One of the long-standing debates in conservative circles is regarding the concept of modesty. One argument is that teaching our young women to cover their bodies for modesty’s sake invokes body-shaming, which is shame, fear, and negativity regarding one’s body. Modesty, this article from World Magazine argues, is often taught in ways that present the female body (as a whole and various parts) as “tantilizing” and “seductive” to any male who walks by. Thus, girls and women are taught indirectly that their bodies are not God’s beautiful creations, but rather, ticking time bombs that unwillingly lead to uncontrolled lust. The connotation here is that the female body is somehow inherently sinful. How, the article asks, can modesty be taught without body-shaming?
Ask anyone who spent time with me during my freshman year of college, and they will tell you that I did something a bit strange whenever I saw myself in a mirror. Anytime I saw my reflection, I would pause, point at my face in a circular motion and say confidently: “You… Are adorable.” I know it’s strange. I know my roommate was weirded out by it. I know people looked at me funny, but I had come to the point where I was tired of telling myself that I wasn’t good enough. I was tired of feeling like I just needed clearer skin, a bit of a tan, straighter hair, smaller thighs, a flatter stomach… So I stopped telling myself what I thought I needed and started telling myself that I looked good. It did not happen overnight, but I began to believe it.
Yet, at the same time, I covered myself well. I was the girl who wore skirts past my knees and who got rid of shirts that showed a hint of skin when I raised my arms. I chose jeans that weren’t tight and didn’t wear shorts for years. By no means was I perfect about this, but I was often made fun of for my definition of what was and was not appropriate.
For me, however, modesty does not mean my body was sinful. In fact, it means my body is good. It means God made each part of my body with care and concern, with some parts ranking higher on the privacy list than others. It means I am worth more than my appearance, so I dress in a way that capitalizes on my good qualities, both appearance-wise and personality-wise.
Granted, I have loosened my strict standards a bit from how I dressed freshman year. I wear shorts now, for example. The definition of “modest” is a tricky line to draw, and I think it is fluid more than we’d like to admit. But the point is that I’ve found that a female can be modest and still appreciate her body. She can be modest and still be confident. She can be modest and still be attractive.
This semester, I’m student teaching at a Christian international school in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I teach sixty-six teenagers, forty-three of them male. Two of the three teachers in my department are male, the vice principal is male, and many of the other teachers and staff members are male. As I contemplated this, I realized that there is no better reason for me to dress modestly than the fact that forty-three 14-18 year old boys spend at least 40 minutes each day looking at me. If I am an advocate against the perils of pornography and in support of a healthy attitude about women, how much more should I dress in a way that is conducive to those goals?
I think this reality hit me last week when I was preparing an outfit for spirit week. As I tried on different arrangements, I realized I could choose to cover (or uncover) my shoulder. I debated this for quite some time. As I lay in bed the night before the day I was supposed to wear this outfit, it occured to me that I am young, new to the school, and relatively somewhat good on the eyes. I decided to cover my shoulder. I did not cover my shoulder because it would be sinful to expose it (the Bible doesnn’t say that – take up with God). I did not cover my shoulder because the school rules said I had to (they probably did, but I haven’t read that section). I did not cover my shoulder because the unbridled lust of teenage boys would get out of control (I’m not that good-looking, haha).
I covered my shoulder because I love my brothers. If there is something within my power that I can do to show my forty-three male students and various male colleagues that I care about them, I’m going to do it. Why wouldn’t I? For me last week, making sure my outfit was not distracting was how I could show love.
I also covered my shoulder because I love my sisters. My twenty-three female students also need to know that their bodies are precious, intricate creations of God, and that their bodies should be treated as temples of the Most High. If I’ve learned anything about teaching, it’s to instruct by way of modeling. Students will copy what they see. I choose to dress modestly each day so these twenty-three female students see modesty in action. I care about them as well, so I choose to inspire value and worth in them by demonstrating that in what I wear.
I think that we confuse girls when their bodies are changing by teaching them indirectly that body changes are bad. Hips and butts and busts are bad. That is not the case at all. Hips and butts and busts are good. For one thing, it is heathly for a woman to have some kind of curves, and this extra padding helps to carry any future babies. For most girls, however, the preteen and teenage years are horrific for body changes. I struggled through acne (two separate treatments of Accutane) and acne scars, broken and blended families, the painful realization of body changes, as well as the inevitable and necessary struggle through my identity as a person and as a sexual being. Somehow, I went through these struggles without hating my appearance, which I think made it easier for me to start admitting to myself four years ago that I was adorable.
I wonder if it might help if we start the modesty conversation by telling our young ladies that they are beautiful and worth it, and telling our young men that they have what it takes. (This harkens back to the Eldridges, if you’ve read their books.) Maybe we should teach that our bodies are beautifully and wonderfully and intricately and fearfully made first. After that, we can discuss covering up bodies, and bouncing eyes, and drawing attention to personalities over hips and bosoms, and choosing to be and to date people who pursue God, and being more interested in each other’s hearts instead of each other’s wardrobes (or lack thereof), and choosing a path of sexual purity. But until teenagers know that they are valued and significant, modesty will always fail. We will either overemmphasize or underemphasize it. That’s where we get body-shaming: modety without the realization that God made that body good, all of its parts included.
How can we teach modesty without body-shaming? By loving the kids in our lives. It’s not that simple, I know, but this is where we can start.