Ah, weddings. Flowers, candlelight, romance-and the excuse to buy a gorgeous outfit that you may never wear again. Picking out a formal dress was one of the delights of preparing for my brother's wedding this past summer. Or it should have been.
Unfortunately, current fashions dictate that the more elegant the dress, the less of your body it will cover. This was a problem, because I'm extremely conscientious about dressing modestly, checking all clothing purchases for unacceptably low necklines, high-rise slits, see-through fabrics, and other violations of my personal fashion creed. I knew that finding the right outfit would be a challenge.
After fruitlessly searching a few department stores, I stopped in a chain bridal shop, intending to scan the formalwear section and slip out if nothing looked promising. Within moments a sales associate was at my side to help in my quest.
I explained the occasion I was shopping for, then added, "But I don't want anything strapless," feeling that was the best way to express my desire for a dress that included fabric above the bustline.
The young man led me to a rack and pulled out a lime-green halter top. "Why don't you try this one on?" he suggested. "It comes in a full range of colors."
"But it doesn't have a back to it!" I wanted to shriek. "I wouldn't even walk out of the dressing room wearing that!"
Instead, I stuttered, "Uh, I wasn't planning on trying anything on today. I just wanted to see what you have." I left as quickly as possible, inwardly lamenting the lack of options for women who want to dress modestly.
I hear you
Apparently, I'm not the only woman dismayed by the skimpiness of many available clothing styles. Author Wendy Shalit gained national media attention for her books A Return to Modesty and Girls Gone Mild, in which she argued that baring one's belly button in public may not be as empowering as women have been led to believe. In the 2007 Miss America pageant, Miss Utah made headlines for sporting a one-piece swimsuit rather than the usual bikini. A February 12, 2007, Newsweek article titled "Girls Gone Bad?" noted concerns over the trend toward dressing even little girls in outfits that make them look like what one mom called "prosti-tots."
In today's sex-saturated culture, it's no surprise that modesty is not a top priority in fashion design. But as Christians, we don't need to unthinkingly accept every trend that comes our way. "Whatever you do," the apostle Paul advised, "do it all for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). That applies to our clothing choices.
So where does modesty come in? Jenni Smith wrote in an Internet blog: "Modesty is humility expressed in dress, a desire to serve others, neither promoting nor provoking sensuality or lust. It is rooted in a desire to lose any and all consideration of self and live hidden behind the cross of Christ."*
The essence of modesty is not setting rules about skirt length, but living a life that brings glory to God rather than ourselves. Dressing to show off is a huge temptation for many women-whether they're displaying certain body parts to entice male attention, broadcasting how much money they spent on their last shopping spree, or simply hoping for compliments from their female friends about how great they look. There's nothing wrong with looking our best, but we'd be wise to consider our motives and cultivate a God-centered attitude.
What men say
Of course, deciding what is or isn't modest is challenging. Standards differ in every time and culture. There's only one Bible passage that mentions modest clothing: "I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God" (1 Timothy 2:9, 10). No discussion of hip-hugging jeans or cleavage-baring tops.
In the absence of specific biblical counsel, one way to seek a definition of modest clothing is to ask the people whom our dress is most likely to affect: men. In January 2007 a Christian Web site did just that. Christian girls came up with dozens of questions about types of clothing that might be inappropriate. Some 1,600 Christian guys, most of them in their teens and 20s, responded by telling whether they felt these styles aroused ungodly thoughts.
The results, found at www.therebelution.com/modestysurvey, are fascinating, especially if you've ever wondered what's going on in the minds of the opposite sex when they look at you. Granted, the respondents don't represent a cross section of the American male gender, but they do reflect an honest attempt by committed Christian guys to assess the sexuality quotient of various fashions.
Predictably, a large majority labeled certain items, such as itsy-bitsy skirts and bikini swimsuits, as immodest. But the questions went much further in their search for potential "stumbling blocks" to purity of mind. Pants with words across the seat? A big thumbs-down. Low-cut tops layered with more modest shirts? Generally OK. Formfitting skirts? About evenly split.
The survey even addressed behaviors that might be provocative: Do high-heeled shoes cause girls to walk in a suggestive way? Is it a problem to see a girl take off a pullover shirt or bend over with her backside toward you? (You'll have to consult the Web site for the guys' answers.)
Even more telling are the written comments about the questions. In response to the statement "Showing any cleavage is immodest" (70 percent agreed), guys wrote:
"Cleavage is perhaps the most 'come and lust after me' thing a girl can show while still wearing clothes."
"If you're going to make a rule, I think this would be a good one."
"So distracting and tempting that it hurts. Please keep yourself covered."
"Why? Why must you? What is your reasoning for doing it?"
"This is the biggest thing which causes me to fall."
Our brother's keeper
"But isn't that the men's problem?" we might ask. "Why should I have to change what I wear because some guys can't keep their minds in the right place?" Remember, the Bible says: "Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away?" (Matthew 5:28, 29).
True. But the same Bible that condemns lustful looks also says: "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:4). Many of our Christian brothers would greatly appreciate our help by not presenting them with unnecessary temptation. As one young man wrote: "A lot of girls don't realize how very difficult it is for even the most godly guy to resist temptation in this area. It is so easy to let your eyes go to the wrong places, especially with the way our culture is today. It is the guy's decision whether he is going to sin or not, but a girl can make it a lot easier, or a girl can make it incredibly difficult."
Probably most of us aren't deliberately flaunting our bodies for male provocation. Maybe we're just not thinking when we pull an outfit out of our closet. But as Christians, we have the responsibility to promote the well-being of our fellow Christians. One young man described being in an environment of modestly dressed people as "coming off of the front lines into the safe zone." Couldn't we do our part to help our churches, schools, and homes become "safe zones?"
Lest you're worried that dressing modestly means looking like a bag lady, the guys who responded to the modesty survey laid that fear to rest. A full 97 percent agreed that women can dress attractively without being immodest. They affirmed that guys do notice-and appreciate-when a woman dresses modestly. On the other hand, showing off too much skin may attract the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of men, the kind who value women mainly for their body parts.
For me, dressing modestly is a way to honor God and show respect for myself and others, especially the opposite sex. It is possible to be both stylish and modest-we just have to be selective and consider the impact of our choices.
By the way, I did eventually find an elegant skirt and top for the wedding that fit my personal definition of modesty and still made me feel like a princess. It wasn't easy, but to me it was worth the effort.
Rachel Whitaker is associate editor of Guide magazine in Hagerstown, Maryland.