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Modest Should Not Mean Dowdy--how Christians sometimes adopt too stringent a view of modesty

Modesty is a big “buzz” word on Christian women’s blogs.

We’re all supposed to want to be modest (which I agree with), but often the definition of modesty is something which I find completely unreasonable, and rather off-putting.

A friend of mine, whom I would consider very modest but stylish, took her pre-teen daughter to a mother-daughter event recently. Originally the daughter had been asked to model, but at the last minute they found someone else to fill in in her size, so told her they didn’t need her.

My 11-year-old friend was devastated, until she saw the actual fashion show. And then she was so appalled by the clothes that she whispered to her mother: “I’m so glad they didn’t ask me to model after all! I’d be so embarrassed if I were up there!”

Now I wasn’t at that event, so I didn’t see first hand, but apparently the clothes were layered to the nth degree and so long and bulky that they looked like sacks.

I’ve been on other women’s blogs that seem to be pushing the idea that if we’re not dressing modestly–and by that they have a very narrow definition of modest–then we’re not being Christian. And I do believe that sometimes the Christian modesty message can veer in a dangerous direction, causing women to be ashamed of their bodies.

And so I’d like to spell out my philosophy on this, just to inspire debate, and to perhaps free some of you who aren’t comfortable with this line of thinking but aren’t sure where else to go.

First, I do think modest should mean no cleavage, and no drawing attention to particular parts of the body deliberately. So no super-tight T-shirts, no low-cut shirts that look more like bikini tops, no super short skirts or shorts, and no tank tops (UPDATE: I meant to say tube tops. We here in Canada used to call tube tops tank tops, but I know tank tops are something different now. Sorry for the confusion!). I’d even be careful with sleeveless dresses. For swimming, I’d steer clear of bikinis, and even some one-pieces, and go with some flattering tankinis, which are often prettier and which often have bottoms that go down a little bit further. I find most people look better in these anyway.

But to say modesty means much more than that, I think, puts women in a bind, sounds very legalistic, and can be dishonoring to men.

For instance, I’ve seen some women say that we should only wear skirts. Really? Personally I wear skirts most of the time in the summer, because finding shorts that fit is difficult, and I love skirts. So I’m not against skirts in the least. But to say that all women should wear skirts because it’s more feminine is really strange. A nicely cut pair of jeans with a pretty blouse in my opinion is far more feminine than a shapeless denim skirt.

Similarly, to say that one can’t wear any pants that fit well because they would draw attention to one’s *ahem* behind is thus saying that we should all wear sacks. Now I certainly don’t think that we should wear tight clothes. But there is a difference between tight and clothes that simply fit. My daughter told me about a blog post she read on a popular teenage girl blog that said that if you can’t pinch your pants and find a few inches, it’s too tight. How many girls are really going to follow that?

But here’s another question: do we really want to give the impression that Christians are dowdy spoilsports, because our definition of modesty seems to say that.

As a married Christian woman, I feel that my responsibility is to dress modestly but fashionably. I want my husband to be proud of me, and if I were only wearing denim skirts with button down blouses, he would not be proud to take me out in public. I would stand out like a sore thumb. And so I go out of my way to try to wear things that are pretty and flattering but that don’t cling too much, show cleavage, or come up too high on the thigh.

I think sometimes that the Christian wives who advocate the long, shapeless skirt look with the baggy t-shirt forget something. The rationale for dressing modestly is that because men are visually stimulated, we shouldn’t dress to stimulate them. Okay so far.

But if we admit that men are visually stimulated, then don’t we also owe it to our husbands to look our best?

And how many husbands like walking around with wives who are dressed in shapeless clothes?

Now, I know many of the people who advocate wearing skirts do not wear shapeless ones, and I’m not trying to say that you’re wrong. I think longer skirts can still be fashionable, if they’re cut correctly, and you can wear lovely shaped blouses to go with them that do flatter your figure.

For instance, the True Femininity blog, written by a 21-year-old, has an “Outfit of the Day” recurring theme where she shows a modest but fashionable outfit. Here’s one from June:
Modest can still be flattering--and can still say, "I have curves!"

Lovely. But many of the “skirts only” blogs that I’ve read, and that my daughter has seen, really do advocate skirts resembling potato sacks, that look as if they were bought in thrift stores.

I don’t think that’s the image that Christians should be presenting.

Why not just look fashionable, attractive, and fun, without trying to attract attention as a sex object? Looking like you put some care into your appearance says that you respect yourself and you respect your husband.

My friend Terry, over at Breathing Grace, wrote a post recently where she said that her standard of beauty is her husband. She wears what he likes, because he’s the one that really matters, and I like that conviction. Sometimes when we think about all this “modesty” stuff, I think we do it without male input. We say we’re trying to protect men by not being tempting, but I wonder how many of the wives have ever asked their husbands honestly if they like the “sack” look, or if they would prefer that their wives be a little more attractive? I think many women get caught up in this “modesty” movement online, and in their little cliques, and they barge right ahead without asking the guys.

Finally, there’s one other thing that concerns me, and this is perhaps the largest issue. This world is in desperate need of help. All around us families are breaking up, debt is ruining people’s lives, addictions are taking over. And that’s only in the neighbourhood. On a worldwide scale, wars are being fought, persecution is rampant, and injustice abounds.

This world needs Christians to become engaged, to be good role models, and to be outspoken (in a gentle way) for what is right.

That means that we have to be people that others respect. We need to be people that others will look at and admire. And I don’t think that it’s flighty of me to say that part of that admiration will be tied in to how we look. If we show up looking like we have never cut our hair (let alone put conditioner in it) and as if we are wearing sacks, then why would people want to listen to us?

When you dress that way and present yourself in a very dowdy, throwback way, you make your world smaller.

You tend to retreat into your family or your church because that is safe, and that is where you fit in. You don’t fit into the wider world anymore.

That’s not right. We need people who will speak up and who will be role models. We need to stop shrinking. Certainly retreating is easier and less messy, but it is not what we are called to be. We are called to be “in” the world. We don’t let its values dictate ours; we don’t follow after the world’s idols. But we must still be “in” it.

We must not shrink our own world, and that is what we do when we adopt too narrow a definition of modesty–of what is acceptable clothing.

So what would I recommend? If you’re married, talk to your husband about what sort of dress he considers modest and fashionable. Take a friend with you who is fashionable and go shopping and get some clothes that actually fit. Get a nice haircut (you can go to a haircutting school if you can’t afford a salon). Treat your body as if you respect it, not as if you’re ashamed of it. And let’s stop using Christianity as an excuse to look dowdy.

Fashionable and feminine while still being modest. That, I think, is what we should be doing. And, by the way, there’s really nothing wrong with a good pair of jeans!

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