Modesty, the Bikini, & Lust, Oh My!

My Facebook and Twitter feeds blew up today on the topic of modesty, and I found myself in a few different conversations about it, both public and private.  I decided that since I’d made so many comments, I might as well compile them and turn them into a blog post.  What I’m saying here is probably nothing new, and has probably been said before, just not by me.  I’ve edited and changed things around from how they initially appeared in order to make more sense of them, have them fit together as a whole, and protect various identities.

I mentioned modesty in a talk I gave last fall at a conference about Christianity and pop culture.  One section was entirely on modesty.  In it, I said, 

Women are often told to dress modestly in order that they don’t cause their Christian brothers to sin by causing them to lust after the women.  Men are not warned in the same way and this is often because women’s bodies are portrayed as more sexual in nature.  However, there is a broad range of what modesty may mean, and so the admonition to “be modest” is generally unhelpful.  In Rachel Held Evans’ newly released book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she spends one month exploring what it means to be modest from a Biblical perspective, and realizes that “women from a variety of religious groups claim biblical modesty as their standard of dress, and yet none of them dress exactly the same” (123-124).   Modesty often tends to be about being covered up, but if that were the case, then we should just all walk around in bathrobes.  I can’t think of anything more covered up than that. 

After the talk, during the Q&A session, one young woman asked about dressing modestly so as not to cause men to stumble.  My response to her was that there was no way she could possibly know what the approximately 700 men on campus would think about everything she had to wear and that she was not responsible for their thoughts.  What if she was wearing a tank top and had to change to a t-shirt, because a guy felt uncomfortable with the tank top? Then she had to change from a t-shirt to a long-sleeve shirt, because the next guy was uncomfortable with seeing her arms? Then to a bulky sweatshirt. Do you see the problem here?  She cannot be responsible for other people. It is not humbling to be told to change clothes for someone else, it is shaming.
But, now that summer is here, we are left debating whether or not wearing a bikini is something that we should do so as not to cause men to lust after us.
Women are not responsible for men’s thoughts and actions.   If a woman wants to wear a bikini, by all means, wear a bikini. “Modesty” is arbitrary and it is not women who are responsible for a man’s lust, but the man.  I had a male friend say one time that sometimes, it’s actually the more covered up a woman is that can “cause” lust, because it leaves more to the imagination.  Men need to be responsible for men. A woman cannot go through life making choices based on what every man (or woman) out there might think.  I’m a mother of boys, and I plan on teaching them what women wear doesn’t excuse their actions and thoughts. I’m not going to give them a pass based on what women wear. 
If we assume *all men* will lust after us, we are looking down on them and treating them as no better than an animal. Also, while we can consider our actions/choices influencing others around us, that could be in regards to *anything*. We also can’t make that our primary focus, because we will then be living our lives and making our decisions for those around us, and that’s impossible to do. What we wear should be between us and God and our choices should come from our relationship with God and how we want to present ourselves, not because of what others might think.
A friend commented to me that “It’s so subjective that it’s easy to turn it into what ever the current group of men happen to think is modesty. Not that I’m blaming all men for this, but some of them put themselves in the victim slot, thinking they are being persecuted by immodest women, instead of realizing that their sin is theirs alone to deal with. Making a women who is causing you to stumble change her clothes is like putting a bandage over a freshly amputated stump.”
If we tailor our actions so as to not cause someone to stumble, and if it is ok for men to ask women to dress differently, can we women do the same thing?  
Can a woman tell a man that he really needs to wear long sleeved shirts, because she likes how his biceps look in the short sleeved ones?   Many women will find shirtless men at the beach attractive. Can we tell them they need to wear t-shirts with their swimming trunks?   Can we tell them they can’t wear speedos?  Or can I tell someone that their designer clothes or purse make me jealous that I don’t have them, so they need to not wear them around me?  Should I tell the lead praise singer that her beautiful voice causes me to feel badly about my own voice that doesn’t carry a tune, so she should stop singing around me?  Should I tell my friend who always has perfectly done hair that it makes me feel bad that I can’t do my own hair well, so she should wear it messy around me?  What if the male pastor at church is attractive?  Should I tell him he really needs to stop doing the sermons every week because I find his looks distracting?
I cannot and should not expect that other people will conform their actions to how they make me feel.  How I feel and how I react to whatever I encounter is on me.  
I have read way too many stories of women who have terribly negative body image because of this very thing, and so, we really must ask ourselves, why can we not look past “modesty” or “immodesty” to the person inside? 
I think I’ll go bikini shopping now.  
Some other good articles to read on this topic are:

14 thoughts on “Modesty, the Bikini, & Lust, Oh My!

  1. LOVE this. Thanks for having the courage to write it. Sometimes, I rock a bikini; others, I wear mom-ish, skirted swimwear. It generally has to do with how many toddlers I'll be chasing and whether or not water slides will be a part of the day more so than modesty concerns though. I've traveled and lived abroad quite a bit, and I've learned that the definition of modesty is completely different depending on culture, location, and crowd. And as you point out, even in America, there's no singular definition. The point is that we all need to stop judging others based on appearance anyway and move to something deeper.

  2. I've only got one bathing suit at the moment, a one-piece, but I'd like to get a bikini too now that I don't have to do as much chasing of children as when they were younger. Would love to hear more about various expectations/understandings of modesty in places you have lived. Shoot me an email if you get a chance.

  3. Both men and women are stimulated by the sight of skin. Men, on average, are more so than women – but women are as well. The 'slippery slope' argument of modesty doesn't work, because modesty is an issue of the heart (it's also a logical fallacy and nonsensical).

    1) Has any authority figure (parent, pastor, husband, teacher, etc) asked you to dress more modestly? If so, change.
    2) Do you *feel* like you are dressed modestly? If you feel what you wear is "modest" – then you pass the next test. God looks at the heart. However, since the word modesty literally means "Sense of shame (with connotations of regard and submission to others)" – this doesn't mean you should be perfectly fine just wearing anything. Rather, that you should take do care and thought in your wardrobe that it is a) covering and b) respectful to those around you. If you take this care in thought, then you answer only to God and not to friends who may hold stricter standards.
    3) Do you know of men in your environment who are uncomfortable with the way you dress? (And if you are not sure, ask a leader in a church group. When I was younger, the leaders of the college group had the men write anonymous letters to the girls – they were very sweet. Men want to see us as sisters (and vice versa!), and the girls coming in with midriff tops and low ride jeans were not helping. We are to act in a spirit of love – not selfishness. [And no, they didn't ask for sweatshirts or bathrobes. They just wanted erogenous zones covered and no spaghetti straps/rampant cleavage). If you do, respect them and do what you can to "live in peace" and not tempt them to stumble. Yes, you are your brother's keeper. You are not responsible for their thoughts and actions, but if there is something reasonable you can do to help (such as wear a shirt with a higher collar and some sleeves) – then show some love to your brother.
    4) Are you causing female friends to stumble in the way you dress by tempting them to dress less modestly than they are comfortable with? (Protect the weaker brother). This is harder to figure out, as simply dressing less modestly will not necessarily cause a stumbling block. However, in some social groups there can be pressure on looks or conformity – so be sure that your actions and manner of dress are not pressuring someone else to compromise their values.

    As for bikinis – while there is no hard and fast rule, many bikinis would not fit the definition of "modesty and discreetness" in 1 Tim 2:9. (Discreetness being an even more intense form of modesty and moderation that is sober minded, self-controlled, and appropriate to the situation at hand). Rather, many bikinis cover little more than the essentials – which is the opposite of modesty and discretion – it's trying to get "as close as you can" to the line without going over. One could even make an argument that it's the equivalent of a dating couple engaging with each other in every possible way but sex and still claiming that their relationship is virginal. That is not to say there are not modest two-pieces out there (some more modest than swimsuits) or that those are wrong – but the mindset that often underlies picking out a summer bikini is anything but modesty. It is that mindset (I can wear what I want, so what if it's skimpy, so what if the boys lust after me, that's *their* sin problem, etc) that is full of indiscretion and pride.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *