Over the last few weeks, there has been a lot of chatter on social media about Christian views on modesty. There were multiple flashpoints for this discourse that included Matthew West’s since-pulled “Modest Is Hottest” anthem and a pastor who resorted to a misogynistic slur to describe his feelings about how some Christian women dress. While West’s song was not deliberately mean-spirited and you can’t say the same for the latter incident, both sparked all the usual conversations around what women should and shouldn’t be allowed to wear, how to “protect the eyes” of Christian men in Church and just what is “modesty” anyway?
Per some of this discourse, I tweeted a few thoughts that I’ll expound on here. Some of the language came from the original thread.
So much ink has been spilled over this conversation that it’s hard to even work up the energy to get back into it. However noble the origins of the debate, it almost inevitably results in silly, nitpicky rules about shoulder strap length and knee-to-hem gaps that have no obvious connection to any true, beautiful or valuable conversation about the Christian life.
That’s because these conversations remain painfully human-focused. “Lust” and “modesty” just become excuses to make more rules around things that make us uncomfortable so that we don’t have to actually engage them and, in the grand tradition of Western Christianity, these rules apply disproportionately or even exclusively to women.
That’s probably because of 1 Timothy 2:9, when Paul writes to Timothy with some advice about how women should dress. “Likewise, also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.” But this verse doesn’t lend itself to the modesty conversation as neatly as we’d like, since Paul makes it clear he’s talking more about the flaunting of wealth than he is about the appropriate jogging or swimsuit attire.
There is another part of Scripture that’s much more appropriate for the modesty debate, and it’s from Matthew 5.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 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.
The Bible doesn’t say “if your right eye causes you to sin, send her an email asking her to wear a baggier T-shirt.” It makes it clear that this is very much your thing.
It’s not hard to see why this one isn’t brought up much. It’s easier to talk bikinis than it is poking your eye out. One lets you focus on others, making your own dark impulses into their problem. The other requires you to take some serious responsibility.
It’s striking how much conversations about modesty, which are supposedly designed to keep women from being objectified, just ends up talking about women like sexual objects anyway. By focusing on what women wear and insisting that they have to dress just this way, covering these specific parts, we end up sending the exact same message we’re supposedly trying to avoid: your body is inherently dangerous.
In my experience, there’s a direct correlation between struggling with lustful thoughts when women aren’t dressed modestly and how much men already think of women as sexual objects. But the inverse is also true. The more respect you have for women in your life, the less helpless you are to inappropriate thoughts about them, no matter what they’re wearing. The key is to stop blaming women and start taking ownership of your own issues.
What I’m trying to do in this article is move the conversation away from “what is appropriate for women to wear?” and focus entirely on men’s own responsibility. I’m not a woman, and so I won’t presume to insert myself into conversations around what is and is not “modest” in today’s culture. It’s not really my concern and there is no situation if which I have any say over what the vast majority of women who walk in and out of my line of sight every day decide to wear. The only thing I can control is my own thought life and how I treat women.
Men who are raised in the Church are often brought up to think of their thought life is something beyond their control. This leads them to be terrified of the things they think when they see women who aren’t dressed according to their own idea of what “modesty” is. In some cases, men might be right to be scared of those thoughts. But in any case, the problem here isn’t bikinis. It’s men themselves, and attempting to control how women dress is another manifestation of that same dark impulse.
It might be helpful here to backup a little bit and think about this. In a normal, sane world, a man should be able to treat women with kindness, decency and respect no matter what she’s wearing. But instead, we’re told growing up that lust is “every man’s battle.” Implied this framework itself is that the battle is an endless struggle, a forever war with no hope of victory. This is an incredibly self-defeating idea for men, not to mention a deeply dehumanizing one for both men and women. Men are taught that they’re a slave to their worst impulses; Women are taught to view their own bodies as landmines of moral destruction. It’s a terrible way to live.
This isn’t to minimize how difficult it can be to retrain your brain when you’ve been raised in a culture that thinks of women as being less worthy of respect than men, as almost all men in the U.S. are. But it is utterly vital that we do the hard work of uprooting our own misogyny and replacing with the healthier, more robust perspective of the women in our lives. One that acknowledges their bodies as an important part of their personhood, but not the whole part; and acknowledges human attraction as natural, but not all-important and certainly not irresistible.
And if we can learn to release our need for women to dress a certain way for our benefit, then the rewards will be manifold. Obviously, it empowers women when men stop thinking of them as sexual objects, but that’s not the only benefit. It’s empowering for us too, to take responsibility for our thought life and learn that we, perhaps, have more control than we thought. We’ll have better relationships with ourselves. We’ll have better relationships with the women in our lives, too. It certainly beats plucking out your own eye.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.