Who, What, Wear? A ramble about modesty
One hardly knows how to begin on this topic. There are about a gazillion opinions on this topic, and much of them are applied to women. To write this about men is somewhat less useful, because for some reason it means less to women that a man be modest, and more that he be groomed and styled.
It is usually women who receive the praise or critique for showing skin. It's puzzling, and yet not so much when one considers that people celebrate and fear the female form. Women are often airbrushed and squeezed into something that can only be considered a trophy look to be sported by men, or conversely draped in tents to somehow hide their beauty and keep everything safe and proper.
As we see it, from one end of history to another people have been inconsistent on just what is expected morally from men and women, and somehow this is tied to clothing. Just think back to even a hundred years ago in our country. It was acceptable for a man to have a mistress, but let a woman bare an ankle and her purity was questioned. Men had sex with other women, but let a "good girl" get pregnant she was ostracized for pretty much forever along with "her" child.
I have a theory. It seems the world is scared to death by the power of women. You may take me as feminist if you wish, but think about it: Adam ate an apple because of this power. Samson lost his strength over this power. The Savior of the World was carried in this power and so redemption came, through a woman.
In a worldly sense it seems that when it comes to the subjects of morality, men are given a pass while women are cloaked in the heavy clothes of their responsibility. It feels like a replay of Eden. There is something off in the balance of how God created us originally when I see that men have repressed women, and women try to trash men. It's like two powers struggling for one place when in reality there are two equally legitimate places and they have to work together to be any good. Take away one or the other and it creates an imbalance that ripples out for ages.
A few years ago I began to see a little of how I had been weakening the power of man, through what seemed perfectly righteous to me. It came about it a conversation with a man, incidentally, and it was about the fact that I thought girls needed to dress to protect guys.
Me: Yeah, I think we girls are responsible to help guys along on this subject. I'm not saying they're not responsible for themselves, but we have to help them out.
Him: You don't have an ounce of responsibility in this, it is 100% our responsibility to take care of ourselves and our eyes.
Me persisting: Yeah, but we don't have to make it harder for you all.
Him: That's none of your business. We have to protect ourselves and take responsibility. What you wear is totally beside the point.
There was much more to the conversation I can't remember, because I came away shocked. How dare he pooh-pooh my righteously held martyrdom! Darn it, I was protecting them from themselves!
I changed my mind
It is infamously the woman's prerogative to change her mind, no? Actually, it's imperative that we all leave room to change our minds, otherwise we would become insufferable. In this case, I was holding the men down in a reverse, feminist way. No, I wasn't trampling them, but neither was I letting them live to their full potential of being a true man. Listen to what a guy friend of mine wrote in a conversation in which several of us were discussing a somewhat narrow-minded, fear-based sermon on modesty. It says it ten times better than I could.
One has so many thoughts when one reads these messages. First, the quote that is said many many times, that it is your duty to help your Christian Brothers. I think that this is the biggest bunch of hogwash ever. Here is why. I have heard that all my life. I was taught that if only women would be better covered the struggles men would have, would pretty much disappear. As someone who lived as a non Christian inside an Amish church, I would testify that women are constantly objectified even there, though they practically wear tents. This is, I believe the animalist habit of men which is overcome by giving our hearts to Jesus. The whole idea of men being able to live in victory by the chivalric and considerate actions of women, sounds rather great, except the man is ALWAYS forced to have some contact with the outside and then he is in trouble. I believe that when the the Bible says that no temptation is greater than you can bear and Jesus grace is sufficient for me, He probably meant it. I believe that if I can not in a calm collected way reply on the power of God in a changed heart, but must require instead every woman in my life to go out of her way, something is deeply flawed. It's basically saying that God's power is not enough for me. And furthermore, maybe it's my independence but I just can't accept that God would plan that woman must be inhibited for men to survive. I feel like I am dancing on thin ice here, but I just want to say this isn't theories in my life. This works! And I am happy about it. -J.H.
I've read this probably 2 dozen times and feel a bit more free each time. It made me see something. If two men I know made the choice to live in the power of God and it made such a radical difference in (at the least) my life, what could it do for women everywhere if men stepped up? At least in one way men and women might no longer fear each other's power as they do, and what a blow that would be to dark forces!
Let's get down to Brass Tacks
So now, if men are real men, and women are real women, how then do we decide what to wear? One thing I get tired of is being held to vague standards but never really having useful information to help me make decisions. Here's a big one:
"Oh, modesty is such a heart issue."
Ok? Great! I'll put on my heart clothing then and it will all be fine, and I'm sure my birthday suit will suffice for the rest.
On the flip side, you can't be culturally proper on the outside and expect it to work inward because in this subject, motivation makes all the difference.
What's that about "culturally proper?"
Society influences our decisions every day, because guess what; what my grandmother and your grandmother and their daughters and Marilyn Monroe thought are all impacting us today. We make decisions based on decisions, based on culture, because the undeniable fact is we make decisions that are influenced by the choices people made before us. Did I use the word decision enough already?
Listen to what C.S. Lewis had to say about the effects of culture and motivation for people.
The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of ‘modesty’ (in one sense of that word); i.e., propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest,’ proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or unchaste)…. When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as so often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable. -C.s. Lewis
We may not all agree on which clothing to wear, but we all agree that we must wear it. Culture varies widely, and it will ebb and flow. Styles and fashions and clothing will change inevitably, but the social rule of propriety remains in place. I found these two finishing statements to hold worlds of information that is useful in deciding what to wear.
1. When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity.
- The US considers cleavage and midriff to be sexy
- Indians show midriff, traditionally.
- Places in Africa require women to cover their knees, but are much more lenient regarding breasts.
- Central Americans are shocked by short shorts on women, but are blase about cleavage.
The lines might seems blurry in our day, but if you think about it we all generally know what is acceptable for street style in our country and what is not. The lines might get pushed, but most everyone abides by the idea that we should wear a certain amount of clothes.
The idea here is that the motivation of our heart matters, which is I suppose what people mean when they say "modesty is a matter of the heart." It does matter. If you're trying to seduce someone you're going to wear something completely different than you will to go pick out a vegetable at the market.
Then Lewis goes on to say:
2. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as so often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable.
Appearances deceive and cultures (and subcultures) vary. We can't lay down hard, fast rules about people's motivation. Sometimes someone else may be comfortable with wearing something our conscience wouldn't quite allow because they might be doing it out of a different motivation or influence. I've seen that happen more than once. My personal standards wouldn't allow me to wear something someone else would, but when I observed the response of society around them I saw that because they wore it with modest heart/intent, people perceived them differently than a girl wearing the same type of clothing who seemed to be saying "look at me!"
Note: "look at me!" is how NOT to be a modest person.
On the other hand if someone wears clothing to deliberately shock or embarrass others it makes the people around them acutely uncomfortable, and they are guilty of bad manners. People pleasing is a miserable existence, but one can respect people without being in fear of what people will think. This is something most people have a general sense about, and if they don't it goes straight from the bad manners into the ignorance category. This is why we must have grace for other people's clothing choices. One observation I find interesting is that in the Muslim culture where grace is practically a non-existent doctrine, women are the most thoroughly covered, and in places where absolute morality or God are missing, clothing fades away to practically nothing. There is a middle road.
I have the freedom of choice, and my motto is simple: "remember clothes are not your identity. Dress with thoughtful freedom and respect to culture/people around me, and do it with class." When I wear things like jeans, tees, sweaters, skirts, hats, and dresses I do so because I am comfortable with the way they express my femininity and style, cover me in winter or summer, and that I am not transgressing any rules of propriety. Not everyone lives with personal freedom; some may be in family or national situations where it is necessary to refer to direct or government authority. However no matter the current situation there is a nonnegotiable on matters of dress, and it is in your self worth.
That's it - no if, and, or but. If you value yourself merely for those long legs, then chances are that is what other people will value or see about you. The thing is clothes, makeup and jewelry can make a show of confidence, but they're never going to make up for recognizing the fact that with or without those legs, you are a beautiful person and purposefully created. That's why Paul told us in the Bible not to let our worth be in what we wear, because our identity is separate from our looks, our style, and a fabulous closet. You are loved. You matter. In rags or riches. If you value yourself, you won't need to vie for cheap love. It will show up in your demeanor, words, actions, and then, what you wear. This does not require explanation to anyone. You don't need to dress for cheap attention, but if you are confidant in yourself, you'll get attention of a more positive nature.
If you are an African princess at heart, be an African princess. Dress to respect yourself and others, but don't let anyone else dictate your style. You can be who you were meant to be; confident and beautiful. Own it, because this is your gift as a woman. Wear it well, because it is a power that can be abused. Above all, live in freedom as much as possible.
Note: there will always be disconnects between people, generations, cultures, and even sub cultures. As a Christian, one must allow the Holy Spirit to show us what to do in a per case basis. Be willing to consider something other than what you have always thought. You may reach the same conclusions, or you may form new ones. May God guide you.