The Overflow

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The Big Question We Keep Missing About Modesty

Beauty, CultureAlyson Schroll7 Comments
Photo Credit: Julianna Otero

Photo Credit: Julianna Otero

This semester my college put on a leadership conference for current high school students, and I offered to house a student for the night. Early in the evening, the girl moved her stuff into my room and waited with her friend until it was time for dinner. I sat on my bed and listened to the two of them talk about prom dresses. Her friend was extremely excited that she was not bound by the dress code guidelines that other schools upheld when they put a standard of modesty on the formal gowns. The friend argued that she believed that a strapless dress was still moral, even if a school said it wasn’t. She brought up the issue of shorts’ lengths and how she thought that shorts being shorter than her fingertips was still okay.

As I listened, I couldn’t help but think that she was missing something. Modesty as believed to be a “two-inch strap, fingertip length shorts, and to-the-knee skirts” may all be good principles, but they cannot be the heart of the modesty issue. None of these guidelines are cultural or time transcendent, but the command of modesty is (1 Timothy 2:9).

As Christian women, we try to find answers to common cultural questions like, “how short is too short,” “how low is too low,” or “are leggings pants”? We focus on these questions, because these questions seem to be the most relevant, but are they the most important. Is that what modesty is foundationally about?

Oddly enough, Pinterest is filled with modesty quotes, encouraging girls to dress counter-culturally. But they give secondary reasons for modesty such as the following:

“Modesty isn’t about hiding your body, it’s about revealing your dignity.”
“Dear girls, dressing immodestly is like rolling around in manure, yes you’ll get attention, but mostly from pigs.”
“Dress how you want to be addressed.”
“Seek respect, not attention. It lasts longer.”
“It’s a man’s job to respect women, but it’s a woman’s job to give him something to respect.”
“Dressing modestly doesn’t mean I lack confidence, it means I’m so confident I don’t need to reveal my body to the world because I’d rather reveal my mind.”
Photo Credit: Julianna Otero

Photo Credit: Julianna Otero

 Here’s the problem. Our human dignity being on display for the world is not at all what modesty is about. It’s not about getting the right attention or right treatment. Modesty is not about a woman giving men something to respect or about women choosing to reveal their intelligence over their body. Unfortunately, all these quotes and many others grossly miss the big idea of what modesty is actually about.

The modesty issue is a command in 1 Timothy, but modesty itself is introduced in Genesis. And, the big question that is the most important is “why do we wear clothes at all?”

The reason we have questions about appropriate clothing is because we have a sin nature. Mary Kassian wrote a book called “Girls Gone Wise, in a World Gone Wild,” and I highly recommend it. She wrote a chapter about a wise woman’s appearance, and in that chapter, she talks about the fall’s effect on the clothes we wear.

Nakedness became shameful at the fall because of the “dishonor, disgrace, [and] unworthiness” that came with sin.

The need for clothing came out of our loss of innocence before God. Adam and Eve’s relationship with each other and with God became stained by their sin. Their attempt to cover themselves and eliminate their shame was inadequate.

God’s covering, alone, was sufficient. A sacrifice had to be made, and blood had to be shed. This sacrifice was symbol of Jesus’s sacrifice that would one day cover all the world’s sin and shame. Clothing was given in a gospel-oriented fashion.

Kassian included a quote from John Piper in her chapter that reads,

“Our clothes are a witness both to our past and present failure and to our future glory. They testify to the chasm between what we are and what we should be. And they testify to God’s merciful intention to bridge that chasm through Jesus Christ and his death for our sins.”

 When you put on clothes, you are making an attempt to cover shame that comes from your sin. That sin and shame can only be conquered by Jesus, and you can only be restored by God. Your clothes are a picture of the gospel and your need for Jesus. Excusing a fashion choice by thinking, “it’s okay, this is the cultural norm,” is belittling the seriousness of the command of modesty. Whether you realize it or not, your clothes say, “I need Jesus” or “No I don’t. I’m proud of the shame from my sin.”

Photo Credit: Julianna Otero

Photo Credit: Julianna Otero

A lot of people take a secondary issue or virtue like showing respect or displaying dignity and make it the big idea. A lot of good things come from being modest, and there are many good guidelines to modesty that I agree with. But none of those things are the foundational piece.

Modesty is a picture of the Gospel and our need for Jesus

And, while that doesn’t specifically answer the question, “Are leggings pants?”, it certainly puts a lot more weight on the issue and demands that we think about our clothing choices more. I wish I could go back to the evening with the guests in my dorm and tell that girl, “There is more to modesty than just lengths of dresses. God personally sacrificed an animal in order to cover Adam and Eve’s sin. That should mean so much more to us on a daily basis.”

When I get dressed, I don’t think “This is a sign that I need Jesus.” Maybe I should. Perhaps, if more women realized the theological significance of modesty, we all would look at the contemporary issues a little differently. I believe that modesty would become a little more about the heart and a little less about the length.