How We Can Improve the Conversation on Modesty
Currently, the way that modesty is predominantly taught is deeply flawed. It is taught in such a way that it places men’s moral responsibility onto women. It implies that men do not possess self control, absolving them of a key Christian virtue.
During lessons on modesty, girls are told that if they do not dress a certain way, men will fall into sin. However, if the purpose of teaching modesty is to prevent men from falling into sin, then we might as well stop teaching it and spend our time teaching men self control because they are going to be exposed to immodesty at some point. If the goal of teaching modesty is to prevent men from being exposed to temptation, our efforts are futile.
Even so, I do not believe that we should stop teaching modesty. I am able to hold this belief because I don’t think that the purpose of dressing modestly is to prevent temptation. Modesty is not about clothing, and it certainly is not about men.
In fact, the very reasoning behind the idea that modesty is about preventing men from sinning is akin to the reasoning behind many rapists’ belief that girls “ask for it.” One assumes that if a man sees a scantily clad woman, he will lust. The other assumes that if a man sees a scantily clad woman, he must act upon his desires. Both arguments are essentially the same, varying only in degree. They both hold that men cannot control themselves and that women are responsible for the men’s actions.
Modesty is about the heart, not men, and we need to start teaching it that way. My friend Matthew Hooker argues in his article Modesty: A New Perspective that modesty is about the motivation, the attitude, behind clothing choices, and I think he is right. Why you’re wearing what you’re wearing is much more important that what you’re actually wearing.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says:
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 equally unchaste). Some of the language which chaste women used in Shakespeare’s time would have been used in the nineteenth century only by a woman completely abandoned. 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 often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable: for it is uncharitable to take pleasure in making other people uncomfortable. I do not think that a very strict or fussy standard of propriety is any proof of chastity or any help to it, and I therefore regard the great relaxation and simplifying of the rule which has taken place in my own lifetime as a good thing. At its present stage, however, it has this inconvenience, that people of different ages and different types do not all acknowledge the same standard, and we hardly know where we are. While this confusion lasts I think that old, or old-fashioned, people should be very careful not to assume that young or “emancipated” people are corrupt whenever they are (by the old standard) improper; and, in return, that young people should not call their elders prudes or puritans because they do not easily adopt the new standard. A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems.
For Christians, modesty should be about chastity. Yes, we should be concerned with propriety out of the kindness of our hearts, but when we discuss the moral dimensions of what we wear, we need to look at the heart. It is our attitude that determines the rightness or wrongness of our sartorial choices.
Instead of teaching girls that they need to dress in certain ways so that they won’t make men stumble, we should teach them to examine their own hearts and to pursue chastity. Yes, it is nice for girls to dress according to the rules of propriety. It makes it a lot easier for us guys. But us guys need to begin taking responsibility for our own thoughts, and we shouldn’t teach girls in such a way that they believe themselves to be responsible for our sins.
As pastor Ed Gungor wrote in an article for Relevant Magazine:
I think you can get away with being as fashionable as you want, as long as your heart is clear and clean and you don’t have patterns of complaints from those you love and trust. If your heart is clear and clean, you can confidently tell the occasional accuser who makes the “you-make-me-lust” accusation to go look in the mirror for the source of his or her inappropriate desires.