Now I've opened a can of worms! Modesty in dress is a contentious topic. I have found myself on multiple sides of the issue in my own life.
As a Christian, I was raised with the message that modesty was important. In fact, as a young teen, I took the idea much farther than my parents did. I remember refusing to show my knees... ever. My mom told me that I was being legalistic and should at least consider wearing shorts sometimes, and I was so conflicted about it that I wrote a letter to a Christian teen magazine asking what to do when my desire to be modest was in conflict with the commandment to honor my parents. (The advice columnist responded saying that she wasn't sure why I had chosen to set an arbitrary limit on how much leg to show, but she believed I should have an open dialogue with my mom. She also said that if Mom made me wear shorts, I should obey, and God would credit my virtuous desire to honor Him in the predicament!)
Now, I did not belong to the kind of religious community that puts all the burden of sexual control on girls (thank God!!). There are those who argue that a woman must cover up all her flesh because showing it entices men. "Causes your brother to stumble" is the phrase that many young Christian women are bludgeoned with. This is both sad and unfair. For one thing, it denies men their agency, and for another it amounts to control of the women by men, which is not consistent with our Christian liberty.
I once spoke to a girl who told me that she had been admonished not to show her shape at all, not even with princess seams or darts, because she was the caretaker of her Christian brothers' sexual purity. All talk of modesty and morality in her youth group centered on how girls should dress. When she realized that many of these boys whose purity she was safeguarding by wearing baggy clothes were actually consuming internet porn, she felt betrayed and hurt. Here she was trying so hard to protect them from lust and they were diving right into it elsewhere!
I need not get into a long diatribe about how men are responsible for their actions, and nothing a woman wears justifies or excuses sexual abuse, licentious talk, cat-calling, objectification, et cetera. Suffice to say that I am a feminist. All people deserve respectful treatment, because we are all created in the image of God. Degrading other people is degrading the image of God, in ourselves and in our victims. It's never right, and human history is replete with examples of the consequences. So men need to respect women, and women to respect men, and people respect people.
Note that "respect" doesn't mean the same as "esteem"... and this leads to another convolution in the question of modesty in dress. I have often heard, and used to propound, the argument that dressing modestly is a way of earning "respect" from the opposite sex. It sounds empowering--merely by picking the right clothes, you can control how others treat you! Go you! But is this feeling of empowerment based in reality? Maybe men think well of a woman who dresses "decently" and think ill of a woman who doesn't. But "thinking well" is esteem. Respect is a pattern of actions, and can be present regardless of esteem. The fact is that everyone's definitions of modest dressing vary, and we can't control how people think of us, but those people can control how they treat us. No, I now believe the idea of modesty as a way of getting respect is just a cleaned up version of the aforementioned guilt trip. Because if you control how people treat you by how you dress, then you must be responsible for all the people who treat you ill. Did that guy disrespect you? Well, what were you wearing?! And back we cycle around. Still not a solid argument for modesty.
As a young adult, I loosened my teenaged restrictions on dress. For one thing, I noticed that I had nice legs, and I enjoyed showing them and feeling pretty (while, of course, being flustered and befuddled to receive attention for them!). I wore cute little pencil skirts to the office. Perhaps they were a bit too short... or too tight. When I stood up they were at mid thigh, but when I sat I needed to clamp my knees shut and put something on my lap for decency. Around the same time, I experimented with high heels, and suffered inconveniences because of them, too. (Did you know that if your heels are high enough, it can be rather difficult to open heavy doors, because you can't get a strong stance?) But I looked cute, right?
I never took immodest dressing to an extreme, but some people do, and sometimes they call that empowerment. If by the clothes you wear you can provoke reactions in others (outrage, lust, amusement, whatever), doesn't that mean you have power? But I can't help but think that the same argument as above must apply here, too: we are responsible for our actions, but not other people's feelings about them. So if I strut down the street in lingerie and men lust after me, I don't have power over them: their lust does. If they hate me for my sinfulness (or their own), I am not responsible for their hatred: they are. Whether they flirt or throw rocks, they are responsible for their actions. So the only "empowerment" I have is the empowerment of getting dressed in the morning, which I had anyway. I don't see sexy dressing as a sign of empowerment. It's just the same level of personal liberty as modest dressing.
The pendulum having swung both ways in my heart and wardrobe, it finally stabilized in the middle, where it now rests. I have no problem showing my knees, but I do consider how tight the skirt will be and whether it'll stay decent when I bend over or sit. But I still muse on the question of what modest dressing is and why it's desirable. So here, in no particular order, are some of my reasons for preferring modest clothes:
That last point could bear some expansion: I do not think wearing more is a sign of my subjection to others, but of my choice to regard what makes them comfortable. I think most of us know what the minimums of decency are in our own cultures, and meeting or exceeding those minimums is a way of creating a more comfortable environment for the people around us. For the same reason that we don't curse in front of mothers and small children, we shouldn't dress inappropriately in front of them either. But "appropriate" varies with culture. In France, men wear tiny Speedos on the beach, but most of America considers that lewd, so American men usually go for shorts instead. In America in general, bare arms are inoffensive, but in some churches, they must be covered.
Insofar as modest dressing opens more doors to me than immodest dressing, it may even be the more "empowering" option.
Quilting, dressmaking, and history plied with the needle...
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