I grew up a pastor’s kid, sworn to the unwritten code of perfection expected of all pastors’ kids. I excelled the most in the area of modesty. First, because I didn’t have a choice – my mother had the final say on whatever I wore so as not to bring disgrace to my pastoral lineage. But I also excelled because from an early age, I was dealing with constant unwanted male attention. Not just from sleazy men on the streets, but from “respectable” men within the church as well. I even got followed home on occasion by random men. Why? Because I was stick-skinny with a giant butt. I did all I could to cover up that atrocious behind for years, and when I realized I couldn’t, I began to embrace the attention it gave me.
Thankfully, I eventually filled out and my body started to look more proportional. But my idea of modesty at this point was to cover up everything that could potentially attract any male attention. I was taught that if a man made unwanted advances in my direction, it was because of something I did – the way I dressed or walked. Even my wonderful mother, who I hold in the highest esteem, told me over and over again, “If you cover yourself with poop and walk down the street, you can’t act shocked when all the flies are attracted to you.” And most importantly, I was told that modesty was dressing in a way that wouldn’t cause my Christian brothers to stumble.
You would think that never showing any skin would have ensured an assault-free childhood. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Even with my best attempts at modesty, I was still leered at, inappropriately grabbed, talked dirty to, and assaulted. Even though I wasn’t allowed to show any skin.
It took me many years to begin to question and discover the Church’s flawed teachings on modesty. I don’t believe that modesty means making yourself unattractive in order to avoid male attention. I don’t believe that modesty is centered around helping my brothers not stumble. I don’t even believe that modesty is about what you wear.
What I do believe is that modesty begins in your heart, just like everything else. The way I dress should be a reflection of the state of my heart. If I’m looking to be validated by men or even other women, it will translate into my clothing choices. If I really need to wear a short skirt or a bikini in order to feel beautiful, then I need to address what’s going on in my heart first. If I am enraged at the idea of wearing a longer pair of shorts because a friend finds my short shorts distracting, then I need to stop and examine my heart.
I believe that modesty is about God’s approval, not every Christian in the world’s approval. What we wear should honor the God we worship. Ask Him if He approves of your outfit, if it honors Him – He cares and He’ll tell you. It is better to come at this from the angle of, “Does this outfit honor the God who crafted this body and calls it beautiful? Is this how He would want his work displayed?” rather than “Will this make men stumble?”
That said, I believe we are called to honor one another above ourselves. Choosing Christ is choosing to die to what I want and embrace what He wants. Paul says, in relation to sexual immorality and food, that everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial or constructive (see: 1 Cor. 6: 12-20 and 1 Cor. 10:23-33). While I believe that I am free to dress comfortably, I am also called to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” So if I am aware that dressing in a particular way causes a specific friend of mine to stumble, I am immediately held responsible for that action and should be expected to not repeat that around them. Not out of obligation, but out of love for them and out of a desire to participate in their growth not contribute to their downfall.
But I simply cannot take on the responsibility of ensuring that every man I come across throughout my day will not stumble. I cannot, and I will not because that is not what I’m called to do. Regardless of how I dress, I can’t ensure that men won’t lust after me. The decision to look on anyone, male or female, lustfully is ultimately made by the person doing the looking not the person being lusted after. Saying otherwise is saying that men are barbaric creatures with no control over their minds or bodies. Men are responsible for their lustful thoughts, and that blame should not be passed on to women. I don’t go around demanding that all Godly men wear t-shirts on the beach or at the pool. Yes, I have responded lustfully in those situations, but the issue is with my heart not their shirtless bodies. So I take my lusting heart to its Maker and ask Him to heal me and show me how to look on His creation with appreciation, and not lust. The same should be true of the men accusing women of causing them to lust.
A woman’s cleavage isn’t the cause of your stumbling; lust is. Sure, it may be helpful to not see so much cleavage everywhere, but be willing to deal with your lustful heart first before you place the blame on the woman’s plunging neckline. I believe that cultural and societal norms are valid and, in most cases, appropriate. You won’t show up to work in a bathing suit or church in your bathrobe – we all know the societal codes for conduct. But let’s not cross the line with accusing women of being the cause of lust.
I spent too many years blaming myself for things that were beyond my control, and letting the Church tell me that it was my fault. Enough is enough. Both sides need to take responsibility for their actions. Every lewd act begins as a thought. Keep every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we’ll dress to honor our King.
All that to say, I am a shorts, bikini, and strapless dress kinda girl who loves Jesus and asks Him about my fashion style. If He doesn’t approve, I will change it. And if it causes one of my brothers to stumble, I will change it. And if my future husband doesn’t like it, I’ll change it. But until then, I’m living in the freedom I’ve been given.