This is a less documented, more anecdotal post, as a result of my discovery a few days ago that all my books on this subject are in storage. I think I did that deliberately because I was tired of reading things that made me angry. So, this post won’t have a ton of sources, but if you want clarification on anything, I can probably point you to a book or essay explaining it in more depth.

***

I was 15 and that afternoon I was at the local swimming pool with my family. I was wearing a new-to-me swimsuit in an outdated shade of orange, but it was a “modest” one-piece and it fit my angular body well. While Mom was getting the littles slathered up in sunscreen, I stepped out of my shorts and flip flops, and tossed them onto the lounge next to my t-shirt. While I looked around the pool for friends, I untwisted my knot of hair from its ponytail holder and shook it all out in the breeze. Spotting my friends, I started toward them, but then mom called my name. “Hännah! Come here!”

She was beckoning me with a very serious look on her face. I walked toward her, and bent down. “Hm?”

She whispered, “Put your hair back up. You look…” She frowned, looking for the words. “You look too pretty. The young men will notice.”

I was confused. “What?”

“Put your hair back up. It’s long and catching the sun, and that swimsuit is…very striking. It’s too much. Put your hair back up.”

“Okay, okay. I will,” I said, walking away. I took my time with obeying her, dipping my head down and away from the people nearby, letting my hair flop across my face to hide my tears. I didn’t understand, and my stomach felt tight and my face hot. Once my hair was up, I plunged into the diving well, kicking down to sit on the bottom as long as I could before rising to the surface in a burst of cathartic energy.

I spent the rest of the afternoon away from my friends, reading a book by the poolside, wrapped in a damp towel and wearing my hair pulled back tightly. I didn’t want to be noticed.

Modest me shortly after the pool incident.

***

The current church’s concept of modesty is largely reactionary and fear-based.

But I didn’t realize that for a long time after the poolside incident. It was just one of many moments where I was “called out” on some impropriety (sitting cross legged, wearing a blouse with a too-thin back, bra straps peekabooing, twirling without shorts under my skirt at swing club, peekaboo gaps between buttons on a blouse, etc.) or told another girl that she was being immodest and to cover her neckline when she bent down.

In our SGM church, we were taught that modesty was a way we helped men not to lust. In youth group, we had breakout sessions, where the girls sat in one room and listened to talks about not reading romance novels (they make you think impure thoughts and desire a relationship too early!) and about how our responsibility was to not cause the guys to lust. Therefore, we were taught how to be modest.  We were taught that “correcting” each other was the highest form of Christian love, and so if we saw someone being immodest, we should speak to her about our “concern” and help her see how she was hurting the guys by her dress. And if a guy was “struggling”  because of a girl’s outfit, he could talk to her and ask her to cover up. (Meanwhile, the guys were in the next room listening to a talk about the sinfulness of pornography and masturbation.)

We got really good at this. We had the checklist posted up on our bathroom mirrors. We talked in code to each other if we spotted an infraction when we were around boys. We learned to sew well enough to modesty-hack new clothes so they would be “appropriate.” We dressed up in new shopping finds and paraded them for our fathers, asking him to make sure they weren’t inappropriate. If he said something didn’t make the cut, we’d return it and start over. This was “biblical femininity” in action.

Once I was conscious of the male gaze, I was a slave to avoiding it. I became obsessed with obeying the rules as dutifully as I could. I avoided talking with boys—it might be seen as flirting. I avoided looking too stylish or doing my hair and makeup with too much care, because I didn’t want to be dressing for attention. I wore shorts and a t-shirt over my swimsuits or avoided the pool altogether, claiming that I didn’t want to get a bad sunburn. I became a watchdog for my sisters, smugly tattling on them to our dad if I caught them dressing in a way I deemed immodest. I judged my friends for enjoying time hanging out with guys in a group, thinking that this was a perverse desire for male attention.

The effects of this mindset on others (not just in my church, but in the QF/CP movement as a whole) were more personally damaging than my priggishness, but perhaps less obvious. My sister judged classic art for the nudes, “fixing” them with a permanent marker in a textbook. Friends fell into eating disorders, hoping to be less seductive if they were thinner and had less boobs to notice. Some hated themselves for their developing bodies and instead ate too much, silencing their self-consciousness with comfort food. Some took razors to their bodies in secret. Some toed the line, but just barely, attempting to get away with whatever they could without getting “called out” by someone.

This was essentially an assumption that lust is damning, women are both the objects and the cause of lust, and so we were responsible to prevent it. This, I believed, was gospel truth straight from the Bible.

Of course, women were never mentioned as having lust problems. We might have emotional fantasies and imaginary romances, but lust was a male issue. This drove me to loneliness and horrific shame, as I was a teenager with a normal, healthy sex drive. I was horny and I was mortified; this wasn’t supposed to be my problem. The church would announce a men’s meeting to talk about fighting lust and accountability for not using porn, and I would shrivel up, wishing that my secret wasn’t a secret, and that maybe there would be a women’s meeting, too. Or that I could “serve” at the men’s event and eavesdrop, and there learn the secrets for freeing myself from myself.

Later I would learn that I was 1) pretty normal, 2) not “addicted” or damned, 3) loved unconditionally by my husband and by Jesus. The bondage I had been in wasn’t as real as I thought—the mindset I had about lust and modesty fed my obsession and my shame, and once freed from the whole set of lies, I would discover that this was just a minor difficulty, not a paralyzing sin issue.

For the guys growing up in this environment of modesty culture, there was (as I have since learned from my husband, who grew up in a church affiliated with mine) a similar sense of being paralyzed by lust and shame. It was so assumed that he would lust after women that he never questioned it when accountability groups would meet and the guys would almost exclusively talk about their struggles with lust. It was as if they were powerless, animalistic and perpetually obsessed with sex. This is a caricature in Hollywood and the über conservative church—but this is not your average man.

Kevin told me that once he left SGM and he’d been out of the dialect and culture for a while, he found that he wasn’t struggling with lust like he used to–the idea of a woman’s body alone wasn’t a turn-on anymore. He found that his desires naturally were directed at a few specific things and toward whoever he was in a relationship with, and that he could appreciate a woman’s beauty and form without lust. He was no longer being told he was a slave to these things and asked to confess and obsess on them, and when he left that environment he was freed from the mentality it fostered.

As I spent time out of this culture, I found changes as well. I learned that being pretty and enjoying making myself look good weren’t sinful things, and I began to relax a bit. After being married, I have discovered that the idea that modesty is a woman’s responsibility is a very demeaning concept, and really doesn’t share anything in common with the teachings of Jesus, who held individuals responsible for their own sins, and gave grace to the naive and broken and penitent. He never said that women caused lust. Instead, he argued that lust reflects preexisting heart desires. And instead of demeaning women like the culture of his day, he respected them and made them his disciples and close friends, and the first witnesses to his resurrection.

I now realize that most of the assumptions I previously held were false, even anti-Christian:

The assumption that preventing lust is my job is wrong: only the one lusting is responsible for his or her heart. 

The assumption that modesty will prevent lust is false: lust wants what it wants and will see it where it wants.

The assumption that men are ravenous, sex-crazed beings, trapped by their passions: false. Men desire companionship and affirmation and sex and love, just like women. Women experience lust and sexual urges and visual stimulation. These things vary from person to person, but not so much gender to gender. There is great compassion in Jesus for our humanity. 

The Bible verses on modesty we all used as proof texts for the misconceptions and legalism we held so dear? These were largely about compassion for others and humility. True modest is not drawing undue attention to yourself. We wear what fits the occasion and is respectable. Finding the line of what’s appropriate and reverent: this is modesty. It’s a heart attitude, not a set of rules defined by gender stereotypes.

I have learned that my shame over my body was wrong. My body is hallowed because Jesus took on a body. My body is beautiful in the echo of creation and redemption perfection. My body is human and flawed and funky in my fallenness. But I am not to be ashamed of how I was made or loathe myself for it, and I am not guilty for the sins of others who may happen to lust after it. I can dress without fear, because I am not responsible for the worst possible outcome. I am responsible for doing well and living in a manner that reflects the grace I know in Jesus’ unconditional love.

Overcoming lust doesn’t happen by working harder. I tried. Overcoming lust happens by loving Jesus more than loving self-service. Shame over past lust and past sins is inappropriate–grace is active in the lives of the saints, and we are conformed to holiness by Jesus’ love. Not by working hard because we think that’s a what good Christians are supposed to do. We are transformed by taking each day on its own and not being anxious over transgressions that have already been cast away. Perfect love casts out fear.


  • Well said! I’m so proud of you for so eloquently bringing this up! Remember when we weren’t the friends we could have been because of this very subject?

    • I was a jerk. I’m so very glad there are second chances.

      • Elizabeth

        In all honesty, I remember visiting your family and being exhausted by all of the reminders and cautions (from multiple people, not certain ones) to “stay modest”…even comments made to my four year old sister. I do love you guys, and really appreciate this post 🙂

  • Elise Pryor-Harden

    As a parent, I always hoped I could raise my children to accept their sexuality as part of being human and as part of the biological drives God created in us and called ‘good’ when He was done. I want them to be in the place you describe Kevin having reached…that he could appreciate the appeal of the physical without it overmastering him and that ‘appreciating’ beauty does not equal ‘lusting for.’ Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  • Marianne

    Though I’ve never been in one of these hyper-conservative churches, this modesty and lust dialogue is ALL OVER the world of women’s spiritual reading, blogs, Bible studies, etc, and I’ve heard it over and over again. I’ve always been suspicious. I’ve known people who’ve “corrected” friends of mine, and it always came across to that person as viciously judgmental and cruel. You know, what everyone needs in the place of these Mahaney-trained tattle-tales is a sassy gay friend. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnvgq8STMGM )Cause a sassy gay friend can say, “Honey, those buttons are screaming for mercy!” and while no one likes to hear they’re too fat or too buxom for their shirt, at least that “correction” has NO tinge of self-righteousness.
    I’m a big fan of class. I think we all need to keep trying to class it up, as so many of our clothes–both in their cut and fabrics–are just trashy. But bring on the short skirts and the low necklines in their correct contexts! A little décolleté at an evening event is not necessarily inappropriate. A short skirt to cover your bathing suit on the way to the beach is adorable! I think all of these modesty maniacs should have to watch Project Runway and hear Michael Kors and Nina Garcia harping on designers that “if the skirt is short, you can’t have a low neckline as well!” Are you cold? Put on more clothes. Can you not walk more than ten steps in those shoes? Put on lower heels! Can you not sit down or walk up stairs without holding your hemline against your bum? For heaven’s sake, that skirt is too short!
    Go forth, young woman, and wear pretty clothes! Pretty clothes for pretty young women should always be the rule! My mom always told me to enjoy the clothes of youth while I could wear them!

  • Also, everyone should go read this sweet post by my mom from last week. http://eileenand9.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/relationship-and-obedience/

  • Heather

    This is so well written, and I’m grateful to you for sharing it. You always give me much to think about. Keep it up!

  • So good… 😀 There are so many problems with how my siblings and I were taught about dress and sin… it’s all quite bad. For me it got to the point where I understood that my relationship with God was completely dependent on one area of my life, and for a long time I felt so bad about it that I didn’t take communion. As usual, you have written quite well on the topic!

  • Laura

    Hi Hannah,
    I came across this post on Facebook through a mutual friend. Writing about this topic seems like such a daunting task to me for so many reasons, yet you wrote beautifully and clearly. Thanks for sharing! Loved it

  • Steve

    a very well written piece and you are a lovely young woman. I would point out however that every concern and problem you raised from being in a conservative church which taught modesty exists in churches that do not teach it, and churches that are flat out liberal, and in totally secular schools. These are the problems and reactions of teens finding their place in the world and dealing with all the things you mentioned. I would also point out that regardless of all the various reasons that folks teach modesty the only valid one comes from Love. Paul, after explaining the Christian’s liberty to eat foods sacrificed to idols, defines self sacrificial love in 1 Corinthians 8:7

    “However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. 8 But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. 9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? 11 For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. 12 And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.”

    Modesty attempted for any other reason is legalism. Modesty for the love of your brother who might be tempted and harmed is to your Glory. Modesty for any reason at all, however accomplishes the same end, which is that fewer men will stumble over the one who is modest.

    • Hi Steve! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I would agree with you in the majority of what you’re saying, although I would like it clear that modesty for the sake of a lower proportion of men stumbling in lust isn’t the right reason. Love is, but we women are not ultimately responsible for their actions and trying to inspire or generate increased holiness isn’t our job. That belongs to the Holy Spirit.

      • Steve

        Being modest or immodest neither causes men to stumble nor liberates them from lust. If you understand the teaching of modesty to place a burden of guilt or accusation upon a woman because men are prone to lust after immodestly clothed women, then I think the real purpose of a woman choosing to honor God and care for her brother in Christ has been lost in the translation. It is not legalistic for a young lady to Love God and her brother enough to make a choice to seek attractive modest clothes that reveal a woman of high character rather than dress like a woman who simply seeks attention. Where the law of love is applied, a woman sees herself as her brothers keeper (as does a man his sister) and seeks to structure her entire existence around caring for others. A female friend said it this way, dressing immodestly is like eating chocolate cake in front of a person who must live gluten free. Technically the person who eats the cake is perfectly within his rights to do so, but is it kind? Is it loving? Are you being considerate of your neighbor and his weakness? Christian love says let us not use our liberty as an occasion to cause others to stumble. Please understand that a man will notice a woman’s beauty if she wears a burlap sack or a thong bikini. He may or may not lust after her. What her attire tells him is that she is a woman of good character or not and what she thinks of herself.

      • Nikki

        Steve, let’s go along with that chocolate cake idea. So let’s instead go into a corner and hide with the chocolate cake so as not to offended the gluten free eater OR we could just make sure to never eat gluten around them at all just around everyone else. Does this not encourage a double life?

        Instead we could as believers love all gluten free and chocolate cake eaters and love each other right where we are instead of only feeling love for someone if they do or don’t respect our life choices. I love my friends best that I KNOW don’t believe in God but respect me because I respect them rather than those that aren’t respecting how I live no matter what they think is right.

      • Nikki

        And I am going to say one more thing: this statement offended me and I am not sure how many others, “choice to seek attractive modest clothes that reveal a woman of high character rather than dress like a woman who simply seeks attention”… you think clothes communicate very highly sometimes when I wear sweats I try to dress like a woman of high character. All sarcasm aside, there are not just two categories of dress and I am not trying to seek attention with my dress but also not trying to be a woman of high character in how I dress. I put on clothes because I like them or because I have to wear them. I let my character speak for itself.

        • Steve

          Nikki I am sorry you were offended. I think you have misunderstood what I said or perhaps just don’t like that a woman’s attire will convey a message. Certainly if I met you for the first time in sweats, it would mean very little. Similarly if you were wearing a push-up bra and an extra deep v-neck along with the sweats, It would convey a very strong message. If I met you for the 15th time, and all I ever saw you in was sweats, a whole different message would be conveyed. The message you intend to send may not be the same as the message I receive, but a message will be sent.

          All that aside I must simply say that modesty is a means of conveying love for others and respect for yourself. I have seen women dress modestly in $10 worth of sweats and in thousand dollar evening gowns, Modesty isn’t the type or style or cost or even attractiveness of an item, but rather the message that is conveyed by the woman wearing the item. Modesty is a character trait.

          Finally, if you ask me as a Christian to believe that modesty is unbiblical, or that we aren’t to be concerned with our brothers/sisters in Christ who will observe our behavior and may be led astray by it, I would ask you to prove it from the Scriptures…in context…from a literal translation…without adding your opinion.

  • I very much appreciate your insight here. I am a member of an SGM church and I have frequently spoken out on this topic. I have long disagreed with the idea that it is the woman’s responsibility to prevent lust in a man. This is, by the way, the attitude expressed in Islam and the reason why woman must excessively cover themselves. I have observed Christian women and girls judging one another for the type of bathing suit they do or don’t wear. Of course, we forgot that any of our suits (one-piece or two piece) would have been considered shockingly immodest just a few decades ago. I am so saddened to see the damage some of these ideas have caused in the young men and women in our churches.

    • EMSoliDeoGloria

      Amen Deirdre. As an adult woman, I could never feel comfortable going swimming at church retreats for just the reason you cite. In fact, the pool was usually the place where the dads and young kids played. Rarely was a woman seen in a swimsuit in the pool. Did I want to? Yes. But I was both from a background where this type of modesty was emphasized and in a church where protecting brothers was mentioned in, if not the focus of, almost every women’s talk.

  • Ann King

    Hannah,
    I agree with you that modesty is a heart issue and not a set of rules! It is being appropriate and reverent for the occasion. 🙂 I’m sorry that your church made things confusing for you growing up and hope that you don’t think all churches are like that. 🙂 You might really enjoy watching Joseph Prince. God told him to preach God’s grace to his people. If you were raised in a very legalistic church, he might have some sermons that would minister to you.

    I’m glad you have found freedom in Christ. 🙂 Enjoy being pretty! 🙂

    what is a SGM church?

  • I really appreciate that you addressed this topic!! You’ve put things into words that I have felt and been aware of for a long time, yet haven’t been able to express. I grew up in a very similar environment and faced these exact issues. Thank you! I’m glad to have a clearer understanding of how to approach these things in a healthier way for my (someday) children and young girls I know. This was such helpful wisdom!!

  • Nikki

    Good things to think about. Another interesting thought is where in the Bible does it say for any Christian to be making modesty or any other kind of decisions for another person? That is another church issue… thinking God and your/my relationship and convictions together is the same as the next persons convictions. Christians should really mind their own businesses. Loving each other is one thing but judging each is a whole different matter. That’s why so many people I know have left church because too many people where telling them how they should live for God instead of loving them RIGHT where they are at!

    Thank you for letting me get out my speel as well. <3

  • Jamie Duguid

    I am tuning in as promised! This post is very helpful, and I agree that the modesty standards you mention go beyond Scripture and bind consciences. I do wonder, however, if we should entirely dismiss the idea that we should consider ourselves partially responsible for how others respond to our choices of attire. As a general principle, I would say that while the sinner is primarily responsible for his own sin, others can also bear partial responsibility in some cases. Of course, the devil is in the details: sometimes a second party is clearly highly responsible (i.e. someone who incites a mob to violence), and sometimes a second party is clearly not responsible at all (i.e. a car manufacturer for someone who uses their car to commit a crime), but there is a lot of grey in the territory between these two extremes. The specific applications of this principle you have mentioned seem to me to be unwise, but is there no case at all in which this principle could be validly applied to how we choose to dress? If it can be applied, where is the line to be drawn? This would seem to me to be the hard question…

  • Thank you so much for writing this. I wish I could walk down the hallway and drink your coffee and talk to you about this for an hour.

    1. Josh had the opposite issue from Kevin’s in high school. Although lust was occasionally discussed in boys’ circles and premarital sex was a no-no, things like pornography weren’t ever mentioned in his youth group. This apparently was due to older youth leaders having no idea how prevalent these things had become.

    Maybe the ideal is something like awareness and warnings, along with an atmosphere for discussion and grace and challenges, without the obsession that Kevin encountered.

    2. Although my parents fed me a steady diet of purity books, I didn’t really encounter the checklist brand of purity until college. In high school, friends criticized me for being old fashioned and not showing enough of myself. In college, the same “ultra-modest” clothes were deemed not modest enough, and often rudely. Comments like “I hope that’s not what you wore to class” and “Your boyfriend won’t be able to handle that” (and for loose-fitting outfits that covered) were normal and expected.

    What eventually seemed apparent was that offending and ostracizing a sister was not half as bad as taking the chance of hurting a brother.

    I still feel pretty BA when I wear those clothes.

  • Saxon @ Let’s Drink Coffee, Da

    I was “spiritually corrected” by a girl just a few weeks ago for a shirt that she seemed to think was too low cut…while my husband and I both thought it was just fine. Having once lived out this culture, as you have, it angers me like nothing else when people try to impose on me the freedom from modesty legalism that I have finally found. I love how you described modesty as wearing “what fits the occasion and is respectable.”

    I’m not from a homeschooling background, but many of your stories are so very relevant to the spiritual perceptions that I truly believe are seeping into mainstream Christian culture…I really see it all over the place. A great example is that video called “the evolution of the bathing suit.”

  • Anne Elise

    I felt a real relief after reading this post: my friend and I have been struggling with our views on the church and its assumptions on gender roles for a VERY long time.
    When I was a sophomore in highschool, my etiquette teacher handed out those exact ‘modesty checklists’ to me and my friends. It made me feel embarrassed, ashamed, even, despite the fact that I have NEVER dressed immodestly. It was ridiculous. Really? I shouldn’t wear a cross-body bag, or even a SEATBELT without it potentially tempting a man? It was silly, but I never got any conformation of my views on the subject. So, thank you for this blog. It’s really a breath of fresh air.

  • LukeNC

    this is an older thread but I’d like to add the following verse to the convo:

    Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. ~ Romans 14:22

    Believers should get to the point where they are not condemned by what they choose to do and feel is right. Yes, be mindful about the ‘weaker’ brothers but only within reason. For example, if I invite someone to my home who was redeemed from alcoholism, I am not going to drink beer in front of them. Yet, I myself have no condemnation over having a beer if I’m out somewhere with other friends even though there MIGHT be someone struggling with alcohol out there who sees me having one.

    In Matthews 5:28, Jesus said to looketh on a woman to lust after her is adultery. It is not the looking on that is the sin, it is the lusting that is. The lusting is to want to have. It is the ‘intent’ that is the problem, not mere sensual thoughts. The ‘lust’ would therefore be the attempt to have or a desire to be with that particular person. You can lust no matter how a person is dressed. Looking on someone is not the same as lusting after someone.

    Further, in assuming that all men struggle with lust and thereby deciding to dress modestly because of that, we have collectivized men and become prejudicial towards them — this is sin too.

    Modesty is a heart issue. It is humility expressed with love. It is not a dress code. I believe women should wear what they want to wear.

  • Xen

    I’m glad I came across your blog. It explains the strange behavior that Christian men around here exhibit. They can’t be my friends because they’re taught that any relationship with women is sexual in nature. They can’t even put a hand of comfort on our shoulders when something bad happens because they think they’ll fall into sin.

    It also explains my friend’s behavior. She hates that she is female and hates all other women. It’s sad, we’re all terribly repressed. I understand better now that God didn’t want it this way.

  • Wow. I can relate with so much of that. Thankfully, my home life wasn’t really like that but the youth group that I grew up in taught me all of the same crap. In many ways, I feel like I’m still healing and finding freedom. Thank you for writing such an honest post.

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