The Phoenix and Olive Branch

A spiritual abuse survivor blog by a daughter of the Christian Patriarchy movement.

Modesty: a response to common misunderstandings

on November 22, 2011

Inevitably, when I write about the modesty issue, I get some variation of the following responses:

  • Modesty is about respecting yourself.
  • Dressing “immodestly” also objectifies you.
  • Only my husband has the right to see those parts of me.
  • Do you want everyone to walk around naked?
  • Even if men are responsible for themselves, we shouldn’t tempt them.

A new addition to this list comes from an anonymous commenter today:

Haven’t you noticed that men dress more modestly than women? In western society women are expected to be exposed to anyone. Main difference between male and female clothing is that female clothing tends to be much shorter tighter which isn’t fair.

In short, men dress modestly while women are expected to be “sexy.” Actually, yes, I have noticed that. I agree: it’s not fair.

But: you have missed the point.

I have never advocated dressing skimpily for the sake of attracting men. I think the pressure on women to expose themselves for the sake of titillating men is wrong, sexist and unfair. “Girls Gone Wild” is exploitative. Victoria’s Secret uses photoshop to mutilate models’ bodies and capitalize on the insecurities of young women, telling them that they need to look like an impossible ideal. Being against the modesty doctrine does not make me in favor of any of these things. That said, the choice between being “sexy” and being “modest” is an artificial one, designed to distract you from the fact that either way, you’re being objectified. If you accept that the purpose of your dress is either to attract men or to hide from them, you’ve accepted that your dress is not about you. It’s about the abstract male observer. “Sexy” is not the opposite of the modesty doctrine; they’re two sides of the same coin.

Now, let’s get down to business:

If you think that dressing modestly is a way of fighting back against the oppressive cultural norms that objectify women by making them expose their bodies, you are wrong. The entire point of my previous post was that when you are preoccupied with modesty, you are still basing your clothing choices around whether or not men are looking at you. You are still dressing to get a reaction from them, whether it’s a drooling “she’s hot” or a “now there is a modest, respectable Christian woman.” Furthermore, women who feel superior to other women because they are dressed “modestly” are active participants in the objectification of other women. “That slut over there” is your sister; when you demean her, you demean yourself.

If you dress “modestly” in order to get men to respect you, you have already accepted the premise that respect for women comes from what they wear. You have also accepted the premise that women who are not like you do not deserve respect. That’s not okay. That’s the attitude that leads cops and judges to blame women who were raped for “asking for it.” (As if anyone asks to be raped!) Women deserve respect for their achievements and character, not their looks. Women deserve basic human dignity regardless of what they are wearing. Tell me, when was the last time you read a passage from the gospels in which Jesus despises a person based on her clothes? When does he even notice her clothes?

Dressing “sexy” and dressing “modestly” are both about dressing for men. Trying to be sexy means you are trying to get men to look at you. Trying to be modest means you are trying to keep men from looking at you. Attracting them or repelling them – either way, it’s still all about men.

What I am arguing for is not a particular kind of dress. I am arguing for approaching clothes as objects that make you feel confident, comfortable and happy. (You know, how men perceive their own clothes.) I am arguing for ditching the mentality that everything you wear and do is a performance for men. Modesty is a doctrine that is predicated on the male gaze. Think about it: When was the last time you worried about making a poor woman “stumble” by wearing expensive fabrics in front of her?

(This is not even touching homosexuality and the risk of tempting lesbian women, because that argument has no currency in homophobic fundamentalist groups. Lesbians are told they don’t actually exist.)

Now, as for men dressing modestly. Think about the adjectives used to sell clothing to men. Is “sexy” high on the list? I’ve seen that on occasion for suits, but little else. More often, it’s about comfort and performance. Men ultimately tend to wear more fabric than women do, but it’s not because they are worried about concealing their bodies from women. Men are not objectified in American culture. The phrase “male gaze” refers to the fact that in this culture, men are coded as “lookers” and women as “looked at.” Why do you think most people react to scantily clad men in sexy poses by calling them “gay”? Because they assume that men are ones looking at everything. Men do not dress “modestly.” Their dress tends to be more conservative than women’s, but avoiding female attention is not the reason for their choices. Men don’t worry about modesty; they dress in ways that make them confident, comfortable, and happy. Modesty is not usually part of their vocabulary when talking about their own clothes.

Here is the bottom line:

  • When “modesty” is what motivates your dress and actions, you are basing your decisions on whether or not men are looking at you.
  • When being “sexy” is what motivates your dress and actions, you are basing your decisions on whether or not men are looking at you.

That’s self-objectification.

I don’t know if I can make this any clearer: I’m not telling anyone to dress “immodestly.” I don’t give a flying fig what anyone else wears. I’m saying that basing your life decisions (clothing, exercise, etc.) on the modesty doctrine is just as objectifying as basing them on being “sexy.”

If you want to oppose the sexualization and objectification of women’s bodies in the mainstream media, teach your children to respect women. Teach them that women aren’t props for selling objects. Teach them that women’s brains matter more than their looks. Teach them to buy clothes that make them happy, not to attract or repel the opposite sex. Teach them to think outside the modesty/sexy (virgin/whore) binary that forever tells women they are meant to be looked at and can be discarded if they are found wanting (“not thin enough,” “not modest enough” – it’s evil either way). Criticize marketing campaigns that exploit women. Criticize the porn industry. Show your children that they don’t have to accept the cultural messages that are thrown at them by corporations who just want to sell products using whatever tactic works best (exploitative or not). Show your kids that being a woman is not all about attracting or repelling men.

Just teaching girls to cover-up is a cop-out. Covering or uncovering isn’t the issue. The issue is why we do what we do. What’s important is to fight the idea that women are objects to be looked at, and that message is reinforced, not combated, when we teach the modesty doctrine.

30 responses to “Modesty: a response to common misunderstandings

  1. Michelle says:

    Awesome post: well put. Thank you!

  2. Erika Martin says:

    So well said, though it’s sad that you have to clarify yourself further. Hopefully those that come up with the lame arguments will finally understand, but I could be wishing for a lot.

  3. Katy-Anne says:

    Great post and I agree!

  4. LD says:

    Your blog is awesome, I prescribe to similar “theology’, just through a different vein. I am Assemblies of God.

  5. Arthur says:

    Awesome post! It’s a shame that the people who most need this post won’t understand it even if they read it.

    There are none so blind as those who just won’t see.

  6. Kristen says:

    Absolutely! When all women are finally dressing for their own comfort and convenience, for their own happiness with the way they look, that is when womankind will finally be free.

  7. Flora says:

    Great post. I thought of something from my own life is that every time I have ever had a new outfit, I’d get comments from my (former) coworkers along the lines of “who is he” or “no real woman does anything unless she’s trying to get or keep a man”. I pick my clothes for me not for a man. I define me not anybody else. My mother raised me to believe in feminist ideas like that.

  8. Retha says:

    This article is great. It cuts right to the heart of the matter. Well said.

    I think the cartoonist here were onto the same idea:

  9. Flora says:

    Really excellent response and I agree with you on nearly everything I’m not sure I can agree with criticizing the porn industry though. Although some pornography is vile, it can be tasteful and respectful. We should be supporting porn that is respectful, and that embraces female sexuality as much as male. There’s nothing wrong with sexy… it just needs to come from that place of confidence, comfort and happiness.

  10. Arthur says:

    Did you ever wonder why the Boy Scouts have to wear uniforms? Wouldn’t they be just as happy in regular clothes?

    Why do sailors in the Navy wear uniforms? It’s not like they would be confused with outsiders. After all, it’s just them on the ship.

    What exactly is the value of a uniform?

    Uniforms function in three ways. First, they make the wearer feel like part of the group. Second, they represent a particular code, or ideal, or set of values, and bind the wearer to those values. Third, they identify the wearer as belonging to the group.

    When a boy becomes a member of the Boy Scouts, he adopts the dress of the Boy Scouts: that familiar khaki or brown shirt and shorts, emblazoned with all the insignia to identify his rank and achievements. His uniform gives him pride. He belongs. He’s only too happy to learn the lessons learned by generations of Scouts before him.

    When a sailor puts on his uniform, he is bound to a code of valor and honor. His conduct must follow a set model. There are standards to which he must adhere.

    When fundamentalist groups enforce a dress code among their members, they are in effect issuing uniforms without being overt about it. The first thing a visitor to a Message church will find is that ALL the females are wearing long skirts, long hair, no makeup, no fingernail polish, no jewelry, etc. etc. etc. This is their uniform. And if the hapless visitor should choose to return, she will no doubt be wearing a long skirt next time. And if she doesn’t do so voluntarily, peer pressure and/or sermons on holiness will be brought to bear.

    And so the trap is sprung. Once she begins to wear the uniform, she begins to feel like part of the group. She belongs. And so she becomes more receptive to the values and doctrines taught in the Message. She’s only too happy to learn about the serpent seed, the one god, the healing ministry, and the 3,000 rules she must now follow. And then she wears the uniform out in public. And she is identified as “one of them.” There’s no turning back now. They’re onto her. Her very clothing has betrayed her. And so she’s trapped.

    This idea has a somewhat different take on the idea from what Sierra spoke about. And I agree 2000% with everything Sierra had to say on this subject. She is spot on. But I see a different side of the same coin. A darker side. A coldly calculating side. I believe the issue of standardized dress codes is one of the mechanisms being employed by a mind control cult known as The Message. It is designed to be a trap from which there is no easy escape. It is designed to be a control mechanism by which the leader can coerce the flock into doing his will. Baby steps… always baby steps… a bit more pressure here, a little more control there… Don’t frighten them or they will recognize it as a cult… baby steps.

    And the uniform, or dress code, is the first one of those baby steps. Don’t do it!

  11. Retha says:

    Arthur, I believe you, and think there is also another reason. It’s also about not losing members.

    Young women could easily elope with a boyfriend who isn’t from the group, so they want women to hide themselves (behind many yards of cloth) from men’s gaze. If no man outside the group notice them, no man from the outside would take them away. That matches up, in many such groups, with courtship – if she don’t give her heart away, and only go with a guy (group member, obviously) Dad approve of, the cult won’t lose her.

    But they cannot tell that this is their real motive (or that fitting her into the group as you say is) so they make up stories of modesty and letting brothers stumble.

  12. Chris says:

    Excellent article- helped me see a truth that I already know/operate under but in an unexplored area of life.

    My question is, what’s the next step? Say I raise my daughters not to operate under the binary principle of modesty/sexy, but rather to value who they are and their minds. You suggest “Teach them to buy clothes that make them happy, not to attract or repel the opposite sex.” But should a parent then not recommend clothes that are more modest, rather than lustfully attractive (sinfully seductive, however we are to say it) to the opposite sex? Shouldn’t their be a higher standard than simply what makes them happy?

    I feel as though the Bible does recommend considering the other first- whether they’re male or female- and not doing anything that will make them stumble. So, while I agree that women should not be objectified and should not be taught that their sole purpose is to be looked at and judged on the basis of the content of their clothes, I think we need to go a step further and ask where we do get our guidelines from, and what they are.

    So in short, I guess that while I agree that “being a woman is not all about attracting or repelling men,” we can’t proceed headlong into life and ignore the fact that men are in fact attracted by what women wear.

    • Sierra says:

      I think there is a huge difference between attraction (as in, you glance at someone and think “hey, that’s an attractive individual” and them move on with your life) and lust, which is about making a decision to leer and obsess about someone else’s appearance. I think Christians get wrapped in knots trying to avoid the first, which is impossible (for women, too – we find a good looking man attractive) and don’t bother to teach boys that they can avoid succumbing to the second by being respectful of women. We force young boys to be paranoid about every feeling of attraction without teaching them to manage those feelings responsibly. Because I see lust as an intentional act (leering), I don’t believe that anything women wear or don’t wear has the power to determine whether or not a man lusts. Framing attraction as lust just makes everybody fail, over and over again.

      If I were a parent, I wouldn’t be worried that someone might happen to find my girls attractive. There’s nothing wrong with being attractive. I’d be more worried about whether or not they respected themselves enough to avoid men who only paid attention to their looks. I’d be very worried if they came into contact with boys who thought that, because my girls were wearing shorts, they were “asking” for male attention (or worse). There are many more perils in the lives of adolescent women than men happening to glance at their bodies with appreciation. Such perils include men feeling entitled to their bodies because of how they are dressed – that is an enormous problem. I’d much rather have my girls be looked at admiringly than torture themselves with diets and scrutinize every inch of their clothing daily to avoid attracting men, which they can’t help. When “attraction” (not bad behavior) is framed as a danger, women become slaves to male desire (avoiding it or stirring it up). If I were a parent, I would teach my girls not to be afraid of their own attractiveness, but to be wary of men reducing them to their bodies.

      There’s a straw man here. People take my posts as arguing that women should all dress “immodestly” or might as well walk around naked. I find that kind of thinking perverse. If the Bible didn’t tell you not to murder, would you go out and murder someone right away? I wouldn’t, because I care about other people. The Bible is not restraining me from a life of wanton crime; I’m just not a criminal. Sometimes our morals don’t need to be spelled out for us; we understand basic etiquette without the Bible telling us not to throw food at each other in fancy restaurants.

      Asking whether or not clothing needs to be governed by a “higher standard” is a trick question – if I say “yes,” I’ve capitulated to the idea that “modesty” is important, which I don’t believe. If I say “no,” I’ve made it sound like my “standard” is “lower” and that I think everyone should engage in some kind of hedonistic orgy. The fact is, having a “higher standard” for dress is just another way that women are saddled with self-consciousness and anxiety about their bodies. A “higher standard” is just the modesty doctrine repackaged as something superior to the everyday. You know what? Actual modesty – the quality of being unassuming and humble – is the opposite of having a higher standard of dress than everyone else. It’s about not drawing attention to yourself – for your looks or for your supposed holiness. If you’re the only girl at the beach who won’t wear a swimsuit, you’re actually being immodest by acting like you’re better than everyone else.

      Also, because the modesty standard is only ever applied to women, “respecting others first” is a one-way street in this issue. If only women have to “respect others first” in the way that they dress and act, they are automatically subordinating everything they do to men. Where is the fear that young men might cause women to “stumble” with their attractive muscular shoulders? What about when men work out and sweat makes their shirts cling over their abs? Where is the moral panic about the minds of young women being corrupted by seeing that? Maybe men shouldn’t work out because women might stumble over their handsome forms. (The idea that only men are visually attracted is false – it’s been debunked over and over again by actual women who know that they find men attractive, and yet evangelical preachers can’t seem to hear them.) This “respect” and “putting others first” does NOT need to apply to what we wear. It assumes that we wear things for other people, which is exactly what I’m trying to debunk here. Women do not dress for men. Period.

      So no, I don’t think clothing needs to be about anything more than being comfortable and happy. I think we need to stop making every insignificant detail of people’s lives an impossible mess of rules and “standards” couched in the language of “respect” for one another. The modesty doctrine is a large, tightly-bound burden, grievous to be borne. It deserves to be thrown out.

    • Erika Martin says:

      Very well put. A great thoughtful and true reply. Thank you for being so thorough and grounded.

  13. Sierra says:

    Please note that while I do allow commenters a reasonable amount of space to disagree, I will not approve comments that do not further the discussion. This includes reassertions of the modesty doctrine (which may be triggering to women who have left such stringent rule-based religions behind) and claims to superiority in the understanding of the Bible. I will end a comment thread or block a comment if I feel the conversation is going to be unproductive and/or disturbing to other readers.

  14. SJ Reidhead says:

    Your commentary is quite fascinating. As a historian, and someone who is working on a book about the history of fashion in the US 1860-1910, I can assure you that the “modesty” thing is a blip on the screen in the history of what people wore, and is almost always employed by repressive cultures. The more “modest” the woman’s costume, the fewer rights she is allowed to have. The strange truth of the matter is that today, our concept of modesty is based on the adaption of underwear, which began around 1820 onward. Until then, a woman wore (maybe) a chemise, corset, stockings which came to the knees, and maybe a petticoat. That’s it. The average woman wore only a chemise and stockings, and she slept in the chemise.

    Our version of modesty dates back to about 1860 and the hoop skirt, which also determined personal space. There was a philosophy at the time, promoted by certain German physicians, that a person was healthier wearing woolen underwear all year. It had nothing to do with modesty, but a health kick. By 1890, women were beginning to wear shorter cotton underwear, a camisole, slip and a corset. The corset was on its way out, soon to be replaced by the bra. Modesty had nothing to do with it. The real reason a woman wore a corset was to push her breasts up so she could wear things that were very low cut at times, without exposing everything there was to see.

    The greatest irony of all are the cultures that require women wear head coverings, scarves, veils, etc. The costume is a throw-back to the ancient classical cultures where women wore enveloping capes and head coverings to protect from the dust and dirt of the open roads, and protection against the sun. Most of these coverings were fairly sheer. It was worn over a culture specific chiton or robe. Those were often fairly sheer. Underclothing did not exist.

    As for men, today the “well dressed” man wears far fewer items of clothing than he did 100 years ago in that a man always put on a jacket, tie, and usually a vest when going out of doors for a more formal setting.

    It is all about control and repression, and has nothing to do with modesty. “Modesty” is about keeping women in their place. Throughout history, shedding certain items of outer clothing has been a statement from women about breaking through on repression or even social status. I doubt if it will ever change.

  15. Jaime says:

    I really liked this piece. I spent a lot of time struggling with this issue. For most of my 20s, I covered myself up quite a bit. I wore baggy clothes. I kept my hair short. I didn’t want to be judged because of my gender. I still don’t. But then I realized that it didn’t really matter how I tried to project myself, I was still seen as a female. It’s so ingrained in all of us that women hold this position, to be objectified and to only have value if we are worth looking at, whatever that means. So, now in my 30s, I’ve embraced the parts of femininity that I enjoy, like hair, makeup, dresses. And I just try to prove everyone wrong. Sometimes, it backfires. Sometimes, I’m seen as two dimensional, attractive without any intelligence, based purely on how I look. And then there is surprise when I reveal something deeper. but I don’t care anymore. I agree with you. I cannot be responsible for people’s assumptions or feelings or anything else. That’s something they have to figure out.

  16. Jaime says:

    Also… I cringe every time I see a photo of a friend’s small daughter and all they can say is how beautiful or pretty she is, how she’s a princess, a cutie..etc, etc… It starts from birth and it’s disturbing.

  17. Red Jayhawk says:

    Your piece is very nuanced and intelligent and I enjoyed reading. At the risk of sounding argumentative (a tone which I fervently hope to avoid striking), I would submit that men are instinctively visual, and the mental processes that drive a woman’s wardrobe choices in the end have little bearing on the triggers of male libido. In other words, a chic blouse that tastefully shows just a little cleavage (as opposed to a low-cut blouse worn to be an eye magnet) will still draw a man’s eye whether it was donned based on tenets of the modesty doctrine or a conscious effort to not be objectified – “boys will (still) be boys,” if I may borrow the cliche. It is of little import why a woman chooses an outfit; men are going to be attracted to certain things regardless of motive. Therefore, I think there will always be a place for certain aspects of the doctrine.

    I guess I don’t disagree with you. I just view the problem through a much simpler prism. I add up the equation differently but get the same result, if you will. For one thing, I accept the instinctual visual nature of the male for what it is. It’s an amoral phenomenon that, like many other human tendencies, can lead to immorality if not carefully guarded. The modesty doctrine, in my mind, springs forth as a natural reaction to this phenomenon, and not from a paradigm defined by the modest/sexy/objectification scheme. Is it a terrible downfall of our culture that women dress modestly in reaction the “male gaze”? Again, I don’t think so. Also, I haven’t encountered some of the more audacious responses you have received when opining on this issue. So admittedly, my view could be too simplistic. Still, I’m a pragmatist and this reply reflects that.

    Can impositions and rules and clothing be taken too far, as in the “Message cults” (above) and Islamic culture? Most certainly. This isn’t remotely intended to be a chauvinistic rant, advocating the unconditional accommodation of every male whim, or vice versa. I just don’t see this as such a complicated issue.

    This could be due to my own experience in what I would consider a well-balanced Christian home. My parents always emphasized modesty to my sisters but did not couch the debate in such terms as you have. To my knowledge, the topic of modest dress as a function of feminine identity was never explored. Was this a failure? Well, by this definition, it would appear to be. But it seemed to work. My sisters now dress in ways that inject confidence into their lifestyles yet do not come off as anywhere near “asking for it.” They got the “why” via moral examples and principles found in the Bible, in their own mother, and in well-rounded societal experiences, not via discussions using “sexual object” conventions.

    In the end, I believe that the conversation only need evolve into the modest/sexy dichotomy if we allow it. Personally I find it unnecessary, but then again, I’m not a female potentially in an identity crisis, and I mean no disrespect to those who are. Neither am I part of the Pentecostal denomination or a conservative sect of Islam. Nonetheless, I believe a healthy degree of self-respect instilled in by a caring father, coupled with sound principles of modesty taught by a confident mother (because like I said, men will always look, and we can’t just ignore that), will produce the same effect in a young woman as the paradigm shift you advocate.

    • Sierra says:

      I agree with you that visual attraction is an amoral phenomenon and it’s understandable that this has produced in various cultures a doctrine that tells women to cover up. I disagree in that I don’t think there is a place for the modesty doctrine that I’m addressing. But perhaps we’re talking about two different kinds of modesty: There are cultural ideas about modesty that tell us what’s appropriate and tasteful for given situations, and then there’s the rabid paranoia that I was taught. In my experience (and in the fundamentalist/self-described Christian Patriarchy movement I write about), it’s a very rigid formula of “if men find your body attractive, you have sent them to hell for lust.” It’s the idea that visual attraction is a grievous sin and that women need to avoid stirring it at all costs is what makes this issue so fraught and difficult. That’s what I call the “modesty doctrine.” There’s more going on in that doctrine than just “you shouldn’t expose yourself to get attention” (which is the other side of the spectrum that I identified as also being a problem).

      Simply dressing conservatively or acknowledging that covering up certain parts of the body in certain situations (not wearing shorts to a job interview) doesn’t carry that kind of baggage. It sounds like your mother and sisters dress normally, without feeling a lot of anxiety over their choices. That’s exactly the state I do hope people can reach. If you call it modesty, that’s fine. I like to think that I dress tastefully now, and would be considered modest by all but extreme Pentecostal standards. The difference is that I no longer base my clothing decisions on fear that someone might look, like what they see and be sent to hell as a result. I still know which clothes are “classy” and which ones would raise eyebrows, and I stick to the “classy” side of things – but there’s no moral panic involved anymore.

      A few minor responses to the rest of your post: I don’t dispute that men are attracted visually, though I would add that women are as well (see the gratuitous shirtless scenes in Twilight, etc.). Also, “we can’t just ignore that” is precisely the opposite of the meaning I draw from the rest of your post. I think if it’s an amoral, natural phenomenon that passes harmlessly away unless a person chooses to obsess, then ignoring it and getting on with life is just fine. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    • Sierra says:

      These previous posts of mine get into a bit more detail about the modesty doctrines I was taught. The first contains quotations from the man who founded the fundamentalist group I was raised in. Perhaps they’ll help put my recent posts in more perspective:

      I realize that this all sounds very strange and extreme if you haven’t been brought up with it. I write about it in order to expose how damaging and extreme it is. I don’t take issue with conservative dressers. I take issue with people making young girls afraid of their own bodies.

    • Emily Decker says:

      Thanks Red, I appreciate your perspective.

      I disagree with Sierra in one way: It DOES matter what you wear, male or female.
      I have a unique perspective of clothing, because I do a lot of work with theatrical costuming, where we control the audience’s perception of a character based on subtle color and costuming choices.

      As human beings, we communicate with the clothing that we choose. (This applies to both males and females.) Imagine a successful entrepreneur, or an uptight-ladder-climbing businessperson. There’s a big difference. We all wear visual clues about our activities, interests, personality type, and lifestyle. We tend to create a personal ‘brand’ that people respond to. People we meet automatically respond to those visual clues, based on cultural perspectives and personal life experience. It would be nice to think that an individual should be able to make personal clothing choices arbitrarily, but no matter what you choose to wear, you are telling people about yourself.

      My father is a perfect example of this. He wears old, dirty, torn jeans, and threadbare, wrinkled plaid shirts every day, then gets frustrated because strangers don’t respect his intelligent political opinions.

      I understand that Sierra is pushing back against an extreme policy, but I would warn her not to push too far in the other direction. Our clothing choices DO matter in human interactions, and always have in every society and every time period.

      If I were teaching children about clothing, I would teach them to be in control of their choices, so that they can control the effect their choice will have on their future and their dreams.

    • Sierra says:

      I think there’s a difference between teaching children how to get along in the world, and teaching them that something is right. If I thought my children would be disrespected based on something they were wearing, I’d tell them how others might interpret what they’re wearing, but that doesn’t mean I endorse that interpretation.

      There’s also a huge difference in intention between that kind of teaching and the modesty doctrine. If I teach my children how to negotiate their choices a flawed world in which a woman who exposes her legs is considered less intelligent, I’d also be careful to teach them how absurd and cruel that idea is and that they shouldn’t judge other people that way. I’d also be careful to teach them not to be afraid of their own bodies and sexuality, which is the crux of the modesty doctrine problem.

  18. denise says:

    so brilliant. thank you for sharing. i think christians are often blind towards how misogynistic/ unloving some of their teachings are, and while i find it hard to agree with you totally (sorry! i guess i do think there is some value to modesty) i think there is so much value in this article and you have articulated so many of my objections with how and why modesty is taught in our churches today. 🙂

  19. Bill says:

    I’m so glad to have found your intelligent, thoughtful voice!

    Thank you so much for your enlightening analysis.

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  21. David says:

    I don’t know whether you’ve had this as a comment before or not, but I completely agree with if you accept the following two things: 1) modesty only applies to women and 2) modesty is only about the clothes that we wear. I happen to disagree with both of those premises.
    I’ll start with the latter: modesty is so much more than what we wear. If you’re covered from head to toe but flaunt yourself, talk loudly and disrespetfully, tell everyone all about your sex life, etc. then, no, that person is not being modest. Similarly for guys, they have no right, assuming this type of modesty is valid, to go around dressing like the pope but telling everyone about their sexual trysts, how much alcohol they can handle, just how hot ”that fine bitch” across the room is. That’s not modesty either.
    Modesty can also be about how smart we are: why is that important? Because imagine the pain we cause to someone who didn’t get above a D on the test. As a caveat, that doesnt mean denying who we are, it simply means that there’s a time and a place to discuss our successes in life. And once again this applies to men and women. Modesty should apply to both men and women, 100%.
    We should, I’ll argue, spend every second of our lives concerned about not hurting other people’s feelings, making sure everyone gets a chance, checking our relationships with our peers and colleagues.
    I think its very sad that there IS undoubtedly a women-centric modesty in the world. Maybe its not modesty that’s inherently bad, rather its just the way we’ve come to approach it.

    • Sierra says:

      I wholeheartedly believe in the kind of modesty that doesn’t flaunt good grades in front of others who may not have done as well, etc. The idea of not being boastful is a very important one. It’s sad that “modesty” has been hijacked so that this meaning is secondary in the minds of many evangelical Christians.

      I think that modesty doctrines are not only too focused on women, but they are premised on an unhealthy paranoia about sexuality. I would hate to see men suffer the same kind of anxiety I did. As my original post states, I couldn’t exercise or play sports without worrying about someone finding me attractive. I object to the way modesty doctrines reduce the human body to its sexual component and make people terrified of glances from the opposite sex. We are so much more than our sexuality! When I say that modesty doctrines “objectified” me, I mean that they made me so self-conscious about being potentially sexually attractive at all times that I couldn’t focus on more important things or even spend time keeping my body active and healthy. Doctrines that inspire constant anxiety are not healthy and, I’d argue, not really Christian (given that the fruits of the spirit include peace, the Bible speaks of having a “sound mind” rather than the “spirit of fear”, etc.).

    • Person with opinion says:

      Modesty can also be about how smart we are: why is that important? Because imagine the pain we cause to someone who didn’t get above a D on the test. As a caveat, that doesnt mean denying who we are, it simply means that there’s a time and a place to discuss our successes in life.Sorry, but I just cannot agree with downplaying your accomplishments. It’s one thing not to mention it every time you enter a room or when you know someone who did poorly is around, but you should never pretend you did less that you did or that what you did was less impressive than it was. Especially for women – they are far more likely to take less than they should (and negotiate less) in salary discussions because of that attitude. I believe in people having pride in their accomplishments. I believe bursting through the doors with “Mommy, I made a 97” is a good thing. I think that pride in grades is something we really need. Too many people are more embarrassed about having all As than about having a couple of Ds on their report card.

      I don’t believe in intentionally making others feel stupid. But you should not demote or disparage yourself or your own accomplishments (or even keep quiet about them) simply because others don’t match them.

  22. […] As Sierra of The Unspoken Words: A Non-Prophet Message puts it so eloquently in her blog post,  […]

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