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: