[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 10 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Power Plays.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]

We were awkward sitting there, gangly and between. In many ways, adolescence is about an overwhelming awareness of constantly shifting ranks, of not being quite sure of where you stand, but understanding that, even if you did know where you stood, you could plummet or skyrocket at any fragile moment. So we sat there on the front row, shifting our weight uncomfortably in the hard metal chairs, and we stared at the church leader who promised to take us to camp if we would listen attentively to the rules.

No phone calls home. (My heart sank a little. The idea of not being able to call my mom felt claustrophobic.) No leaving the cabins after curfew. (Not a problem, as I was still uncomfortable with [i.e., terrified of] the dark.) And finally, the dress code: No spaghetti straps, tank tops, crop tops, tube tops, midriff-baring tops, tightly fitting tops. Shorts, skirts, and dresses must be two inches past the fingertips. No two-piece bathing suits.

Modesty is not a dress code. It is a spiritual posture.

Finally. I sat up a little straighter, realizing that everything in my closet was already in code, feeling my status rise just a little in the eyes of the Lord and our youth leaders. I leaned back in my chair, glancing boldly at the girls on the back row, the ones who were brave enough for lip-gloss, tight jeans, and giggling at boys. I made eye contact with one and, with newfound confidence, smirked. Glowing with superiority, I folded my arms and turned back to the leader, smiling at the thought of mandatory chapel.

***

With summer comes swimsuits, with swimsuits come bikinis, and with bikinis comes fresh dread and loathing. Every summer, young women are chided, cautioned, and reminded of their unwieldy power over men. They are implored to have compassion for their brothers, self-respect for themselves, and sufficient coverage for their bodies, lest a young (or old) man’s lustful instinct befall him. Instructions range from detailed descriptions of acceptable clothing parameters to awkward illustrations of what visual stimulation can do to a man. But this is about more than bikinis. Our everyday wear has plenty of rules to consider too. And for all those good intentions, it seems that there is still a wide variety of acceptable attire in the evangelical world. Some communities insist on high collars and long skirts while others fuss over hem lengths and bared shoulders. Still others appeal to a young lady’s maturity and good nature, petitioning her to consider boys as her brothers—and you wouldn’t want your brother to see you in a tight tube top, would you?

A curious tension exists here. On one side, Christians are suspicious of legalism, fully aware that rules can neither anticipate nor deter the behavior of a woman who is resolute on showing some skin. On the other hand, offering no guidelines for appropriate apparel implies that there is no reason to consider how one dresses, an inaccurate and irresponsible philosophy. However, our tendency is to conclude that saying the wrong thing is better than saying nothing, and so we bring our fists down in righteous indignation, irrespective of where our knuckles land.

***

“IT’S SNOWING IN ARGENTINA!”

She hissed the words at me from across the table. Instantly, my hands flew to my shoulders, tugging anxiously at my shirt. After a brazen lecture from our Sunday school teacher on the perils of visually stimulating a man, the girls in my class covertly met to discuss how we would avoid such an ignominious liability. Most of the modesty pitfalls could be circumvented by careful wardrobe selections, but the wayward bra strap was not so easily avoided. We were still in the final moments of careless childhood, prone to forget the sly power of the visible undergarment. And so, lest our bra straps become blockades to sanctification, we developed a code so that the mortified wearer of straying underwear could quickly cover herself.

But we were naive adolescents, and the problems with our alert system were legion. The word snow was supposed to signify the unwelcome presence of white, the defacto color of all inaugural bras. But when a few girls ventured into blush tones, bold colors, and shocking prints, the color symbolism seemed woefully misguided, almost silly. Even more problematic was the country name, which was intended to share a first letter with the name of the offending party. But as this was the mid-1990s, over half of the girls I knew had names that began with the letter A, causing us all to tug at our shirts in collective panic as often as we indulged our newfound fascination with the weather in South America.

Over time, use of the code lapsed, but our awareness of roving undergarments did not. We still alerted one another to the presence of indiscretions, but punctuated the occurrences with sighs, whispered speculation, sniggering appraisals of licentiousness. We freely spat epithets and howled with laughter, flinging assumptions and turning a blind eye to our own malice. We overlooked planks to claw at splinters.

***

In recent years, the modesty discussion has been tempered by increased vocalization about body shame. Having absorbed the idea that bodies are primarily objects of sexual temptation, many women have rightly protested those unholy feelings of humiliation. They have raised concerns about the idea that the responsibility for a man’s pure thought life should be primarily placed on the woman’s appearance.

Some conservative thinkers have responded to these concerns with by asserting that women should dress modestly not because their bodies are shameful, but because they are gifts. This idea, however, is also problematic, as it commodifies a woman’s body and falsely implies that her worth is subject to division and exchange.

Furthermore, suggesting that a man will not, or cannot, control his reaction to a female body is disempowering to a man. It dehumanizes him, likening him to an animal rather than a being bearing the image of an omnipotent God.

An unbalanced perspective on modesty ignores the beauty of a woman and the agency of a man. It betrays a desire to lord our power over someone else, to make others weak with our brute strength. It is a reductionist perspective, relegating both men and women to the context of their sexual relationships. It fails to account for the whole person.

***

A brave moment: I declined my husband’s offer to keep one or two of our young girls at home while I went to the grocery stores. “People do this all the time,” I thought as I lifted my 3-year-old into the shopping cart, then buckled her sister into the baby seat.

Halfway through the store, the baby started to whine, so I decided to carry her, clumsily maneuvering the cart around with one hand. Shortly thereafter, my oldest daughter proclaimed that she had to go to the bathroom. The urgency in her voice told me there was no time to lose. We arrived at the bathroom in the back of the store, and I shifted the baby to my hip. As I reached into the cart to help my oldest daughter out, the frustrated baby pulled at my T-shirt, nearly removing it. For several long seconds, I was forced to face down several shoppers as a virtually shirtless mother. Embarrassed, we all looked in other directions.

***

Women like to talk about how a man can’t control himself, can’t walk away, can’t unsee, can’t forget. We like the power structure it enforces, the idea that, in a desperate moment, we could control his gaze, his desire. It’s not a manipulation that we often engage; the mere knowledge that we could is enough.

But if a man’s reactionary sin is lust for a woman, a woman’s is vindictiveness against another woman, or herself. How hurriedly we ascend the ladder of arrogance, climbing right over our sisters in the name of protecting our brothers. How immediately we compare ourselves, rivaling and coveting and abhorring.

The sin of the seductress is also the sin of the envious gossip; they are twin vices. They are each the choice to treat one another as footholds to power rather than brothers and sisters.

***

“She is so beautiful,” my friend said, with only a tinge of noticeable envy. “She could make a potato sack look good.”

I strained my eyes, trying to picture the object of our discussion in a potato sack. I quickly realized that this girl would not just put on a potato sack; she would wear it. She would artfully clasp the side and walk with signature confidence. Her beauty wasn’t in her clothes—it was in her attitude. She was attractive because she was focused on being attractive. She communicated a message of loveliness with her whole appearance, including, but certainly not limited to, the clothes she wore.

“You’re right,” I replied, smoothing my solid-colored T-shirt and gym shorts. “I wonder how she does it.”

***

After a woman is sexually assaulted, there is often talk of whether she provoked the offender. “What was she wearing?” self-appointed critics ask. As though a short skirt is license to lose all restraint. As though a low-cut top absolves a violent man.

What of the man who attacks the discreetly dressed woman? What of the woman who dresses to seduce but doesn’t elicit a second glance?

If a 12-year-old boy catches a glimpse of an unsuspecting classmate’s bra strap, is he bound to entertain impure thoughts?

If a well-intentioned mother of two finds herself clumsily exposed in the grocery aisle, is she guilty of immodesty?

If a woman steps into a position of authoritative judgment without sacrificing her time, love, and energy into the relationship, is she an oppressor?

If we measure our own morality by how we are treated, we surrender our virtue and our culpability to relativism. Virtue is not contingent on the response of others. It is a holistic endeavor, one that begins with sanctification of intent. When we codify modesty, we ignore the fact that it cannot be measured or uncovered-that it is, in fact, invisible.

***

We have called young women to be wary of exposed skin, straying bra straps, and bikinis. We’ve handed them dress codes that have no power to bring true life. Often our attempts to define and assess modesty nurture death, setting females against one another and perpetuating a sense of false empowerment. What we need is something greater to inspire and perpetuate true life; we need to nurture traits like love, vision, and strength.

Modesty is not a dress code. It is a spiritual posture. It is best achieved in community, among brothers and sisters who know and care for one another. It is about intent and desire and need. It is about glory and attention and respect. Those who truly understand the grace and love of God and are established in a thriving community will not use appearance for cheap attention. They will have developed relationship-building habits that cultivate unconditional love, not sexual attraction. This is what we need, because dress codes won’t always keep us modest—and when they do, they won’t always keep us humble. Love is what we need, because that is the one thing that will never fail.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this balanced perspective! So many women indeed feel a deep-seated guilt over their bodies after years of modesty teachings, and so often it leaves out love. Trying to figure out how to do better for my own kids…

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