I used to be a proud member of the modesty police.  When I was in college I did a talk on modesty in southern California. Home-schooled teen girls and their mothers attended.

Photo credit: 1611skirts.com

Back at school at UVA, my boyfriends’ mother stifled a snort when she heard about it, “Jonalyn talking about modesty is pretty ironic” she said.  I got her drift.  

Modest clothes in California didn’t transfer to the same modest clothes in Virginia. According to my family’s standard, I was plenty modest: I wasn’t showing cleavage, wearing tight jeans, short skirts or low-backed tops.

But I learned my lesson, modesty is a chameleon. It changes depending on where you are, how old you are and what you’re doing.

Despite Michelle Duggar’s attempt to standardize modesty as covering neck to knee, modesty is a relative term.  The Duggar’s summer attire would not be modest at a formal, evening wedding. Nor would their clothes be modest on Huntington Beach, California.

The problem comes with the belief that modesty means covering up. Modesty, a synonym for humility, means not drawing attention to yourself in an unbecoming way.

Modesty is a two-way street, it’s not simply a virtue for women.  Modesty is a signpost of a Jesus-follower (weigh the commands to women in 1 Tim 2:9, 1 Pet 3:3-4 with Absalom’s hot body, gorgeous hair and lack of humility in 2 Sam 14-18 ), and I will admire any man who cares to be humble enough to not flaunt what his Daddy gave him.

That said, the Duggar’s ideas of a troupe of girls and boys wearing knee length shorts and T-shirts would draw undue attention in an unbecoming way.

In other Christian sources, Dannah Gresh shows this video clip to explain that modesty is about loving our brothers in Christ. http://youtu.be/WtzIcz7MOkc My husband has a few choice words for the problems in this video (comment if you want more).  

The bottom line: If women conceal their bodies because they believe their bodies are a “stumbling block” we’ve got a problem. Modesty cannot be motivated by codepedence. I am not responsible for your lust issues. Muslims have a teaching of “averting the eyes” that even their concealed women can charge at men who feast their eyes on their bodies.

You are responsible for what you do with your eyes, your soul, your fantasies. We cannot “save’” men from stumbling by wearing “modest” clothes. We cannot appease the women who have married men addicted to porn by covering up.

The point of modest is humility, not protecting lustful men from stumbling. Concealing our bodies doesn’t lead to victory over lust, not for men, not for women.  Just like removing alcohol from a house doesn’t make an alcoholic sober. It can actually make her more voracious.  Blaming a woman for a man’s lust is as asinine as blaming a Vodka label for enticing the alcoholic to drink.

Doesn’t it seem backwards that the church’s message to protect men from lust comes at the cost of women’s enjoying their bodies’ beauty, of women falling prey to eating disorders, of women being afraid of making love in the light? (e.g.”Modesty made me fat“).

Let’s consider how women are quick to take responsibility for vices that are not theirs.

Let’s remember that attempts at modesty have forced more than one woman into an eating disorder.

And let’s consider that our obligation to help men honor our bodies is as high a command as the command to love our sisters.

Covering up is the easy answer, but it’s not always the godly one. 

Let’s not confuse modesty with wearing more clothes. This is a skimpy definition.

The connection between modesty and humility gives us a clue.  There is virtue in not advertising ourselves—whether it’s my reputation, my talents, or my incredible hair—as objects of worship. Just writing “my incredible hair” probably proved my point.

That wasn’t a very modest line, now was it?!

Modesty gives us a word to talk about our responsibility toward others. Modesty also challenges us to let others enjoy our bodies without assuming they will lust for us as bed fellows. And the rules of modesty clothing are not black and white.

18th century fashion plate

Photo credit: selvavidasinfronteras.wordpress.com

Consider the Waodani where the women go topless or consider the sophisticated era of Jane Austen’s time 1700′s when women wore empire waists with scoop necks so low their nipples resting on the waistline. Makeup included rouging their nipples.

Lauren Dubinsky explains at “Modesty, Lust and Emotional Rape” that the way we dress reveals what we think of our bodies.

I can guarantee that the Waodani are not as ashamed of their sagging breasts as evangelical women.

Dubinsky writes, “For 24 years my suffocating modesty doctrine has kept me from wearing outfits that I love, has dictated the way I dress . . . 24 years of hiding so that I won’t be blamed for men fantasizing about me has brought me to my husband wrapping his arms around me, telling me how beautiful and sexy he thinks I am, and that he hates seeing me hide in my clothes because I’m too afraid to wear what makes me feel beautiful.”

Our bodies are not hurdles for men, but super highways to what it means to be made in God’s image. “Dare I say that a woman’s breasts, hips, bottom, and lips all proclaim the glory of the Lord! Each womanly part honors Him. He created the female body, and it is good” Sharon Hodde Miller writes at Her-meneutics. And so I ask you, “Are you hiding in your clothes?” If so, then modesty is a cover-up for something else, more damaging and more problematic.

One of my favorite actresses Sarah Drew. Photo credit: PRPhotos.com

I’m not saying all women better be wearing bikinis; I am saying our bodies are not shameful triggers to lust. 

And though we, as Jesus-followers, don’t like to admit it, there is something powerful and good about the way Hollywood gets the beauty and power in women’s bodies.  I might even say the Academy Awards shows women’s bodies as something lovely and dynamic that’s missing from women’s wardrobes in politics, the academy and in our churches.

You can be humble, modest and still wear a bikini. I like to think I walk that line.  

But I also think you can be proud, immodest and wear culottes and 3/4 length sleeves. What matters the most? The content of your heart, the virtue of your soul and the reason you chose to put that piece of clothing upon your body.