Let’s Change the Modesty Conversation

Protection-centric modesty sets the groundwork for fear and sexual shame, not personal dignity.

I was eleven years old when my maternal grandmother came to live with us after the death of my grandpa.

By the time I had reached early adulthood, she had became completely bed-ridden, for all practical purposes paralyzed from the waist down. Unwilling to put her in a care facility, my parents decided to care for her at home. By the time I was 20 I had learned such skills as how to change diapers for an adult who can’t move their limbs or shift their weight, massage unused feet to keep circulation running; even how to administer an enema. As for my grandma, she quietly watched her dignity slip away, as one by one the tasks that we humans consider private were added to the growing list of things that she was no longer physically able to do. Dementia set in and embarrassment eventually faded with the rest of her awareness, but my mom always made a point, no matter how busy she was, to wrestle Grandma into a pair of her pastel-colored velour pants and a matching top every morning. She always made sure to discreetly close the door whenever we were doing care-taking that involved nudity, even though there wasn’t anyone in the house who hadn’t seen my grandma’s body — naked, frail and idle — many, many times in the process of caring for her.

It had been a long time since Grandma —once a movie-star-beautiful woman who my Grandpa called “a dead ringer for Judy Garland” — had been alluring. Obviously, sex was no longer a part of her life. There was no worry that her exposed body was going to stir up anyone’s desire. And yet, we covered it. We covered it because we instinctively felt and respected the integral privacy of her body.

I think I learned more about a healthy view of modesty from watching my mom take care of Grandma than I did from any teaching I got on modesty, as such, that I got in my teenage years.

My upbringing was to a certain extent influenced by my parents’ brief involvement with Bill Gothard’s controversial religious organization, IBLP (Institute of Basic Life Principles), which they were a part of for some years. The organization, which taught a legalistic distortion of Christian principles, stressed (among other things) a rigid modesty standard: ankle-length skirts, covered arms, shapeless dresses and of course the home-school classic, the denim jumper. My parents saw problems with the organization after a time and left, but they still thought there was enough value in some of the teachings they had internalized that they kept the “good” even as they rejected what they discerned to be bad. Modesty was “good,” so even though they found some of the particulars of Gothard’s teaching to be legalistic and excessive, they taught a version that was less extreme, but still under-girded by the same basic principle: that the purpose of modesty was for women to avoid attracting the sexual attention of men — both to protect themselves from harm and to protect Christian men from temptation.

(Note: I don’t have space in this article to get into how epic the failure of this idea was within IBLP itself, but if you care to explore the way that Bill Gothard used his own teaching to sexually exploit and silence dozens of young women [including someone very close to me], RecoveringGrace.org, which was the first to begin publishing the victims’ accounts, is a good place to start.)

As a teenager I recall being mortified at hearing that if I wore immodest clothing (“immodest” being, of course, in the eye of the beholder), “men will undress you in their minds.” The thought of random men looking at me that way was repulsive and also quite terrifying. Since sex ed was considered unnecessary and dangerous, this terror of the “male gaze,” if you will, was almost the whole extent of my understanding about sex for a long time (apart from a general idea about it “being where babies come from”).

My parents were less extreme in the particulars than Gothard and many of his most devoted followers were, and a lot of people are less extreme in the particulars than my parents were, but the difference is one of degree, not principle. I think we need to do more than tweak the particulars — we need to get to the heart of what is wrong with the modesty conversation, not just in ultra-fundamentalist circles, but in more mainstream Christian communities as well.

When we approach modesty as primarily women’s work, and primarily a means of preventing sexual arousal in men, it is extremely tricky not to set our daughters up to see men as sexual antagonists and themselves as either sexual prey or over-sexed vixens who are responsible for men’s vice. It causes, in many cases, a fear of and repugnance for male sexuality that is not always easily shaken off even when a loving spouse does come along (as Rebecca Lemke discusses in The Scarlet Virgins). It also gives the idea that men are sexual beings, but women are sexual objects — merely a prop for men’s sexual pleasure, and not an equal partaker of sex. This objectification somehow arbitrarily becomes “good” after two people say “I do.” Girls and young women may accept this as true, but it doesn’t take away the natural feeling of disquietude about having nothing to look forward to in marriage except being objectified in the “right way”. The entire framework is held up by fear: fear of men, fear of sexuality, fear of the sexual potency of our own bodies. Fear is a powerful motivator, so this approach may well be effective in motivating our daughters to cover up, but it often comes at the cost of a very skewed, shame-based perspective of sexuality.

So what now? Do we abandon all dress standards and give our children no guidance whatsoever? Certainly not.

1 Corinthian 12:22–24 describes (in passing) the appropriate attitude toward covering our bodies:

. . . the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts we consider less honorable, we treat with greater honor. And our unpresentable parts are treated with special modesty, whereas our presentable parts have no such need.

The verse makes no mention of women in particular needing to cover themselves, nor does it make modesty a matter of preventing sexual temptation, but a matter of covering parts that are simply not suitable for public view. The reason for an attractive, young woman to cover up is the same as for a decrepit old man to do so: for both, putting their “unpresentable” parts on display is unfitting; it is intrinsically inappropriate, regardless of the sexual appeal of the body.

In Genesis 9, Noah’s son, Ham, is condemned because he “looked on his father’s nakedness” while Noah is passed out drunk, but his brothers, Shem and Japheth, are commended because instead of joining Ham they cover it up (some commentators speculate that perhaps Ham “did more than look,” but this is extrapolation, and considering the explicit nature of other Biblical narratives I find it unlikely that scripture would be so demure). Noah, whose nakedness the story deals with, is not a nubile young woman; he is an old man. And yet his two sons respect the privacy of his body so much that they even walk into the tent backwards, with a blanket over their shoulders to drape over him, in order to avoid seeing their father in this undignified state.

While the private nature of the body is certainly related to its sexuality, I think that we get it backwards when we teach that it is private because it is sexual. We are putting the cart before the horse. The human body isn’t private because it is sexually exciting as much as it is sexually exciting because it is private. When we understand this, we get to the heart of what sexuality is actually for.

We instinctively feel that sex is a private act; unlike animals, we withdraw when we perform it. People often wrongly conflate privacy and shame, but nothing could be more wrong when it comes to sex: we “cover” the act, not because it is shameful, but because it is intimate. It is the physical expression of a complete trust, complete vulnerability, and complete knowing of one another. In fact, the Bible often uses the verb “to know” as a euphemism for sex. Sex is only one facet of a complete knowing that ought to be a defining feature of marriage. The practice of concealing our body from the many and revealing it to the one points to a deeper veiling of our sexual self; that there is a part of ourselves that is so intimate that it must be concealed from all but one. Without exclusivity, there can be no intimacy. Without hiddenness, there can be no exclusivity.

Yes, we need to teach our daughters (and sons) about modesty, but it is this hiddenness that modesty acknowledges and stems from. Although protection can sometimes be a by-product of practicing modesty, to make it its motivation is a dangerous teaching that has historically borne ugly fruit — not infrequently resulting in the very thing that it sought to avoid.

The way we teach our children about modesty has wide-reaching consequences for how they will understand sexuality and even their own worth. With this in mind, we must take great care that, in our effort to secure short-term results, we do not lay a poor foundation that will either have to be dismantled, or worse, set our children up for a lifetime of error regarding one of the most crucial elements of their identity.