Why I Hate Talking About Modesty (And Why I Do It Anyway)

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I hate talking about modesty. I hate standing in front of a group of girls, seeing their set faces, and knowing I’m running at brick walls—so many flawed preconceptions and emotional fences to push past.

I hate talking about modesty because I hate the surrounding territory—sex and shame, body image hangups, a desperate/indiscriminate yearning for belonging and connection. The geography of modesty in any given heart is likely littered with land mines.

I hate talking about modesty because it is intensely counter cultural, because we have been brainwashed in the ways that make communicating about it complicated and uncomfortable. The idea of being selfless, gentle and quiet makes little sense in our “Hey, look at me!” culture.

I hate talking about modesty because many of the people who love talking about it are judgmental and legalistic. They look in my eyes and shake my hand eagerly and say “thank you so much” but all the while they’re thinking about the other people who need to hear this message, almost never about themselves.

I hate talking about modesty.

But I do it. A lot.

Because I’m trying to undo all the damage that’s been done. Because the walls are there for reasons and I want to prove they can be torn down. Because the land mines must be disabled and destroyed. Because the lies of culture must be uprooted and replaced with truth. Because modesty can’t be about pointing at others and must be about personal virtue.

I talk about modesty because it’s beautiful and liberating even as it’s profoundly abused and misunderstood.

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In high school, my friend Jan’s mother forced her to model her bathing suit (a high-necked, black one-piece) in front of her new step-dad—hoping Jan would feel uncomfortable and “realize” the immodesty of her choice. To this day, Jan won’t wear a bathing suit, not so much because she’s decided it’s immodest, but because she still feels the shame of that moment when she sees herself in one.

A girl in the youth group at my church attends a Christian high school that sponsors a junior/senior banquet each year instead of a prom. Each girl who attends submits a picture of herself wearing the dress she’s chosen for banquet in order to prove its having met dress code requirements. Makes sense, I guess, except that girls are also required to submit a picture of themselves bending over in the dress in order to ensure that no cleavage is exposed. For this girl, the shame of having her mom take a picture like that and the greater shame of handing such a picture to a teacher or principal degraded her and clouded her understanding of modesty. She wrote to me, “Modesty should never be the vehicle by which girls feel shameful about their bodies.”

When I was in high school my preacher’s daughter followed a very strict modesty standard: no shorts, even knee-length ones, no bathing suits, even with just girls. When we went swimming at the river she sat on the dock wearing overalls. In Florida. In the summer.

She surprised us one hot afternoon, rising from her spot on the corner of the worn wooden planks. She threw her hands into the air triumphantly and yelled, “Here I come.” We chanted her name and cheered wildly when she finally jumped. She disappeared beneath the water. Five seconds later I jumped in after her and drug her to the surface, her clawing my face, climbing onto my shoulders, fighting for a breath. Evidently overalls aren’t so great for swimming.

She was humiliated.

I have more stories like this, moments when attempts at legalizing modesty resulted in humiliation and, ultimately, rebellion.

The Christian college I attended had a dress code: no shorts to class, shorts for sports could be a credit card’s length above the knee, straps of a certain thickness. A chaperone attended our banquets, even the ones two hours out of town, to ensure the modesty of our gowns. I didn’t fight the rules. I didn’t even mind them. But the minute I left school I stopped following them. And I wasn’t alone. Flipping through Facebook photo albums of recent alums shows dress code rebellion to be a pretty common thing. In fact, female graduates often make a point of wearing dress code violations to big school events like Homecoming. Stickin’ it to the man, I guess.

My friend Carla grew up in a very conservative church culture wearing only skirts, nothing with any amount of cling, no bare shoulders. Her boyfriend, also a church member, would aggressively scold her when she wore something he felt caused him to lust. She went to great lengths to make sure every part of her body was covered. After the relationship, away at a state university, she felt ashamed of her body. Soon she decided to walk away from the rules she’d followed so diligently as a girl, but she struggled to come up with any authoritative guidelines of her own. Certainly, she felt, her church had been too strict, but she also felt like some clothes were obviously inappropriate. How could she tell the immodest ones from the modest?

Five years later, she hates shopping for clothes. She pulls at her tank top straps awkwardly and yanks on the hems of her skirts. She is visibly uncomfortable in clothes. Adrift.

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It doesn’t have to be like this.

What if we talked about modesty differently?

What if girls were encouraged not to follow some random set of standards universally applied by a school, church or parent to a wide array of body types but were instead taught the beauty of a modest heart?

What if we talked about modesty in a way that made girls feel good about themselves, instead of stirring up shame in their hearts?

What if we replaced our rules with God’s guiding truth?

Instead of filling our girls’ minds with inches, man-made legislations and guilt, I suggest we fill them with the Word of God, encouraging them to live out God’s plan as fully as they can.

God says,

  • “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
  • "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised."
  • "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."
  • "Flee sexual immorality."
  • "I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God."

That’s powerful, challenging, counter-cultural, life-changing stuff.

We may worry that teaching modesty without a dress code is weak, that it won’t take, that our girls will be lawless wearers of tube tops and string bikinis. But in our reservations I see a lack of trust in the power of God’s Word.

You see, teaching modesty isn’t about clothes. It’s about shaping hearts, about calling girls (and women) (and men) into a closer relationship with God, a relationship that will transform them into loving, submissive, selfless individuals full of joy and courage. As they learn to live with God, they’ll learn to turn every part of their lives over to God. They’ll learn that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Gal. 5:1) And they’ll learn how to be “as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from [their] heart[s].” (Eph. 6:6)

When my daughters go to college, I don’t want them in a dressing room with a dress code in one hand and a ruler in the other. I don’t want them wondering whether their mother would approve.

I want them to look in the mirror and see the truth. I want them to ask,

  • “Does this outfit flee sexual immorality?”
  • “Does this dress conform to the pattern of the world?”
  • “Does this shirt eclipse my inner self, the beauty of my gentle and quiet spirit?”
  • “Are these clothes appropriate for a woman professing godliness?”

Those are good questions, God’s questions, and we discount them at great expense.

For practical application of the ideas in this post check out this helpful resource: (Not That) Modesty http://jlgerhardt.tumblr.com/post/61772588057/you-guys-loved-mondays-post-why-i-hate-talking