So we’ve been discussing modesty and grace following a recent request for me to speak to a local mom’s group on the topic. In case you’re just joining us, the previous posts can be found here:
Today I want to look at some other aspects of modesty and what shapes or influences our concept of this seemingly elusive ideal. So let’s discuss…Is modesty cultural? Is it contextual? And does the image of modesty change over time? Here we go….
Is Modesty Cultural?
If you have travelled outside of the US at all, or even if you’ve travelled to areas outside the midwest, it doesn’t take long to see that modesty can be considered cultural.
When I travelled to Germany in high school (a very long time ago), our teacher discussed with us and our parents beforehand that we may be exposed to what, in the States at that time, would be considered almost pornographic. She explained that nudity on magazine covers or television programs in Europe was not considered odd or unacceptable and we should be prepared for that. Yet, when I travelled to the Middle East three years later, I was told it was immodest to show bare forearms, even in the 90-degree sun. And then, in travelling to the Caribbean recently with my husband, we learned that topless sunbathing is not at all unusual (also true on many European beaches), and in our observing of passers-by, the only gawkers tended to be the Americans.
Going back to Challies and Glenn and their book Modest: Men and Women Clothed in the Gospel, “Modesty and discretion are virtues (inner characteristics), but our culture determines the way that modesty and discretion express themselves in our dress and behavior (outward appearance)” (emphasis mine).
And so it seems, at least to me, that modesty is cultural. I think the struggle comes when we equate modesty with purity or chastity. One can dress in incredibly “modest” clothing by their cultural standard, and still be unchaste in heart, mind, and/or body. Chastity, as defined in Scripture, is the same for all believers throughout time, while modesty is (at least somewhat) dependent on cultural norms and standards.
Is Modesty Contextual?
So, going back to our Bikini Wars, let’s think about swimsuits for a moment. Let’s all decide that a one-piece swimsuit is modest. Not a tankini that could creep up and show your belly, but a real, true, bonafide one-piece. If it has a skirt, you get bonus points.
Now, wear that to church. Or a wedding. Or a job interview. Do you feel modest now? Are you thinking, this was an excellent choice…I don’t stand out at all. No, you feel ridiculous and exposed and like you desperately want to crawl under a rock and hide.
And so, could it be, that modesty is contextual? What is modest in one setting may be completely immodest in another?
Challies and Glenn write in Modest, “It is only the application of the gospel to valid cultural norms regarding dress that will allow your judgment of what is and is not modest in a given circumstance to be legitimately Christian.”
Does the picture of modesty change over time?
Let’s go back to I Timothy 2:9-10, for example, where we can see that the cultural and contextual definition of modesty can change over time.
It says, “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.”
Now, for the most part, we no longer consider braided hair or jewelry to be immodest in any setting. Cleary, with the definition we are working toward, both could be worn immodestly (drawing unnecessary attention to oneself in an attitude of grace-less-ness), but for most of us, earrings and braided hair are not a stumbling block. And so, this is a standard that has changed over time. Even the idea of wearing jeans (or shorts – gasp!) to church is one that 20 years ago was scandalous, but in many churches today is the norm.
I like what C.S. Lewis says,
I do not think that a very strict or fussy standard of propriety [i.e., modesty] is any proof of chastity or any help to it, and I therefore regard the great relaxation and simplifying of the rule which has taken place in my own lifetime as a good thing. At its present stage, however, it has this inconvenience, that people of different ages and different types do not all acknowledge the same standard, and we hardly know where we are. While this confusion lasts I think that old, or old-fashioned, people should be very careful not to assume that young or “emancipated” people are corrupt whenever they are (by the old standard) improper; and, in return, that young people should not call their elders prudes or puritans because they do not easily adopt the new standard. A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems.
And so it would seem to me that modesty is defined culturally (while chastity is constant over time and space), it varies contextually, and it does evolve or change, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The majority of women today are thankful for the emancipation from wearing skirts all the time and the expectation of long hair in order to be seen as womanly. Most people do not consider these women immodest, it is simply the evolution of fashion and society.
Next time we’ll look at what our immodesty says about us. And later this week I’m hoping to touch on the man’s role in the modesty conversation. Pray with me, would you? That the words I share will be God honoring and edifying to those who read them. Let’s all believe all the good we can of others this week.
For His Glory ~