Can Christians Talk About Modesty Without Shaming Women?

The topic of modesty evokes strong emotion and sharp debate among Christians as I recently discovered when we explored the issue on Up For Debate.  Some feel the way the church teaches on the topic is harmful and only produces shame in girls and young women.  Others point to the scandalous way some Christian women are dressing as evidence that they feel no shame, and that the church needs to emphasize modesty more. After the program, it was clear to me that the topic warranted more discussion, so I’ve decided to host a modesty discussion on my blog.  Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear from several leading voices in this area beginning with today’s article by Sheila Wray Gregoire. — Julie

By Sheila Wray Gregoire

When my youngest daughter Katie was 11, she had hit puberty and was developing rather rapidly. In response, a kind Sunday School teacher took her aside to tell her gently that she would now have to be careful how she dressed for church. She wouldn’t want any men looking down her shirt, after all.

Katie was mortified. Adult Christian men would want to look down her shirt? It took some backtracking for her father and me to persuade her that not all men were perverts.

But the question still hangs in the air, doesn’t it? How do you teach Christian girls about modesty?

I wonder, though, if people teaching modesty this way have thought about the underlying message about sexuality and women’s bodies that they are giving to young girls?

Many have taken the route that genuinely well-meaning Sunday School teacher did. They explain that men are visually stimulated, and so girls shouldn’t provide a stumbling block for boys or men. They talk about how we are to respect and honor our brothers in Christ. They talk about rules like no cleavage, and tops should not be more than two fingers’ width below the clavicle, and you should be able to pinch at least an inch on any jeans. Oh, and definitely no bikinis.

I wonder, though, if people teaching modesty this way have thought about the underlying message about sexuality and women’s bodies that they are giving to young girls?

I write books on sex and have one of the most popular marriage blogs on the internet, and over and over again I am inundated with emails from women who have a difficult time with sexuality in marriage because they are ashamed of their bodies.

And it’s hardly surprising.

When we frame modesty this way, we inadvertently say (even without meaning to):

  • Women’s bodies are dangerous. They can cause other people to sin, and so they must be covered up.
  • Men are unable to handle their lusts without women’s help.
  • Women are responsible if men lust.
  • Men have a super-high sex drive and are visually stimulated, while women have virtually no sex drive and are responsible for keeping men’s under control.

I have heard stories of women feeling ashamed and saying nothing after being sexually assaulted, because they believed that they caused it by not covering up enough. I have heard of super small girls wearing X-Large T-shirts throughout high school because they are so embarrassed and ashamed of their breasts, which they have been repeatedly told that guys will want to ogle. And I have heard of women who are married who are still changing in the bathroom because they can’t let their husbands see them naked.

What I find especially strange is that this message seems to directly contradict what Jesus said in Scripture. He said that if men lust when they look at a woman, they should cut out their eyes (Matthew 5:27-29). He laid the blame straight at the men’s feet and told MEN to do something about lust, not women. It is Islam that tells women they must cover up to prevent men from sinning, and yet Christians seem to have appropriated this message while forgetting what Jesus said.

What if we could develop a message about modesty that wasn’t shame based and didn’t cause anyone to stumble—boy or girl?

“Ah,” but some critics may reply. “But Jesus also said that we must never be a stumbling block for someone!” Yes, that’s true. But I wonder why all of those worrying about girls being a stumbling block for boys do not also look at how their messages about sex and women’s bodies can become a stumbling block for those very girls? Do the girls not matter?

What if we could develop a message about modesty that wasn’t shame based and didn’t cause anyone to stumble—boy or girl?

I think the answer is to stop focusing on bodies and on rules and start focusing instead on Jesus. I raised two beautiful girls who did dress modestly, and yet I don’t remember ever using the word “modest” with them or talking with them about being a stumbling block. Instead, we just focused on who they were in Christ.

So let’s talk with our kids about these points:

How does Jesus want us to appear?

He wants us to be approachable and friendly, so that we can be the “aroma of Christ” and have opportunities to show Christ’s love to others.

Then you can ask, “Does the way that you look right now give that impression?” I talked to my girls about asking, “What’s the first thing people are going to think when they look at me?” That can lead into talking about not dressing to be sexually alluring, but it can also lead into talks about how to not look sloppy or lazy, too.

How does Jesus feel about us?

Jesus believes that we are sons and daughters of God with gifting to change this world. So are we dressing as if we believe that? Are we dressing to show that we respect ourselves? Or are we dressing to please others?

Whenever we take our focus off of getting our worth in Christ we run into trouble – and not just when cleavage is showing.

This approach doesn’t just focus on sex, but instead on all aspects of our lives. And that’s key, because God says revealing the motivations of our hearts is more important than following rules. Besides, as my young adult daughters say, in this Instagram age, often teenage girls dress not to impress boys, but to impress girls! Whenever we take our focus off of getting our worth in Christ we run into trouble – and not just when cleavage is showing.

And it also applies to both boys and girls, too. We can ask boys who dress in slouchy clothing, “What does your appearance say about you?” We can ask boys what message they are giving, too.

If we put the focus back on running after Christ in all areas of our lives because we want to respect ourselves and follow Him, rather than just dressing by rules to prevent others from looking at us in lust, we don’t just remove shame. We reinforce a personal relationship with our Savior. And that’s something that will never, ever hurt anybody’s future marriage. 


About the Author

Sheila Wray Gregoire is an award-winning author of nine marriage books–many of them about sex, which she says never fails to surprise her since sex was her biggest marriage problem for so long! The author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, she blogs everyday at To Love, Honor and Vacuum, “creating a marriage-positive community that delves deep into Scripture, refusing to settle for pat Christian answers to our real, messy problems.”

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One thought on “Can Christians Talk About Modesty Without Shaming Women?

  1. Leon Kaeb

    post modern world view is for blatant expression for freedom of human sexuality. For centuries, in most all cultures there was an instinctive nature for women to cover themselves appropriately. The simple reason wasn’t just modesty; but, dutifully to show how to be a LADY. But, as times have changed since really the sexual revolution of the late 60’s, there is a fierce demonic battle among all of us to break down the barriers of responsible sexuality. I think this is clearly evident of latter day prophecy that there will be a major falling away [2 Thes. 2]. So then the question is WWJD. I believe Jesus would completely adhere to all scriptural text, because he in Holy Spirit Godhead essence authored the scripture. Jesus wants women and men to abstain from fleshly lusts [1 Peter 2:11]. So, yes, men lusts over girls and women who dress provocatively in sensual attire. Even in today’s world women lust over sharp and sexy looking men. Men need to cover up as well as girls and women. The Bible is clear about this. Just because the world changes standards should not mean the church changes too. Shelia needs to be very careful of the example and teachings she offers in a Christian setting.

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