Modesty: Why Wardrobe Still Matters

A few weeks ago, in a video entitled “The Evolution of the Swimsuit,” Jessica Rey presented a new line of designer swimsuits—modest, though still fashionable. The presentation has set off a lot of discussion about the nature of modesty. Many Christians have held Rey up as a hero, while others have claimed that she’s missing the point entirely. Veronica helped me think through this, and we hope this response is helpful for you, Summit Church, as you think through it.

The main critique against Rey is that she (along with others who praise modesty in female dress) misunderstands what modesty is. Modesty is an attitude, so the thinking goes, not a wardrobe. There is, of course, a measure of truth in this: modesty is not merely covering up certain parts of the female body—or the male body, for that matter. Anyone who has lived in an Islamic culture (as I have) knows that covering a woman literally head to toe does not prevent lust–in fact, in a twist of irony, dressing women this way encourages the men to think of them more as sexual objects, not less. And, as the Apostle Peter points out, modesty also involves the spiritual aspect of “adorning the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet 3:4).

But these critiques, to understate things considerably, over-state their case. Modesty is not merely about externals, to be sure. But is it not about externals at all? Caryn Rivadeneira says, for example, in an article for Christianity Today, Don’t Blame the Bikini; Blame the Bikini Culture“Modesty—and conversely, sexiness—is communicated through our body language and attitude, not so much what we wear or how much skin we expose.”

Rivadeneira compares lusting after the female body to coveting a house (though she admits this is an ‘imperfect’ analogy): it’s not the house’s fault that I am jealous of my neighbor for owning it; it’s mine. I need to change my attitude, not seek to hide the house. What that means for women, she says, is that if they truly desire modesty, they should “adjust attitudes, not wardrobes.”

Rachel Held Evans follows the same lines in her recent article, pointing out that the commandment against lust is focused on the eyes of men, not the clothing of women. And since men can lust after a fully clothed woman as well as a bikini-clad one, women should stop fretting over what sexual message their clothing sends. Instead, they should focus on whether their clothing exhibits materialism or not—a consideration which, while valid, is drawn from one of the sloppiest, most prejudiced examples of exegesis of 1 Peter 3 that I’ve ever seen.

Again, while acknowledging the validity of the points, are we really to conclude externals have nothing to do with modesty? If, for example, as Rivadeneira says,

“…. Bikinis provide a wonderful way to celebrate the female form that God created as good. …in bikinis, we declare our bodies to be enough – just as they are. And whether our bodies are taut or flabby, whether they’re prime or well past it, standing confidently in a bikini declares our God-crafted bodies as beautiful and good. And in turn, we proclaim other women’s bodies are also good.”

…then what is to stop us, by this logic, from approving of public nakedness? Provided the woman’s attitude is modest, why can’t she celebrate her body with complete abandon? Yes, this is a reducto absurdum, but I don’t see how it is avoidable by this logic.

Her comparison to coveting a house is also fraught with difficulties. Rivadeneira says it is okay to look at houses so long as we don’t covet. Should a guy be able to look at pornography so long as he doesn’t lust? Or read Playboy for the articles? No man this side of dotage, or attentive mother of a 13-year old boy, could possibly take this logic seriously.

I fully reject that those who are sanctified need not take caution in what they expose themselves to, or that we are not responsible to look after the weaknesses in the flesh of others. The Apostle Paul did too. Maturity is a balance of gospel-centered change AND wise choices. Why not focus on adjusting attitudes and wardrobes? Men, why not ask God to help us look at women not as objects; and women, why not serve your fellow men by taking great care in how you dress? As I tell my church often, yes, girls, it’s our fault if we strike the match to ignite our thoughts with lust, but you don’t have to pile up twigs at our feet and douse them in gasoline.

Certainly it is most important that we cultivate a culture in which women are not viewed as objects and in which they are modest in heart. And yes, the “lines” of modesty will always change, so that what one age sees as modest another sees as scandalous–and thus we should never declare our convictions to be the standards of God.

But I doubt that I will get to a stage (in this life) where I could spend time with naked women and say, “Well, I can do this because I don’t see them as objects, and they have modest hearts, so everything’s fine here. Nothing to see here.” Before our resurrection, we still need limits for ourselves, and, as an act of love for others, I can sacrifice what is “lawful” for me to wear for what is expedient for my brothers’ and sisters’ holiness.

So when it comes to modesty, we need to adjust attitudes. But let’s not throw the swimsuit out with the bathwater: wardrobe still matters.

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