Why Don’t We All Just Wear Burqas?

'Nuns' photo (c) 2010, David Jones - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
A year or so ago I experienced a hurtful and humiliating incident in which an unnamed person (brother or sister in Christ) accused me of immodesty in my dress, after a week of internal staff meetings for our Christian mission agency. The reason they are unnamed is not because I don’t want to publicly call him/her out, but because the person did not confront me face to face (as is Biblical when you have issues with a fellow brother or sister in Christ… although I’m pretty sure I know who it was… and I’m also pretty sure it was a woman). I was told via a third party that my dress was inappropriate (but not until a week after the meetings were over), and that I needed to dress more modestly for next year’s meetings. Now, I was nursing my eight-week-old at the time, and was still a few sizes above my normal, so I had gone to the thrift store for a few new-to-me items to wear to get me through as I lost the baby weight. I am always conscious of what I am wearing and I consider myself a fairly modest individual, and my husband and fairly conservative-minded family agree. I do not intentionally “show off” lots of skin. Thus, I was pretty much flabbergasted when this accusation was thrown at me.

Now, a year later, in the thick of sunny summer days I have been thinking about this issue (and that unfortunate incident) again. Up until that point I had always towed the party line of “women must dress modestly so as not to make men stumble”, as is the standard belief in Christian culture. But thanks to the incident last summer, I have begun to question this assumption (not the intended result from my unnamed accuser, I’m sure!).

Let me begin by laying out some questions for discussion:

1) What is modesty?

It is not easily defined, other than to say that it has to do with decency and social norms and expectations. It is highly changeable depending on culture. In many African cultures for example, it is not at all uncommon or immodest to “whip out a boob” to feed one’s baby, even (gasp!) in church. No one bats an eye, because it is just not seen as immodest. Women in some cultures don’t even cover their breasts at all. Then there are cultures that cover absolutely everything – the Middle East comes to mind here. Clearly, modesty is a changing value depending on culture.

2) Who is responsible for a man’s lustful thoughts?

We all answer to God for our own sin. Adam and Eve were still blamed for their sin, despite the devil’s cunning part in it. I think that much is clear – we cannot cast blame for our sin on anyone else. On the other hand, of course, are the verses in Scripture about not causing a brother or sister in Christ to stumble (which, by the way, are not explicitly about clothing – the verses talk about food/eating meat). Yes, I would agree that they could be applied to dressing modestly (and I do think that modesty in dress is important), but I just think we need to be so careful about placing the blame for a man’s sin on someone else. Can revealing clothing increase temptation to sin with lustful thoughts? Yes, it can increase temptation, but the individual alone is held accountable for how he (or she) handles that temptation.

3) Why is the traditional admonition to modesty placed solely on women?

I’ve heard plenty of women talk about so-and-so’s sexy muscular chest, smokin’ hot abs, or bulging biceps. Celebrities, real life, it doesn’t seem to matter – women aren’t blind. Women were also created as sexual creatures. I’m not sure I buy the argument that “men are more visually stimulated than women”. I mean, really? Women notice a man’s sexy body that is put on display, and I daresay it causes lustful thoughts in some (many?) women too. If lots of women find a man in a nicely tailored and well-fitted suit to be a turn-on (which they do), should all men start wearing coveralls and plaid shirts instead? Should every man wear a t-shirt at the beach? And what about his muscular legs? His soft and wavy hair? His strong, broad shoulders? I don’t see calls for men to “cover up and quit showing so much skin”. Is this not a double-standard?

4) What effect has this had on women’s self-identity and body image?

God created the human body to be beautiful, in my opinion. From perky and youthful breasts and the shapeliness of a leg (Hello, Song of Solomon!), to saggy old boobs, wrinkles, grey hair (a crown of beauty!), and age spots – all of it is beauty in its own way. However, our culture is so messed up with regards to body image. Beauty has gotten confused with sexiness. Sex has gotten confused with love, and the human body is neither respected nor kept sacred. One blogger/author writes these words: “When I was doing research for the book I wrote about sex, I interviewed numerous married Christian women who confessed that sexual intimacy with their husbands was a struggle. They’d been told all their lives that it was a sin to be sexy. And turning that “rule” off when in the bedroom with their husbands was, for some, impossible. Many felt guilty for “feeling sexual.”

5) Why don’t we all just wear burqas?

For every man that you could find who would say that they find boobs to be a turn-on, you could probably find another two or three claiming other parts of the female body as the most sensual. Butts, waists, shoulders, legs, feet, ankles, stomachs, necks… the list goes on. If showing parts of our bodies are causing men to stumble, then the logical conclusion would be that all women should be completely covered at all times when men are present. After all, men are ravenous beasts with a sexual mind that cannot be tamed, right? The objectification and devaluing of men is just as inherent in this issue, and is just as wrong.

For me, here’s what it boils down to:

Men have a responsibility to fight against the cultural tendency to objectify and devalue women. There is a fine line between appreciating God’s creation in the form of the human body, and indulging in lustful thoughts, but let us not swing the pendulum so far to one end that modest womanhood ends up portrayed as ‘a pair of boobs and a butt covered by as much fabric as possible’.

I am a woman with a beautiful and feminine body. But I am also so much more than that. I pray that my life glorifies God in all that I do, including how I dress, how I act, and how I talk. To me, this is the true measure of modesty.

I am NOT saying that we should be free to wear absolutely anything. I believe that we should dress with modesty in mind/heart. I do think that modesty looks differently in every culture, and to every person. Let’s be careful not to make a grey area into a black and white, as the Pharisees so often did. I refuse to condone random rules and regulations about “above the collarbone” or “below the knee”, which are neither Biblical, nor cultural. I can’t simply say that if the tiniest bit (or even a lot) of cleavage shows when you bend over that you are necessarily sinning. Modesty is about so much more than that.

I say: dress according to your conscience and let this verse be your guide: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies”. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

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  1. says

    Hi Beth,

    I realise you posted this 2 and half years ago, but I came across it recently after reading Women who really care post and saw your reply. I am sorry to hear of your ordeal, and I must admit your post challenged my perspective on things, but I have some points to make.

    You mention that it is the individuals responsibility to avoid sin. As much as I agree that this is true, this should not make us cold to one another and I find this to be very anti church. The whole point of church is to edify and exhort one another. Why would we want to go about doing things intentionally knowing that it may lead others into sin. Yes women do have a wonderful form to be appreciaated as Solomon did – but by their husbands! Jesus said that if a man even as much looks at a woman lustfully in his heart, he would have commited adultery.

    It is indeed our responsibility to look out for one another. You point out the scripture that states that we should do nothing that causes our brother to stumble. In it’s original context this is talking about eating food, but I believe it applied to all facets of life.

    You rightly note that we live in a sex-crazed culture that has a distorted view of beauty and the human body and that modesty is definied differently everywhere you go. But seeing as you live in such a culture let me point out a fact for you. Dressing revealingly WILL cause your brother to stumble. Yes, this is entirely down to a man’s own sinful nature. Christian men should be endeavouring to capture every thought and make it a slave to Christ. One day, we will be like Him – how amazing is that, that one day this sinful saint will be just like Jesus. However, we are not in our fully redeemed state and are still fighting daily against our flesh and thus are susceptible to falling into the schemes of the evil one.

    The apostle Paul noted the importance of being sympatheic to the culture you find yourself in. He said that to the Greek, he would become like a greek, to the Jew, he would become like a Jew, in order to save a few. Here is my heartfelt appeal to you Beth, Dress thoughtfully in this western sex-crazed contextualisation, in order that you might just save a few men from eternal punishment. It’s not about men vs woman, it’s not about being responsibility, it’s about having compassion to one another needs, even if we don;t understand them.

    Grace & Peace,

  2. says

    I stumbled on this post and have had similar thoughts. We live in a Muslim country in Africa but there are also a lot of French expats, so there are extreme variances in how women dress. I think both the revealed and the concealed can be handled with modesty or with immodesty.

  3. says

    While I am not a Christian myself, I do have an interpretation of that verse. God created us in his image. We are to honour him with our bodies. Why would you hide away something God gave you? I’m not saying flaunt yourself, but God gave you an attractive body, wear clothing that makes you feel confident and attractive.
    I hope I’m making sense. I know in my head what I’m trying to say, but I’ve been looking after my sick newborn and husband for a few days and am running a bit low on sleep.

  4. says

    Beth this is an awesome blog post! I totally agree, but wasn’t quite sure how to explain myself before with this topic. So thank you!


  5. Makayla says

    “…but the individual alone is held accountable for how he (or she) handles that temptation” not true the serpent was also judged for tempting Adam and Eve in the garden.

    Being Christians we know that our faith stems from the Jewish faith. At times, it is useful to research the Jewish faith in order to better understand some aspects of our own. With that said, I think that it would be most useful to research modesty as it was taught among the Jews and not what is acceptable among today’s societies. How can we ever hope to gain a godly perspective by reasoning over the acceptable standards or the world? Come out from among them…

    • says

      “not true the serpent was also judged for tempting Adam and Eve in the garden.”

      Actually, the serpent (Satan) was judged for *his* sin (tempting Adam and Eve and preying on their innocence, luring them to evil). Satan was not judged for Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience to God. They were each judged for their own action/inaction. There’s a fine distinction there, but an important one.

      I would have to disagree that researching Jewish standards of modesty would be particularly helpful in this discussion. It may be interesting, but I don’t see how it would be necessary for shaping an opinion. As I noted above, modesty is a changing value based on culture. What is considered modest changes depending on the culture, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “reasoning over the acceptable standards or the world”, but I’m assuming you mean something about the world’s standards not being godly ones? I would agree, but I never said we should go by the world’s standards of modesty. As I mentioned above, my guide is the verse from 1 Corinthians, and the command to honour God with our bodies, which is straight from Scripture.

      Thanks for commenting!

  6. says

    Love this post, Beth! Sorry it was birthed from a hurtful experience, but your thoughts and conclusions that have come as a result are insightful and relevant. (Funny how pain so often gives birth to good…) May God bless you with His wisdom as you continue to wrestle with the tough issues.

    • says

      I did (there’s a link to it in my post) – it was a good one. I really appreciated what he had to say, especially as it is from a male perspective.

  7. Gene Templemeyer says

    (comment via facebook)

    I pretty much agree with you. I think that what often passes for modesty is discomfort with embodiment that has more to do with Greek thought than with following Christ.

    When we dishonor our own embodiment we dishonor God. And it would be a loss to the rest of the world if in the name of modesty you covered that wonderful red hair! (As orthodox Jewish women do in the name of modesty.)

    As an artist I have been in life drawing classes with both male and female nude models. It has nothing to do with lust or sex. But if I went to a strip club (I don’t!!) that would be a whole other matter because the intent is clearly sexual – and distorted sexuality at that.

    I’ve come to the conclusion on many issues that if I were to govern my life by what might offend some Christian somewhere, I would never leave the house. And I’m pretty sure that would offend someone, too.

    • says

      Hmm, I’d love to hear you expand more on your first/second paragraphs. Interesting!

      I hadn’t considered nude models before – I bet there are many people who would say that those are “ok” but yet continue to maintain that mini-skirts and spaghetti straps are evil.

  8. Andrea Wolfe says

    So this is the first time i’ve commented, but i do read your blog on a regular basis (and am constantly inspired by your writing!). I seriously think you and i need to get together for coffee someday.. we would have a lot to talk about :) I had a similar incident happen to me (although the person who hurt me by their words was a very close family member who belongs to a very strict legalistic church.. and they called me out on my dress, which i make a consious effort to keep modest, and my short hair that i dye, which to them was immodest and unbiblical, and numerous other things, the list could go on, really. all of which i was shocked to hear. ).. and i’ve struggled with this topic a lot since then. I really appreciate what you said and i agree. There is so much more to modesty that the strict rules of inches of skirt length, or whether the shirt has sleeves. So much of the heart gets lost in the shuffle when all that matters is the outward things that can be measured and judged. Thanks a lot for the post, Beth!! (sorry for the rambling, this just really hit home for me! and again, we need to have a real face-to-face coffee time sometime soon :)

    • Andrea Wolfe says

      Just to clarify the sentence “So much of the heart gets lost in the shuffle when all that matters is the outward things that can be measured and judged” .. i’m not trying to say that all that matters is the outward things, i’m saying that so much of the heart gets lost when you’re so strict about the things you can measure. haha, i may have just confused you even more, but my rambling definitely confused me 😉

    • says

      Andrea! Thanks so much for commenting (and for the compliment!). I’d love to have coffee with you – karibu nyumbani (is that right?) ANYTIME! (You could even stay overnight!). Sorry to hear you had a similar hurtful experience. The heart is so much more important than those outward things, I agree.

      (And as per your second comment – I totally understood what you were saying but I can see how it might sound confusing, so thanks for clarifying :) )

  9. Laura says

    I really appreciated this!! I think you raised some excellent points and I agree with you. I think what is “modest” also seems to vary on where you are – i.e. if you wear a bathing suit on the beach that’s fine but if you wear the same lack of clothing out for dinner, not so much.

    Also, I consider you an example of modestly dressed woman at all times (and style too!)

  10. Stephanie says

    I had a thought of inspiration when I read this, unfortunatly I didn’t have time to write it as soon as I thought it so it is now gone :( If it comes back I’ll have to write it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts though. Definitly some food for thought.

      • Stephanie says

        Wonder of wonders it came back to me. I was thinking of the verse that says people judge the outside, but God sees what is in our hearts. So I was thinking, God knows when we dress to attrack a certain kind of attention. That’s something that we as humans just cannot accuratly judge. I still think modesty is very important and you obviously value it as well, but I’d have to agree with you that it’s a grey area. My brain hates grey areas…they’re hard to compute and make you have to deal with situations on an individual basis. From what I’ve learned, a lot of the new testament stipulations on what not to wear stem from what prostitutes were wearing that “marked” them so to speak. I think it would be safe to say that the principale of that applies to our generation today (don’t dress like a prostitute), but not necessarily the specifics (If you braid your hair, no one would lable you as a prostitute in our society). I think a first concern is most likely our witness to thouse outside the faith. If they think we dress/look/act just like someone in the secular world who is ‘loose moraled’ then it discredits our witness.

        • says

          So true, Steph. It’s really impossible to judge someone else’s heart, even if it appears to be obvious. You just don’t know what is going on in someone’s life. My brain HATES grey areas too, but I’m learning to accept them. It’s tough. I like the way you interpreted the NT verses here – “don’t dress like a prostitute/”loose-moraled” person” sounds like a good guideline!

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