The Immodesty of Modesty Teachings

I know I have a series I’m supposed to be finishing up, but…sometimes…you just happen across something that begs a response. One of these days, someone is going to accuse me of grinding axes. Well, they can, because I do have an ax to grind. It’s called NO MORE OPPRESSING THE SAINTS WITH UNBIBLICAL TEACHING! That’s an ax I will grind until it becomes a toothpick.

So by now, you’re probably wondering what has my dander up. It’s this article by Pastor Rick Hermann entitled “The Theology of Yoga Pants.” It was published last spring, but I think it still deserves a response. Primarily, because 30 more articles just like it will appear in the blogosphere this year (as they do every year) the moment the average national temperature reaches 72 degrees.

Here’s how this will work: I’ll quote Pastor Hermann’s article in blue, then respond with my comments in black. Sound good? Great.

1 Peter 3:Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.

Oh, look, scripture! A very good, wonderful scripture that I love. A scripture that is mostly irrelevant to the material that follows.

It is that glorious time of the year known as spring.  In our hyper-sexualized culture as the heat rises clothes start to come off. To say our culture is obsessed with body image would be like saying Antarctica is kind of chilly.

Yes, and this article is another example of just how obsessed and hyper-sexualized our culture is. The whole focus here is on women’s bodies and how they should look. This is no different from your average Red Book magazine, just coming from a different viewpoint.

As someone that cares about Christian women I want to give a little pastoral/fatherly counsel. I find there are less and less young ladies that have a Godly father or male role model to speak truth into their lives. I would like to speak to Christian females as a loving father, as if I am talking to my three girls. These are some things I will tell my girls as they grow up, they may be helpful to some of you grown women as well.

Pastor Hermann assumes that young women are dressing in ways that he deems inappropriate because they lack godly fathers at home. Because, obviously, a father who is truly godly will hold the exact same opinions about dress that he does. But don’t worry if your father wasn’t “godly”; Pastor Hermann is here to take you under his wing and instruct you like one of his prepubescent girls.

Everything you wear says something about who you are and what is in your heart.

Really? I thought my clothing choices said more about what I was planning to do for the day. If I’m in a dress and heels, I’m going to a party. If I’m in dirty jeans and an old t-shirt, I’m going to dig in the garden. If I’m in slacks and a nice shirt, I’m going to work. Nice to know that all these clothing choices actually reveal the interior of my heart. I wonder what the dirty jeans say about me. Pastor?

By the way, no scripture says that clothes reveal character. The Bible says deeds reveal character, and getting dressed is not a deed.

While most women would not verbalize this, or even think about it, they want people to look at them. Thanks for alerting me to my unconscious motives. I had no idea. They want others, particularly men, to think they are beautiful. Today, people spend countless hours at the gym and tons of money in order to make their bodies look a certain way.  Most of the time people say that diet and exercise is for their health but if their hearts were exposed it is really about 10% for their health and 90% so they can look good (this is true of both men and women). What’s wrong with looking good? They have been told since the time of childhood that princesses are beautiful and wicked stepsisters are ugly.  From almost the moment of birth little girls are taught that so much of their value is found in their looks.

Beauty= good

Ugly = bad

Yes. Way to reinforce that by focusing on what women wear. Except that now you’ve equated certain styles of dress to internal beauty/ugliness rather than external beauty/ugliness. I’m sure that’s not damaging to how we view people in any way.

Yoga pants defined – tight (usually black…black is slimming you know) pants that cling to every fabric of your skin.  These pants are appropriate to wear at home with your husband and are great to go underneath a dress or long tunic…however when you leave your rear end uncovered you are pleading with every man in eye shot to check out your backside. If I’m wearing pants, my rear end is not uncovered. And pleading? Really? Am I also pleading to be groped and assaulted? Do I deserve it if it happens? I hope not. Because, really, I’m wearing these pants to be comfortable. 

WHAT WOMEN CANNOT UNDERSTAND I really appreciate a man telling me, as a woman, what I am incapable of understanding. I hate to use the word “mansplaining,” but…mansplaining.

Contrary to popular opinion God made men and women different.  True. Men have penises and women have vaginas. Women and men are wired so differently it is impossible for a woman to understand how a man’s mind works (It is doubly impossible for a man to understand how a woman’s mind works).  An interesting statement for Pastor Hermann to make considering that half of this article is him informing women about their thoughts and motivations. Maybe he’s not a man? Men are visual. God wired us in such a way that when it comes to the female form we do not miss much. If a woman is wearing something that is tight fitting, too short, too low cut, etc., a man will notice. He may not admit he notices, but he does. 

Here’s the thing: I’m an artist. Artists tend to be very visual. (I don’t know of any artist who isn’t.) And I notice people’s bodies. A lot. I love the human body and find it fascinating in all its forms. Know what my favorite section of the art gallery is? The nudes. My eyes are constantly taking in the shapes of the people around me, sometimes without my full awareness. I’m usually the first person to recognize whether someone has lost or gained weight, or is wearing a new piece of jewelry, or has on a particularly flattering (or unflattering) color. Noticing and appreciating someone’s body does not mean I’m aroused or that I want to take that person to bed. It just means I’m visual. Noticing and lusting are not the same. Lusting is a conscious decision.

I can hear the rebuttal from women now, “Men are just a bunch of dogs and should learn to control themselves.” Translation: The bitter, rabid feminists will be out in force! Perhaps your argument it very sound. False Pandering. Men are geared with a deep sexual desire that God gave them to express in the joys of a marital relationship. Only men! Not women! But saying men are like dogs does not change that fact that men are looking. We can’t help it. Christian men are looking. Ladies this may creep you out but you need to know, OLDER (think grandpas…eww) men are looking. Yes, I know grandpas look. They look no matter what women are wearing. A classy, well-dressed lady is probably more attractive to them. You see, the desires of a man’s flesh never changes. Whether he is young or old he has to constantly deny those sinful desires and seek to honor the Lord with his mind. The desire for sex cannot be sinful if God gave it to you. God doesn’t give us sinful things. LUST is sinful. Not all sexual desire is lust. If you love your brother in Christ and do not want him to see you or think of you in a way less than holy then consider these few questions and ponder them in your heart:

Ok, if my Christian brother sees me as less than holy simply because I happen to be wearing yoga pants, that is a BIG PROBLEM. The Bible is very clear that we are all made in the image of God and that we are to value each other accordingly. If I’m being judged by what I wear to the point where my brother cannot recognize my good attitude, good deeds, or the innate worth I have in Christ, there is a pharisaical spirit afoot that needs to be addressed.  

ARE YOU ADVERTIZING WHAT IS NOT FOR SALE? My body never was or is “for sale.” It is a gift from God that I give freely to Him in worship and to my husband in marriage. If you see women and their clothing as walking advertisements, you’ve become clouded by the gross, secular objectification of women, and your mind needs a spiritual transformation.

When you put a “For Sale” sign on something, if it is interesting people will check it out. If you put a “FOR SALE: CHEAP” sign on something they may want to buy it if they have to pay very little. When you wear clothes that are immodest, you are advertising to the men all around you that you are cheap.

There is no universal definition of “immodest.” All of our ideas about modesty come from our culture. Women in India wear saris. A sari is a single swath of (usually thin) fabric that wraps around the body from head to foot. It is typically worn over one shoulder and either partially or fully bares the midriff. Indian women wear saris to church (and even breastfeed their babies without a cover!), and they are not considered immodest by their brothers. I hope Pastor Hermann never has to go overseas to preach, or he’s going to see all these sisters in Christ as cheap (and be utterly scandalized to boot).

God made women in His image and He never meant for them to be cheap. They aren’t cheap, no matter what they’re wearing, for this exact reason. Wrapping a rag around a diamond doesn’t diminish the diamond’s value. The Bible says that He bought our redemption not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.  If Christ would pay this much for your soul, why would you advertise your body as cheap? Prostitutes advertise their bodies. So I guess my options here are “cheap prostitute” or “expensive prostitute.” Please say “advertising” one more time. I will tell my girls that they are very valuable and when they find the man God has for them to marry, they will know because he will marry them before he tries to sleep with them. If you’re dressing in a way that is immodest (again, entirely subjective), would you consider that you are inviting men to think about you in a sexual way? Only if I’m wearing lingerie. According to the Bible, this way of thinking should be reserved for your husband. I can’t control how other people think. Christian men should see Christian women as daughters, sisters, or as mothers. I agree. So let’s teach them to see as God sees (1 Samuel 16:7). Do you want your Christian brother to think of you as an object of lust, or as a sister in Christ? The way you dress WILL influence how he thinks of you. Only because you insist on hyper-sexualizing women’s bodies and then judging them by their outward appearance instead of their hearts – and suggesting to other Christian men that this is ok.

ARE YOU MAKING OTHERS FOCUS ON A PART OF YOU THAT WILL SOON FADE AWAY?

Your looks are not around for long.  Even the most beautiful woman may have 40 years of stunning physical attraction. What happens after she has passed her prime? What happens when your perfect curves begin to sag?  What happens when that beautiful skin begins to wrinkle? So…no shower or makeup today? Please tell me, Pastor, how much time and effort should I invest in my appearance? I need to know if I want to accurately reflect what is in my heart. Don’t want anyone getting confused about who I am. If you have made others value your looks then you are quickly losing your value. I didn’t realize I could force anyone to value anything. Apparently, what I value doesn’t matter; it’s only what other people value about me. If you value comes from, “the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” then as you get older you only become more precious to God and others. Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. I love the verse referenced here at the end (a personal favorite), but it’s “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting“…not vain.

ARE YOU TAKING WHAT GOD MADE HOLY AND MAKING IT COMMON?

There is a Proverb that says, “A beautiful woman who lacks discretion is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout.” Discretion is about behavior and wise judgment. Can you picture gold, the most precious of metals, in the nose of the most vile animal? A pig spends its days in the slop and has no need or concern for the value of gold. A woman who is immodest is taking the gold that God has given her and putting it before pigs (sorry guys).  

First, I don’t know which is worse: Pastor Hermann’s portrayal of men (pigs and dogs) or women (prostitutes and clueless girls). Second, the Bible does not define modesty in terms of clingy clothes and skin showing. Modesty, as addressed in 1 Timothy 2:9, is about refraining from flaunting one’s wealth. If we’re to take the Bible’s teachings on modesty literally, then Christian women shouldn’t wear jewelry, elaborate hairstyles, expensive dresses, or perfume. There is no (biblical) theology of yoga pants.

You are so much more valuable than your vessel. Finally. I was starting to wonder. You are not a body that has a soul, but you are a soul that has a temporary body.  Your body will soon wear out. Help people look at you for what is lasting about you and not what is quickly fading away. And how do I do that? Here is what the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 6:15 “Don’t you realize that your bodies are actually parts of Christ?”

HERE ARE A FEW BASIC GUIDELINES THAT MAY BE HELPFUL.  

Wear Yoga Pants/Tight Pants in private and not in public unless you are covering your backside. You should not wear clothes that cling to you. Sweaters are clingy. Should I not wear sweaters either?

NO BIKINIS.   Bikini = wearing your underwear in public.  Even with most one-piece bathing suits you should probably cover them with shorts. I know this sounds dramatic and archaic but trust me on this one. Translation: I know you poor women still don’t get it, so just trust that I know what I’m talking about and do it.

You should not wear clothing that draws men’s eyes to your breasts. And that would be…?

Skirts should go past your knees and should have enough material that you can still walk when wearing them. I’ve never known a woman to wear a skirt that she couldn’t walk in. And are knees really that alluring? Wow. So are shorts off limits, too?

If you are in doubt about something don’t ask another girl or even your mom. “Because women are utterly clueless and can’t be trusted to render an appropriate judgment.” If dad is in the picture ask DAD! And when you ask him and he shocks you with his opinion, have the respect to listen to what he says. Remember, Women DO NOT THINK like men. If you do not have a Godly father or grandfather to ask, seek the advice of an older Godly woman and go by the basic guidelines I have listed above. “See, even a godly woman might not get it completely right. So be sure to incorporate my advice.” 

The point of this blog is not to be offensive (Way to knock that one out of the park), but to remind my sisters in Christ of their great worth and value.  Nice of you to do that in two sentences. I hope it is helpful. No, actually, I’m more confused now.

I understand that the Bible says we should be considerate of our weaker brothers and refrain from behaviors that might cause them to stumble. But asking all Christian women to accommodate all Christian men in their struggle with looking is unreasonable. Why? Because different men are aroused by different things. For Pastor Hermann, it’s yoga pants, bikinis, cleavage and tight skirts. But for someone else, it might be sweaters, blonde hair and red lipstick. And for a man to say, “You must dress in the way I deem modest or else you will be seen as a slut” is terribly hurtful and unfair. It puts a standard on women that they cannot possibly attain…because definitions of modesty vary from person to person. This is how women in Saudia Arabia ended up in burkas – and their culture still has a rape problem.

In reality, these modesty teachings are immodest because they reinforce the hyper-sexualization of women’s bodies and diminish a woman’s inherent value as God’s creation. If you think less of the prostitute on the sidewalk than the matron in the pews simply because of their difference in dress, then you’ve lost the heart of God. Jesus ate with prostitutes to show God’s love. He never complained about what they wore.

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9 responses to “The Immodesty of Modesty Teachings

  1. I’m a leg man myself. Just sayin’. Still trying to put the female genie back into her Magic lamp. In a world wracked with pain and a severe lack of love, you’d think these pastors would have more important things to do.

  2. I enjoyed your post. As I enjoy all your posts. Pastor Hermann’s article is definitely immodest in at least two senses of the word.

    I agree with you about the main ways in which the Hermann-type approach to instruction on modesty fails: it sexualizes the female body, it assumes that modesty is an objective constant rather than something that is culturally and individually defined, it assumes that men can’t learn to treat women as people, with honor and respect, regardless of what they’re wearing, and it places responsibility for men’s thoughts and actions on women rather than on the men themselves. That is all pretty terrible, and there’s no good in it.

    However, I think sometimes there is a side to this conversation (not that it came up in your post) that is similar to a conversation about food (which is another touchy subject). A well-meaning woman will write a book saying, “this is healthy, this is not healthy, this is about how many calories you should eat if you’re this old and this tall, this is a healthy range for BMI.” And some young women will read it and say, “Oh, I never knew that, thanks for the info.” While others will read it and say, “Oh, my BMI is too high, I’m so fat.” And they’ll feel terrible. And some will blame the book for a rise in anorexia, even though the causes of anorexia are far more complex than simply reading a book. There’s apparently no way to do it right, and if the backlash against such a book consists entirely of, “Your body is beautiful and no one should tell you what you can or can’t put into your body; eat whatever you feel like eating!” That may not be the most helpful critique or advice.

    I think there may be point to writing a book, aimed toward young women, that simply explains, for the uninitiated, something about the range of what is considered modest in our culture. And steers clear of suggesting that women are responsible for men’s chastity, but does acknowledge that it’s possible to dress in a provocative way in order to gain male attention. What do you think?

    • I don’t think any woman is ignorant of the ways in which she might dress to entice men to look at her. These messages are everywhere. The problem here is the assumption (Pastor Hermann’s assumption) that women’s clothing choices primarily revolve around a desire to be looked at and deemed beautiful by men. It’s a completely self-absorbed and self-serving view. Yes, as a woman, sometimes I wear certain things because I think I look beautiful in them. But the key phrase here is “because I think I look beautiful.” I like looking good for my own pleasure (and, occasionally, for the pleasure of my husband). If someone else happens to notice and compliment me, great. If not, I feel good anyway.

      The problem with focusing on clothing choices is that it (1) ascribes specific intent to those choices (whether or not it’s true) and (2) ignores the content of the person’s heart. Just because a woman is wearing a short, low-cut dress does not mean that she’s seeking to seduce someone. She may simply enjoy wearing that particular dress. What we should be looking at is behavior. I’ve seen young women attempt to seduce men while dressed in baggy t-shirts and tennis shoes. And, again, what constitutes “provocative” in clothing choices still varies from person to person. Pastor Hermann probably sees spaghetti straps as provocative. So does that mean a woman wearing spaghetti straps on her dress is trying to provoke male attention? Or is it just 80 degrees outside?

      When you ascribe intent to clothing choices, you are inherently suggesting that women are responsible for how men react to them. There is no way to divorce those two things.

      Maybe, instead, we should have books and articles aimed at teaching women how to “clothe” themselves with good deeds and “perfume” themselves with the fragrance of Christ. Maybe instead of proposing a lot of confusing, impossible standards for dress, we should encourage women to examine their motives for what they wear and then trust that the Holy Spirit will guide them to make a decision that honors both God and their bodies. And while we’re at it, perhaps we could use a book aimed at teaching men to focus on a woman’s deeds (rather than her “assets”) and honor EVERY woman as a bearer of God’s image, whether she’s wearing a bikini or a burka. Temptation to lust resides in the heart, not in external stimulation.

      • Thanks for your response. I agree very much with your last point – I think there’s a huge need for instruction to Christian young men to honor every woman as a bearer of God’s image. If nudity, in itself, could cause lust, how could any of us enter the medical profession in good conscience? Nudity doesn’t cause lust; bikinis don’t cause lust, short skirts don’t cause lust. Lust comes from objectification inside the head of the person doing the lusting, from looking at another person as something to be used rather than honored as God’s image, and I think that’s a message that’s rarely heard in fundamentalist circles. Yes, there’s a huge need for that sort of message directed toward young men. I think mostly the direction toward young men is the horrible and not helpful, “Just direct your eyes away from anyone scantily clad otherwise you’ll get trapped into lusting with just a glance.” It’s the opposite of helpful.

        However, when you say that ascribing intent to clothing choices inherently suggests that women are responsible for how men react to them, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think it can be true. If we tell young people, “The only reason a girl would wear a mini-skirt and a tube top is because she’s trying to attract a boy’s attention,” that would be obviously a false statement. I don’t want to put either my boys or my girls in the position of looking at someone else’s clothing choices and trying to ascertain another person’s intent, first, because none of us can know for certain what another person’s motive is, second because there are obviously many other explanations (it’s hot out, she’s dressing that way for herself, etc.), and third it just encourages them to focus on the trivial rather than the significant. But, just because we can’t ascertain someone’s intent based on looking at what they’re wearing doesn’t mean that there isn’t a connection between the two. When we get dressed we each do intend something, and it’s worth thinking about that in a conscious way. There is an intent behind the clothes I choose to wear to work (mainly that I want to project the image of someone who is professional, focused on work and has reliable judgement) and in acknowledging that, I’m not making the women or men where I work responsible for how they react to me. I’m doing my best to project a sense of competence, by, for example, taking the time to wear a belt, a tie, and matching socks. Whether they get that message from looking at me is up to them.

        And you say, “I don’t think any woman is ignorant of the ways …” Actually, depending on her personality type, the media (TV, movies, fashion magazines) she’s been exposed to or not, what her mom or girlfriends have said to her, etc., I don’t think every young woman knows. (If every woman knew, you wouldn’t have the phenomenon of a woman trying to seduce a guy while wearing a baggy t-shirt. Just not likely to be highly effective.) We all absorb some messages just by living in the culture, but those messages are mixed and can be confusing.

        I don’t mean to waste your time. I think, bottom line, you’re right that there’s a much larger need for a reasonable book directed toward boys on how to treat people like people, regardless of how naked they are, than there is for another book directed toward girls.

        Thanks again for your response. I like what you’re doing very much and have really appreciated the recent posts on Biblical counseling. God give you comfort in some of the difficult things you’ve described that you’ve been going through.

  3. I also truly don’t get the double standard/lack of female desire in all these concepts. (Sorry I’m commenting on something a million years after the fact.) It seems like these same people have no problem with their sons going around topless at the beach, or working in the yard, or whatever. Because, you know, girls don’t ever lust after boys like that. Or in their shorts, or their muscles (if that’s your thing), etc., etc. It’s all about the male gaze, and male desire. What if women find the Adam’s Apple unbearable sensual? (Depends on the guy, I suppose.) Should all men wear turlenecks so no ladies are tempted? You know what they say about big hands and big feet, right? Clearly, we’re gonna need the gents to keep those boxed up in something so we can’t see the outline. It’s distracting, gentlemen.
    /sigh.