Modesty—from a Woman’s Perspective
by Lindsey Abston Painter | 24 August 2019 |
A few months back Adventist Today editor Loren Seibold wrote a piece about modesty—about how it’s a man’s responsibility if he chooses to sin, and he should take responsibility for his own temptations, not blame women’s appearance. It was an excellent piece and made me want to stand up and applaud! For too long women have been blamed for the bad behavior of men. Men, your misbehavior toward women is your responsibility, and yours alone!
Some of the feminist anger about modesty rules is a reaction to the modesty police who’ve supervised and criticized us women all our lives: the blame our appearance carries for the sins of men, the inherent danger we’ve been told our bodies pose just by existing. Those attitudes against women are wrong and need to be changed immediately.
Loren implied a challenge: as men should take responsibility for their own temptations, so women should talk among themselves about this issue. So let’s take a moment to explore modesty from a woman’s perspective. If we aren’t to follow the patriarchy’s self-serving rules for what we wear, what principles should we follow?
What You Wear Communicates
Like it or not, we are always communicating. Every single thing we do—or don’t do—is a form of communication. If you’re sitting relaxed and you hear your boss coming into your office, you sit up and look busy: even the nonverbal message you want to communicate is one of busy productivity.
And it isn’t just what I’m doing or not doing that communicates. What I’m wearing and how I present myself is a form of communication also.
Understanding how I am constantly communicating helps clarify the issue of modesty for me. When I get dressed in the morning, what is the communication I want to send to those who will see me? In my office I want to send a message of professionalism and competence. I choose blouses instead of t-shirts. I choose sandals or boots instead of tennis shoes or flip flops. I choose to wash and style my hair. The office is not the place for cut off jeans or a sparkly ball gown.
There’s a practical element too, and an understanding of societal and cultural expectations. If I work in a hospital, I choose clothing suitable for being on my feet for hours and doing (occasionally strenuous and even messy) patient care. The female carpenter is going to wear steel toe work boots and jeans.
When I’m going out somewhere fun on the weekend what do I want to communicate? I want to communicate confidence and a sense of fun. I will wear something that might not be appropriate to the office: flashier styles, brighter colors, different makeup.
When I’m getting ready to clean my house, help a friend move, or paint my back deck, I’ll wear an old scruffy pair of pants and a t-shirt that I don’t care if it gets ruined.
Sometimes the main thing we communicate about ourselves is to ourselves. It’s why we buy gym clothes when we make our new-year’s resolution to work out more: it communicates, to ourselves perhaps as much to others, that we’re serious about exercise. It’s why we dress up when we go to church: because we are communicating that this is God’s house and we want to look our best here. (Yes, I know this last is an evolving standard. Some people don’t want there to be any appearance standards for church—but that’s another discussion.)
Culturally these things might vary widely. A woman in some parts of Papua New Guinea might go out with nothing covering her top. If I did that on Main Street USA I could get arrested! It may be unhelpful for someone like me, from my culture (American, white, middle class) to try to impose my own cultural values on other cultures.
Faith and Choices
1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” So, if I’m to dress for the glory of God, what exactly does that look like?
One principle is to avoid communicating the message “I’m better than you are.” Romans 12:3 says, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”
The message, “I’m better than you” can be communicated in many ways, and jewelry (something our Adventist pioneers took quite literally from the Bible) is only one of them. We also say it with flashy cars, fancy clothes, or, frankly, our attitudes. Does this mean we should stop driving cars and wearing clothes? Let’s hope not! But when we make these choices we should be asking ourselves if the message we’re sending is one of personal confidence and “the glory of God,” or to intentionally flash our wealth and privilege. If it’s the latter, I believe it is our responsibility to rethink those choices. In order to bring glory to God we should dress in a way that shows respect and interest in others, not dominance or condescension.
I believe that 1 Peter 3:3 has been totally misinterpreted. It isn’t about jewelry, but about where beauty comes from. “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes.” It is about inner beauty—character—and every Christian woman should long for a deep and admirable character.
Is there depth in a person? That’s the question Peter is asking. And I don’t think Peter is just being sexist. I’m pretty sure he’d also say it to the man who buys ridiculously expensive golf clubs and an expensive sports car.
The second way my faith informs my clothing choices is through common sense. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:12 that “Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me—but I will not be mastered by anything.” What does it mean to be “mastered” by something? Is there a selfishness in fashion and dress that can make someone be “mastered”?
Ellen White was disgusted with the fashion of her day and spoke on the topic a number of times. The fashionable dresses were long enough to drag in the filth of the street and bring that filth into the home. They were so long that women could trip on them going up and down stairs. These dresses were both a health and safety hazard, and yet they were fashionable, so women endured them. Sister White’s counsel in this case wasn’t about modesty, it was about the sin of elevating fashion above practicality, health, and safety.
Are there things we can wear today that are overpriced, overhyped, impractical, or a danger to our safety and health? Of course, and we need to be mindful of those things.
Teaching Clothing Choices
As my daughter gets older I am already starting to have discussions with her about what her clothes communicate about her. What message is that outfit sending, and is that the message you want to send in this context? When you’re at school do you want to be sending out your “party” message? Are there outfits that send a message we never want to be sending? These are questions I want her to be able to answer for herself.
I prefer to think of my clothing choices as honoring God in my own individual way. This must be decided by the woman herself, and is best not dictated by others. Culture, background, upbringing, and personal style are all factors in her choices. Should you feel you must talk to her, ask yourself if you’d feel comfortable with her questioning your clothing choices? If the answer is no, consider leaving her alone.
And if you are a man, just don’t.
The church has a long history of criticizing female appearance. Yet Paul says in Romans 14:13, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” He’s saying that the real stumbling block here is judgmental attitudes! How did we all end up missing that important message?
It’s worth considering also that as long as we women continue to criticize each other for our clothing choices it leaves the door open to men criticizing us as well. We women can be our own worst enemies. Many women have bought into the lie that women are responsible for men’s actions, and act as modesty enforcers. Women: I advise you to avoid criticism of one another.
A Dangerous World
Loren, in his piece, made the point that theoretically, even if women were walking down the street naked, men should have the moral strength to look away. But that’s still just theoretical. We fight for what we believe is right, we stand up where we can, which means we refuse to be blamed for being assaulted no matter what we are wearing. But we also remember that the world we live in is not safe for women. This is why we take precautions when we go out. Women tend to stay in packs. We are taught to hold our drinks at all times to prevent someone from drugging us. We never go to the bathroom alone. We shouldn’t have to do all these things—but we do have to.
Let me be clear: we are still never, ever responsible when we get raped, harassed or abused. That is always and forever the fault of the rapist or the abuser. As many people have pointed out, there are women in some countries whose only body part showing is their eyes and they are still raped (and still blamed for it!). A woman should never be blamed for someone doing something abusive to her. No matter what she’s wearing, she’s never, ever “asking for it.” Consent is always necessary. It is also legally required. Even if she were naked.
So here’s my advice, women, boiled down to a sentence. Wear what you want, just remember that what you’re wearing says something about you, as a woman, and as a Christian. Ask yourself what it says, and if that’s what you want it to say. Find your own line between our ideal and our reality. Nobody can make those decisions for you. Especially not a man.
Lindsey Abston Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. She enjoys reading, playing with her cat, writing about feminism, and strawberry pie.