Recently, at a Christian university in the midwest, a few students and staff put together an event that they called a “Modesty Panel.” The panel was held in the student union center, and featured a few upperclassmen, a professor, and a staff member. This panel was all, white in color, male in gender, and each of them held some official title of power/influence in the institution. As the meeting when on, it became quickly apparent that for this conversation, the idea of “modesty” was synonymous with the amount/type of clothing on a women. At one point in the meeting, the male panel members carefully and diligently explained to the audience—consisting of mostly undergraduate women—a list of what kinds of clothing causes men to stumble, and how the ladies of the campus should/shouldn’t adorn themselves. I was told by one student that when one panel member said something about yoga pants being inappropriate attire for the cafeteria, a few women stood up and left the discussion—shamefully revealing their own yoga pants to everyone they passed by on their way out of the room. For me, the most troubling part of this story is that not long ago I would have likely applauded the words of that panel. And, to be painfully honest, I would have likely judged those women exiting in their yoga pants.
With this preface in mind, I want to make three observations about modesty from a slightly theological perspective, and offer a final thought as a way forward.*
1. Commitment to modesty should never be a means of objectification.
I tell this story because I think it illustrates the importance of moving conversations about modesty away from only clothing, and toward ethics, dignity, and self-respect. In order to avoid objectifying women, it is important to consider that simply telling them how they ought to dress is not actually an empowering or loving practice. I also tell this story to remind us all that when we talk about modesty, we are actually talking about the dignity, brokenness, and humanity of men and women alike—each of whom is at risk of being objectified the second we–and especially I, as a man–let unchecked assumptions and arrogance guide our attitudes.
In my opinion, it seems to be a serious failure of Christian culture to proclaim that modesty is primarily the act of a women covering-up her body. This definition, it seems, is unbiblical (see point #2) and does a disrespect to all women’s bodies—no matter the shape or size—as they are good reflections of the beautiful image of God. Making modesty only about clothing also requires there to be only one transcultural standard for modesty. Perhaps most troubling of all, this view of modesty often assumes that women are ultimately responsible for the thoughts and actions of men—which they are not. Rachel Held-Evans speaks to this sort of objectification in a recent article:
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…
2. Our churches should develop a wider view of “biblical modesty.”
What does modesty look like in a biblical context? Doesn’t the Bible tell women to be modest in the way they dress? Most would point to 1 Timothy 2:9-10 which begins, “I also want women to dress modestly” for some answers. A plain reading of this text may seem to suggest that modesty is in fact mostly about appropriate clothing choices. Yet, kosmos—the Greek word translated as modesty here—is actually best linked to ideas of order, self-control, and appropriateness. Kosmos is also used in Isaiah 3:16-23 and 1 Peter 3:3, and 1 Tim. 3:2 where it is used to caution against flaunting ones wealthy lifestyle while those nearby needlessly suffer in poverty. It can be (and has been) argued then, that “biblical modesty” is about choosing to live with an appropriate amount of humility and propriety. While appropriating sexual allure in one’s physical presentation may still be part of modesty, I wonder how much this sort of lifestyle is affected by shorts that don’t measure to one’s fingertips. In the end, our understanding of modesty has the potential to be expansive in a way that encompasses the entirety of our lifestyle.
3. Let’s spend our energies on redeeming culture into a place where sexuality is valued in healthy ways.
Recently in a viral video on the history of the bikini, bathing suit designer Jessica Rey cites a Princeton study (which has been challenged in its application by some) that reveals some (maybe not so) shocking data. The study says shows that when some men were shown images of scantily clad women, the regions of their brain associated with using tools lit up, while their empathy regions remained surprisingly inactive. Some might take this data as support for the idea that men are hardwired to see women a certain way, and so women should dress accordingly. Yet, this logic takes us too readily to the road of objectification (see point #1). Further, isn’t there just something amiss in asking women to single-handedly redeem society while men just attempt “bounce their eyes” away from those in bikinis?
In a recent article on the blog Her*meneutics, Sharon Hodde Miller discusses Rey’s modesty presentation. According to Hodde Miller, even if this study is credible, “Not all neurological responses are hardwired. Some are conditioned.” She continues:
“When men associate the female body with objects, not just theoretically but neurologically, we can be sure that our culture is sick…When men associate the imago dei in women with an inanimate tool, then a more comprehensive restoration is in order, one that promotes theological correction, cultural healing, and renewed vision.”
Many of us may share Hodde Miller’s conviction that when it comes to modesty, cultural influences have negatively affected men just as much as it has women. As a young boy, television told me that good entertainment is watching women run in slow-motion in their swimsuits, as a teen, magazine racks in checkout aisles showed me that women will spend money to learn how to shape their bodies to fit men’s desires, and as a young man, I am told that pornography is safe, and that it hurts no one. I can’t help but think my brain is conditioned at least as much as it is hardwired when it comes to sexual temptation.
Growing up in the church, I often heard well-meaning adults tell young women to be strong and dress modestly because the young men in the ministry are “weaker brothers” who will stumble at the first sign of temptation. Now, there is a part of me that wonders if there is some truth to this idea. Maybe I am a “weaker brother”—not in a “the devil (i.e. cleavage) made me do it” kind of way, but in the sense that my brokenness is left mostly unchecked in my current society. I need all the help I can get in restoring our culture into a Pangea where a man’s first instinct when he sees a beautiful women is to think imago dei. “In the whole being of this women—body included—I see the image of God.”
For further reading check out Josiah’s Article, Bikinis and Cultural Sex-Capades.