My friend Tiffany and I were talking about modesty and she said that our bodies are powerful communicators. I don't necessarily think of mine that way most of the time. I virtually live in workout clothes and anything soft and comfy. No one could accuse me of being fashion forward. But I have seen this truth play out when I'm trying to get faster service, or help with something I don't want to do. My body can be persuasive. Sometimes this is less about what clothing I'm wearing, and more to do with the attitude and expression I'm wearing.
I haven't always respected my body. I spend the majority of my time in my head, so I forget to honor my body. I forget how Jesus came to earth in a body and then ascended in that body. Our earthy, limited bodies matter to God, not just our souls.
When I think about modesty, I tend to remember gendered dress codes, discussions of my body as inherently distracting and sexualized. I tend to get a little worked up about it. Not just for the sake of women, who have been taught that our bodies are shameful, but for the men who have been told that they are raging hormone monsters one short skirt away from destruction and damnation. That being said, our choices matter.
But what would happen if we let respect drive our clothing choices, not fear or shame?
At the Fall, God gave Adam and Eve clothing to wear. In shame, they covered themselves with fig leaves, but our Creator God crafted garments for them (Genesis 3:21). The Old and New Testaments are filled with advice and mandates on what we should wear. In her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans attempts to live by as many of the female-specific mandates as possible during her modesty month. She interviews women of conservative branches of Christianity in order to understand their clothing choices.
I'm not here to get into the nitty gritty details of head coverings, number of inches above the knees, or sleeve length. I'm interested in the heart behind the modesty conversation.
In Colossians 3, Paul begins with one of his infamous lists of don'ts. But after this he makes an interesting statement. "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience...And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity" (Colossians 3:12, 14).
I think it would be prudent to take a step back from trying to find the absolute limit of what is appropriate and think more big picture.
As Christians, we are called to order every part of our lives around our identity as co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). We live in the tension between grace and discipline, that our bodies matter, but we are more than just bodies, and in Christ there is room for both. In Jesus, we are given a new life; our bodies, minds, and hearts are given a new way to live, a new dignity. We are holy and dearly loved.
In John 8:1-11, we see Jesus come face to face with a woman "caught in the act of adultery." The Pharisees and scribes bring this woman before Jesus and ask what they should do with her. They are trying to trip him up, and they are using this terrified, and possibly barely clothed, woman to make a point.
Jesus averts his own gaze, and draws attention away from this woman by drawing in the sand.* He defuses the situation, and causes the crowd to disperse. He then speaks to this woman with respect and compassion. He gave her dignity. He saw a vulnerable woman, publicly shamed and intentionally humiliated, and he saw her as a person.
We make our choices out of this same sense of honor and dignity. In a shame-based conversation, we have to hold on to the truth of who we are. Holy. Dearly loved. The beauty of the gospel is that we have been clothed in the righteousness of Christ. We cannot earn that righteousness, but it should radically alter our priorities.
What if this didn't just mean obsessing about necklines? What if it also meant concerning ourselves with the dignity of those who made our clothing? What if it meant honoring the beauty and artistry of fashion, the vision of those called to clothe us well? What if it meant revolting against the broken supply chain, a supply chain that depends on excess and an over saturated market of cheap, short-term clothing (Shout out to my friend Kelly, who is in grad school researching this right now)?
Modesty doesn't have to be a sexualized or guilt-driven conversation. We can honor our bodies with the respect warranted for a "temple of the Holy Spirit," and broaden our vision of making Christ-centered clothing choices (1 Corinthians 6:19). Modesty doesn't mean reaching for the most convenient and cheapest potato sack.
Our bodies are not our own, but we are stewards of the bodies that we have been given. That means we get to make informed, Spirit-driven, nuanced choices that seek the prosperity and flourishing of our created selves, and also those around us, locally and globally.**
*The meaning of Jesus drawing in the sand has been debated essentially since it happened. I'm not here to pretend I have the definitive answer, just to say that my theory would have been a result, even if it wasn't the main point of Jesus writing in the sand. Calm down, theologians.
**I would be remiss not to mention the value of reaching out to community and trusted mentors to seek wisdom and guidance from those more experienced.