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).