Friday, January 25, 2013

The Story of Me and Modesty

Some girls grow up in an extremely conservative subculture, where the lengths of their skirts are measured with rulers and they are punished if it's an inch "too short." But that's not my story.

Some women from feminist backgrounds argue against the emphasis on "modesty rules" because it teaches than women are responsible for men's behavior, and that if a woman gets raped, well it must be because of what she was wearing, and the guy just couldn't help it. Obviously feminists have a few things to say about that. But that's not my story.

Nope. For me, modesty was something I was taught about but never with concrete or strictly-enforced rules. Instead, I really did want to "help my brothers" and was attempting to do so by myself, out of the goodness of my heart, not because anyone was forcing me to. And the result? Well I found the whole thing makes no sense because, at its core, the teaching about "modesty" says that there is something evil and dangerous about femininity.

Here's my story...

So my background is conservative/evangelical Christianity, and I've heard teaching about modesty and why it's apparently so important. The argument goes like this: When a guy sees a girl wearing something "immodest" he'll be distracted and tempted to lust. (Because gay men don't exist, ya know.) So women should help out our brothers by not wearing revealing clothes.

So, okay whatever. It didn't really affect my life, besides a bit of uncertainty over whether God was okay with me buying a cute "immodest" swimsuit. But overall, I didn't really worry about it because how I was supposed to know what is and is not going to "cause" lust? I'm not a straight guy. And this "problem" that guys apparently have, where they're mentally tortured by seeing an "immodestly-dressed" woman, is something I can't relate to at all. So it didn't really seem like something to worry about.

But I always wondered. Because, ya know, I really did want to help my brothers out. So it would be nice to have a better understanding of what is and is not "immodest."

And then I found The Modesty Survey.

What is The Modesty Survey, you may ask? Well it's a survey of a bunch of (mostly) homeschooled American Christian teenage boys, in which they answer 148 questions about what is and is not modest for girls to wear/do.

And I thought, "Perfect! Finally I'll get to find out which things are and are not modest, and the question will be settled and I won't have to wonder about modesty anymore."

And it was all in the form of statistics! I'm a math person so this is wonderful.

So I read the whole thing. It started off pretty positive...

"Girls can dress attractively without being immodest."
Overwhelming agreement for the statement "Girls can dress attractively without being immodest." Awesome, just what I wanted to hear.

(Although now that I read it again, I am incredibly disturbed that 9 idiots said "disagree" or "strongly disagree.")

Moving along, I found some other results that were pretty much expected:

Lots of agreement for the statement "A girl's underwear should never show." No problem there.
Lots of agreement for "Miniskirts are immodest."
Lots of agreement for "Showing any cleavage is immodest."
Okay, so far so good. These are things I can easily avoid. No problem.

But then we get into some other questions that never in a million years would have occurred to me:

Half of these guys think that "Shirts with messages across the front draw too much attention to the bust."

Okay well... uh... that's kind of unreasonable...

Half the guys think "Seeing a girl take off a pullover (i.e. a shirt that must be pulled over her head) is a stumbling block, even if she is wearing a modest shirt underneath."
Apparently taking off a sweater- though I'm wearing something underneath- makes a decent (heh) percentage of guys think I'm about to get naked. Okay...

(Oh by the way, for those not familiar with the term "stumbling block": Some Christians talk like this. It means a temptation.)

A majority of the guys think that "Seeing a girl stretching (e.g. arching the back, reaching the arms back, and sticking out the chest) is a stumbling block."
So now I can't even stretch?

So I read and analyzed these results, paying particular attention to the statements that the majority of those guys agreed with, trying to figure out how I could modify my lifestyle to accommodate all this.

Okay, can we just stop and look at what we're doing here and how COMPLETELY MESSED-UP it is?

So we're asking a bunch of horny teenage boys to fill out a survey to describe in vivid detail their sexual fantasies and what turns them on, so that the girls can take detailed notes and structure their lives to avoid those things.

Right, because male sexuality is absolute truth. Whatever a horny teenage boy thinks when he looks at a random woman is clearly the authoritative perspective on the matter.

Is there no room to say, "Sorry, but you're wrong. When you saw me bend over and pick something up, you thought I was doing it to show off my butt, but you're wrong. You're wrong." No, instead "modesty culture" teaches that if men have misconceptions about whether I'm dressing to "flaunt my body" then I'd better change how I dress so they don't assume that. The horny guy's perception of the situation is the only one that matters.

But at the time I wasn't thinking along those lines. (Hadn't realized I was a feminist yet, ya know.) I was trying to make sense of all this new information. And then...

About 15% think that "Jeans are generally immodest, even if they aren't too tight."
Jeans?! Seriously, jeans?! I mean, I'm happy that it's only a minority of guys supporting this unreasonable standard, but...

(trigger warning for discussion of rape in the next 2 paragraphs)

For every single question, there were a few that thought that the item in question was "immodest." And from reading some of the comments that explained their answers, I found out what that meant. As it turns out, no matter what I wear, some minority of guys out there is raping me in their heads.

No longer was I worried about "causing a brother to stumble." I was horrified at the idea that no matter what I wore, it was going to "cause" some guy to think about raping me. That is completely evil and offensive and 55 levels of NOT OKAY. No longer was I interested in modesty because I wanted to "help" the guys- no, I wanted to save my own dignity and not be thought of as a sex object.

And I remember looking at the survey results over and over again, trying to make sense out of any of it. All the optimism I had upon seeing the overwhelming agreement on "Girls can dress attractively without being immodest" was gone. What to do, what to do?

After being horrified and appalled for a few days, I couldn't take it any more. I decided to just forget about it. Evidently there was nothing I could do- I'm better off not thinking about it.

But it had changed my understanding of modesty. Before, I thought it was binary- some outfit was either "modest" or "immodest." (And the "immodest" ones were really revealing outfits that I wasn't going to wear anyway.) But now I saw that there was a whole range of responses. Maybe if I didn't show any cleavage, most guys wouldn't "stumble." But if I wore something totally baggy and not feminine at all, maybe that would help out a few more of the guys.

Suppose I made a list of the clothes that over 50% of the guys in the survey thought were "immodest", and I avoided wearing those. Well, what about some OTHER piece of clothing that only 30% of guys said was immodest- should I avoid wearing that too? Do I care about that 30% of the guys? Gotta care about them- you know, Christian women are supposed to help out our brothers. Okay, what about something that 10% said was immodest? Where do you draw the line? If you try to go all the way and only wear things that were okayed by 100% of the guys, well... then you can't wear anything. And apparently THAT'S immodest too.

The only solution is to not be a girl.

And this way of thinking is what I described in Modesty as she is taught. The idea that "this cute outfit is 'modest', but wouldn't it be even MORE modest (and therefore better and more godly) to wear some horrible ugly sweatshirt, so I don't look feminine at all?"

For a long time I was completely confused about modesty. I saw beautiful women at church and wondered how they justified wearing something so beautiful. Sure, it wasn't revealing, but wouldn't it be even BETTER to wear something that looks horrible?

There were mornings I wanted to wear a cute little shirt (not tight or revealing- except that it reveals the fact that I am a girl) but chose a loose t-shirt instead. Because, I had been taught, "Is looking great in that sexy outfit really more important to you than your Christian brothers' staying out of sin?" Let me repeat: My cute and feminine clothes were NOT "sexy." But since I want to help out the boys as much as I can- Jesus says we're supposed to sacrifice our own desires and help others- sometimes I guilted myself into wearing a dumb-looking shirt.

(Not all the time, though. In my humble opinion, I look really freakin' awesome and beautiful, and I like wearing cute stuff. So I frequently did. But I could not give a logical argument for how it could possibly be okay for me to do so. And that really bothered me.)

There were times in church, I was enjoying the worship music and careful not to move my legs too much, because it might make guys think about my butt. There were times I was in a public place looking for a water fountain, and I walked farther than necessary so I could find one with fewer people around- fewer people to look at my butt when I bent over. And one time, a group of friends (including a few boys) wanted to video-chat on Skype, but I had pajamas on, so of course I said no.

And THANK GOD I'm skinny and I don't have a big butt or big boobs. Being skinny makes this a thousand times easier. But still impossible.

And I judged people. I judged other girls. Because now I had this new secret knowledge that said leggings with patterns on them were immodest.

I remember the first time I heard someone challenge the idea of modesty. She was coming from a feminist perspective, and said that requiring women to be "modest" is super-messed-up because it says women are responsible for men's behavior. I wanted to tell her "NO! You don't understand! Guys are being TORTURED mentally when they see a woman wearing something revealing. They are so weak and helpless! They need our help! Don't you care?" But how could I make that argument? I'm not a guy- how could I know whether any of that was even true?

But I accepted the "men are helpless" premise and believed that making modesty a requirement for women wasn't sexist, but was the only practical way to address the situation. Clearly, men are animals, powerless against their own lust, and women are the only ones with any ability to do something about this.

But like I said, the logical conclusion is that femininity is bad and dangerous. But no, that can't be right. And none of the women I talked to at church had any answer for me. In fact, people told me, "But perfectnumber, the way you dress is fine! You've got no problem looking beautiful and modest." I know... but I could not justify why it's okay for me to look beautiful like this, when I could wear something more baggy and less feminine- wouldn't that be BETTER?

The turning point for me was when I challenged the idea that "Is looking great in that sexy outfit really more important to you than your Christian brothers' staying out of sin?"- in other words, no matter how great the personal cost to me, I should cover up in order to help the boys. NO! Sometimes the cost is too great. 

If women are believing that it is bad for them to look beautiful, that cost is too great.

If women whose bodies are naturally more "curvy" are made to feel ashamed for it, that cost is too great.

If we are teaching that it is a woman's fault when a man objectifies her, that cost is too great.

So yes, it absolutely IS more important to "wear that sexy outfit" than to cover up all signs of femininity.

You can read more about what I think in Modesty: My Solution, which I wrote a few months ago. But I'd like to point out that I don't come at this issue from the usual feminist angle, which says the whole thing's ridiculous and out of the question because women are not responsible for men's thoughts and behavior. No, instead I really did want to help "my brothers in Christ" but found that it made no sense and was impossible.

So I'm done. I'm going to wear what I want to wear. And you know what? No one's going to know the difference. I'm not arguing against "modesty culture" because I want to wear a bikini to a funeral. I'm arguing against it because it makes no sense and should not be advocated by people who claim that women are created in the image of God.

As I said in Modesty: My Solution, "I personally don't care about modesty at all any more."

(Except, of course, to argue about how it makes no sense.)


  1. This was a very interesting post! Honestly, I care more about true beauty because true modesty comes from the heart. Modesty is just being proper in conduct... And not in a weird way... But in a lady or gentleman kind of way :) great points!

  2. Ooh, I remember when this survey came out! The main thing that struck me is how physically restrictive it would be. I mean I don't care about dressing in cute or pretty ways, and I like baggy hard-wearing unfeminine stuff. But I also like to bend, stretch, wear t-shirts for my favorite team, climb fences, and generally live my life without constantly analyzing my body position for the potential to induce lust. If the survey holds true, I'm a "stumbling block" because I don't spend a lot of mental energy dwelling on how guys feel about my looks and altering my behavior to inspire a particular result. If I wanted to meet the survey's definition of modest, I'd have to focus my life around thinking of all of the ways my body could be considered sexual and planning every motion around it, which is ostensibly the opposite of what the modesty advocates want.

  3. Thanks! Yeah, isn't it a little suspicious how the premise of "modesty" is "let's help the men" but it results in believing that men are animals, etc etc- that doesn't seem so nice and helpful...

  4. The survey itself is extremely biased - instead of just, I don't know, lying the clothes flat on the floor, or putting them on blank generally shapeless mannequin and asking "Is this necklace/shirt design/etc modest", they wrote out questions referencing the specific body parts that various innocuous fashion styles might call attention to. So that sparked the whole memory thing that's referred to as the "pink elephant" or something similar, where the more you try to not think about something, the harder it is to not think about it.

  5. Totally agree. And if modesty is about keeping the guys from thinking certain thoughts, it seems like asking them directly "is this immodest?" would make them think those thoughts. Like you said, it's the "don't think about pink elephants" thing.

  6. So Mitt Romney wearing mom jeans is considered immodest by 15% of respondents?

  7. If One were to count the number of times in the Bible in which modesty (keeping certain body parts covered) was used to combat lust, one would count all the way to zero. Yet, i've seen Christians assign some of the blame for David's adultery to Bathsheba - if she wasn't bathing out in the open, David probably wouldn't have fallen for her slutty ways.
    As a man, I find it insulting to hear women cover to prevent my "lust." Why they assume my failure is beyond me and why they assume I will fail/lust against them is rather egotistical (just like assuming she - the unknown woman in the mall - is dressing that way for my benefit.

  8. I had a similar reaction to that survey. "What... you mean zipping up my sweater wrong causes guys to lust? am I supposed to do this then?" Followed by weeks of wondering whether all men were staring at me and my not-fully-zipped-up sweater. (With a shirt underneath, mind you.) Finally I came to the same conclusion you did. It's not worth my stress and feelings of self consciousness to try and control someone else's impulses for them. It's not my responsibility to do that. They can man up and not molest me in their minds, thanks.

  9. I was explaining to my boyfriend once about this whole modesty is to help men thing and he exclaims "Thant's bull! That's not helping that's being an enabler. We can too control ourselves!" Every male I have talked too who was not raised in a conservative christian family agrees with that statement. So, it looks to me that modesty does more harm than good on both sides.

  10. Indeed. Actually, when I was asking my boyfriend about this, he was incredibly insulted at the idea that men just think about naked women all the time.

  11. "I personally don't care about modesty at all anymore" <-- yes, I am so there now. It used to make me so uncomfortable and uneasy trying to find clothes, and modeling them in front of the mirror, worrying about my big butt and wide hips. I was being "told" that I had to hide those curves, and I honestly felt sick anytime I wore something that showed off those curves because I was paranoid that all of the men around me were looking at me and "lusting" after me. That is such a sick place for a young teenager to be in especially as she is growing up and is already uncomfortable in her own skin without all of this extra pressure. My daughters will never get their hands on this stuff until they are old enough to understand the crap that the "modesty survey" really is.

  12. I'm not an evangelical Christian and never was. I'm an atheist, in fact. And I dress very conservatively for a girl in her mid-twenties. Most of my pants are loose-fitting, ditto shirts. Most of my skirts are long, loose ones and I don't own a single miniskirt anymore. And it has nothing to do with modesty, it just makes more sense.

    I used to dress in the typical short-shorts and tiny tops and so on, and I was constantly having to tug on this and pull up that and sit a certain way so my crotch didn't show and never bend over, and constantly check to make sure my bra wasn't showing, and it drove me up the wall. Skinny jeans are well nigh impossible to get on or off. (In fact there was a rape case I heard about where the accused man was acquitted because the alleged victim was wearing skinny jeans. She claimed he'd yanked the jeans off of her, but the jury didn't believe you could remove someone's skinny jeans without their consent. I think they're right. When I wore them I practically had to peel them off like tape and the socks and underwear tended to come off with them whether I wanted them to or not.)

    It makes no sense for someone to wear clothes they cannot comfortably move around in. Plus I'm really skinny and get cold easily and want warmer clothes. It's a bit of a challenge to find a dress that has both long sleeves and a long skirt. Usually if the dress is long it's strapless or whatever, or if it has long sleeves it's a minidress; neither of those are going to keep me warm.

    Anyway, my point -- there's a great deal to be said for dressing in modest clothing, and it's not all "moral" or "religious."

  13. Totally agree. People should wear what makes them feel comfortable- instead of feeling like you NEED to dress a certain way or else you're hating the guys. Personally I don't wear revealing stuff either, because I don't like how it looks. Also I've never been able to wear skinny jeans. Too tight everywhere, totally not comfortable. :)

  14. Shaney Irene, I appreciate that comment. Yours, too, Guy Searching Blogs. I'M LISTENING. I'm a mom trying to get it right. It's so confusing. I still have one daughter at home, so I appreciate your words. I realized about a year ago that Victorian does not equal godly. What a revelation! I began to see which of my opinions stemmed from that era and which from the Bible, what a shock! Perfectnumber628, your sweetness comes through your blog. I don't think you're casting off thinking-of-others, you're just trying to think it all through, and my husband and I think you've done a thorough job, laying it all out with the graphics as you did. I wish I could talk to you after you've had a husband and raised some kids ... how wise you're gonna be! (I do long to talk to someone old and wise who's not Victorian.) Stay close to the Lord; He's leading you and you're going to be an awesome wife and mother with an influence for sweetness in the world.

  15. Thank you for these words. I am so glad I found this.

  16. It's all about what you feel comfortable with: I choose the dress modest because I am representing God and although my body is beautiful, God would like it covered. I choose to dress modest because if Jesus would come back right now, I could not look him in his almighty and perfect face and say what in wearing is acceptable. I live in this world, but should not be OF it. :-) Have a blessed day.

  17. That's fine if that's what you feel comfortable with, but I have to take issue with the part where you said "God would like it covered." How can we know what God wants, in enough detail to decide "this outfit is approved by God, and this one is not"? Also God is eternal, present in every culture in the world throughout all of history- and cultural standards for what is acceptable and "modest" vary immensely throughout the world and throughout time. Would God's supposed "standard" for modesty be universal or would it be different in each context?

  18. Being that God is presumable not a male teenager (and has seen us in the shower), the theology behind worrying about God judging our clothing is mind-boggling.

  19. Late reply, but I stumbled here from a recent cross reference to your brilliant creepy guy posting.

    I went through that survey (not as a participant) but as an intellectual exercise when it was still available online. I found the responses and conclusions arbitrary and inconsistent.

    I want to talk about the too oft repeated phrase on Christian blogs about modesty: usually a bikini (or less frequently for male clothing) that "leaves little to the imagination." That statement presupposes I can do nothing but imagine you out of that bikini, and therefore you should not wear it. How far do you take that? If you wore baggy sweatshirt and baggy sweatpants, I could imagine you in shorts and a t-shirt underneath, which I could then imagine you out of those shorts. How short are they under the sweatpants?

    I have also read a man state he would no longer go to the gym, because of the immodest clothing of the women in the gym, another who would not go to the beach in France, because of the immodest women at the beach. In the first instance the man would compromise his own fitness for his imagination. Most fitness wear is such to allow free body movement. As a natural consequence he would insist for the sake of modesty that you refrain from wearing common female fitness wear. This often leads to your shame. Both your shame and these admonishments to dress "modestly" create a negative body image and condition you avoid any situation where you might be curvy or imagined naked. You then refrain from keeping your shameful body fit and healthy. Do you see the possible detrimental consequence to my insistence you avoid any opportunity to allow me to imagine you naked? You have spoken in your blog of spiritual/mental health, do you see effect physical health!

    In the second instance the man is stating he is not responsible for his own thoughts, that those naughty French women are by definition immodest. He is making an absolute standard of modestly by his own cultural bias. Female toplessness may still be immodest, if legal, by French cultural standards, but that is not at issue. In Germany and Finland it is modest, and in fact required to be nude in the sauna. There are still bounds of modesty, even in a situation of complete nudity, e.g. body position and no loud talking. The participants are not "nudists" but take the sauna in what is deemed the correct manner. Lust is not a factor, although i would assume both these men think otherwise.

    In all these instances modesty is defined by the situation. A tight swimsuit is necessary for a competitive swimmer. Is competitive swimming therefore by definition immodest and to be avoided? Many sports may cause a female to "bounce" despite a "sports bra." Should these be avoided? How is fitness not a Christian value?

  20. This is basically the best article on modesty I have ever read. THANK YOU.