Before jeans with holes in them were sold in stores, there was thrift store scouring.
My friend and I would leave school for the day and head downtown to sift through the racks for the perfect pair of vintage Levi’s. The pair that had been washed so many times they had faded, whose denim was no longer rough, but buttery soft against the skin was nice. But what we really wanted were the holes — strategically placed holes from a previously loved life that would show a little skin and push our parents over the edge.
I remember the day I found mine, and the day my mom used them for kindling in the wood stove in the name of modesty. I didn’t understand. I was in love with those jeans. When I put them on I felt fashionable and blended in with my high school culture.
I was dressing for me, not for anyone else. Or rather I was dressing for me in order to fit in with everyone else.
I can honestly say I haven’t given modesty much thought. I know which clothes fit my body and which don’t. Over the years, I’ve learned what necklines and hemlines feel professional and which belong at home for a weekend of gardening or painting. I have never been a huge fan of bikinis — not because I think they are wrong, but because I haven’t been comfortable wearing underwear in public. I do remember in my first year as a pastor’s wife I wore a strapless dress to an outdoor ordination service. A more seasoned pastor called me out on it; I could have crawled into the ground and died right there. I’ve never done that again — not for the sake of modesty, but for the sheer embarrassment of recalling the incident.
Until now, I’ve considered modesty more for my children than I have for myself. However, a few weeks ago my Facebook feed was bombarded by an article written by blogger and author Rachel Held Evans.
She broke down modesty and the church something like this: Yes, we live in a culture which bombards us with images of the perfect and sexy female body. As a result, our men have grown up in a society conditioned to objectify women. In response, the Christian culture has taken modesty and turned it into a form of legalism. Evans writes, “…it becomes the woman’s job to manage the sexual desires of men…” Rejecting that role, she invites her readers to shed the oppressive practice of modesty and dress for themselves, embracing the glorious bodies the Lord has given them.
And I almost want to spread my arms and run free in this invitation except that it falls flat in love.
She states, “The truth is that a man will objectify a woman whether she is wearing a bikini or a burka. We don’t stop lust by covering up the female form…”
Everything about her phrase rings true until I stopped to consider what the implications were. It isn’t if a man is visually stimulated, but when. With that in mind, it seems I have a choice: I can either leave them to their own sin, accountable before God, but without consideration for their struggle. Or, I can acknowledge a man’s struggle with lust and adjust my dress accordingly. The article seemed to suggest the latter choice was oppression — an act enforced by Christian school administrators and abused by youth pastors around the country.
Still, I started considering my own modesty. Beyond the incinerated jeans and strapless dress there existed short running shorts, a halter dress that shows off tan shoulders, a plunging sweet-heart hand-me-down, and 4″ inseam shorts.
Had I ever considered anyone besides myself when purchasing clothes? Was it oppressive to consider others, or did my lack of consideration reek of self-centeredness?
Years of conversations between my husband and I raced through my mind. Faces of husbands and wives who have come to us for marital counseling, confessing pornography addictions and emotional affairs returned. I remembered the awkward conversation I had with a close friend when she told me her husband had complimented my appearance. I considered the awkwardness with another close friend who did little to cover her perfect cleavage when around my husband and teenage son.
Indeed, modesty appears to be a double-sided card.
One the one side, modesty is semi-restricting to the one who purchases fashion. On the other side, modesty offers an incredible, unspoken opportunity to consider the needs and well-being of another. Therefore, to completely reject the practice and teaching of modesty is to embrace an attitude of self-focus for the sake of self-expression; it lacks love and compassion.
I suggest that while we certainly have freedom in Christ and could wear whatever we wish, to choose to dress in a way that allows comfort and eases visual stimulation for others is to choose love. By surrendering our freedom for the sake of those around us who struggle with visual lust, we are choosing to glorify God with the very freedom He gave us.
Jesus came to serve the needs of those around us by His love and instructed us to do the very same.
That said, is there something missing in our teaching of modesty? When my mother burned the jeans, but didn’t sit down to explain her actions, what was missing? When the gentleman chastised me for wearing the “wrong” kind of dress, but never took time to talk further about it, what was missing? There is a reason why the author spoke of feeling shamed and embarrassed by the way church culture approached modesty. I suggest it is because we have forgotten to teach sensuality in a culture that blares sexuality.
The fact remains that our female bodies were created for the glory of God. There is a reason the female form is visually pleasing to the male eye. I have only young daughters, but I can still remember conversations where I have looked at my oldest and said, “Sweetie, that skirt is not appropriate. You need to go change right now.” But did I tell her she looked beautiful? Am I preparing to teach modesty with a tone of shame? Or am I preparing to teach modesty with a flare of beauty? There is a huge difference and only one can leave a godly legacy in the life of my daughters.
For those who are inclined to believe the teaching of modesty is a form of female oppression — placing upon the woman the sins of the man — I suggest the following positive results of both dressing ourselves with modesty, but also imparting the legacy of modesty to our daughters (and sons).
1. I have the opportunity to be defined by something other than my form.
The book of Proverbs exalts the wisdom of God. Originally written in a manner of advice between a man and a youth, Proverbs teaches how God’s wisdom can be applied in practical, everyday situations. When I ran in college, I had memorized Proverbs 31:25 as my running rhythm: She clothes herself in dignity and strength — two resulting attributes of a life lived wisely. The choice to clothe oneself in character and integrity and to follow the way of God’s wisdom is an inward transformation that will naturally reveal themselves in outward appearance.
2. I have the opportunity to teach my children that modesty is one way we can love others well.
The ways in which we can use our physical existence to love others are countless. We can choose to take action and be a part of physical service. We can implement plans and ideas that offer opportunity and betterment in the lives of others. We can be present to listen, be bold to speak, or be still in company. In light of the countless ways and places we can love, it seems a small and simple opportunity to choose modesty as a way to love others whom we might never meet. But when we actively remove the stumbling block from the path of a complete stranger, I cannot imagine God asking us to put it back in the way, for that wasn’t our concern. Instead, I see Him helping us move the cumbersome obstacle with a smile of approval and a stamp of compassion.
3. I have the opportunity to explain to my children the glory and beauty of the human anatomy and why such glory should be unveiled wisely.
Our human bodies are so glorious that God himself chose to inhabit His own, becoming fully divine and fully human so that we might know Him in a manner familiar to us. His physical form was neither overtly handsome nor grotesquely maimed. Yet in every move, in every step, with every word, and with all of Himself, Jesus brought glory to the Father and pointed the way toward home.
Our bodies are presented with the same opportunity. We bring glory to God through the birth of our children, through the exercising of our muscles, our mind, and the overflow of our love for others. Through study we learn that our thoughts concerning God matter, and as we learn to think correctly about God, our hand and feet cannot resist the urge to act in alignment with God — serving others and sharing in the divine life of the Spirit here on earth. Our bodies — and hearts, mind, and spirit — all exist to bring Him glory. Such a privilege re-offers itself to us each morning as we rise from bed and dress for the day. What covers such a wondrous form absolutely matters.
The past few weeks has given me opportunity for much consideration and countless conversations as I talked out my response to the idea that a man’s bend toward lust shouldn’t infringe upon my right to fashion. In the end, I’ve decided to embrace the better choice and choose love rather than exercise self-right.
I do believe I have freedom in Christ. I do believe I can wear whatever I want to and not be under judgment. But even more I believe in the power of journeying toward Christ together — hand in hand with my brothers and sisters in faith.
While I will forever be aware of the tone in which I teach modesty to my sons and daughters, I will not neglect the invitation to cover flesh for the glory of God and the love for others.
This invitation is empowering, as I have the chance to make a simple decision of dress based on compassion for others. My verdict is in: I reject the idea that modesty is oppressive, but instead offers freedom. Freedom from self-concern is a freedom for all.