Toward a New Understanding of Modesty

For the past several months, a group of Christian writers have been debating the value and meaning of dressing modestly--a conversation that is relevant even to people who aren't part of religious communities.
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Actress, designer, and former White Power Ranger Jessica Rey has a mission: to get as many women as possible in one-piece swimsuits. Owner of the "vintage-inspired swimsuit line" Rey Swimwear, Rey appeared in L.A. this April at the annual Q Conference, a gathering for Christians to discuss "ideas for the common good." In her nine-minute talk, "The Evolution of the Swimsuit," she traced the trajectory from the days when women traveled down to the beach in a "bathing machine," to today, when 36 square inches of Lycra barely incite a blink.

Rey believes that the now-ubiquitous bikini hurts women. She cited a 2009 study conducted by Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske that asked 21 undergraduate heterosexual men to look at photos of fully clothed women, then look at photos of bikini-clad women. Fiske noted that the bikini images activated the men's brain regions associated with tools, or "things you manipulate with your hands." While some commenters noted that the images in the Princeton study were headless (thus already depersonalized), to Rey the study proved that the effects of the bikini are dire in a hypersexualized culture: "Wearing a bikini...shut[s] down a man's ability to see her as a person." In order to preserve their personhood, Rey said, women should dress more modestly. "Modesty isn't about covering up our bodies because they're bad. Modesty isn't about hiding ourselves. It's about revealing our dignity." First step? Buy a Rey Swimwear--tagline, "who says it has to be itsy-bitsy?"--swimsuit.

Rey's interest in modesty likely seems strange to someone who's not part of a religious community. When modesty appears in mainstream Western media today, it follows the standard dictionary definition: a humble attitude. Such was the meaning in recent headlines about deceased pro football player Art Donovan and Pope Francis's week in Brazil. And yet the current modesty debate among evangelical Christians might actually have something to offer beyond its own ranks. Rey's talk and the various reactions to it this summer offer women a model for counteracting the troubling sexualization of women and especially girls across the media and consumer landscape. When even kids' board games get "sexy" makeovers and lingerie brands spin off teen lines and feminist scholars see advertising's treatment of women only getting worse, modesty may help women take their sexual presentation into their own hands--with a less-is-more ethic.

The reaction to Rey's talk has unfolded all summer long, showing that many Christians both really care about modesty and yet are still trying to define it. In particular, some Rey critics say that she and other modesty advocates are focused on the wrong thing: on how women's clothing affects men. Rachel Held Evans, a popular evangelical blogger and the author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, wrote that Rey's modesty pitch is like the squeaky-clean flipside of the Cosmo coin. "While popular culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to get men to look at them, the modesty culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to keep men from looking at them," said Evans at the Q Ideas website. "In both cases, the impetus is placed on the woman to accommodate her clothing or her body to the (varied and culturally relative) expectations of men."

Christian feminist Liz Boltz Ranfeld criticized Rey for what seemed like a simplistic answer to the pervasive problem of objectification: "If you're going to address the problems of objectification and sexualization of all female bodies, it's going to take a lot more than bathing suits made out of slightly more material." Christian author Caryn Rivadeneira reacted similarly in a post on Christianity Today's website: "Those who are 'worried' about the male reaction to the female form need to remember that men will still find women in conservative, one-piece, adorable Jessica Rey swimsuits sexy, while not every woman in a bikini will be a turn-on. There's no hard-and-fast-rule for how we guard our beach bods from the male gaze."

That evangelicals are keyed into questions about objectification and the male gaze suggests a maturing of the way Christians think and talk about modesty, one clued in to the essential concerns of feminism. Blogger Abi Bechtel recently deconstructed traditional modesty doctrine for teaching women "that they are responsible for 'helping' their brothers in Christ to not think lustfully about them, mainly by dressing in a way that doesn't cause the men who see them to have lustful or sexual thoughts about them." She referenced two troubling examples of modesty culture gone awry. In one, brothers Alex and Brett Harris, founders of The Rebelution (as in, "rebel against low expectations"), conduct a "modesty survey" of over 1,600 fellow Christians guys to find out what they really think about swimsuits, undergarments, and "girls who purposely flaunt their body." The results were, to paraphrase: "Immodest women are nasty." In the other, popular Christian author and speaker Dannah Gresh created a "Truth or Bare" test for girls as young as 8. (The test was apparently updated earlier this year, but earlier versions are cited here.) In both, Christian tweens and teens are sadly learning that female bodies are irresistibly distracting, and thus women must cover up lest something bad happen.

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Katelyn Beaty is managing editor of Christianity Today magazine

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