By Tilly Dillehay
Short answer? No.
More complicated short answer? Sometimes.
I know I’ll have to explain this one.
I know I’ll have to explain this one.
Well, I heard this great talk on modesty at the Faith Biblical Counseling Ministries conference in February (by Janet Aucoin, if you want to know), and it’s gotten me thinking seriously about modesty issues for the first time in a while.
Here is a list of the reasons, in my opinion, that Christian women who ought to know better dress immodestly. This list should answer our original question in a roundabout way.
Seven reasons Christian women dress immodestly:
You may be ignorant about either what modesty is, or how hard men really have it.
What is modesty?Let’s settle this: dressing immodestly either reveals too much or calls attention to private areas of the body. Or, as we’ll find later, it simply calls attention.
How hard do men have it? As a teen and young adult, I heard the ‘men are visual’ party line often, but never understood it. This changed about three years ago, soon after my conversion, when I read a few books like For Women Only and some marriage titles. A few things were suddenly made clear:
A) We are being much too bland when we describe this issue in terms of ‘don’t be a stumbling block for men’. This is warfare that we’re talking about, and in any given room, there may be epic struggles under way that we know nothing about.
Helpful comparison: men / sight = women / touch. Asking a man to just get over it when our clothing either REVEALS or EMPHASIZES private body parts would be like asking a teenage girl to simply not react when her boyfriend touches her sweetly, puts his arms around her waist, caresses her cheek, and fondles her. It is unloving and unfair.
B) Men who are actually in this battle (not sitting down, utterly defeated) will thank you for giving them a rest, because the world will NEVER GIVE THEM A REST.
C) Young men can carry lifelong anger and bitterness towards women who dressed provocatively in front of them when they were vulnerable. Sometimes, these are women who will never know the hurt they’ve caused.
I still vividly remember being pulled aside once by kind older women and told that my dress was too low and needed something underneath it. It is etched in my mind because in that instance, I truly didn’t know.
I appeal to you, if this section makes you wonder whether you’ve simply been ignorant until now. Ignorance is no longer an excuse for you. Read up on this topic.
This was the number one emotion that characterized my experience of dressing in my teens and early twenties. There was one dominating question that controlled me as I picked items to put on my body every morning: does this make me look thinner than I am?
When you are deeply insecure or dissatisfied with your body, you will make bad dressing decisions. Things that don’t match or are unflattering will pass the mirror test, simply because they take a few pounds off and that’s the only thing that matters to you.
In addition to being a bad dresser, you will give yourself a pass on short, low, or tight pieces, for the same desperate reason.
I have a soft spot for this excuse, because it was mine for so long. But I have to say it, again: this is no longer an excuse for you. Harming others is never excusable because you were in a weak position when you did it.
This reason is probably more rare than we think, but it still exists. A vain woman dresses immodestly because, as the world says, “she can get away with that.” She’s got it, so she wants to flaunt it. It feels like a waste to her to have such great legs/back/shoulders/chest/butt/whatever, and not to be able to show them off.
I don’t know how else to appeal to this girl, except to say: stop that. Stop being so incredibly selfish. And if (as it often is) this is simply another form of the Insecurityissue—you believe that your body is the most important thing you have going for you, so you emphasize it—I say the same thing. Weakness is no excuse for you.
But this mode of immodesty reveals a much bigger problem in a woman’s heart: this girl obviously doesn’t understand what makes a woman lovely. She doesn’t understand what godliness is, or what holiness is… or even basic things about what impression she is actually making on men whose good opinion she craves.
She needs to be brought back to the drawing board.
4. Ruthlessness/Lack of mercy and love
If I had to analyze my situation right now, I would have to put my temptations to dress immodestly smack dab into this category.
Since I’ve been married, I have honestly been freed to enjoy dressing in a way I never imagined. I enjoy it now; I also think less about it than ever before. My husband’s generous appreciation of my body has given me a security that I did not expect. For the first time, it would be easy for me to carelessly throw something on that I know, really know, is unkind to men on the street, simply because I’m a carefree dresser for the first time in my life.
At the same time, I can’t pretend ignorance anymore. I’ve read more, and been taught more, and my husband is quite willing to ask me to change a problem item before I walk out the door. So if I wear an item that I know is questionable, I can only do it by willfully dimming my own understanding (Romans 1:21).
I need to remember 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 (“love is patient, love is kind…love does not act unbecomingly, it does not seek its own… does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth…”) and Matthew 5:7 (“blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy…”).
When I ignore what others have advised concerning a certain style or item of clothing, I am being willful. When I ignore the things I know about a man’s eyes, and the intense and sobering thing he undertakes when he makes a covenant with them, I am being RUTHLESS. I am being MERCYLESS. I am LACKING IN LOVE.
5. Eyes full of the world
It may be that we are simply worldly. We don’t know what modesty is because we have filled our minds with a fool’s standard.
My friends, let me make a very obvious point: everybody is modest compared to Miley Cyrus.
I am in a fortunate situation just now. I go to a church that is in a rural area, and it is full of women who are adorned with good works and godly spirits. The examples I have around me are truly stupendous. It’s not that we don’t have mature women in the church who dress nicely and care for their appearance, or even young women who are still trying to figure out what fashion is all about. But when I enter a room full of people from my church, I feel an actual release of competition and physical insecurity.
When I think of the ladies that I admire and would like to emulate, they are women whose clothing never comes into my mind. They are women who set examples in discipleship, in practical service (like meals for sick people and cleaning), in evangelism, and in being faithful to their own families.
I’ve noticed it time and again—I am more insecure about my clothing when I’m in the city. The competition that I do not feel in my home church can begin to rise in me again when I’m in another atmosphere.
I’m very blessed in my home church, I realize that. Not everyone is blessed with a whole clump of good examples like that. But each of us has the opportunity to fall on one side of this line of influence or the other side.
And remember, I don’t have to leave my little town to put myself in that unsatisfied, idle, vain, competitive mode—too much time on Pinterest or thumbing through InStyledoes it to me, too. I have to know these areas of temptation.
So here’s another Captain Obvious moment: If you feed yourself on spiritually shallow content, you will be worldly and spiritually shallow.
And you probably won’t look at keyhole cutouts the way you ought to.
6. Confusion about CONTEXT
This was one of the totally novel ideas introduced to me at this conference in February. Sometimes, modesty isn’t about lust at all. Sometimes, it’s about not drawing attention to yourself. And drawing attention to yourself often has to do with context.
Example: go to a wedding in a long white dress, and you will draw undue attention to yourself. People will be confused, distracted (and maybe angry). But if you’re going to YOUR OWN WEDDING? You should be wearing a white dress. It’s appropriate. It fits the occasion and it gives people helpful social cues about WHO IS GETTING MARRIED.
Another example: I have been wearing one-piece swimsuits with shorts since I was young and my parents made me. I still wear that particular combination to swim in. And yes, I think bikinis are a serious problem (sorry, I just don’t think Christian girls should be wearing what amounts to stringy waterproof underwear outside). But if I wore my ‘modest’ beach getup to the office, it would also be a serious problem. Context!
This brings me to a pet peeve: girls wearing today’s version of a mini skirt, with shorts or leggings underneath ‘so they don’t have to worry about it.’ (Because of course, when men see a short skirt, their first question is “What exactly is that I’m glimpsing under there? Oh, it’s shorts? OHHH, okay. In that case I’m not turned on.”)
I am a young, straight female. Even I am distracted by short, low, out of context, or revealing items.
Think about this when you’re getting dressed: will this distract people who are trying to talk to me? When I’m trying to have an edifying conversation, will either women or men find themselves preoccupied with this “head-turning” item? Even leaving lust aside… think about ‘strange’ items, items that aren’t age appropriate, or items that we often call ‘conversation pieces’.
No, I’m not saying that if you ever get compliments, you are calling too much attention to yourself. I’m saying that if most people get done talking to you and the first thing they say is “she had cute shoes,” this might be a red flag. Are there any godly women you know who you want to be like? When you describe them to a friend, do you say “She’s on the cutting edge of fashion? Oh, and I think she really loves the Lord.”
There might be a reason for this.
And this, friends, is why I think I feel uncomfortable when I wear high heels. I’m a tall girl, and every single time I wear heels, I just feel… conspicuous. When I talk to people wearing heels, I feel that my opening statement to them is ‘HELLO. I’M TALL AND WEARING HEELS.’
So does this mean heels are immodest for me to wear? Sometimes, yes. I think so.
7. No one is willing to graciously speak out
Homework for young women:
Find a godly older woman, have a serious conversation about modesty, and ask her to honestly assess specific items in your wardrobe.
If you’re married, ask your husband: what do I wear now that would have been hard on you when we were dating? Maybe he’ll be uncomfortable going on the record, but create an environment in which he knows he can talk to you about these things. Yes, he is proud of his attractive wife, but he is also proud that there are parts of her only he gets to ogle.
Homework for all godly women and husbands:
Women are mortified if you tell them they’re wearing something immodest. That’s just the truth. But we need to be willing to do it anyway.
Do it carefully, do it graciously. As a rule, women, be as ruthless as possible with yourself and as gracious as possible with others. Don’t assume they know. Don’t assume they’re trying to trap your husbands. Behave the way Christians are supposed to behave and speak with them privately and lovingly.
Husbands, feel free to couch it in terms of “only I should be able to see you in that.” This turns it into a holy marital compliment.
The purity of our men’s hearts, our women’s hearts, and our Christian witness as a whole is at stake. I think that’s worth a few uncomfortable conversations.
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