The Problem With Modesty Culture
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Politics and Activism

The Problem With Modesty Culture

Legalism is replacing the love of Christ with an impossible struggle for perfection.

The Problem With Modesty Culture

Like most of America, my high school had a dress code. I’m not going to pretend that this dress code was the strictest around—in all actuality, it was generally fair—but it was hotly debated among students due to the way it was presented and enforced. Every year at the beginning of the year, the boys’ and girls’ deans would corral students into respective rooms and talk about what was expected in following the dress code. The boys made themselves comfortable in the student center and listened to a three-minute reading of their dress code, and then a pastor talk about respecting women. We girls got the whole gym to ourselves… and a whole 30-minute PowerPoint (complete with pictures!) depicting what was just right to wear and what was absolutely inappropriate. A few times, the dean would call out planted audience members to literally depict in all three dimensions what was right and what was wrong.

No one needs to tell you that this was a bit much. After all, I would hope that high school students are capable of reading the dress code on their own. It couldn’t have been so convoluted and complicated that it takes the special authority of a girl’s dean to exegete the meaning, could it? Indeed, it was not. This whole spectacle wasn’t about simply explaining the rules of the dress code; it was about communicating the spirit associated with the administration. At least, on the girls’ side. Example: while wearing a dress meeting the 3” above the knee rule (in fact, exceeding it), I was walking to class when stopped by a teacher. “Be careful. Your skirt goes above 3” inches when you walk,” she told me in a 100% serious tone. It baffled me that I would be stopped for this technical infringement, when only that morning, the boys in weights class were parading about in t-shirts cut down to the hem, exposing their entire midsection.

There is something very, very, wrong with the way the rule of the dress code was applied to each gender, and it hints at the problem that this modesty culture propagates: girls are the cause and boys are the effect. The message subtly put into the minds of women that their appearance is the hinge on which the holiness of men hangs. It is the rule of the law, not the spirit of the law, which is championed. Was there truly a problem with my skirt rising to 3.5” above my knee while I participated in the universally recognized human action of walking? No, there was no ethical problem. I was not exuding a promiscuous attitude, nor was I vying for the attention of men; I was simply walking. The problem is not dress code itself; I believe there is a good reason to have a standard of dress in a school setting. The problem lies with the way these rules were understood and ordained. This double standard and unintentional objectification of women is modesty culture.

In modesty culture, women are taught that they way they dress is to keep men from distracting them. In modesty culture, if a woman is sexually assaulted, her clothing is partially to blame. It perpetuates shame and double standards; it is not a conversation, it is a monologue that does not allow for discussion of topics like consent, and healthy understandings of each sex. Because this way of thinking is so focused on women, it can be easy to miss the consequences presented to men. This philosophy treats them like they are essentially animals, unable to control their sexual desires. I, for one, think this is a rather disrespectful way to treating men, as well. It also gives the ones who do act wrongly an excuse when it comes to dealing with their actions (case and point, Brock Turner and his “20 minutes of action”). In environments where it is heavily emphasized, it alienates regular relationships between men and women and discourages the questions of those truly desiring to learn.

Modesty is about so much more than the fabric we put on our bodies. It is about the way we think, the way we speak, and the way we carry ourselves. Throughout high school, I saw plenty of girls whose clothing was approved by the dress code, but the words coming out of their mouth surely were not. I saw plenty of girls whose clothing was approved by the dress code still being ogled by boys. I also saw plenty of girls whose skirts were technically in violation of the dress code having good, Godly interactions with boys. If the world thinks that modesty is meant to be directed towards women, and that it is the delegation of their clothing, we make a severe mistake.

There are several extreme, real world examples that absolutely disprove the veracity of this double standard. Let’s talk about the massive amount of rape-related honor killings in Afghanistan, for example. As a country that requires women to wear rather conservative clothing, it has a serious problem with rape. Between the years 2011 and 2013, there were a reported 160 rape cases and 260 honor killings.[1] Women are being killed in order to prevent their rape (or attempted rape) from bringing shame to their family, despite the fact that they did nothing to provoke it. According to the philosophy of modesty culture, this shouldn’t happen. Women are covering up, why is rape such a problem? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not about the women, it’s about sin.

Legalism is the heart of the problem. It is one of the reasons so many young women are struggling with eating disorders and body image issues. In a secular society that objectifies and sexualizes women, the church (the body of Christ, not the building) is meant to be, and can be, a ray of hope. Unfortunately, it has not escaped unscathed. My private Christian high school fell into legalism when administrating the dress code, and though I have no doubt that the authorities intended the best, the message of modesty culture was unavoidable.

This was never the intention of Christ. He shared meals with prostitutes; he called the Pharisees a brood of vipers. Remember Mary Magdalene? It is widely believed that the woman who washed the feet of Jesus, and was blessed by Him for it, was a harlot; Rahab, a woman who made her living selling herself, is counted in the Davidic lineage that brought us Jesus Christ. We know that since Christ was fully human and fully divine, he had the capability to be tempted, yet, not once did he blame the temptation of men on women. No; he said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7).

Modesty is in action, in self-control; it is motivated by freedom, individuality, and a desire to set ourselves apart. The irony of the legalism rampant in modesty culture is that it completely subverts the power of freedom in Christ. In an effort to see only the heart of people, it has put the emphasis on outward appearance; it has enslaved the church to a preoccupation with physical image. It has made the church appear selfish.

The two greatest commandments the church is given are simple: love God, and love each other. There is nothing in modern modesty culture that understands this. The lie of it is that we must remain perfect to prove our worth; it takes the grace we are given in Christ’s sacrifice and calls it conditional. In Colossians, Paul wrote that to dispel heresy we must put on love, for it binds all virtues together in unity. Legalism is our modern heresy; it replaces the love of Christ with an impossible struggle for perfection. It is slowly suffocating us, and reaping irreparable results. Christ did not bridge the gap between God and humanity to be placed on the back burner; allowing a culture of victim shaming, double standards, and absolute lies puts a wall between people and the redemptive love of God. Perhaps when we put a greater emphasis on relationship instead of rules, we will build the church, not beat it down.

[1] UPI News Headlines. “AIHRC: 400 Rape, Honor Killings Registered in Afghanistan in 2 Years.” June 10, 2013.

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