Modesty Part I – Problems with modesty doctrine

This is the first full installment in my Modesty series. This series was prompted by my response to Jessica Rey’s “Evolution of the Swimsuit” talk. Although some of the problems with modesty doctrine came out in last week’s post, there are quite a few others worth considering. But first things first:

What is modesty doctrine?

Modesty doctrine, in short, teaches women “that they are responsible for “helping” their brothers in Christ to not think lustfully about them, mainly by dressing in a way that doesn’t cause the men who see them to have lustful or sexual thoughts about them.” (Definition borrowed from the lovely Adipose Rex).

What are the problems with modesty doctrine?

Man’s lust becomes woman’s responsibility. As noted last week, no woman’s clothing choices can force a man to lust after her; no person is responsible for a person’s thoughts except the thinker themselves. Yet proponents of modesty doctrine like Jessica Rey go so far as to claim that wearing bikinis gives woman “the power to shut down a man’s ability to see her as a person” (emphasis mine).

Modesty is defined by men. If the point of modesty is to keep men from lusting, then it’s only natural that men are the ones who dictate what is considered modest or immodest. There are a few big problems with this, however:

Susanna and the Elders
Susanna and the Elders, by Peter Paul Rubens

a) This encourages an overemphasis on the male gaze. When girls are told they must constantly monitor their own appearance according to the response it will evoke in men, what is often communicated is the idea that “women’s bodies exist primarily to be looked at by men” (quoting Adipose again). This is simply unbiblical.

b) This contributes to the idea that women dress exclusively for men. We don’t, and acting like we do is unhelpful. Although there are certainly times when women dress a certain way primarily in order to be more attractive to men—just as men sometimes do for women—there are also plenty of times when we just don’t care. The popular fashion blog Man Repeller was so named because its author Leandra Medine recognized that fashionable clothing is sometimes quite the opposite of sexy.

Leandra Medine Man Repeller
Leandra Medine in a classic “man repelling” outfit. Source: Vogue Spain

However, this idea about women dressing for men isn’t just flawed; it can also be harmful. As Sierra wrote here,

“My male friends used to vent their frustrations [at constantly battling lust] by mocking “fat” girls who wore shorts, because “no one wants to see that.” It didn’t occur to them that it would be hurtful to me, a thin girl, to see them dehumanize other girls. Now, as I look back, it strikes me that they really believed that women only wore skimpy clothing to attract them. Everything women wore was directed at thempersonally, because they were men.

c) If the guideline “don’t wear anything that causes problems for a guy” is actually followed, it leads to extremes. I remember a survey the teachers in my Christian school took to help girls understand the importance of modesty. They asked the high school boys to anonymously answer the question, “What things do girls do or wear that cause you to stumble?” Two of the more memorable responses went like this: “Wearing necklaces that fall over the boobs, because they make me look there,” and “Girls hugging other girls in public, because it makes me want to be physically close like that.”

Does the placement of the cross on this Trinitarian Sister's garment from 1721 render her immodest?
This Trinitarian Sister’s crucifix would render her immodest by my high school peers’ standards. Via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not making this up. If it were up to these guys—who were probably just well-meaning Christian kids trying to be honest, not misogynistic oppressors—girls wouldn’t wear necklaces or hug each other in public. A nun’s crucifix would be render her immodest by these standards. Though this might seem like an ridiculous example, the point is that absolute adherence to the “don’t cause anyone else to stumble” can’t be followed to its logical end while still avoiding the extremes of hijab-like garments.

Because modesty is defined by men, it is inherently subjective.

a) Modesty is dependent on the individual. It’s generally accepted that what one girl could wear modestly (i.e. because she’s more flat-chested, short-legged, etc.), another could not (which is problematic in itself, but I won’t challenge it at the moment). But what if something generally agreed upon as “immodest” isn’t causing anyone to stumble—what if the wearer of the much-vilified bikini is 90 years old? Is she still being immodest, if no men are lusting after her age-marked body?

Suppose we say it’s alright for the 90-year-old to wear her bikini, because no one’s stumbling as a result. Ok, then what about the morbidly obese girl? Is she “unattractive enough” to wear a bikini without causing others to stumble? What about the disfigured girl, the handicapped? It’s easy to see how sickening this slippery slope becomes. Taken to its logical end, it basically requires a woman to be more covered up the more beautiful/desirable she is considered—which results in both an impoverished understanding of beauty and a dehumanizing system of ranking women based on their perceived attractiveness.

b) Modesty is cultural/contextual. A few years ago I visited a town in India where women were expected to cover their legs but expose their bellies; I had just come from the Philippines, where the opposite is more common.

Rey Swimwear Modesty
This suit might seem modest on the beach, but just try wearing it to church for proof that modesty is contextual. By Rey Swimwear

Beyond this, however, it’s noteworthy that even within one culture, what’s accepted in one context is frowned upon in another. The length of Jessica Rey’s dress-like swimsuits might seem modest on an American beach, but would seem scandalously short if worn to most American churches. In short, there can never be an objective measure by which to provide modesty guidelines.

Discussions of modesty become lopsidedly focused on women’s dress. This is problematic for a number of reasons:

Street style from Manila
Street style from Manila

a) Modesty is about more than clothing. When sheer-backed tops worn with nothing but a bra underneath came into vogue, I conducted an unofficial survey with a number of my guy friends to see if the trend caused them to lust. I asked my most conservative and most liberal friends, and was surprised to hear similar responses from all of them: that it really depended on how the girl carried herself. If the way she acted made it seem like she was flaunting her body, the guys considered the blouse immodest; if the girl seemed to innocently wear it without an ulterior motive, they found it unproblematic.

Obviously, this anecdote doesn’t provide hard and fast data about, well, anything. I merely wish to point out that any discussion of modesty that focuses on a girl’s outfit to the overshadowing of her bearing misses something significant.

b) Women have sex drives, too. In the Christian school I attended growing up, the students were periodically split up and given “gender-specific” talks. The girls usually heard an address about eating disorders and modesty, while the boys learned about porn and lust. Though these talks beneficially addressed relevant issues, they simultaneously did students a great disservice by neglecting the fact that women have sexual struggles of our own.

Girl’s clothing was carefully monitored for the sake of the guys, but the reverse was never true. Could no one could conceive of the fact that shirtless rugby players might be just as tempting to the girls as spandex-wearing volleyball players were to the boys? The emphasis on women’s modesty often elevates the male sex drive to the exclusion of its female counterpart, equipping girls with very few tools to deal with their own sexuality or even alienating them from it.


This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of the problems connected to modesty culture; I’ve only listed some of the aspects that are most troublesome to me. I haven’t even touched on the shame and lack of ownership towards their bodies experienced by many girls who are constantly being reminded to cover up, or the self-fulfilling prophecies that slut-shaming produces; or the way that modesty doctrine treats gays and lesbians as non-entities. (Adipose Rex or from two to one are both great resources if you’re interested in learning more).

In the face of this sundry list of modesty-related issues, why not scrap the whole doctrine? Come back next week to see why modesty can’t just be dismissed. And give me your feedback in the meantime!

Update 7/25/2013: See the next installments in the series here: Part II – Why we can’t do away with modesty doctrine and Part III – A way out of the modesty morass.

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