Modest is Hottest?

I have had reason to think about the subject of modesty recently, and would really appreciate hearing the thoughts and perspectives of my blog readers on the subject.

A few preliminary remarks, before opening the discussion up.

First, discussions of modesty among Christians in the context of clothing tend to be focused far too closely and exclusively upon the clothing of women and its relationship to male lust. This excludes a lot from the picture. For instance, it excludes the relationship between dress and the pride of the wearer. Scriptural and earlier Christian treatments of the subject of women’s dress often seem to focus more upon clothing and jewellery as ostentation and display of wealth and status over others (e.g. 1 Timothy 2:9-10; 1 Peter 3:3-4). The Scriptures have a lot less to say about modesty of women’s dress in the context of male lust than we might presume, and far more about displays of wealth and prideful attempts to draw attention to oneself.

Second, it tends to place the responsibility for ‘modesty’ (made synonymous with clothing that does not excite male lust) almost solely on the shoulders of women. In a society as sexualized as ours, and in a hormone-addled male mind, a woman’s body, however it is clothed – this is especially true for women with certain figures – can excite lust (‘modest is hottest’ is not a helpful slogan). In such a society, even modest clothing starts to take on a sexual value as sex dominates the thoughts of the culture. We should have more sense than to believe that the fault is primarily in the object of lust than in the lustful person. The duty of men to control their desires should not be ignored.

Third, following on from the previous point, rather than focusing primarily upon sexual modesty in dress on women, we should recognize that modesty is a cultural virtue that requires the cooperation of different parties and far more than a set of restrictions on dress. Sexual modesty requires us to give sex a particular place in our cultural life and conversation. There is an unhealthily immodest tendency about the way in which sex is an increasingly open topic of Christian conversation. The idea that sex is a secret that belongs between two persons, a secret that if spoken of, should only be discussed with reticence, in a discreet, honourable, reserved, decent, and delicate manner seems to have fallen upon hard times. When this cultural conception of sex is rejected and sex becomes an open and ubiquitous subject for lewd public conversation and flaunting for excitement and entertainment, no restriction upon women’s dress will be able to re-establish true modesty. Modesty, as a sort of secret-keeping virtue, is very hard to practice alone.

Fourth, the fact that modesty is so focused upon lust and women’s clothing loses sight of the fact that modesty concerns far more than sexualized appearance, with bearing upon many forms of behaviour that have become normal and accepted within our society. Modesty, as I have already observed, also involves a rejection of ostentation or a flaunting of wealth. It is founded upon humility and kindness. It is expressed in diligence, moderation, and temperance in consumption. Our society is a proud one, which celebrates self-esteem, assertion, being the centre of attention, flaunting of what you have, conspicuous and immoderate consumption, and which likes to excite envy in others and signal superiority over them. Our society trains us to play this game, raising our pride, greed, gluttony, envy, and lust to obsessive levels, making it profoundly difficult for people to practice modesty: when we have become fixated upon what other people have – their bodies, possessions, power, influence, etc. – even those seeking to be modest and not wishing to flaunt themselves find themselves flaunted by the culture itself. I believe that, when talking about modesty, we need to think far more seriously about the proud character of our society.

Finally, modesty is a public form and expression of the virtues of humility, temperance, chastity, charity, patience, diligence, and kindness. Detaching modesty from these positive virtues, which are cultivated in community, will tend to ossify it into sets of prescriptive and proscriptive requirements. It seems to me that restoring modesty to our society must entail attention to the cultivation of these virtues more generally.

So, over to you! What do you think? What are your experiences with modesty teaching in Christian circles? Which principles guide your own practice? Do you have particular examples where you have seen this virtue in action?

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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17 Responses to Modest is Hottest?

  1. e says:

    I’ve only scanned the entry, but I wanted to thank you, Alastair, for placing at least some of the onus back on men when we speak about modesty. What I gleaned from my cursory reading is that modesty is about placing others above yourself, rather than trying to elevate your own standing through dress or actions.

    I’d like to add that the sexualization of women through undue focus on them as the sole parties responsible for modesty continues a tradition of seeing women as temptresses, as bodies (not as souls), and as subordinate to men.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I think that much of the problem in the modesty debate is that our society places women in a double bind. In order to be socially validated, there is an increasing expectation upon women to conform themselves to men’s demands – to appear ‘sexy’. The woman who doesn’t try to conform to this can find herself ridiculed, isolated, or ignored. They are accused for being prudish, plain, or whatever. The demand that women appear ‘sexy’ is everywhere in the media and society and women are constantly made excruciatingly aware of their bodies, dress, and appearance, to a degree to which we men will struggle to relate. On the other hand, if they do conform, they are accused of provoking male lust.

      Those who rightly criticize much Christian teaching on modesty, with its focus on women constantly seeing themselves in terms of men’s perspective upon them, often leave root problems unaddressed, as do those who encourage ‘modesty’ as resistance to sexualization. In both cases, the male lustful gaze sets many of the terms for female attire.

      It seems to me that the real alternative must be one in which this underlying dynamic is addressed, and the male lustful gaze is displaced from its current dominant cultural position. This involves expecting men to control their desires. It involves rendering sex a private matter. Also, it must involve creating an atmosphere conducive to raising confident and self-defined girls, who are free to be at ease with themselves and their appearance. As long as a woman’s self-worth is so heavily dependent upon how she appears to men, modesty will always be a fraught issue. Confident women can deny the male gaze its presumed entitlement and also don’t need to conform to it and its contradictory demands in order to feel validated.

      • e says:

        Totally fascinated by your choice of “male gaze”; are you referencing the work done in feminist academic circles?

        If so, the phrase references a force even more insiduous, and you do a great job tying into the general cultural issue–women are taught to see using the male gaze, where as men are discouraged from using a feminine gaze. (Rough approximation: Women attend action movies with their partners, whereas the culture emasculates men who like ‘chick flicks’ or romantic comedies because “they’re [just] for women [and therefore inferior to all of these other films that cater to the male gaze]”.

      • Yes, in part. However, I think that the logic of the ‘gaze’ is a bit more complex than one might gather from its uses in much feminist writing. It seems to me that the ‘gaze’ is also closely related with certain peculiarities of the Western philosophical and aesthetic tradition, and is powerfully facilitated and shaped by the logic of capitalism, and empowered by modern technology and media. While the ‘gaze’ is primarily exercised by men in relation to women, and its functioning is heavily gendered, all of us are in some sense positioned by it nowadays (think of the way that self-image is increasingly mediated by the gaze and validation of others on social networking sites such as Facebook, think about the way that sexual encounters are increasingly mediated by the pornographic image, or the rise and rise of the genre of reality TV). The ‘male gaze’ is a particular intense expression of a broader troubling cultural phenomenon.

  2. This would seem also to be St Paul’s concern in the discussion of covering the head or not. It’s possible that our eagerness to link the custom with respectability versus prostitution in particular is implicitly due to a misplaced emphasis on sex.

    • Yes, the focus on prostitution in Corinth is based on rather questionable history. However, I have yet to be convinced (though I am quite willing to be) that head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 are principally about the status of women relative to each other, as several contemporary exegetes seem to argue. Nor am I persuaded that it is a purely culturally contingent point that is being made (although how this point should be expressed in the life of the contemporary church is obviously going to be a matter of some debate). The passage rather seems to focus upon the difference between the sexes, and how this ought to be expressed in the worship of the church. The head-covering may only have been for the specific act of public praying or prophesying. I think that Matt Colvin’s reading of this, in terms of visible eschatology, is probably on the right lines.

  3. Phil James says:

    Alastair, I’ve struggled with a coherent practice of both modesty and Eucharistic living in the context of a world made dangerously glorious by the bodies of men and women- this both for myself and as a father of six children.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that discussions of modesty are often treating a confusing two-fold affair, and that we ought to spend some time untangling the knot before declaring what God requires we do this or that with the string. I appreciate that you are doing that.

    I agree that the broadest concern is one of pride- or maybe the worldly drive to lift ourselves up on the necks of others. It is a denial of the cruciformity of true human flourishing and godlikeness; and it works itself out though whatever strength we find as our inheritance- whether wealth, wittiness, physical beauty or… whatever. I often think of Robert E Lee’s grasp of this:

    The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.

    The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly–the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light…A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.”

    When her king came to her, Israel had turned the holy gifts of God into levers of self-aggrandizement. If that can be done with Temple and Torah, there is little doubt that the gifts of beauty and Eros will end up being wielded as weapons.

    As God’s image bearers, we oughtn’t do that- with money, education or a winning smile.

    Gifts from the Self-Giving God ought not be used as weapons, but this does not require that we refuse them as gifts. I’ve come to think that both are forms of idolatry and unbelief… at least unbelief in that god.

    The erotic gift is among the most powerful (and thus dangerous) of God’s original ideas; which is why I suspect ideas of modesty always involve our understanding of chastity. The way we carry our erotic power in the presence of others is perhaps the preeminent test of our grasp of cruciformity.

    I think it was Lewis Smedes who commented that a historical review of the heartache and destruction that sexual desire has brought on families- even nations- ought to make us careful about speaking of the unqualified goodness of sex. We might even wonder if God should have thought the whole thing through a bit longer, but… it is also unquestionably the case that round bottoms were his idea, and he does all things well.

    My experience is that those people who most recognize the danger of eros, and who truly wish to serve but one master, tend to deny the gift- or find ways of receiving it, while not receiving it. Like a horrendous sweater given at Xmas, it is warmly received with gushing appreciation, and then forever hidden in the closet.

    I don’t believe this really solves the problem of a lustful heart, and it creates another problem when the Giver later asks how we’ve enjoyed his gift.

    Wendell Berry offered a striking image of a garden. Gardens are glorious things. Gardens require fertility, and because of that are constantly in danger of reverting back into wilderness. Gardens require constant work, constant weeding and care. The ‘conservative’ response to the ever present danger of creeping wildness is to spray herbicide on the thing. Problem solved; no more weeds, but… no more garden either, and gardens are glorious things- the product of truly human skill, discipline and wisdom.

    Of course our society is pretty much overgrown. The wildness has reclaimed the cultivated patch. There are few gardens, anywhere.

    God has given us the fecundity, and desires cultivation. What are needed are gardeners. That at least is what I try to tell my children.

    We live close to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Covenant College looks down on us, and this question has touched our family through controversies involving the school’s art programs. A dear young lady (now a family member) had her previously approved sculpture removed from its exhibit because of complaints. Church members and faculty arranged a showing off campus. I was privileged to take my youngest daughter to the celebration. If you are interested in my thoughts as a father in reference to depicted nudity, the link might be of interest. But I’m only a Father- not an authorized thinker.

    The school has had many controversies of this sort. A few years ago a visiting artist had his exhibit destroyed by a well-meaning brother because Christ was depicted naked. I understand that that cost the school a significant penny.

    I mention this because in this case the requirement of modesty seemed to be simply equated with sufficient covering. This publication seems to make the same point- especially in Chapter III:

    I understand that this is likely meant in a ‘necessary, not sufficient’ sense, but I suspect the idea is based on an erroneous reading of the theological significance of nakedness, and the resulting requirements of modesty/revealing/depiction. I think John Paul the Great was right when he said that the problem with nudity is not that too much is shown, but rather that not enough is shown- namely the personhood and humanity of the one revealed/depicted.

    Of course such dehumanized revealings/ depictions are commonplace in the media and in the attire of our families. They ought to be opposed, but that is a community affair (as you pointed out), and one that I believe is best accomplished with shovels, pruners and rakes- not herbicide, closets or niqabs.

    I understand the concerns of the other side. I appreciate their heart, and tremble in realization that they may be right, but this is some of what this father has come to believe. God have mercy on us all.

  4. Jen Stuck says:

    Thanks for this. It has really been timely, considering my own reflections on the matter. As a woman, I’m often confused by male christians genuinely rebuking me for my dress, but at the same time, I’ve been complimented by others for my modesty in dress. I’ve been wondering what my obligation to these men would be, as often I would like to rebuke them back for placing their struggle with lust or appearances on me, as a socialy available scape goat. Modesty seems to be a much deeper and powerful concept, with it’s roots based in looking first to Gd, then to anyone else, in trusting him as in obeying him. If we practice Modesty, we’re denying ourselves the usual outlets of self-realization. We must find our identity/joy/hope entirely in Christ. And thus modesty works as a pruning shear to keep us focused on that central structure Gd has laid out for us to live by?

  5. Amy says:

    I totally agree with you here. I think the “modest is hottest” slogan is problematic. the word “hot” is fraught with sexual meaning. practicing the virtue of modesty means that you are not focusing on whether other people perceive you as hot or otherwise. I think you’re right that modesty is not primarily about hemlines, necklines, head coverings, or flashy jewellery. the acceptability of different fashions changes over time. true modesty is about developing an attitude of humility before God.

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  7. Bob Admire says:

    I chanced upon your post on google and check out a few of your early articles. Stay with the very good posts. Ill likely be by again to read more, thanks for the post!.

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  9. M says:

    Surely we need to ask why talking openly about sex is something many Christians have fallen for in recent years. Is it due to how youth work has been structured? Is it because people naively think that by talking about sex openly they will solve pastoral problems? Have people lost the ability to discriminate between what is and isn’t an appropriate context to speak of these issues, perhaps due to uncritically absorbing pop culture through uncritical use of television and the internet?

    • Several reasons, I am sure. Not least among them would be the urge to avoid appearing ‘repressed’, I suspect. ‘Sex positive’ Christianity enables many Christians to feel less tension between their commitment to the gospel and the norms and expectations of society.

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