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.

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.

Some bloggers have gone so far as to link Christian modesty culture to rape culture. Bechtel writes, "when women are responsible for how men mentally use their bodies, it's not a far from there to making women responsible for, or at least complicit in, how men physically use their bodies." "Kelly," the pseudonymous author of a blog called Imperfect Homemaking, writes, "How much of a leap is it to go from, 'Don't wear a bikini on the beach because you will cause men to lust after you' to, 'Of course she was raped, did you see that dress she was wearing? She was practically asking for it'?"

When one in five women in this country reports being raped or sexually assaulted, and when paltry systems of recourse exist for women on many college campuses and military bases, the church must speak out against anything that justifies rape and sexual assault. Especially anything emerging from its own ranks. Still, I wonder if Christians—and all people of faith—can find a way to recover modesty and the virtue behind it. In the long tradition of the church, modesty is not ultimately about lists of appropriate attire or figuring out who's to blame for sexual transgressions. Rather, modesty is about a person, male or female, choosing to foster an inner spirit of humility and dignity, and communicating that in outward, culturally contextualized symbols of dress and behavior.

Read together, Rey's proposal and the reactions to it offer a modesty ethic that avoids blaming women for men's sexual misbehavior (or, in Christian parlance, "for making a brother stumble"). 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. In Rey's words, this is "the power to be treated as an equal, to be seen as in control, and to be taken seriously. It seems the kind of power [women] are searching for is more attainable when they dress modestly."

Of course, men of all stripes will continue acting like the ones in the Princeton study, ogling women whether they wear bikinis or burqas. And it will take more than clusters of women donning one-piece swimsuits to counteract things like Porn Star t-shirts for six-year-olds and American Apparel ads (the ones supposedly for women, that is). When it comes to the pervasive sexualization of women and girls in Western culture, change needs to occur at the top levels of corporate leadership and political power. But it can also begin at the level of personal choice. Many women have an enormous amount of agency in choosing what they wear or don't wear, in a variety of social contexts. Women can conscientiously signal, via symbolic dress, that their sexuality is only a piece of their personhood. Sure, a one-piece swimsuit will go only so far in stemming the tide of female objectification. But it may be a start.