Imagine a medium-sized room filled with high school boys and girls. You sit with your friends laughing and joking, discussing the week while the band sets up their equipment. Welcome to high school youth group. Tonight’s message: modesty. The boys are escorted off to another room for this conversation—modesty is an issue for women. This captive audience of young women listens as their youth pastor outlines why and how a girl should be modest.
The message begins with the speaker telling you that as a young lady you should dress modestly for the sake of your “brothers in Christ”—your guy friends in youth group. Dressing modestly includes not wearing tight-fitting clothing, short skirts or shorts, or anything too revealing. Practically, this means a one-piece swimsuit policy for all youth group events and that women are not allowed to wear tank tops on mission trips, even though the guys go shirtless. A young woman should dress modestly so she does not inadvertently cause her fellow Christians to stumble. The youth pastor then goes on to explain why women have to dress modestly—because guys struggle with sexual thoughts, and women need to do all they can to help men fight off this sin.
I was a young high school student when I first heard this, and I remember being confused. Among those in the youth group, the message then sparked a conversation full of judgment and condemnation. One older girl had been approached by a college-aged guy in our church and rebuked about her clothes. She was greatly offended by this and asked her parents, who were leaders in the church, for their perspective on her clothing. They saw nothing wrong with it. My youth pastor said that even if her parents saw nothing sinful about her clothing, it was commendable that this gentleman spoke with her about how she was causing him to sin! He told her she needed to be aware of how she was causing her brother to stumble and that she should change her behavior. This happened to more than one of my female friends. What developed was a judgmental attitude among the young women and men about our clothing. Modesty was the rubric used to measure one’s spirituality. At the same time, we were also told that we should be feminine and gentle—the tension of trying to be attractive but not sexual.
Modesty in youth group terms relates only to clothing. Female clothing. This approach to modesty and the body can be destructive to young women for several reasons:
1. It tends to place the origin of sin in the female body.
In this way of thinking, the sin is not where an individual’s mind goes or the action they choose to take; the sin is the woman’s body. Even if that is not explicitly stated, this concept is conveyed through the continual placing of responsibility on women to “protect” fellow Christians from seeing too much of their bodies—lust happens because women’s bodies are sexual and men cannot easily overcome the temptation. In the end, it comes down to the physical characteristics of the female body and no amount of clothing is ever enough. The women cause the men to stumble. Her body contributes to male lust.
2. This understanding of modesty encourages a sense of shame about the female body.
It is the origin of sexual sin; I have to cover my body so that my friends will not lust after me—if my body did not look the way it does, my friends would not struggle as much with lusting. As a young woman, I became ashamed of my body. The way modesty was discussed in our youth group, it seemed that no matter what I tried to do to cover my body it was never enough—I was causing others to sin completely against my will and I felt that my body was the cause of sin in fellow Christians.
Modesty can be defined too narrowly to only include the way women dress, rather than encompassing how Christians, both men and women, live. When we define modesty so narrowly it places undue burden and responsibility on women that can lead to shame for being female.
3. The way modesty is taught disempowers women.
In this definition of modesty, the women become responsible for the men’s sin. There is little conversation about how dressing immodestly or marketing one’s body affects the psyche of young women. Rather, the conversation is focused on the effect on the young men and their spiritual standing before God. The standard for “modesty” is always up to the men in the community to decide. How women view their own bodies or a woman’s own standards of modesty become a secondary concern.
Imagine what that does to a 16-year-old girl trying to pick out just the right outfit before she takes on a public responsibility at church, so that she becomes overly concerned about her body and the impact that has on men in the Church. Or to the young harpist who is approached after the service by a man in the congregation who rebukes her and tells her the clothing she wore is too tight? For a moment, try to feel the burden in a young girl’s mind as she realizes that she has caused men to sin—by thinking about her body sexually. The message: You are a sexual object. I cannot help but think about sex when I look at you, which is a sin. Therefore you need to cover yourself up, to protect me.
Unfortunately, as a young woman in the Church and now as a young adult in the Church, I can testify that almost all conversation about modesty is still centered on female clothing. Much talk is in the air about how the American media objectifies women. The American church also objectifies women and makes their bodies sexual objects. The difference is that the church places a sense of shame on women for this, while the media glorifies women for it. Neither position is a healthy way to view a woman’s body.
It seems to me that the American church tends to view men as merely sexual animals. Locating lust in a man’s biology and then suggesting that male lust cannot be controlled tends to make women solely responsible for holiness. (One can recall the words of Adam, when God asked him, “what have you done?” His reply: “it was the woman you gave me.”) Yes, dealing with sexual attraction in a healthy way is a difficult battle for men and women to face. In no way am I encouraging women to ignore the struggles of others or downplay this seriousness. However, if young women are dressing immodestly, the issue should be discussed not just because they are causing others to stumble but because they are more than sexual objects. We should encourage young women to dress in a way that reflects their own worth and dignity and encourages respect from the rest of the Church. Young women’s bodies are developing and changing drastically. They need to be empowered to deal with their bodies and sexuality in a healthy way. No other sin is based on who a person is—their physical characteristics or biology. If I have anger towards another Christian because they chose to drink alcohol, I can ask them to refrain from use in my presence. However, I am addressing an action they chose to take. The conversation about modesty in churches tends to focus on the biology of men and women—aspects that cannot be changed, only controlled. The conversation starts with biology and then transitions to “because of these aspects, therefore you should police your clothing.” Placing the blame on innate aspects of our identity contributes to the shame, helplessness, and distorted images of the body in the American church.
Is modesty an important issue to discuss? Yes. But the conversation may need some redirection. Young women need to be encouraged to be modest not because there bodies are carriers of sin. Rather, young women should be modest out of self-respect. They should be encouraged to grow in dignity and portray themselves as individuals worthy of esteem. They should be directed to view their worth beyond their physical appeal. Let’s help women to locate their true source of power—in their relationship with Christ, and in the gifts God has given them to change the world!
Modesty is a word for girls and boys. I can imagine a youth group meeting about modesty that is mixed-gendered. Both young men and women should hear that women are more than sexual objects, and that men are more than sexual predators.