Leaving the Blandwagon of Conservative Modesty

emma watson

Emma Watson being fabulous

Traditional conservative modesty is all about reducing sex appeal. Somehow, wearing clothing that obscures your natural body shape is supposed to prevent people from inappropriately desiring you. This is the sort of thinking that leads people to ask what rape victims were wearing, even though the answer is quite often “something you would consider totally modest”. The attire of the victim has nothing to do with being raped; rape is not simply out-of-control lust.

Furthermore, out-of-control lust is not simply about seeing too much skin or clothes that are too tight. But we’re ahead of ourselves…what does modesty really mean?

I believe this whole conservative modesty movement is based on a single verse of the Bible, and then they find other verses that can be misinterpreted into being relevant to their cause. A while back, one young woman wrote an article about it, and of course she quoted the following scripture:

  • “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness–with good works.” 1 Timothy 2:8-10

First thing I’d like to point out is that the author of the letter says I desire, not God commands. Big difference. He’s giving advice, not rules.

But supposing that it is advice you are going to follow, that’s where a look at the Greek words is helpful.

The first adjective used to describe proper apparel, respectable, literally means “properly organized”. It’s also been translated “with good behavior”. So, the first thing we can say about what is good to wear is that it’s proper and respectable in your society. Since it doesn’t specify apparel that earns you respect from men, it’s safe to assume that he’s talking about general respectability within the context of the culture.

The second adjective, translated “modesty”, is an interesting one. It means “to be ashamed”. This word is not used anywhere else in the Bible, and it’s strange here because shame is a loss of respectability. How do you dress in a respectable way and a non-respectable way? I suppose it’s probably used more in the sense of personal attitude toward yourself, an attitude of not trying to get respect and admiration. Although this still is a bit contradictory; dress respectably, but not in a way to draw respect to yourself.

The third adjective, self-control, means exactly that. Having a sound mind, moderation, sober, as opposed to extravagance and intoxication.

A contrast is given next, which helps to explain what those last two adjectives mean specifically for clothing. It says “not showing any part of the boobs or clinging tight to the curves of the body, or making visible more than 197 square inches of skin. Also dresses must be at least as long as the knee…”

No, wait. That’s not what it says. Here’s the actual contrast: “not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.”

Sorry, conservatives, braids are simply not modest. They will cause men to lust after you. So will jewelry and dresses that cost more than $500.

Or maybe, the modesty mentioned here has nothing to do with preventing lust. Maybe it is all about portraying humility and respectability, not dressing as an arrogant movie star in elaborate gowns or expensive leather jackets in order to draw attention to how rich and special you are. But of course, reading the Bible isn’t about finding out what it actually says. It’s all about finding verses that you can twist into supporting what you already want to believe.

Beyond the bad usage of out-of-context phrases from the Bible, there are some other bothersome statements in this article. First, a quote from her (at the time) boyfriend: You are dressed a lot like those girls you always comment on at the gym.

Why are you commenting on girls at the gym all the time? Is that your business? Is there a problem with people making their own choices about what to wear when they are going to get sweaty and move around a lot?

But the reality is that many Christian men – at least the ones who truly seek after God and are convicted by His Spirit – are not only aware of their lust problem, but guilty about it. They are not all shameless beasts looking for an opportunity to undress women in their minds.

First, not all of us have lust problems. I know, it goes against everything the conservative idea of masculinity is based on, but there are asexual and demisexual and other varieties of men who are not plagued by a strong desire for sexual release. Secondly, I’m not sure if it was intentional, but this seems to insinuate that non-Christian men, or the ones who don’t actively “seek God”, are shameless beasts looking for an opportunity to undress women in their minds. Which is simply not true. But let me say, if a man is going to “undress you in his mind”, he can do that just as easily no matter what you’re wearing. How? We all know what a naked body looks like. Add a specific person’s face to it, and voila, you’ve undressed that person in your mind.

It is not just his job not to look: it is our responsibility to provide nothing provocative to look at. We cannot blame men for what we instigate…

Your face is provocative.

Setting standards is not legalistic. Saying that modesty is required in order to be saved is legalistic, and regulating others rather than looking into our own hearts is legalistic.

I do not think that word means what you think it means. Legalism is strict adherence to a particular set of laws. Strict simply means “demanding total obedience”. It’s the letter of the law mentality, as opposed to the spirit of the law. The consequences you claim for not following the law has nothing to do with whether or not you’re legalistic. In other words, legalism in this situation would be insisting that dressing in a way that is not modest by your definitions is a sin, no exceptions.

Men care so much what we do (or do not) wear, they are very conscious of it at all times. While the level may differ man to man, the concept remains the same: extra skin, extra form, extra cleavage or extra leg will draw either subconscious or conscious attention from them. They are designed as visual creatures (we have had this taught to us many times over, have we not?) so a visual stimulant catches their eye.

More untrue stereotyping. A lot of men are visual, and so are a lot of women. Many of us are not visual. And as mentioned above, the modesty of the Bible is not about how much skin or shape you show, but extravagantly expensive clothing and jewelry. You’re talking about one issue, lust, and basing it on an entirely separate issue known as modesty (or “being ashamed”, as we know to be the literal meaning of the word.)

When I am not walking in God’s Spirit and seeking to do what I read in His Word, I will wear whatever I want at the expense of the men around me and my own self-respect.

Technically, the word translated “modesty” means having a lack of self-respect. To have self-respect means to have pride and confidence in yourself, a feeling that you are behaving with honor and dignity. Feeling that you are respectable. Shame is dishonor, humiliation, loss of respect. You’re going straight from one version of immodesty–your “hide the skin” mentality–into another. “I am respectable and honorable because I’m not wearing slutty clothes like those girls at the gym.”

Phylicia wrote a sequel to that article a few months later. The first thing I noticed was how she made the dignity of a woman seem tied to the men they belong to.

Married women: you represent your husband’s name. People see you and they associate you with him; are you a reflection of the honor and respect you want associated with that name – the name you bear?

If I get married, I hope people see my wife and associate her with who she is, because I do not define her any more than she defines me.

Engaged women: we represent our fiance’s reputation. Did he make a good choice, or are we calling him into question by the cleavage we display as we bend over?

Because nothing says “I make bad decisions” more than marrying a girl with boobs.

Single and dating women: you represent hidden qualities of godliness, the mystery of femininity that so many men seek. You are the prize, the trophy, the golden crown to someone: does what is showing distract from that?

That’s right, base your whole image and your life on the supposed fact that you’re a reward for some unknown man. (I do find the “golden crown” metaphor a bit ironic, since gold is given as an example of immodesty in that Bible verse you quoted.)

But you know what I realized as I walked out of Lowe’s in my ugly, but covered up, outfit? My spirit is at peace. In that moment, I had done what God has called me to do in this area of my life. I honored Mr. M with my dress.  I honored the married man I ran into. I didn’t cause Mr. M’s friend, at least by any fault of my own, to question his choice in a wife.

What if wearing ugly shapeless outfits causes them to doubt Mr. M’s choice in a wife? What if I think it isn’t healthy to base a relationship on the woman hiding herself in order to bring honor to the man? If what you wear means you share responsibility for what people think of you and your husband, why does that principle only apply to cases when you wear something that shows more skin? Perhaps you dishonor him with your “modest” attire by making people think he’s an overbearing, jealous, insecure man who can’t handle the fact that other men might consider his wife to be an attractive person.

Thankfully, what people think of your clothing has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of wearing said clothing.

Bonus round: In this other article, she makes a bad argument against purity culture and rape culture being linked: Answer me this, Samantha: if purity culture is responsible for rape culture, why did rape exist before the purity movement began?

Because the fundamental building blocks of purity culture are ancient sexist ideas of men having the power, women’s value being tied to their virginity, their image being tied to a man, and their lives being defined by who they marry (or more simply, who they have sex with). Incidentally, rape is all about power, not selfish desire for sex, although the latter can influence the former. Especially when the man thinks women exist for his benefit and pleasure.

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2 responses to “Leaving the Blandwagon of Conservative Modesty

  1. “Traditional conservative modesty is all about reducing sex appeal.” Really? Really? From the first line I am presented with a quip aimed at a straw man that supposedly resides in my camp. Sorry, but I’m not buying it. It’s tricky when you label things like “traditional” and “conservative” since both of these labels have changed their collective opinions about everything they are tacked on to throughout history.

    The modern American purity movement that is comprised of bible believing Christians would more likely define modesty as an attitude of bringing honor to God by how one acts, talks, dresses and presents oneself to others. Modesty is not about reducing sex appeal, but instead about the attitude of the heart as it relates to the purpose of dress. Wearing a burlap sack is not the epitome of modesty. Dressing so as not to put oneself as greater than others, either by symbols of beauty, symbols of wealth, or symbols of strength-that is modesty. It really has absolutely nothing to do with sex appeal.

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    • I would challenge you to find me one conservative article that says women should cover more skin without using male lust as a reason. I’ve never seen one.

      If you disagree that men’s lust is a reason for women’s modesty, then you’re not traditional. You basically agreed with me on the definition of modesty. You can’t say something is a straw man because you think you are the the supreme manifestation of the entire movement…if you don’t even represent the beliefs of the vast majority of them. You’d be what we call an exception, non-traditional.

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