Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Trap of Modesty Standards

Before I get started, let me just say that this might be a hard blog post. It's been hard for me to process all of it. I've had to counter the feeling that I'm being wrong or unspiritual. Which is, of course, sort of the point of this post. Let me just say that I am in no way attacking anyone or any organization/church. If you feel as if you're being attacked, I'm very sorry. But I feel that what this post is about needs to be said, because nobody else is saying it. What I talk about here is something I've observed not just around me, but also in my own life. I speak not from judgement, but from experience.

It has been my observation that standards of modesty hurt, rather than help, the issue of modesty in general. Now before you dismiss the rest of what I'm about to say, please stick with me on this, because I'm going to explain. By "standards of modesty", I mean specific rules that "have" to be followed in order to be "modest." For some churches, it is dresses-only. For others, girls are supposed to wear culottes in their off-hours. For some, modesty is whatever covers you above your knees. Basically, what I mean by standards of modesty is simply the rules that we're supposed to follow so guys won't notice how our bottoms look. This issue is dwelt upon in the church so often, hammered into extinction, then dredged back up to be preached upon again. In some cases, these standards are good, and help.

I am of the opinion, however, that overall, such standards are hurting the youth of the Christian church. I'll deal first with the girls, then with my theories about the guys.

For the Girls

I'm sure we've all felt it. I know I have - those little pricklings of self-righteousness, the ones that start way high up in your brain and work their way down into your heart. Or maybe it's the other way around. I'm not sure. But I know I've felt it. It's that insidious feeling, the one that makes me think poorly of other girls around me because of the way I'm acting.

"I read my Bible every day. Why doesn't she?"

"I make sure to treat everyone with respect. What is he doing, acting like that to her?"

And yes, "I dress modestly. Why can't she just put on some clothes? Doesn't she know she's causing guys to stumble?"

Yes indeed. It's that little worm that causes us to look down on those around us, and exalt ourselves. Not exactly the attitude of a servant. It's certainly not a spirit of love that motivates such thoughts.

Now, before we go any farther, let me make something very clear. I am not bashing modesty as a value. I myself make an effort to dress in a way I consider modest: my shirts are generally not sleeveless (I've made somewhat of a compromise this summer, because it's been 110 on average), and my capris come to my knees. My jeans are never too tight, and if they are, I wear a long shirt. The only thing I am bringing into question in this post is the standardization of such principles, making them hard-and-fast rules. Why am I bringing it into question?

Number one, because of the self-righteous attitude that comes into play, as explained above. I can attest from my own experience that, when I feel as if I'm adhering to some kind of "Godly, spiritual rule," no matter how ridiculous, I start getting a rather superior attitude. Instead of looking at the people around me as precious souls, I start analyzing their dress, seeing if they measure up to what I consider right. Not only have I felt this in my own life, but I've seen other girls, and even sometimes mature older women in the Lord, react in this manner. They bash on other girls and their dress, sometimes loudly enough for the girl they're discussing to hear.

Maybe this is a fault in our own hearts'. If that is the case, then perhaps this post should have a different title and motivation. Perhaps, for some of us, it is a completely different issue, one that should be dealt with in our own hearts. Perhaps it is a mixture of both.

However, I believe that since we dwell on this issue so much, it does become something of litmus test for True Christianity. "Well, look at that girl. How does she dress? Well, she can't really be spiritual. She wears pants, sometimes even to church!"

"Well, that girl wears shorts. So-and-so wears tank-tops. They need to get their hearts right with God. We'll pray for them."

And so it begins. Girls are weighed, not by their actions and their heart, but by their outward appearance. We try to change how they dress first, and then expect their hearts to follow, rather than attempting to change their hearts through the blood of Christ, and then expecting their behavior to change. Meanwhile, other girls - in the youth group, sitting next to them in church - are weighing their dress in the balance, seeing if they are worthy of Christian notice.

In turn, this makes girls who don't adhere to these standards feel like terrible people. They don't feel "Christian" enough, so they try to come up to the standards...and then they feel fake, like they're working too hard at something that should hardly be work at all. And in reality, that's true. Legalistic standards never help a church, they can only harm it. When we begin to weigh people's spirituality, their walk with God, their salvation, upon how they dress, we have degraded the message of the Gospel down to the level of New York's Fashion Week.

Now, I understand that there are certain rules that should be followed by God's people. But those things should be motivated, not out of a fear of social condemnation, or bogeyman tactics wherein our "relationship with God" will be irreparably harmed, but rather through a sincere love for and from Christ. So perhaps, instead of drumming into girls that they are bad Christians because they dress (or don't dress) a certain way, we should just teach the love that passes all understanding.

For the Guys

This section is bound to be shorter than the last one, for quite obvious reasons. I'm not a guy. In case you hadn't noticed. I've never been a guy, I don't intend to ever be a guy, and that's just fine. So you have been warned. This section might be way off. So for any guys reading this, feel free to correct me. I shall then feel stupid about my hypotheses, remove it from this post, and try to forget I ever posted it in the first place. But from what I've observed, this seems to be true. Also, this is how I'd act if I were a guy. Naturally, I'm not, but if I was, this is how it would go. "This" is, of course, what I'm about to talk about. Anyway.

I believe that modesty standards do not hurt just girls, but also guys. If you go to a church anything like mine, modesty is taught on quite frequently. It's touched on even more often, like a passing mantra. "Girls should be modest, etc. etc." This is usually followed by a brief explanation of what constitutes "modest." Not only are the girls now looking around, analyzing what their fellow females are wearing to see if it passes muster, but it's brought attention from the guys. Followup teaching (probably not more than five minutes later) will then reinforce that if girls don't dress properly (that is, within the standards of the church), the guys will inevitably "notice them" and stumble in their thoughts, falling into a hormone-riddled trap of desire and, eventually, lust.

Now the guys have gotten pulled into the cycle. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but guys like the female body. It's sort of how they're wired. We girls are wired to like the way a handsome guy looks, particularly if he's buff and tanned. (C'mon girls, don't play shy. You know it's true.) That's the way our hormones work. Usually, this is a good thing. After all, it sort of ensures the continuation of the human race. It is only when this attraction turns to something more serious, that we call lust, that it becomes a problem. I know that the propensity of some teenage girls is to dress in a way that is intentionally alluring, making it hard for a guy to resist mentally finishing the job she started, if you know what I mean.

But do we make the job of looking away harder when we have defined standards of modesty? I think we just might, and here's why. We turn the female body completely into a thing of shame. It becomes a terrible thing to even look at a girl and say, "You know, she looks pretty nice." (This can also be a thing with the girls, but I'll deal with that in another post.) Instead of being able to casually acknowledge the fact that so-and-so is well dressed, they have to stop themselves...and that will just make them think about it more.

I mean, come on. How many of us have been specifically instructed not to touch something of our mom's, or a treat for later or whatever? After that, all we can do is think about it. It consumes us...and then we feel bad for even thinking about it, because then we want it. And so, it is my theory that we turn the female body into a thing of shame for Christian guys. He's afraid to even move the wrong way around a girl in case he gives the wrong impression. He's afraid of even looking at her, for fear he'll see something that will be a stumbling block.

And perhaps, when he does look at her, all he can see is how immodestly she is dressed. Once again, it becomes a litmus test. How is she dressed? Is she being a good Christian? Is she modest?

Of course, I've also been told that guys don't notice what we're wearing, anyway. That's also true, from what I've observed. I don't think I'll ever understand teenage guys.

So whether I got any of this right or not, I feel I've explained my thoughts tolerably well. Or maybe not. Probably, I'll read through this in a few years and think, "how ineptly I explained that." That's usually what happens. But for now, this will have to do. Once again, please don't take offense to anything I've said. It's just my thoughts, and thankfully my thoughts don't make the rules.

~Liberty (


Tragedy101 said...

First, I am very glad you are back. I didn't know until this past week.

Second, modesty is why eye contact is so important. The less they wear the more important the continuous eye contact. It's a little creepy at first, but people get used to it, eventually.

Rubies Like Ruth said...

Modesty is a very, very, very deep issue. I believe that God looks not at what we wear, but what our HEART is like. We see a very clear example in 1 Samuel 16:7, ". . . for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart." (KJV)

People can say "pants" or "no pant" or "slits" or "no slits" or "sleeves" or "no sleeves," but the bottom line is the HEART! One can be dressed completely modest, but her eyes can show that her heart is far from being a 1 Peter 3 woman. Likewise, one might not have the strictest convictions of modesty, but their heart is much more modest.

So, instead of thinking, "Am I modest?" Girls really should think, "Is my heart focused on Christ and concerned only about bringing glory to Him?"

As for the boys, we are responsible to some extent how our dress, movements, and eyes affect them. At the same time, I do agree that we have hyped up "boys will stumble if they see this" (don't worry: my brothers agree). However I must add that one cannot be TOO careful. We mustn't use this thought as an excuse to dress how we want to and please ourselves. Once again, I must point to where our HEART is!

Continue to search this issue out for your own heart and life. Use not only your own intellect, but God's Word and His guidance!

Ana Renee

Liberty said...

Tragedy- I'm glad to be back, and sorry you didn't get the memo sooner. :D

Ana- thanks so much for that. You're very right! I've seen some girls who follow all the rules, but you can tell they are immodest deep down, and vice versa. :)) Thank you very much for your wise thoughts.

Tragedy101 said...

All joking aside; In all seriousness, blaming anyone (but the self) for the desires of the heart is an evil lie. My sins are my sins. You, like Potiphar's wife, cannot steal my virtue, only the appearance of my virtue.

So quit lying to yourselves. You are not responsible for the sins of a man. You may protect yourself from some of his own self-deceptions as to why he sins, but that does not make you responsible in any way for his sin. Your modesty (or lack thereof) will not protect you from his sin. [A gun might.]

Jeremiah 17.9-10. I may stumble over my wicked desires, but you do not cause me in any way to stumble. It is the desires of my own heart that cause me to stumble. You cannot by wearing (or not wearing) clothes cause a man to stumble sexually.

Just as I cannot cause you to stumble and sin, but the desires of your own heart do so. James 1.13-15.

Joyful_Momma said...

Wonderful response, Tragedy!!

Abby Rogers said...

Hello, Liberty!

I found your blog through our mutual interest in homeschooling :)

I blog over at www.differenthomeschoolgirl.blogspot.com, and I am considering starting a blog/group/community/something for homeschool girls like you and me. Here's a brief outline of my thoughts:

It would be a place for girls (under 21 years old) who have been or are being homeschooled through middle school, high school, or college.
They must love Jesus.

They must be living a lifestyle that's different from the World.

They want to be part of an online community with other homeschool girls who are living different lives, set apart for the Lord.

They want to encourage and be encouraged by others walking the same walk.

Every member would check out prospective members’ blogs before they’re officially admitted. The girls must honor God with the content of their blogs and have a commitment to living a life set apart to Him.

What do you think? Would you be a part of this group? Can you think of anyone else who would? Do you have any suggestions as to how it should be put together?

Thank you for your time!
Abigail Rogers

P.S. Part of the inspiration for this was this article: http://chrisdavis.wordpress.com/2011/06/14/the-lonely-homeschooled-girl/

Abby Rogers said...

I just had to comment on this post. It's amazing! I don't think I've ever heard these views expressed so clearly.

I know that self-righteous feeling SO well. Unfortunately. Sometimes I feel nervous when I wear jeans around ATI-type girls in skirts, not exactly "judged", just uncomfortable thinking what they might be thinking of me. I don't believe that I'm going against God's wishes by wearing pants, though, so I try to be confident in my standard of modesty.

Your view of legalism is right-on, in my humble opinion.

Love your intro to the "for guys" section XD Very true about drawing attention to something, and then that thing consuming our thoughts, even if it's a "good thing" like modesty.

Rubies Like Ruth said...

Hello again! I just re-read through my comment and realized something that I mentioned that might be read wrong. The original quote: "So, instead of thinking, 'Am I modest?' Girls really should think, 'Is my heart focused on Christ and concerned only about bringing glory to Him?'"

I just wanted to clarify that I did NOT mean that we don't have to worry about being modest (we don't need to be careless of how we dress). I just meant that our focus needn't be strictly on outward appearance that we neglect our inward heart (like 1 Peter 3:3-4 says, "Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.").

~Ana Renee

NSPalmer said...

You have written a very thoughtful comment with some good insights.

We males, as you noted, are rather simple creatures and we react to what we see. Therefore, if women want us to treat them with the respect they are due as people and as children of God, it makes sense to avoid letting us see things that distract us from what is important.

That said, it seems to me that in some of your points, you are not really criticizing modesty, but instead are criticizing the sins of pride and of judging other people.

Overall, thought-provoking and very well done!