Christian Reflections on Lust, Modesty, and Beauty (Part 4): Modesty Culture

Modesty

Guys have it easy! My clothing choices, generally, only concern me, and nobody else even worries about what I wear. I have never been asked sew extra buttons on to clothes, wear an extra shirt over something, or take into consideration the thoughts and needs of others as they relate to my clothes. I just get dressed. Christian women, however, are constantly told that the way they dress matters to everyone else. This is an aspect of our Evangelical modesty culture that I think is particularly unhealthy. Evangelical modesty-talk has unintentionally created a culture of shame for Christian women.

In Evangelical circles “modesty” is a word that is used almost exclusively with regard to women. If I choose not to think about modesty I can, but I suspect that my wife and female friends are not afforded that luxury. They receive, instead, the brunt of our modesty-talks, finger-pointing, policing, and correction. The rationale behind this discrimination seems to be that women are blamed for men’s lust problems. We are a little more careful with our words, of course. We say things like “they make us stumble,” or “tempt us to lust,” but the meaning is all the same. However we say it, though, we are wrong. Brad Williams has shared a few serious rebukes of this whole Evangelical cultural trend. He writes:

Brother in Christ, if you’re reading this, let me say that if you see a sister with a skirt you deem too short, it isn’t her fault that you “stumble”. “Stumble” is a word that lets you off the hook for taking lecherous, perverted, and lustful looks at a woman. “Stumble” is a word that lets a man pretend that it isn’t entirely his fault that he’s reduced to a slavering buffoon because he saw a little cleavage. (“This Should Go Without Saying: Stop Blaming Rape On Women”)

Williams exposes the absurdity of this whole idea. Why are women singled-out in the modesty conversation? We single them out because we hold them responsible for the sinful struggles of their brothers.

Think about the complete one-sidedness of this equation. Women lust too, and yet we never blame men for their failures. Men, in turn, never think about how their attire might “make a sister stumble.” Williams highlights the disparity:

Hey brother, have you ever once worried about whether or not your attire is “causing a sister to stumble”? Have you ever worried that people will view you as a “Jezebel” because you wore a t-shirt that showed off your biceps? Or that your topless swimming at the pool allowed a woman to see your abs? Do you honestly think that no woman is “visually stimulated” and therefore, you’re off the hook? The hypocrisy of the “modesty police” says more about the immaturity of our “man culture” than it does about the supposed semi-sluttiness of our sisters when they wear skirts that are two inches above the knee. Men, in the day of the Lord’s visitation, you aren’t going to get away with the excuse, “The women you gave us, they showed us a bit of leg, and we did lust.”

Williams’ questions expose some serious weaknesses in our approach to modesty. Either we must concede the absurdity of holding one another responsible for someone else’s sin, or we need to do a better job of policing Christian men as well as women. In a satirical piece written at The Salt Collective, one author humorously recommended just this shift in practice. She asserts that men in suits cause her to stumble, and she pleads with her brothers: stop wearing suits. She writes:

Every time I pass a man in a well-tailored suit, I try to keep my eyes averted to avoid the evil, lustful thoughts that will surely creep into my head. Sometimes I’m successful. Other times…I’m in an office building and I find my senses assaulted by a sea of men strutting around in well-tailored suits, smelling of cologne and after-shave and…….

[gazes out the window]

Don’t these men have any self-respect? Do they even understand how their clothing affects me? I wonder what is going through men’s heads when they decide to dress this way. All I know is that when a man wears a nice suit with pants that are juuuust tight enough, I will notice. (“When Suits Become A Stumbling Block: A Plea to My Brothers in Christ”)

The satire is so thick in this piece it’s hard not to laugh, and yet it communicates well the absurdity of our approach to, and inconsistency with, modesty.

Furthermore, if the Bible speaks about modesty in terms of putting on character, then why are we so consumed with shaming, policing, rebuking, and clothing. Again, it’s not that we shouldn’t concern ourselves in dressing in ways that are appropriate to our context and our dignity, but Biblical modesty is about so much more than covering-up. We need to challenge one another to put on “good works” (1 Timothy 2:9), and put on the “imperishable quality of a gentle and quite spirit” (1 Peter 3:3). We need to focus more intently on what it looks like to reflect Christ and not simply focus on what it looks like to reflect 1950s propriety. A shift to the positive aspects of modesty will make a tremendous difference in our church cultures, which at present can often, unintentionally, create cultures of shame for women.

The way we talk about modesty is important. We can either promote a healthy culture that aims at cultivating Biblical character, or we can promote shame. We can uplift Christian women and encourage their dignity, worth, and beauty or we can devalue them and hide their beauty. How we speak about modesty will help create one or the other kind of culture. This is an important conversation, but how we talk about it is just as important.

Trackbacks

  1. […] they cannot bear, let men off the hook for their sin, and universally apply rules that end up shaming beauty. We need to be thoughtful in our approach to […]

  2. […] 12. Christian Reflections on Lust, Modesty, and Beauty (Part 4): Modesty Culture […]

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