The Value of Modesty
By Eric V. Snow
Let’s consider the broader implications of an utterly trivial incident that happened to me recently. While waiting for the street light to change one morning on the way to work, I saw a girl of about 15 cross the street right in front of me while I sat in my car. She wore a dress of a currently fashionable style: Although it reaches down about to her ankles, the dress had a long slit in the side that reached up nearly to her hip, thus fully, but intermittently, exposing her legs as they shifted back and forth. Since she was tall and thin, the dress indeed does “work” on a girl of her figure and frame. What she wore surely attracts the attention of the opposite sex, especially since it was unpredictable what and how much would be seen when.
But now, could a Christian woman wear such a dress? (As we’ll see, similar issues are of concern to Christian men as well!) What does it mean to be modest? What are the implications of attempting to avoid showing too much, or showing off? The reality is that Christians should aspire to practicing the virtue of modesty in their personal lives, instead of merely giving it lip service.
Do we take I Tim. 2:9-10 seriously?: “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments; but rather by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness.” Here Paul didn’t mean to prohibit totally women wearing gold, pearls, costly clothes, etc., but says their main priority should be on works of service, not on matters of personal appearance.
Now Webster’s defines “modesty” to mean “freedom from conceit or vanity . . . propriety in dress, speech, or conduct.” Having an attitude of modesty goes beyond mere matters of clothing, although this aspect will be emphasized here given the space available, since it involves cultivating a demeanor of not deliberately drawing attention to oneself, which includes not showing off one’s body or boasting of one’s achievements.
It’s easy for us to nod our heads, and say, “Yes, we should be modest.” But now let’s be specific, and get some people excited, since specific applications of a general spiritual principle often breed opposition. Women, in or outside the church, can be rest assured that low-cut blouses or dresses will surely draw the male eye to the crucial spot that is ever so carefully partially revealed while being simultaneously partially concealed. I remember hearing one single man years ago commenting he was surprised that women in the church at the local spring dance wore such low-cut outfits. So then: Are bikinis for swimwear really acceptable? Would Paul think a Christian woman could wear a miniskirt “modestly and discreetly”?
We need to ask these questions, even if the answers produced may be uncomfortable because they may cause us to admit we bought clothing we shouldn’t have in order to look attractive. And how does that happen? Since we Christians live in the world, we naturally tend to drag in the world into the church, and live as people in the world do without reflecting enough on what might actually be spiritually problematic about what our worldly neighbors, co-workers, relatives, etc., do as a matter of course. Are we lemmings following after the world of fashion, leaping into the ocean of fashionable dress in pursuit of what makes us “look good” to others? Why must we follow so arbitrarily what the fashion designers in Paris or New York have cooked up for us this year, for whom deliberately changing things produces both increased profits and additional acclaim from critics?
It’s quite true that Christian men, when suddenly sighting a woman immodestly dressed, have the duty to keep their imaginations in check (Matt. 5:27-28): “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Regardless of the woman’s own possible sin in the choice of clothing, a Christian man has to learn to avert his eyes and change his thoughts. He should especially avoid the “second look.” It’s necessary to avoid being conspicuous in avoiding looking, however, since the man might be thought self-righteous or prudish if caught doing so. I know of a case in which a Jewish man, seated next to a middle-aged woman in the church on an airplane for a long international flight, refused to talk to her because she was a woman! And that was despite her husband sat on her other side! Naturally enough, the extremes of conservative Islam (the veil in particular) in protecting yet restricting women’s freedom come to mind here. It’s wrong to leap from one extreme to the other.
A key factor women should keep in mind is how men will judge a woman’s “availability” by her appearance. The way prostitutes dress when plying their trade is hardly a secret. Men also know women will often calculatingly dress in a way to catch their attention when they want it. While working in a convenience store while going to college, I one time had a female customer come into the store “dressed,” if that’s the right word for it, in a tight, low-cut halter top that left little to the imagination. While waiting on her, which included scooping up an ice cream cone for her, the shift manager noticed I wasn’t quite looking at her directly. After I explained some what I was doing, he commented that women dressed like that wanted men to look at them. Importantly, as Wendy Shalit, the author of “A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” observes, such tactics when deliberately pursued will backfire. Many secular women are re-embracing modesty because immodesty didn’t work: “In short, they weren’t successful [in] finding the right men.” If a woman attracts a man mainly on the basis of the physical, instead of using her personality, character, intellect, or communication skills to do so, it can easily backfire. Of course, even modestly dressed women will get harassed, “hit on,” or “eyed” by men, such as by the stereotypical wolf-whistling construction workers on site, but the average level of trouble is inevitably less.
But men shouldn’t think they’re exempt from such considerations. Some may remember the Diet Coke commercial of a few years back that featured a group of women in an office setting lusting after a well-built shirtless construction worker standing outside. For a real life case, a woman I now work with one time described rather excitedly to another woman in my department a couple years back how much the well-defined stomach muscles of one construction worker laboring on the major highway near the office impressed her, etc. Unlike, say, the middle-aged overweight guy puttering about the house, seen by hardly anyone outside of his family, this construction worker really should have worn a tank top, even if it might have been somewhat uncomfortable in Michigan’s summer weather. Hundreds, even thousands, of people must have seen him on that busy highway he was helping to repair. Clearly enough, even in matters of dress, modesty isn’t a virtue just for the ladies!
True, it’s easy to dismiss the virtue of modesty as applied to clothing as “yardstick religion,” as majoring in the minors, etc. It may be unfair to women, as my (non-Christian) sister has commented, that she can’t dress casually to (say) grab a newspaper in the morning without being judged a certain way by the men who would see her. But we Christians have to face the reality that what we wear sends a message to all who see us. Appearances do matter since they inevitably reflect the inner heart’s intent. So let us aim to recapture the true value the world has so largely lost: modesty.