The Modesty Conversation We Need to Be Having

One semester when I was a college student, my girlfriends and I spent our free time reading and discussing Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty: Discovering a Lost Virtue. Shalit, a Jewish philosopher, argued that a culture of sex without limits is harmful and that female modesty* is good for both women and for society as a whole.

Every week, my friends and I would spread a blanket on a sunny patch of campus grass and debate things like whether female modesty is inherent or cultural, whether modesty standards diminish or empower women, whether Shalit’s argument is consistent with the Bible’s teaching, and whether our modesty is as important as Shalit seemed to think.

Hearing about our discussion, a group of Christian guys on campus began to refer to us as “The Puritans.”

It wasn’t a compliment.

A Difficult Topic

In the 20 years since my college days, it hasn’t grown any easier to talk about female modesty. On the one hand, Christians decrying the legalism of purity culture recoil from teaching that would seek to lay out standards for dress and sexual conduct specifically aimed at women and not specifically named in Scripture. On the other hand, the unbelieving world throws off all limits for sexual self-expression and hates any attempt to correct someone’s choices. Beyond that, all of us are rightly wary of inadvertently placing responsibility for abuse on victims.

Female modesty raises questions about cultural norms, sexual differences, and biblical interpretation. For some, it also evokes guilt and shame. No wonder we’d rather ignore the subject altogether.

But every morning, women are still getting dressed. And if we don’t examine the choices we make, we fail to obey Paul’s command to “look carefully . . . how you walk” (Eph. 5:15). What’s more, if we haven’t considered how we dress, we won’t be able to help the next generation think through it either.

Opportunity for Discipleship

The mothers who approach me about modesty typically ask something like, “Should I let her wear crop tops?” or “What about bikinis?” But, while those may be the immediate questions, the deeper issue concerns what kind of people God is making us to be. And in order to help our daughters make wise choices, we need to lay a firm foundation. 

Standing at the rack of shorts and swimsuits, we have an opportunity for discipleship. The real question is not about how short or how low (though we may have to answer those along the way to be truly helpful); it’s about identity.

Shalit says that an immodestly dressed woman “is presenting herself in a way that does violence to who she really is.” What we wear tells a story about who we are. When God tailored the first clothes for Adam and Eve (clothes that, I’m convinced, were beautifully made and not at all the ragged Fred Flintstone outfits pictured in Sunday school materials), he was expressing something about who they were: fallen and yet tenderly cared for by God. And everything we’ve pulled out of our closets in the generations since ought to tell a similar story.

As mothers talking to daughters and as older women encouraging younger women, we have an opportunity to shape not merely hemlines or necklines but people with undying souls. When we call young women to remember who they are, it will help them decide what to wear.

Get Dressed. Tell a True Story.

Consider five truths about our identity that can help women (young and old) get dressed.

1. You are not your own.

“You are not your own,” writes Paul, “for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19–20). Whatever we do with our bodies must be done with the acknowledgment that our bodies are not our own. To the child of God, the outfit choices on the rack are not without limits. We have an opportunity to point our daughters to the privilege of selecting clothing with an eye to glorifying God in the world. Because he created and redeemed us, we dress—and do everything else—to honor him.

Megan Hill
Megan Hill
Megan Hill is a pastor’s wife living in Massachusetts and an editor for The Gospel Coalition. She is the author of several books, including: Partners in the Gospel: 50 Meditations for Pastors’ and Elders’ Wives (P&R, April 2021) and A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church (Crossway, May 2020). She belongs to West Springfield Covenant Community Church (PCA). You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram.

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