Modesty in the Era of #metoo
“Your top is too low.”
“Your skirt is too high.”
“Your shirt is too tight.”
“Your shorts are too short.”
“Quit showing so much skin.”
“Dress like a lady.”
If you’re a woman, you’ve probably heard these things more than a few times from the time you hit adolescence. Whether by a parent, a teacher, a coach, a youth group leader, or a random older person walking past. Women have been told mostly by other women to keep ourselves to ourself, not excite any passions in the opposite sex, look demure, dress like a lady. If the comment came from someone close to you, it might have been particularly hurtful. The disapproval and the stares. The embarrassment. The shame.
This is not to say that those comments aren’t well meaning or done specifically to harm. It is to say that they are pretty pervasive. And when they come out of nowhere, they can be surprising and unsettling.
It’s particularly upsetting to young women who are already insecure about everything: their bodies, their hair, their friends, their clothing, their identity. As women get older, it’s a little easier to brush those comments off, but there can still be a target on our backs. Many women have internalized these critics and hear their condemnation in a million subtle ways that can cause us to change our behavior.
As a high schooler, I was well trained in Riot Grrrl theory. I had my zines and my Liz Phair albums and my Doc Marten mary janes. As a college student, I was well educated in women’s history and feminist theory as an undergraduate history and English major. My plan after graduation was to attend the University of California, Berkeley, study, and become a professor of women’s history. My plans may have veered a little off course post-graduation, but I still felt a strong pull to dissect things as they concern women. I like to pick them apart and see how they hold up when exposed to further study and analysis.
This is all to say that for a long time, I was a pretty biased observer.
As I entered adulthood, my feminist ways started to mellow. I found my spiritual life a higher calling than my feminist theory. Along with a sincere faith and a deepening connection to my Heavenly Father, I gathered a lot of baggage and the weight of a lot of religious traditions that put such a high premium on virginity and modesty and femininity and being a helpmeet that I couldn’t possibly keep up. I embraced what I could, but I was a little bit ashamed when I saw that my faith culture came with a lot of strings attached.
When I became involved in youth ministry and later teaching in a religious high school, I tried to keep myself to myself but I overheard a lot. A lot of modesty talk specifically targeted toward young women and their role and duty in the faith. This pull I felt toward the Gospel would shift ever so slightly off-center when I heard things that didn’t ring true to who I knew God to be in my life. When teachings had more to do with preserving social order than deepening a faith. When shame would replace compassion. When scolding took the place of encounter.
With recent headlines and the shifting of our cultural landscape, these well-meant guidelines started to take a bit of a darker tone. As women started to speak out more publicly about sexual assault, harassment, and shame, I started to dissect modesty and what it means in the #metoo era.
The more I looked, the more I heard, and the more I listened, this idea of “modesty” seemed outdated and designed to be limiting and minimizing. Through decades of repetition and all the detours a teaching can take, scolding others for modesty became a pervasive cultural norm that has been kind of unavoidable.
I’m not going to say that it is necessarily a cabal of conservative white men who had a meeting one day and decided to shame and silence. I’m of the mind to believe these things creep in more organically and go from a whisper to a deafening roar over time. Gradual shame. Gradual silencing. And a gradual decline of the pretty powerful voice of women in the world.
When modesty teachings and modest attire are embraced enthusiastically and uncoerced by women themselves to maintain an inner sacredness, it can be a valid expression of a modest heart. I do respect and admire those who have chosen a path that coincides with their own ideas of dignity, worth, and bodily integrity. It’s the external voices and the subtle (or not so subtle) slights and shaming that concern me so much. It’s also about internalizing feelings of shame and unworthiness that can come out of these teachings.
As a Christian, I know how I was taught about modesty and what it meant in my life. And I know the feeling of embracing an interpretation of modesty that only focuses on my external appearance, my ability to tempt or inflame, and the meaning others have put on my body and my voice.
As we walk into a new and sometimes unsteady future, what does modesty mean today? What has it always meant? Is modesty about skirt length and tempting young men to sin? Is modesty about virginity? A pleasing countenance before a pleasing figure? How does the Bible, and specifically how does God, express a teaching of modesty to others? What does our language and culture have to say about modesty? Does it align with the faith I profess?
I’d like to present an alternative theory of modesty. One that seats it more deeply in the heart and aligns it more deeply to the soul. One that carries across genders and ages. And I’m not the first to have this vision, nor will I be the last. Countless teachers and believers have opened up a deeper definition of modesty. Though I’m neither the first or the last to have this interpretation of modesty, I’d like to take a moment to take a more vocal stand for modesty of the heart and mind in my writing. In writing, I’m clarifying how I want to live this teaching, and how I want to express it to others.
Modesty is taken from the word modestus in Latin meaning “keeping due measure.” Orderly. Measured. Soberly judged. We might think about a person showing modesty in the same way we understand “modest income.” Just enough. Not too excessive. Unpretentious. Satisfactory. The antonym of ostentatious or outlandish. Just right.
When I look at it that way, I’m reminded of creation. In Genesis chapter 1, God sets the cosmos in order. He orders the light and darkness. The heavens and the earth. Day and night. Seasons and years. The animals of the earth and the birds in the sky. Whether I understand these verses as literal or not, I can feel the heartbeat of the Father in both the creating and the arranging. He was cultivating life. Planting it. Watching it grow. Admiring its vitality. And then doing it all over again the next day.
If I am created in the image and likeness of God, which I really do believe, than what do these creation stories say to me? They say that God spent the time and energy to create, to order, and to fully realize everything we experience, and I inherited that gift myself. As a child of God, I get to create some things in my own life, cultivate them, watch them grow.
If God was creating order out of the chaos, it was something I was called to do as well. Not limiting or cutting off, but growing and protecting and watching and creating and tending. Modesty in these early days of creation wasn’t about curtailing as much as it was about flourishing. Planting good seeds in good earth and watching them grow. Not forcing them into hedgerows. Embracing the order in the disorder of the original Garden.
As the fulfillment of the promise of the Garden, Jesus doesn’t specifically mention modesty, but He does paint a picture of a posture of the heart. In John 7: 18, 24 He says,
“Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him… Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”
Modesty doesn’t go after personal glory. Modesty doesn’t judge by appearances. Modesty chases after the One who sends forth. Modesty is truth.
Modesty is also about correct, appropriate, sober, and right judgment. Modesty says this is enough and doesn’t go seeking after or grasping after all it desires without consideration of the outcome. It is deeply appreciative of what it already has. It’s a posture of the heart, yes, but it’s also seeing things in a different way, with clear judgment and truth.
If I first see order in the chaos in Genesis, and I see truth and right judgment in the words and actions of Jesus, what do I find about modesty in Revelation? In Revelation 3:18, John states,
“I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.”
Are these literal white garments and literal gold? I like to think of it as being clothed in the Fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And by being clothed in these things, I can avoid shame and hiding. I can see God clearly and follow Him more closely. I can grasp gold refined by fire, the things of character, and dismiss the fool’s gold of judgment, shame, limits, and immodest character.
So what in the world does this have to do with skirt length, “slut shaming,” and “me too?” I think it transcends the smallness of prohibition and control and allows me to flourish and be free to be a child of God. Instead of embracing all the nastiness that I’ve heard over the years, I get to be fully me and fully alive. I get to cling to goodness and stop worrying about enflaming the desires of the people around me. I have the freedom to embrace the higher things, love others rightly, judge soberly, appreciate that the life I live is “enough,” and embrace modesty of the heart.
Of course I will continue my attempts to live righteously and right the wrongs of the world, but I can do it from a place of strength and confidence instead of a place of trying to turn over tables and force a change in others. Knowing that I am a created being who was designed to create. Knowing Who sends me forth. Knowing that I am refined by fire.
In this confidence, I can try to love the shamers and the assaulters and the silencers. I can work toward goodness in the Garden and at the same time understand myself modestly, know my limits, and live rightly and truthfully where I am. I can try to forgive those who hurt and destroy. I can be modest with my judgement and enthusiastic in my belief that God has this same message for each and every one of us. I can have a modest vision for our culture and still seek after change. And I can do it from a position of strength, not weakness.
If we are certain of our identity as sons and daughters of the Father, we can bring light to darkness in effective, concrete, lasting, and still loving ways. We are no longer limited by rancor and rage. We can modestly bring order out of the chaos with sound mind and sober judgment. We can let the Father unlock shame and bestow the gift of modesty of heart and freedom from fear to right wrongs, set the universe in order, and fix this mess of division and pain.
Do I have the answers? No. What I do have is a heart that is positioned toward God, though, and I have a belief that there are no limits to His power, His light, and His ability to bring forth His Kingdom on earth. Any time I’m shamed or triggered or despair, I can rest in my true place in the universe and the God Who watches me grow. I can hope, just a little bit, that He has a loving plan for each one of us so that we can grow and flourish in this life. Perhaps even a plan for me too.