The Modesty Problem

I know that summer is almost over, but this is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for months now and should probably get out of the way before the frost hits.

If you run in the circles I run in, the same subject comes up every year at about the same time. It’s actually a pretty familiar scenario to all of us who grew up in an even marginally conservative culture. It goes something like this: It’s spring. Bathing suits and shorts hit the shelves. The weather shifts. Clothes get shorter, smaller, thinner (seriously. have you seen the obscene high-waisted shorts kids are wearing these days!?)… and then we start to hear the “m” word again.

Yes, Modesty.

Ah, modesty.

I could probably write a pretty comprehensive (and, literally, exhaustive) post about my thoughts on the issue and my history of struggling back and forth (and then back and forth again) with the implications (and definitions) of “Biblical modesty,” but I’d rather not do that here. Modesty and lust (which I’ll address here in a second) are very complicated, very personal, and very divisive subjects and I’d rather avoid too much complexity. So, I’ll keep it simple and offer a few observations about the issue of modesty. Specifically, I’ll speak mostly about how it’s addressed in conservative circles and some of the glaring problems I see in our conversations about it.

(If you’re not a Christian or somehow have avoided all the modesty talk in your world, this might all seem like hogwash to you. If that’s the case, be prepared to be amazed at how boring I can make a discussion about breasts.)


1. Modesty is not a sexuality-specific issue.

Almost every single time you read about Christian concepts of modesty, it’s presented in the context of sexuality, sexually-explicit (or simply revealing clothing), and how an immodest woman contributes to the sexual lust of men. Sure, the Bible clearly addresses issues of sexuality. But, speaking about only the sexuality-specific implications of immodesty is a case of addressing the symptoms and ignoring the disease. A proud heart makes an immodest woman. And a woman can be just as proud of her diamond ring, brilliant mind, or beautiful children as another woman is of her cleavage. A woman can clean herself up and make herself appear modest and presentable, but her pride will manifest itself in a different way.


2. Lust is not a sexuality-specific issue.

A greedy heart makes a lustful man. If all we address are the sexual implications of a greedy heart–one that simply must have that woman as his own–then we are really missing the point. Contrary to popular belief, there are men whose thirst–whose lust–is for money, for power, and for fame much more than it is for women and the object of man’s lust will change as he grows and changes. Greed, desire, sexuality, and power are so much more complicated than we are willing to admit. But, we have to admit it. Talking about a man’s craving of a woman’s body as the be-all-end-all of “lust” is simply not telling the whole story.


3. Modesty and lust are related, but they do not have a cause : effect relationship.

Because Christians are obsessed with sex (or so it seems), we tend to glorify the relationship between sexually-explicit women and dirty-minded men. But we (should) know better than that. A proud woman will be immodest in whatever area she most glories in and, likewise, a greedy man will seek to own anything he desires. Modesty and lust are related, but they do not have a cause : effect relationship. I am not responsible for a man’s lust and he is not responsible for my immodesty. We can see how the two things play together and feed off of each other, but we can’t blame them on each other.


4. Regardless, it does not really matter.

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to see me flaunting my breasts, I am still flaunting my breasts and am guilty of sin. (Get that?) Sin is sin is sin. My sin doesn’t get less sinful if there are no implications apart from my own sinfulness. We like to act as if Godly women can just brush off their own self-love and pride once they’ve realized that they’re not responsible for the sinful desires of men, but it cannot be done. A sinful heart is a sinful heart. Both men and women are accountable for their sins, regardless of how they do or do not affect other people.


5. Immodesty is not a woman-only issue; lust is not a man-only issue.

Bear with me here.
Up until this point, I’ve used the “immodest woman” vs. the “lustful man” paradigm because it’s the most common paradigm we see (and discuss) in Christian circles. I’m comfortable doing this because I believe (unlike many of you, perhaps?) that the most common (or most natural) tendency is for women and men to gravitate toward these two sides of the paradigm. But I understand that it’s more or less a stereotype–true enough to use as a baseline for argument, but not true enough to be a plumb-line. So it should be said that, if what I’ve said above is true and modesty and lust are about much more than sexuality, then immodesty is not a woman-only issue and lust is not a man-only issue. The interesting thing here is the way we can see both immodesty and lust play out in both men and women, almost completely independent of each other.

Most of us are self-aware enough to be able to tell you our strengths–mental, physical, sexual, whatever–and most of us are also aware that we can objectify those strengths and use them as a means to end. Tell me I’m not the only one who has noticed how many movies and television shows make play of women flashing their chests or pouting their lips or batting their eyes or faking tears to get what they want. Well, this skill is called manipulation (or sometimes “the power of suggestion”) and most women know how to do it and if they don’t have the legs to get it done, they’ll find something else just as powerful–a brilliant mind, a quick wit, or maybe a superb talent. Some women lust after the attention (or affection) of men, some lust after power, some lust after success. It just so happens that what is most available and efficient to get the job done is usually their physical appearance if not, specifically, their sexuality.

And men aren’t off the hook when it comes to immodesty. Take, for example, the “trophy wife.” This phenomena is not a sterotype of a bygone era, but is a manifestation of not only a man’s lust for success, but also his compulsion to show it off. It might not be a woman. It might be a $40,000 sportscar or a “Ph.D.” or a VIP award in the softball league. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that once pride takes root, immodesty makes a man parade his wealth/success/power/achievement around for all to see.


6. But it’s so much more complicated than this.

Let’s be honest: Some women are just shockingly beautiful. And some men are smashing successes. Some of us sing like angels and some can solve complex mathematical equations and some of us breed child prodigies. And these are good things. And they are meant to be enjoyed, by both us and by other people. And although my (admittedly horrendous and sinful) tendency is to be judgmental of women and how much skin or leg or new shiny thing they show off in public, it is impossible for me to know the heart of another woman (or a man) unless I’ve been made privy to that personal information. Our job is not to judge the intentions and motivations of others, but to keep our hearts in check instead. And then to find people who we can know and be known by to such a degree that there is freedom to revel in (and truly enjoy) each other’s strengths and gifts. When we know each other–deep down in the hearts of each other–we don’t have to spend time judging intentions and motivations because the things we love about ourselves and other people become simply a part of who we are and not objects in and of themselves. This is what community looks like. This is what the Church should look like. Loving each other this way keeps us from objectifying ourselves and others and the things we want and gives us appropriate places to enjoy the things we love.


7. Which is why marriage is so good and so important in its relationship to modesty.

I hope this doesn’t seem like a far stretch because it’s pretty crystal clear in my mind.

A healthy marriage is the perfect, most appropriate place to exercise a woman’s desire to be seen, known, and loved (which so often leads to immodesty) and a man’s desire to see, know, and possess (which so often leads to lust). In a way, a Godly marriage redeems these desires by harnessing them into a mutually giving, sharing, and reciprocal relationship–especially, but not only, sexually. No marriage is perfect, but good marriages are built on solid foundations. If a marriage exemplifies the “community” I described above, one in which two people know each other and are known by each other deeply, then there is freedom to enjoy and not objectify ourselves and each other. A good marriage liberates us from the need to seek attention and affection elsewhere. And where a marriage lacks, when perhaps a couple struggles to meet each other’s mental or emotional or spiritual need to see and be seen, that’s when the rest of the Church comes alongside and provides an appropriate place or person to fill the void.


8. The reality (and the power) of immodesty and lust in our lives and in our world requires action.

In a perfect world, where we all had pure hearts and pure intentions and only the purest of thoughts, men and women could parade around the street in all their naked glory, boasting of their recent pay raise and showing off their perfectly-behaved children. No one would judge; no one would be jealous; no one would feel worse for what they, themselves lack.

But we don’t live in that world.

In this world, we have to learn when and how to cover up. Because it’s not necessarily about what we’re wearing or how we’re wearing it, but sometimes it is about why we’re wearing it (or not wearing it). And it’s not because we’re responsible for a stranger’s lust, but because we’re responsible for our own pride and compulsion to be seen. And, if we didn’t feel the need to be seen, we would be willing to wear anything.

We learn when to keep our mouths shut. Not because we don’t have anything valuable to say, but because it’s not always necessary to be the one speaking.

And, in this world, we need to learn how to keep some things to ourselves. (Even some of our best or funniest or brightest things.) Because the love and admiration and attention of a friend or stranger is nothing compared to the love we’ve already been shown.

Maybe modesty is less about how much we cover up or shut up or keep to ourselves and more about subtly, humility, and appropriateness.
We need to learn to be okay not being seen, or heard, or loved sometimes so that we can learn to see, hear, and love someone else instead.


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