Can Modesty Backfire?

I hate shopping for clothes. I hate taking my kids shopping for clothes. And as my oldest daughter gets closer to becoming a “tween” I hate it even more (which is why I’m thankful that my wife takes the lead on such tasks). What amazes me are the, ahem, mature fashions now seen as acceptable for young girls. Yes, I’m one of those parents who would prefer childhood last more than the five minutes our culture seems to allow.

I’m not the only one. There has been a growing movement, by both religious and non-religious groups, to champion the value of modesty. Some push modesty as a means of protecting their children from the dangers of a sexually super-charged culture. Others hope to aid their daughters in

developing a healthier self-image and push against the objectification of women that dominates the media and advertising.

But could the modesty movement backfire? Could attempts to de-sexualize girls in fact do the opposite? And could attempts to not objectify women actually do just that?

I came across a thought-provoking article by a writer named Sierra at AlterNet. She was raised in an ultra-conservative Christian community where modesty was the dominant value. But by emphasizing the dangers of showing too much skin, the community actually caused Sierra to obsess about her appearance. In other words, rather than making physical appearance a non-issue, modesty actually made it the dominant issue. She writes:

Modesty taught me that I was a decoration. Everything about my life was governed by whether or not a man was watching. How I moved and what I ate or wore all depended on the male gaze. Modesty taught me that nothing I did mattered more than avoiding sexual attention. Modesty made me objectify myself. I was so aware of my own potential desirability at all times that I lost all other ways of defining myself.

Please read the whole article. It will give you plenty to consider.

What it helped me remember is how easy it is to prescribe cures that are worse than the disease. For example, in response to the declining commitment to marriage in our culture the church has responded with decades of emphasis on the holiness, sacredness, and centrality of marriage. But in the process we have unintentionally dishonored the growing number of single adults in our communities by making them feel like second-class Christians. (And ironically the Apostle Paul actually extols the virtues of singleness above marriage in 1 Corinthians 7.)

And rather than focusing on deconstructing the cultural sanctity of personal desire or elevating a vision for the value of self-control as an essential element to Christian sexuality, many church leaders have decided to fight fire with fire. They launch 30 day sex campaigns and sermon series that promise more satisfying sex awaits those who maintain biblical boundaries. But rather than deflating the over-sexualized atmosphere of the culture, they are only adding to it while at the same time denying sexual fulfillment to individuals who do not qualify. I’ve had more than a few newlyweds speak to me about the unrealistic sexual expectations they inherited not from the culture but from the church.

And Sierra’s raw reflections about the unintended consequences of the modesty movement show how easily we can do damage in the process of seeking to do right.

I don’t have any great wisdom about how address this problem. But I do know this: I don’t want my daughters to see themselves as objects to be displayed, nor as objects to be hidden. But as image-bearers of God, fearfully and wonderfully made and loved by him.

  • http://www.terryesau.com Terry Esau

    Great thoughts Skye. As the father of three girls I know exactly what you are talking about. And don’t worry…your daughters won’t WANT you to go shopping with them soon.

  • http://areyoujustwatching.com Daniel J. Lewis

    Interesting thoughts, but I’m not sure I can agree with the conclusion. I also grew up in an extremely conservative Christian family (skirts for girls, no shorts on boys in public). But these examples raise the question of how isolated are the feelings of people like Sierra.

    It’s reasonable to assume you’re not suggesting that we throw out modesty. But if modesty seems to backfire, then what is the alternative?

    I suggest that modesty is not the issue but how it is enforced—not how it’s taught. What is the core of modesty? The Bible tells us that nakedness was corrupted by Adam and Eve’s sin. So God had to make a covering for them.

    Modesty is a concept that goes beyond our clothing. One aspect of modesty is that it saves our bodies for our husbands or wives to enjoy within the covenant of marriage. Acting outside of this is immodesty. But the same applies to behaviors: from leading a person on to blatant immoralities. Modesty in many aspects of life protects us and others from such compromise.

  • Tyler

    I have read the previous article a couple of weeks ago. There are several issues here to be dealt with.

    In regards to the initial article there are issues in term definition as well as motive.
    First of all the writer connotes that Modesty is… and then says everything modesty is and did. The issue here is that is not real modesty. If something ceases to be what it is, ascribing the name to it does not mean that that is what it is. It comes down to misconceptions, what the girl was taught through lessons and life is that modesty is something bad, modesty is good, we have scripture to back this up. If we don’t clarify, identify and clear up any misconceptions then countless, useless hours of argumentation will occur over mere semantics. Also the girl in this article had a poor motive for her change in stance, she said that she can’t be concerning men’s personal struggles, and that she must mind her own struggles. This is pure selfishness and vanity, the best text to understand this would be Philippians 2:1-11. We are told to consider others “more significant than ourselves”, to always be concerning the struggles of others. To exercise my freedom regardless of someone else’s struggle is sin, we see this in the weaker brother argument that Paul uses in several of his letters like 1 corinthians and romans. But there is some boundaries of this, because even the most depraved man can sexually objectify the most modest woman. Every woman needs to ask advice, pray, find scritpural basis to find where a level ground for what True modesty is in this sex saturated culture.

    Modesty is decency, freedom from vanity, simplicity and moderation in all spheres of life.

    Regarding the objectification of women:

    women should not be seen as sex objects, nor as something to be hidden. But we can’t escape beauty here, God made women beautiful for a reason. But they shouldn’t be hidden either, beauty has never been made to be hidden. God did not hide a beautiful world from us, God has wished for us to be in his presence to see his majesty, glory and beauty. Beauty is meant to be seen. For women their beauty is meant to be fully enjoyed in the context of marriage. Men should not push to show off their wives nor hide them, but they should look for a balanced perspective, and to portray that perspective to the world. God wants us to see women the way he sees women, not objectifying them either way and not diminishing the value of beauty.

    Beauty is subjective anyway, men marry women thinking they are beautiful while other men don’t see that particular woman’s beauty, or at least attractiveness. There is a difference between attractiveness and attraction. I can think several women are attractive but not be attracted to them. I can acknowledge that they have general features that are attractive to others or even to me but not be attracted to their person, the real attraction is when their character and personality shine as well as match up with mine. Beauty is also subjective in the sense that we live in a broken world and broken men cannot see beauty in every woman because of brokenness. It is not that there is not beauty, rather that it is covered or veiled with brokenness and possibly sin. The same goes both ways for men and women.

    True modesty is decency and appropriateness in every sphere of life that comes out of a correct and balanced view of yourself, God and the people around you.

    The issue happens with value and identity. When women think that their value is too little or too great, based on sexuality or diminished sexuality. Sexuality is a part of womanhood, as well as manhood, it is a part of a human being but it should not be inflated or diminished. A woman with true modesty will dress in a way that is a reaction to seeing how small she is compared to God, and yet how valuable God says she is based on the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

  • Len Mason

    Thank you for sharing this. I read Sierra’s post and a follow up post (http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/modesty-a-response-to-common-misunderstandings/#more-639) that rebuts some common replies.

    I think this is spot-on: that it is not what we do but why we do it. This is an idea that the church has fought long and hard because there is no way to quantify what goes on in the heart. There is no way to control something intangible as listening to God on a personal level. So pastors talk about a personal relationship with God, but those are empty words. They issue rules and encourage traditions, such as modesty, and call our adherence “fruit” so they can tell if we are really following God or not.

    Nothing will change until church leadership recognizes their true place in the body of Christ, which is not a go-between, not a Moses, not a mouthpiece, not a shepherd, not a head… just a sinner/saint like me.

  • http://www.skyejethani.com Skye Jethani

    Daniel,

    I’m certainly not pro-immodesty. Rather we need to be wise in what we communicate to girls/women within Christian communities. Yes, we need to be aware of the over-sexualized atmosphere of our culture, but we mustn’t freak out about it in a way that reinforces the objectification of women. Frankly, religious communities have a history of over-reacting to cultural problems whether alcohol, sex, entertainment…you name it. We tend to prohibit and demonize things so strongly that we actually give them more power. That’s the risk of making modesty among girls central to their identity.

    Skye

  • Julie
  • agirl’svoice

    Commenting because you said you need girls’ input, but really I agree with these comments! It’s all in the heart of how it’s taught. If we keep our focus on Jesus, first and foremost, we don’t need to hit our congregations over the head with morality issues and dos and don’ts. When purity becomes Pharisaical, we have already lost it. It’s all about reflecting Christ, not in a dress code or a rule book. Now we ARE given guidelines for practicality’s sake (i.e. save it for marriage, dress in a way that honors each other, etc.) But these aren’t to define our identity as women and men, they are to keep us focused on living out God’s purposes.

    Basically, if the Church put Christ first in both singleness and marriage, we wouldn’t have to worry about it (as much). Paul’s pretty clear about this. Somehow the Church has forgotten his urging to use singleness not as a “training for marriage” time but as a “living the Kingdom” time. And marriage isn’t the “end goal,” it’s an illustration of Christ’s love for His Bride. Remember this and we can end our obsession with it on both sides (in the secular world and the Church).

  • Gary Casaccio

    People in our culture are driven by approval- adults & children both. We either do certain things to try to get approval OR we avoid doing certain things to get approval (or avoid disapproval). In the context of the church, people act in “appropriate” ways to try to impress others; they try to impress with their with their scripture memorization, bible knowledge, prayer ability, humility, service, charity, good works, position in the church etc. all in order to get approval. OR they refrain from certain “non-approved” activities such as dressing provocatively, sounding critical, gossiping, being judgmental, admitting they may be angry, have lust or some other pattern of sin in their life so as not be subject to another’s disapproval. Either way we are giving our power away to someone or something outside ourself. We become less self-detrmined and more other-determined. I believe that If we increasingly let go of our need for external approval, we will more likely & more naturally behave in ways that are not only appropriate but also free of unnecessary emotional baggage. Increasingly attempt to live in a manner pleasing to God and in alignment with biblical standards without looking for external validation and decreasingly try to live in a manner pleasing to mere, whimsical mortals or arbitrary human / cultural standards.

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