’s appearance is arousing you in a way that you think is not good – that crosses a line into lust – then yes, look somewhere else. It’s not polite to stare at a woman’s body anyway, typically. But please don’t inwardly accuse that woman of being out to get you and don’t assume you know what she wants from you. That’s not your job. If you’re in conversation with a woman whose appearances is “bugging” you – on the job, in class, etc. – try focusing on her face. Try to remember that she’s much more than her body. Everyone is.
If you fail in that – if you still find yourself not just attracted but lusting (mentally turning her into a thing for your gratification, playing out fantasies in your mind, etc.), then….it’s not the end of the world, but it’s also not a loving or respectful attitude toward that woman. So snap out of it, seek the grace to do better next time, and move on.
There have been many comments about women’s intentions in this conversation. While I strongly discourage you from judging the heart by outward appearance, let’s suppose for a moment that a young woman is purposefully dressing to attract sexual attention. What of it? Does this change anything? Christianity Today ran an article on modesty this past week, and there was a very disheartening comment below the article:
If you dress like a prostitute, you’ll be treated like one. That’s life, deal with it. This idea that women should be able to dress how they want without consequence is rather silly. I can’t dress like a bum and expect to be treated like a savvy wall street executive, so why should a woman who flashes skin in a spirit of haughtiness and rebellion be treated like a lady of class? Amazing to see so many women here absolutely BRISTLE at the thought of doing ANYTHING that might spiritually benefit a man. So much for female Christian charity.
I’m not sure the person who wrote that comment knows anything about Christian charity. Jesus met prostitutes and other women who were seen as sexual outsiders – but oddly, we don’t have any record of Jesus “treating” them like prostitutes. You may feel, my sons, that lust is a battle for you. I want to remind you that there are many young women in the world fighting their own sexual battles, and sometimes failing. Compassion rather than condemnation is what Jesus modeled. And yes, he still modeled respect. Read again the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. I don’t know how she was dressed, but her sexual history was an open book to Jesus – and yet there is no hint of contempt in his encounter with her.
So what am I saying? I’m saying, forget looking to rules for an answer – whether those are rules on what women wear, or what you see. Rules will never, ever produce righteousness. Respect women (all ages!) as partners in creation, as – like you – living under the holy and loving gaze of God. Confess your own sin, rather than pointing out the alleged sin of the other. Lean on grace, look at others through the lens of grace. You will do this imperfectly, and that’s okay. We’re all getting it wrong sometimes.
I’m already proud of the young men you are, and are becoming!
Other posts in this series:
Talking back to patriarchy, part 1
Talking back to patriarchy, part 2: Watch your language!
Talking back to patriarchy, part 3: It all comes down to authority
Talking back to patriarchy, part 4: Joining the great modesty debate
A footnote on modesty: why no one gets to drop the mic