IR: Modesty, Dignity, and Gnosticism

Okay. Okay. I’m fed up with the annual Summer Modesty Argument On The Interwebz.

Here’s the rundown:

1) Modesty keeps men’s uncontrollable sex drives in check! vs. NO THAT’S RAPE CULTURE

2) God commands modesty to honor his creation, your body! vs. Uh, modesty is a shame thing and that’s the result of the fall.

3) Modesty makes a statement about What Your Heart Really Wants, so be a good witness! vs. Rape culture, again! I wear what I want, and I’m not asking for anything, AND Jesus doesn’t depend on my clothes for his Kingdom, thanks.

4) Everything in our culture is so sexualized! Wish we could go back to the Good Old Days. vs. Let me give you a history lesson! Everyone was having sex and covering up is a cultural standard, not a godliness thing.

And then, there’s the one that set me off last night, which basically argues that I need to cover up to protect my God-given dignity as a woman.

I want to tackle this idea that my behavior, clothing, or other external things dictates the way church people perceive my dignity. I know it does. I grew up in the thick of modesty-shame culture in SGM.

The message of modesty = dignity was clear, though perhaps not defined in such a reductive fashion. But if your listeners (or readers) are coming away with an idea that’s false, the burden is on you, the teacher/speaker (or writer) to use your language clearly enough to eliminate miscommunication. And so I feel it fair to take on this idea in the manner in which it was received and assumed to be true.

Here’s the beefy quote on this from the article in the Atlantic yesterday:

Here, there is freedom for individual women to practice modesty not primarily to preserve men’s sexual purity, but to preserve their own dignity. To show in outward form the inward truth that they matter to society for their minds, their leadership, their passions, and their talents–talents that have nothing to do with how many heads they can turn. Modesty can become a form of female power.

Female power can take LOTS of forms. Usually by transgressing against a social expectation and rewriting some rules. I get that. I applaud that. Some of my favorite things about feminism is how it’s transgressing social orders as those who are traditionally marginalized are empowering themselves and speaking up.

But my dignity is not won or lost by my clothing OR my level of empowerment. And when we’re talking about my body and dignity and working with the assumption that our motives for this discussion are in keeping with pursuing orthodox Christianity, then I’ll take further issue with this.

If you separate my dignity from my physical self, you’re assuming that my spiritual self is “better” or “holier” than my body, and you are 1) demeaning Christ’s incarnation (and thereby devaluing the sacrament of communion), and 2) embracing Gnosticism, a classic heresy. 

God made humankind in his/her image and called us very good. God is not gendered, and we happen to be, but that means that ALL of us are in the image of God. Then, the fall happened, and THEN humans were introduced to shame and shame introduced clothing.

  1. Bodies made, called good.
  2. Sin/shame introduced, clothing happens.

My dignity as a human being comes from the fact that God made me and called it good. My body is inseparable from my human experience and identity, and my body is inseparable from my identity as a Christian, because it was through my understanding of the incarnation that I was able to overcome modesty culture shame about my body and re-embrace it as beautiful and good. Same goes for my sexuality, actually.

Don’t buy the lie that “modesty” will win you respect and dignity. If it does, it’s in a fear- and shame-centered legalistic culture, and Christ died to set us free, not bind us with more shame. My dignity doesn’t need clothes. Or your respect.


5 thoughts on “IR: Modesty, Dignity, and Gnosticism

  1. So I wrote something and then my browser deleted it…grr. lol
    Anyway. I like what you are getting at, but not sure I understand…if our body is dignified as is, then what is the role of clothes anyway? should we be nudists?

    My perspective on this issue is that attitude matters most and rules matter less. Are you dressing to look nice and flatter the beautiful body God gave you, or to attract attention (or keep boys from looking at you?). While I was in Prague I regularly saw 50+ age women wearing see through shirts with only a bra underneath…obviously not to attract attention. I doubt anyone was “stumbling” over them, even though they were breaking our nice Christianese modesty rules.
    But on the other hand shouldn’t we consider others in what we put on to SOME degree? The principle of not causing others to stumble IS biblical, and we are called to care about the people we are in community with. For example, if we have guests over or are guests at someone’s home, my husband always puts on a shirt before he leaves the bedroom, even though in western culture it is acceptable for men to go shirtless. He does it just to be polite and let others be comfortable. I really respect that.
    As with so many things, a balance is needed.

  2. i’m a few years out from this context but i remember the obsession with female modesty–even though guys would get away with things like chauvinism and self-aggrandizing flirtation all the time. you’re absolutely right to counter the standard conservative evangelical culture on this point. that said, i think you might be over analyzing the situation in some respects. any approach to the issue will in some way still be bound by constantly evolving cultural norms (well maybe not in a homeschooling church community in oklahoma, but that may have more to do with their denial of evolution). but, if i’m reading you right, your point is that clothing arrangements should not be used to make women feel somehow ashamed or devalued because of their bodies, and i completely agree. what i don’t agree with is that there’s no dignity to be found in being physically (hair to toes) presentable. we are visual beings, in our work, play, sexuality, everything. for both women and men, looking put together and respectable is important in any context (secular or religious). interpretations and expressions of dress will always vary, but they do matter and i think that western culture at large has pretty reasonable criteria for them.

  3. This. So much this. I just finished reading a blog post by an earnest mother explaining why she won’t let her sons associate with girls if they post facebook pictures that are suggestive, and then decorated the post with pictures of her sons wet and shirtless at the beach. I don’t think she meant to send the message that men and boys’ bodies can be displayed however they please, because women aren’t sexual beings, but it was there in the sub-text.

    Why are we so convinced that what women wear is the source of all unclean thoughts and actions, and men have no responsibility?

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