I grew up in a conservative community that stressed the importance of modesty. Incase you are not familiar with the concept of modesty, let me break it down for you:
Modesty is defined as, “behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency” (Oxford English Dictionary).
Most people tend to zero in on the “appearance” aspect of modesty. Essentially, lest you are dressed like an elderly colonial woman, you are being immodest. Nevermind the fact that it is 30℃, if your straps are too thin or your hemline is too short, you are a temptress of the night.
Think I’m being hyperbolic? Let me tell you a short story:
I worked at a bible camp one summer when I was thirteen. The camp directors split up the boys and girls for separate meetings. In the girls meeting, we were given rules about how to act and dress modestly.
We were told to focus on God, not the male staff. Obviously this was a huge blow because forget the experience, the adventure and the friends: the only reason I volunteered to spend my entire summer in the woods was to flirt with sweaty boys who bragged about being able to play “Wonderwall” on an acoustic guitar.
We were then told exactly what we could wear. For example, shirts had to cover our collar bones, because nothing says “summer vacay” like a turtleneck. Want to swim in the lake? Think again! You’ll probably drown since you will be forced to wear a long-sleeved, baggy t-shirt and sweatpants over your one-piece.
It was perfectly acceptable for the boys to have half of their boxers showing in their low-riding jeans, but God forbid a single bra strap should be seen. Listen, it is not my fault if some creepy twelve year old boy gets aroused by my bare shoulder. Speaking of the boys, what did their modesty talk consist of? A game of basketball. Just basketball.
This is modesty culture. It is the concept that it is up to women to stop men from gazing lustfully at them. If a man stumbles, it is the woman’s fault. This is toxic for women and men. It tells men that they have no control over their sexual desires and it tells women that they are at fault for receiving unwarranted sexual advances. From modesty culture breeds many other damaging sub-cultures, such as purity culture (the idea that your worth is tied to your sexual purity), rape culture (the idea that if you were raped you were somehow asking for it), etc., etc., etc., etc., etc..
Not only have I been burned by modesty culture, but I have participated in it. I once remarked to my friends, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for Samantha to wear shorts that short. She’s just wants attention from boys. It’s desperate and disgusting.” I once sat in a mock prayer circle with other girls as we all laughed and prayed for another girl’s “slutty soul.” I once told someone that they were asking to be called a whore because of how they behaved. What?
I was upset about the problem of modesty culture but I was the problem. I am so ashamed of the times I have condemned others in the name of “modesty.” If you go back to the original definition of modesty, by shaming others for their alleged lack of modesty I was being immodest. After all, was my “behavior” not “indecent” (Oxford English Dictionary)?
So where does that leave us? What can be done about the issue of modesty culture? We need to remember that the concept of what constitutes modest behavior is completely subjective. It is different for different people. We also need to remember that it is not our job to police the modesty of others.
I realize I am only beginning to touch on the subject of modesty. I have focused primarily on the dresscode side of it from a female perspective. However, a lot can be said about the ways society has skewed other aspects of modesty and about the ways in which modesty culture deeply hurts men, too.
I would like to suggest that we don’t measure ourselves or others based on a concept of modesty. Let us measure the world around us based on a concept of kindness. What have you done to act with kindness? In what ways do you reflect love? How can we challenge those around us to be kind and loving?
At the end of the day, modesty is irrelevant. What is relevant is love. Love, love, love.