Friday, 17 May 2013

The Modesty Panel: more clothes = more holiness?

I am in a fabulous group of bloggers and we have banded together to form The Modesty Panel, a series that discusses the issue of modesty from many various perspectives. Be sure to read the other bloggers’ posts (not all are up yet - it's being complained about as a difficult topic to write and I agree, because mine took hours), because they are all fantastic! Here are the other participants:

Boosaurus 
Braless in Brasil - Part One 
Braless in Brasil - Part Two
Bras and Body Image  
By Babys Rules 
Faustine's Foundations  
Fussy Busty - Amy 
Fussy Busty - Nicole 
Miss Underpinnings 
Nothing Ever Fits and Nobody Sympathizes 
Sophia Jenner 
Sophisticated Pair  
Hourglassy - Darlene
Hourglassy - Leah 
Obsessed With Breasts 
That Bra Does Not Fit Her 
The Tit Rambler  
Thin and Curvy 
Two Cakes On A Plate  
Undiegamer   
Red Hair and Girly Flair 
Weirdly Shaped and Well Photographed
Wide Curves

((NOTE: I use zie and zir in this post as non-gendered pronouns, meaning the same as he/she or him/her/his/hers. This is my personal choice for dealing with unknown gender.))

Modesty isn't an issue that I actively think about most of the time because I go to a fairly liberal church and tend to dress fairly conservatively skin-wise. I can only think of two occasions where someone (both people I knew) commented on my clothing in a way that implied they'd prefer if I were dressed differently - once was because I wore a ball gown to church and once because my top happened to gape a lot when I leaned forward. I've never been accosted by a stranger, been talked to by a church elder or had my parents forbid me from leaving the house.

The distracting dress I wore to church one day. I am not repentant. I don't believe I have anything to repent for.

Just because I'm not personally talked to about being immodest doesn't mean it doesn't affect the way I dress, however. Listening to people in my church criticise other women (well, teenagers, usually) makes me feel uncomfortable about what I'm wearing and it makes me wonder if they critique my clothing and make assumptions about my intentions also.

I think there are two main verses that come into play when the church talks about this issue:

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:28

Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Luke 17:1-2

("Little ones" could mean children, weak believers or new believers, or maybe just any of God's children.)

Therefore, according to many Christians, women - and only women, because they don't have sex drives so it doesn't matter what men wear - who dress "immodestly" (which varies depending on who you talk to) are causing others to sin. Fortunately, because Christians are so lovely, such women are called "stumbling blocks" rather than harlots or the spawn of Satan.

However:

A) the verse doesn't say "women who cause men to sin by dressing immodestly", it says anyone. In any way. (For those unfamiliar with Christian jargon, "stumbling" means sinning.) So a poor driver on the road who causes you to feel road rage is causing you to sin. Your child having a patty in the supermarket, if you feel anger, is causing you to sin. If you see someone with a nicer car than yours and you get envious, that person is causing you to sin and should sell zir car immediately so as not to be a stumbling block.

B) perhaps we're interpreting the word "cause" a little loosely. Maybe to cause someone to sin you have to coerce or trick them into doing so. Merely acting in a way that might have a possible reaction that is sinful is not strong enough, or you'd get stuck doing point A all the time.

C) In Matthew 5, Jesus doesn't tell the women to dress modestly in order to prevent men from committing adultury. Instead, he says "If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell." (Matthew 5:29). So why do Christians read "If a woman causes you to stumble, shame her and force her to wear more clothing"?

Just like in many other cases, most of the time Christian rules come from genuine concern. We don't want to encourage others to sin or make their walk with God more difficult and we do want to reserve our sexual selves to be shared only with our spouses. To many of us, those are good, uplifting and freeing things to believe. However, as Christians we're not meant to have rules. In the Bible it says that Jesus came to free us from the Law so we could love God and love others. Being short-sighted, hugely fallible people, we turn our genuine concern and love into oppressive rules that demean rather than edify and support.

Modesty is definitely an area where the church defaults into rules, possibly because it is so complex and difficult to define. It is also very public - unlike something like lying, which although I'd consider it worse than scanty dress, it is not usually going to affect the general public and won't draw as much attention, if any. A person's decision on zir appearance, while a private decision, has a public face. That can trick people into thinking that they're therefore allowed to weigh in on that private decision. To a small degree (basic dress codes) it is. But being a Christian is kind of like marrying into an extremely large and nosy family: what you thought was your business is suddenly everybody's business. This is true of both sexes, but for a number of reasons it's almost exclusively aimed towards females when the business is appearance.

I have one very shameful moment from being a youth leader when it comes to modesty. We were on a youth group camp, with kids of both sexes aged from 13-18. One young woman, probably about 15, had much bigger boobs than almost anyone else in the camp, let alone people her own age. She was wearing the same clothing as the other girls, a tank top, but as a leadership group we decided to ask her to put more clothing on because her cleavage was distracting the guys. At the time I was vaguely uncomfortable, but agreed with the idea. As we were on camp in summer, her only other top was a turtleneck, which left her feeling very obviously different to the others. A number of years later, I heard this young woman mention that incident with shame and indignation, hurt that she had been singled out for something she couldn't help and made to dress differently.

I don't think it was right for us as youth leaders to put that pressure on that young woman. If that same situation arose today, I would argue that she be left alone and instead the males be given the opportunity to learn how to appropriately respond to a situation in which they are feeling "distracted" by the way a woman looks. I would lose that argument, of course, and she would still be made to cover up, but at least I would have fought for her right to feel safe and loved instead of judged and ashamed. I think that incident gave that young woman a very negative view of Christianity and I would have preferred that some young men had to struggle with their libidos (something we all have to face sometimes) than that she saw a side of us that needs to change without seeing anyone make any attempt to change it.

Here, two women are wearing exactly the same dress and even standing in a very similar pose, yet Bianca's chest is more prominent. She's not doing anything to make it that way, it's just because she has bigger breasts. Should she be shamed and punished for that?

I do believe that it's unreasonable for a busty woman to expect that she should be always able to wear exactly the same clothes as a woman with a smaller chest, just like a very tall woman shouldn't expect to be able to wear the same length skirt as a very short woman as what is mid-thigh on a short woman may be mid-butt on a tall woman. If busty/tall woman wants to wear that clothing anyway, that's her choice. If a well-muscled man wants to wear a tight t-shirt, that's his choice. Although in some situations (work, church etc) that woman or man may be reasonably asked to conform to a dress code - a dress code that is exactly the same as the one for shorter/smaller-busted women/other men, I think - zie should never have to endure judgement on zir reasoning for dressing the way zie does, especially if zie hasn't even shared zir reasoning with anyone.

Christians manage to lose sight of God's grace all the time. We put so much emphasis on not sinning in certain ways that we forget that Jesus died to forgive all our sins, whatever they might be. I'm coming to the realisation that it's far better to dress immodestly and love God and our neighbours than it is to carefully only show the prescribed amount of skin and spend our time belittling those who show too much. I'm guilty of thinking "wow, she needs to cover up/respect herself" or "he really has to wear longer shorts/looser clothing" (see, I'm so much better - I criticise and objectify men, too!) but I'm working on it. I just want other Christians to do that too.

Since I have rambled on a lot, I want to finish with some advice for the church as a whole, for individuals caring about others' appearance and for individuals being "cared" about:

The church
My belief about how Christians need to handle modesty (and almost every other topic out there): in the general forum (preaching, discussing at youth group or in a group), discuss our reasons for choosing to reserve some areas of our skin, behaviour and affections for only certain people WITHOUT making any distinction between men and women or saying that anyone who chooses to do differently is unclean, unholy, shameful or slutty.
Caring individuals
Consider these two questions before saying anything: am I a very close friend/family member/mentor to this person? Has this person given me permission to speak to them about zir personal issues? If the answer to either question is no, do not say anything. Pray and look into your own heart about why you think zir dress is an issue. In fact, do that even if the answer is yes. Only when you've answered yes to the questions, checked with God and made sure your intentions are pure should you consider saying anything.

"Cared for" individuals
Never ignore a message just because you dislike the messenger, but also never accept a message based on the messenger. If someone criticises your clothing choices, think very carefully before you accept zir words. What do you think? Did the person speak gently, privately and with a clear purpose of supporting you? Did zir words confirm a suspicion you already had about your skirt length/top length/etc? What does the Bible say? The Bible doesn't actually mention anything at all about how much skin women are allowed to show (it does say to veil our hair, but very few calls for modesty go so far as hair veiling). I will repeat: the Bible says nothing about how much clothing women should wear. What do close, wise people think? Have your parents ever objected to your clothing? My parents have never objected to mine, which is one reason I was able to throw off my two pieces of criticism with ease, knowing that if my parents weren't concerned, the problem was probably with the person objecting.

Above all, know that God loves and values you, whatever you're wearing or doing. You cannot lose God's love by dressing - or not dressing. Any Christian who values God's heart will remember this (or accept it when you gently remind zir). You cannot lose value with what you wear.

16 comments:

  1. As a former Catholic, I really enjoyed this post. Even though I'm agnostic now, I've always believed the Bible should be an interpretive guideline rather than a strict rule book. You analysis of the two stumbling passages demonstrates just how much flexibility there can be in how the rules are applied and to whom. Very thought-provoking!

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    1. Thanks Erica :) I believe all sorts of things about the Bible, none of which being that it is meant to be a rule book for Christians. It's funny how many different ways you can look at most things within it - but I think sometimes we get stuck looking at them in just one way. Just like the rest of life, I suppose.

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  2. Mt 5: 28 is talking to men and what they are doing, not to women.
    He's telling men (Born Again men) that they have self control because they have the Holy Spirit in them and they can control their behavior- which means controlling their mind.
    She isn't causing him to sin, he's making a choice
    Looking at a woman and noticing her beauty is ok- its what he does after that that.
    God made boobs and He made big boobs


    Little children is children/ kids


    In the Gospels Jesus, gave the law ( ten commandment law) to the religious leaders of the day to show them who they were. He didn't use the law with sinners but Grace.
    And it says the people heard Him gladly, while the religious criticized Him.

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    1. Hey there, welcome to my blog :) I'm glad we agree on this!

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  3. "You cannot lose God's love by dressing- or not dressing." <- That! This is a beautiful post. I feel very lucky to have attended a fairly liberal (I use that as 'socially liberal') Christian college where there was no dress code (some guys would wear dresses, and it wasn't uncommon to see sunbathers in bathing suits in the summer), and many students had tattoos, brightly colored hair, multiple piercings, etc. It was/is uncommon to see those in the greater metro area, and I grew up in a church in the same city that was very, very strict about What Christians Ought to Wear. I think it would have turned me off Christianity, actually, had I not met people who said almost exactly what you said in this post.

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    1. Hey there! Welcome to my blog. Very exciting to see that you are a curvy, Christian, nerdy bra blogger! I am hugely excited to have a read of your blog, and that you've had a look at mine :)

      Thank you for the compliments, too. This was a really hard post to write and it's probably not accessible to too many people, but I'm glad you liked it. Your college sounds like my dream college, actually. I live in a conservative city and I'm wanting to meet alternative Christians. My church, as I said, is open enough to be pretty casual about attire and tends to focus more on bigger things like serving and preaching the Gospel and so on. Only one or two at my church would agree with this post though. I'm so grateful for the Internet, where we can meet like-minded people!

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  4. Thanks so much for this post, Contrary Kiwi! I'm a Christian myself and often myself being confronted by what I do and wear as a Christian. Sadly my parents were quite strict with body and sex issues so i struggled with body confidence growing up. I model and write about bras showing photos of myself in lingerie, my parents, although they say they're proud of me, clearly don't fully approve. As an adult I do what I want and what suits my relationship with my fiance. I tell myself I'm not doing anything sinful and trust God accepts what I do as I'm now loving of my body.

    Becky x
    BeckysBoudoir.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks for your input, Becky :) I'm glad you're happy with your body and your relationship with God. We are all called to be different people, eh?

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  5. Hi there! I really love your take on this. As someone who has little to no religious background and no affiliation now, I am really happy to see a religious person advocating tolerance and kindness, and looking so cool while doing it. Your post is well written and compassionate, and your use of gender neutral pronouns shows a level of respect that is rare among people both religious and not. I'm impressed, and look forward to anything else you post. I also really appreciate your take on the scriptures and teachings of Christianity and what they mean, as I don't have much of a frame of reference for thinking about such things, but would like to be able to come to conversations on topics like this with at least some semblance of understanding. Thanks for the lovely post.

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    1. Hey Miss Shapen :) thank you so much for your lovely comment. Having grown up in a Christian community, it can be hard to talk about subjects I know very well from my point of view without being able to anticipate how others will see it. Trying to be actually loving and accepting is important to me. As we both know, shaming of most kinds is very unhelpful.

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  6. Thank you for this post!
    When I was 12 or 13, attending a Catholic school, my teacher asked me to call my mother and ask her to bring me another top because mine was too revealing and some boys had been making rude comments about my appearance behind my back. What was I wearing? A plain old sleeveless t-shirt with good thick straps, long enough, and (mostly) covering my chest, completely in line with the dress code. And yet the less busty girls got away with wearing tube tops, completely against regulations. I have always been bothered that the answer was to have me change out of my completely reasonable clothes, instead of telling the boys to shut up and mind their own business.

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    1. D: I am very sorry to hear that, Jaimee. I get sick of women getting the blame for the poor behaviour of others.

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  7. Thank you for the post. Growing up Catholic, my mom wouldn't let me dress
    the way the other girls dressed for dances. This was the 70's, so girls were wearing short skirts, tight tops, tube tops etc. At times it was embarrassing that I wasn't able to dress like everyone else no matter how much I argued the point. I too struggled with body confidence. To this day I dress up when flying, I wouldn't be caught dead wearing shorts to mass and I cringe everytime I see women or men wearing pajama pants at the mall or grocery store.
    I think modesty is something learned from family then modified and past on to our children. I do admire your christian values and look forward to reading more of your posts. Love your blue dress by the way!

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    1. Thanks a lot for your input, Lisa. I agree with you about learning modesty from family. I am grateful that I have extremely sensible parents who were intelligent and caring about everything, leaving me with no gaping wounds in any areas, including self-esteem or "modesty".

      Thanks for the compliment on the dress, too. I love it also and wanted to wear it as a wedding dress but alas since I began learning about proper bra fit I've realised it doesn't contain my boobs :(

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  8. I completely agree with you that any correction should be gentle and within the will of God. I see that you are a sincere woman. I wish you knew what it was to struggle for holiness in this culture. I have tried many times to be faithful to the Lord only to see cleavage and have that image show up over and over and over. Praise be to God, because the indwelling spirit of Christ gives us victory. I will confess to you earlier though that seeing such things led me to sin, I selfishly masturbated and more just rocked by temptation. The responsibility for my sins are mine - I had to give it to Christ. I wish you knew the damage seeing cleavage does. Perhaps God will open your eyes one of these days to these things. Perhaps you will meet met you have struggled for holiness, and your opinion will change. To anyone who reads this blog who is a woman, I implore you as a man to not show cleavage for it will tempt any young man who is seeking to be holy and pure. It will tempt him to masturbate and more.

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    1. I do know what it is to struggle for holiness in this culture - I live in it. I am a person with thoughts, eyes and desires too. I am sorry for your struggle, but that is what I believe it to be: yours. It is not my burden or any other woman's to take from you by ensuring you never come across anything in us that you struggle with.

      I believe that women, as with men, are bound to obey the laws of dress in the countries they live in. They may choose to also consider the social mores of their society (not wearing a bikini top to the mall for example) but they have no moral obligation to do so. It is up to the individual and their personal level of comfort with their clothing choices.

      In the same way, it is up to the individual whether they dress in a way that they see to be considerate of others or not. There are men who would be totally unfazed by me walking by in a bikini and men who would be shocked if they could see my ankles. Rather than allow myself to be oppressed by the unrealistic expectations of others, I choose to consult God and my own conscience, as well as a select few whom I trust.

      Ultimately I consider it less of an evil for a man to be sexually tempted and have to remove himself from that temptation or undertake measures to control his reaction (therapy, for example, if he oversexualizes women in his head) than for a woman (usually a young, impressionable one) to be told that her main purpose on Earth is to ensure that she is not sexually tempting to any man but her husband.

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