Modesty: such a traditional, culturally backwards, unpopular concept. It’s hard to reconcile modesty with a culture in which every girl has accepted bikinis as the norm, in which you can put a sticker over a woman’s nipple and then broadcast it on primetime television, in which pornography is no longer universally damned, on and on I could go. And this is just the culture at large, I’m not even dealing with the culture of the Church, though you’d have a hard time distinguishing the two at times.
Before I tell you my personal convictions on modesty, I’ll acknowledge a few things. For one, modesty is totally relative to a culture: some cultures consider burqas (those full-coverings that Muslim women wear) as the standard dress, some cultures wold consider one-piece bathing suits scandalous, some cultures have no problem with bikinis, etc. Second, this isn’t a blog devoted to creating hatred for bikinis. Or yoga pants. Or tank tops, spaghetti straps, V-necks, low-rise jeans, or any of that. Those have been condemned items of clothing in years past, maybe topless bikinis will be the hot topic a few years down the road, I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’m writing about people, motives, hearts, and temptations, the clothing choices are just the product of those convictions.
I wanna have sex when I’m looking at girls’ bare or nearly bare bodies. Believe it or not I thought hard about how to phrase that, I thought about sanitizing it because that’s “inappropriate” to express to some ears, I thought about awkward and vague phrases like “I lust when I’m looking at…”, but none would be as honest and clear as that. It’s a fact, my sinful and biological response to looking at the beautiful female body (and it is beautiful, there’s nothing to be shamed about the human body in and of itself) is to send signals in my brain to alert my sex drive.
Mind you, I said sinful and biological. It’s both. I am responsible for the lustful thoughts my heart has, and I am designed by the Lord to be excited at the sight of the beauty that is a woman’s body. As a Christian, this is difficult to reconcile. I definitely “stumble” (as Paul would say in his letter to the Corinthians) when I see a girl in revealing clothing, all the more so a Christian because not only does my lustful heart begin lighting up but I grow frustrated at this girl for representing the Lord poorly and then I grow frustrated with myself for responding how I am. It’s a mess of blame shifting and frustration and lust, and the culture of our church is not one in which I could walk up and ask her to wear something that leaves less to the imagination. “Well this is what I want to wear,” or “Maybe you should control your own damn thoughts,” or “You’re shaming me for my body…”
I would never want my wife, daughter, girlfriend, mother, sister, whatever, to wear much of what passes for the norm for beachwear, summer wear, tight clothing, etc. I’ll admit, back to my original statement, that my flesh wants to have sex when I’m looking at girls’ bare or nearly bare bodies; but my spirit, the true me, the me that’s been redeemed and cleansed in Jesus Christ, really wants to make love to the woman who’s heart has captured mine. I want to enter a covenant with the girl in jeans and a T-shirt who says much about the Lord with her life than the girl who says much about herself with her body.
Yes, the very idea of modesty is an assault on the highest of American ideals: individuality and freedom of expression. But I plead with you, women, set aside those ideals for the virtues that Christ calls you to. Not because you’re weak-willed but precisely the opposite, because you’re stronger than the women who entice men with the beauty of their bodies and not the beauty of their hearts. Do it because I am extremely weak and so are my stupid brothers. And please, tell me what bothers you about what we stupidly do, because I know that modesty isn’t a one-sided issue. But don’t ignore my words simply because I have a plank in my eye. Let’s help one another remove those planks.
“Modesty is a respectable manner of adorning one’s body and carrying oneself, born out of a freedom from a worldly definition of beauty and worth, and motivated by a hatred of sin and a desire to draw attention to God.
When it comes to the subject of modest clothing, the first question we should ask ourselves is: What am I trying to accomplish by what I wear?
1. Modesty is not anti-pretty.
2. Modesty is about who you worship.
3. Modesty is about behavior and attitude, not just clothing.
4. Modesty shows sensitivity to sin.
5. Modesty involves cultural discretion.
6. Modesty is about true freedom, not repression.”
“Although Paul is talking about food in this passage [Romans 14] rather than dress, he is illustrating a broader principle: We do some things not because we are required, but purely for the sake of others. He says that all food is clean, but that it is better not to eat meat or drink or wine or to do anything that will cause your brother or sister to fall. This is a difficult principle for Westerners to accept, especially Americans, who value personal liberty seemingly above all else. Paul reminds us that, as all of Scripture does, that in all that we do, we have an obligation not only to ourselves but to others as well.
This message has obvious intersection with modesty. Our bodies are not sinful or problematic—they are created by God and are beautiful things. Still, for many people, the bodies of others are tempting and cause them to think about that person in an objectified, sexualized light. This is surely more the fault of the one doing the lusting than anyone else, and to say anything else—anything along the lines of “she was asking for it”—is utterly repulsive. It is a fact of human existence from its very inception: People lust after one another sexually.
We’re presented with a quandary—bodies are beautiful, and yet they often cause us to think and act in sinful ways, so what do we do? In our polarized culture, we tend to choose one extreme or the other, either to curse the body as sinful or to view those who lust as morally deficient and exclusively at fault.
According to Paul, there is another path: We do whatever we can to prevent other beloved brothers or sisters from being stumbled. Modesty then is not a rejection of the beauty of body, nor is it a judgment on the moral weakness of others—it is the loving prerogative of the strong.
Do we “have” to dress in a certain way? No, not at all, and the tone of Paul’s writing makes this clear. The problem is that we too often have made modesty a compulsory action. Instead, though, modest dress is something we consciously do for others, not because we are forced to, but because we want to; not because we are weaker than others, but because we are stronger; not out of our hatred for ourselves, but our love for another.
I believe that women should dress modestly. Why, because they have to? Because they’re asking for it if they don’t? Because their bodies are not godly things? No, not at all. They should dress modestly because they love and value men.
You see, in the sinful weakness of the male spirit, men often see the beauty of the female form and transform it into something base and soulless. It happens even to the best of us, who were raised well, who love Christ with all of our hearts. It is sin, and it is weakness, and separates us from God and women. I make no excuse for it in my own life, and I certainly do not blame women for something that I myself am responsible for.”
“Modesty takes in to account the heart, the situation, and the culture. Modesty is a virtue that shows love to others and brings glory to God through appropriate dress.”
“Whatever is born is the work of God. Whatever, then, is plastered on (that), is the devil’s work.”
“In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, the apostle Paul writes “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” The Greek word translated “modesty” here is kosmios. Derived from kosmos (the universe), it signifies orderliness, self-control and appropriateness. It appears only twice in the New Testament, and interestingly, its second usage refers specifically to men (1 Timothy 3:2). In fact, nearly all of the Bible’s instructions regarding modest clothing refer not to sexuality, but rather materialism (Isaiah 3:16-23, 1 Timothy 2:9-12, 1 Peter 3:3). Writers in both the Old Testament and New Testament express grave concern when the people of God flaunt their wealth by buying expensive clothes and jewelry while many of their neighbors suffered in poverty. (Ironically, I’ve heard dozens of sermons about keeping my legs and my cleavage out of sight, but not one about ensuring my jewelry was not acquired through unjust or exploitive trade practices—which would be much more in keeping with biblical teachings on modesty.)
And so biblical modesty isn’t about managing the sexual impulses of other people; it’s about cultivating humility, propriety and deference within ourselves.
With this in mind, there are three extremes those of us who value modesty should take care to avoid:
1. We turn modesty into objectification when we hold women responsible for the thoughts and actions of men.
It is important here to make a distinction between attraction and lust. Attraction is a natural biological response to beauty; lust obsesses on that attraction until it grows into a sense of ownership, a drive to conquer and claim. When Jesus warns that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he uses the same word found in the Ten Commandments to refer to a person who “covets” his neighbor’s property. Lust takes attraction and turns it into the coveting of a woman’s body as though it were property. And men are responsible for their own thoughts and actions when this happens; they don’t get to blame it on what a woman is wearing.
Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart, so ladies, be sure to dress more modestly.” Instead he says to the men, “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away”! The IVP New Testament Commentary notes
that at the time, “Jewish men expected married Jewish women to wear head coverings to prevent lust. Jewish writers often warned of women as dangerous because they could invite lust (as in Sirach 25:21; Ps. Sol. 16:7-8), but Jesus placed the responsibility for lust on the person doing the lusting.”
People have expressed skepticism of the Princeton study cited by Rey, pointing out that it was drawn from a small sample size, included men who already held negative or sexist views of women, and used headless images of women either fully dressed or wearing a bikini to evoke responses. But regardless of whatever synapsis involuntarily fire in a man’s brain when he sees a woman’s body, he alone is responsible for the decision to objectify a woman or treat her with respect. Placing that burden upon women is unnecessary and unfair.
2. We turn modesty into objectification when we assume there are single standards that apply to all people in all cultures.
Interestingly, the same study cited by Rey has been cited by a popular Muslim site
as support for encouraging women to wear the hijab, which reveals something of how different cultures and faiths view modesty. I spent some time in India, where women in traditional saris exposed their midriffs and navels without a second thought, but would carefully avoid showing their knees. Rachel Marie Stone recently wrote an excellent piece
for Christianity Today about how, in Malawi, women typically nurse in public without shame of exposing their breasts. In many cultures, a one-piece bathing suit would be considered scandalous; in others, bikinis—or even topless bathing— are the norm. What is considered modest or appropriate changes depending on culture and context. It also changes from woman to woman, depending on body type, personality, personal convictions and season in life. While we may long for a universal dress code that would make all of this simpler, we aren’t given one. Perhaps this is why Paul encouraged women to “adorn themselves with good deeds,” and why the valorous woman of Proverbs 31 is praised because “she clothes herself in strength and dignity.” At the end of the day, the most important things we project to the world are strength, dignity and good deeds; the sort of things that transcend culture, circumstance, and clothing.
The truth is, a man can choose to objectify a woman whether she’s wearing a bikini or a burqa [a long, loose garment covering the whole body from head to feet, worn in public by many Muslim women]. We don’t stop lust by covering up the female form; we stop lust by teaching men to treat women as human beings worthy of respect.
3. Finally, we turn modesty into objectification when we make women ashamed of their bodies.
It doesn’t take long for a woman to realize that no matter what she wears, the curves of her body remain visible and will occasionally attract the notice of men. If this reality is met only with shame, if the female form is treated as inherently seductive and problematic, then women will inevitably feel ashamed of their bodies.
But our bodies are not something to be overcome; they are not dirty or shameful or inherently tempting. They are a beautiful part of what it means to be created in the image of God. These are the bodies that allow us to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, the bodies that feel sun on our skin and sand between our toes, the bodies that nurse babies and cry with friends, the bodies that emerge from the waters of baptism and feast on the bread of communion. They are beautiful, and they are good.
So my advice for women looking for bathing suits this season is this: Don’t dress for men, and don’t dress for yourself. Instead, prioritize strength, dignity and good deeds, and then dress accordingly.”
“[song playing: “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”] I’m sure you’ve all heard that song before and I apologize if it gets stuck in anyone’s head for the rest of the day. But, I am wondering, if you’ve ever really listened to the lyrics, because until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never really listened to them before, so I’d like to review some of them with you. The first verse goes,
“She was afraid to come out of the locker // She was as nervous as she could be // She was afraid to come out of the locker // She was afraid that somebody would see”
The song continues, with her being afraid to come out in the open, so she hides in her blanket, and then, she was afraid to come out of the water, so she starts to turn blue. Why was this woman, so afraid? This song was released in 1960, fourteen years after the bikini was invented in France. French engineer, Louis Reard invented the bikini, he worked in his mother’s lingerie shop and he named it after the site of the atomic bomb testing that year Bikini Atoll.
He thought that the publics’ reaction would be like an atomic bomb explosion. And, he was right. His design was based on exposing the belly button for the first time. And he said, it wasn’t the true bikini unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring. It was so scandalous that no French model would wear it. So he had to hire a stripper to debut his bikini.
Before Reard invented the bikini women wore one piece swimsuits, like this, or if they were two piece swimsuits, they were still very modest, exposed very little midriff and always cover the belly button. Before that, at the turn of the century women wore this voluminous bathing costumes, and they use things called bath machines, which were like a 6x6x6 wooden or canvas hut on wheels, the women would get inside of the bathing machine in her cloths, and then she would change into her bathing costume. And horses or sometimes people would drag the bathing machine down to the shoreline, and then women would get straight into the water. So that no one would see here in her bathing costume.
We have certainly come a long way, since then from practically wearing a house of 36 square feet to wearing about 36 square inches of fabric. You go to the beach today and it seems like everyone is wearing a bikini, but it was not an instant hit in the United States. It was seen as a suspect garment favored by licentious Mediterranean types.
In 1957, Modern Girl magazine said, “It was hardly necessary to waste words on the so called bikini, because no girl with the tact or decency would ever wear such a thing. And one writer described the bikini as a two piece bathing suits that revealed everything about a girl except her mothers’ maiden name. Guards at the beach would measure bathing suits and women wearing bikinis were sure to get kicked off of the beach.
So, it’s no wonder that the girl on the song was afraid to come out of the water.
With 1960s however, came the sexual revolution and the women’s movement and the rising popularity of the bikini. Soon no one was afraid to wear one. And in 1965, a women told Time magazine, that it was almost square not to. Last year alone annual spending on the bikini totaled $8 billion. The popularity of the bikini has been attributed to the power of women, not the power of fashion. And a New York Times reporter called the bikini, the millennial equivalent of the power suit.
So I’d like to take a couple of minutes to examine this so called power that wearing the bikini brings.
A few years ago, male college students at Princeton University participated in studies of how the male brain reacts to seeing people in different amounts of clothing. Brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily-clad women, the region of the brain associated with tools, such as screwdrivers and hammers lit up.
Some men showed zero brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that lights up when one ponders another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Researchers found that shocking, because they almost never see this part of the brain shutdown in this way.
And a Princeton professor said, “It is as if they’re reacting to these women as if they’re not fully human. It’s consistent with the idea that they are responding to these photographs, as if they were responding to objects, not people.
In a separate Princeton study, when men viewed images a women in bikinis, they often associated with first person action verbs such as: “I push”, “I grab”, “I handle”. But when they saw images of women dressed modestly, they associated them with third person action verbs, such as “she pushes”, “she grabs”.
Analyst at the National Geographic concluded the bikinis really do inspire man to see women as objects as something to be used rather than someone to connect with. So, it seems that wearing a bikini does give a women power, the power to shutdown a man’s ability to see her as a person, but rather as an object.
This is surely not the kind of power that women were searching for, the power to be treated as an equal to be seen as in control and to be taken seriously. It seems that the kind of power they are searching for is more attainable, when they dress modestly. But now comes the problem of modesty.
The very word, modesty is often met with such disdain especially among the younger high school crowd. I remember speaking to a group of teenagers in New York and when I mentioned modesty, this girl yelled from the back, “What am I supposed to dress like then, a grandma? And I was scared, but I have to admit, I thought the same thing when I first learned about modesty. I thought it meant, “I had to be frumpy and dumpy and out of fashion”. And, I imagine myself wearing dresses like this, sitting alone in my living room, never going on another date, ever again and never getting married, and I was particularly frustrated when shopping for a swimsuit, when I decided not to wear bikinis anymore, because all I could find were things that my grandmother would actually wear.
Instead of being discouraged I took matters into my own hands and I designed my own swimsuit, and the first time I wore it, a few girls asked, where I got it, and the second time a few more and so on and so forth. So, I decided to put my MBA to use, which made my parents so happy, and just start my own swimsuit company.
My goal is to disapprove the age old notion, that when it comes to swimsuits, less is more and that you can dress modestly without sacrificing fashion.
My inspiration for my swimsuit line is Audrey Hepburn, who is timeless and classy and who happened to have dressed very modestly. I don’t think people would think of Audrey Hepburn and think frumpy and dumpy and out of fashion.
These are some of my designs and my tag line is “Who says it has to be itsy bitsy?” Well to answer the question, if you look at today’s society everyone, everyone says, “It has to be itsy bitsy”, fashion designers, the media, and let’s face it sometimes parents.
Little girls would not be running around in sexy underwear and skimpy bikinis, if it wasn’t for their parents buying them for them.
I believe that the woman was afraid to come out of the water, because she had a natural sense of modesty about her. That has been stripped away by today’s culture. And, we need to bring it back.
I have dedicated a lot of my time, I travel all over the country speaking to girls about this issue. I’ve just written a book called ‘Decent Exposure’ about it.
And, we need to teach girls that modesty isn’t about covering up our bodies because they’re bad, modesty isn’t about hiding ourselves, it’s about revealing our dignity.
We were made beautiful in His image and likeness, so the question I’d like to leave you with is, how will you use your beauty? Thank you. [see Rey’s swimline here: Reyswimwear.com