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Modesty is not a dress code

What is biblical modesty? Some Christians reduce modesty to a list of don’ts – a blacklist of too short, too low cut, too tight. No yoga pants! Society teaches girls to use their bodies to get attention, to dress like bait on a hook and go fishing. And as wrong as that is, are dress codes the solution? Does this pendulum have no middle ground?

The topic of biblical modesty predictably comes up every spring as winter parkas hit the floor, and every fall as girls enter school hallways. “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 Tim. 2:9-10 ESV).

Women should adorn themselves . . . with good works. What does that look like, exactly? The Greek translation for respectable apparel is “long robes.” Is that what Paul’s intent here is? Should we all be dressing like the ancient Greeks? Clearly the Bible is not prescriptive on this issue.

A modest attitude
Modesty is about behaviour and attitude more than dress; it’s about pride and humility – and the modest woman continually puts all her focus on God, and serving God, instead of on clothing or attracting attention. Do men need to be modest? Yes, and I’m pointing at the guy who’s boasting about his athletic achievements or how many days a week he spends in the gym.

I have two teenage daughters – my musician (16) and my athlete (14). My musician has no issue with her youth group dress codes, though she is fond of shorts that would likely be considered too short. My athlete is a competitive cheerleader. Not the pompom waving, chase-the-football-team cheerleader, but the double back-handspring back-layout, train-three-days-a-week, wins national championships kind of elite cheerleader.

Cheerleaders are not known for their modesty, partly because the roots of the sport are in field-side look-at-me antics. Outside the gym, my athlete daughter dresses for comfort and freedom of movement. She prefers yoga pants, sweat pants and skinny jeans (because she doesn’t have to pull them up constantly or wear a restrictive belt – her logic). She chooses clothing based on comfort, not how her behind looks or whether the boys stare. She’s more modest (in her behaviour and motives) than some girls who dress more conservatively.

Manners and context
Bestselling Christian author Michael Hyatt wrote in a blog post about biblical modesty: “If people look at any part of your body before looking at your face, it is probably not modest.”

Really? That’s just about having good manners, not necessarily a reflection of how a girl is dressed. A guy can lust over a woman in a parka if he chooses to. 

We need to teach our teens that different social contexts require different clothing. It’s inappropriate to show up for church on Sunday in a bathing suit – a one piece or a bikini. Equally, it would be inappropriate to wear a dirty t-shirt and ripped jeans to a job interview.

As a curvy woman, I struggle to find clothing that’s appropriate for my office. I can be the same dress size as another woman and wear exactly the same top, and it will fit her well but show way too much cleavage on me. I am sensitive to the fact that in this particular social context, I must choose clothes with higher necklines and so on.

Is attractiveness sinful?
Telling girls to cover up so their brothers in Christ don’t lust over them is perhaps the worst reason given to promote biblical modesty. At 21, I struggled as a new bride to understand how my body was no longer evil; how overnight my natural curves no longer lured men down a slippery path to eternal hell. I insisted the lights stay off; was I even allowed to feel pleasure from this?

The message that’s often internalized by teens and young women is that their bodies are sinful if men find them attractive; that they are less important than men; that a guy’s purity is the girl’s responsibility. It allows guys to blame shift for their desires and actions, and it teaches both sexes that sexual temptation is only a male issue. Where is the room for a woman to simply be pretty, or even beautiful? Sheila Wray-Gregoire, in her book The Good Girl's Guide to Great Sex, shares the story of a coworker  who was very beautiful and dressed conservatively but was often chastised by church leaders for being immodest.

From the inside out
Teens need the tools to discern the appropriate dress for the social context and to critically self-examine one’s own attitudes and motivations. We need to teach teens to shift the attention off one’s self and focus on God.

We give teens a bad rap here, but how many women, of all ages, have critically asked a mirror how that pair of jeans makes them look? How many men and women dress with an eye to displaying a particular brand name or wear expensive accessories so others think better of them? How many are immodest with their nutrition and fitness routines? It’s OK to want to look nice and to take care of yourself, but when the focus becomes “look at me,” that’s immodest.

We know that God isn’t concerned with dress, wealth or good looks but rather our hearts. If we derive our value and identity from our relationship with Christ, the Spirit will slowly change our attitudes and shine a spotlight on wrong attitudes. Those kinds of changes work from the inside out, not the other way around with tape measures and legalism.

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