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Topless and Totally Modest

How does culture effect the modesty conversation?

Here it is, our third post of thoughts about modesty. So far we’ve talked about intention and legalism in modesty (“Bikinis are not immodest”), as well as taking a careful look at whether or not the opinions of others can be the deciding factor of modesty (“Modest or Immodest: A Handy Guide to Telling the Difference”). Today we’re going to explore the role of culture in determining what is modest.

After college I had this European friend who was absolutely baffled when we all went to the lake, because someone told her it was immodest to take off her bikini top. She had grown up her entire life going to the beach and wearing just the bottom of her bikini, and it was strange, weird and even disconcerting that people found that offensive.

“It makes people think about sex,” someone told her.

“Just because I take my top off doesn’t mean I’m planning to have sex.”

She’s not alone.

Many of our taboos related to modesty, sex and appropriateness are not based in morality, a moral code or from reading the Bible, but rather in our culture. There have been plenty of comments related to my recent article, bikinis are not immodest, which say things like “it’s self evident” that bikinis are immodest, or inappropriate, or indecent. That “self evident” bit is because we’re talking about cultural values.

You can tell when cultural values are the deciding factor in something when people say something that starts with these words: “Most people.”

Most people know that bikinis are immodest.

Most men have sexual thoughts when they see Outfit X.

Everyone knows that being topless is inappropriate.

(Someone trying to argue with me at this point might say: “Most people breathe.” But the point here is to focus on what “most people” believe. Majority belief reveals worldview, which is a deep-seated part of culture. Even statements like “Most people believe the sky is blue” reveals culture. Is the sky blue at night? At sunset? During a storm? “The sky is blue” is cultural shorthand, not a reflection of reality as such.)

Now, what happened with my European friend when she came to the United States? She is a modest person (meaning she has modesty as a character trait). She came to the realization that being topless with her conservative Christian friends at the beach was communicating something other than what she meant to communicate. So she put on a bikini top (no doubt she had to buy one). She did not come to the conclusion that being topless was immodest. In fact, she was pretty annoyed about the whole thing.

The majority of Americans would agree that being topless while swimming is immodest.

The majority of Europeans, I’m guessing, have no problem with being topless at the beach.

In many tribal and/or tropical cultures, women go topless throughout the day (just like the men). In their culture, this is neither immodest nor in any way sexual.

We human beings have a habit of assuming “our culture” is better than “their culture.” This is called “ethnocentricity” and it has shaped a lot of things in our modern day world. Take, for instance, these many tribal and tropical cultures which, at one time, did not think of being topless as sexual in any way. For a woman to show her breasts in public was roughly equivalent to me showing my hands in public: it was a part of the anatomy that might be used in the sex act but was not in any way private or inappropriate.

One thing that happened as western “colonial” culture spread, was what is called “cultural imperialism.” This means that “our” culture went into “their” culture and said, “You are doing it wrong. MOST PEOPLE know that being topless is immodest. So you need to start wearing shirts or dresses or blouses or something.” We had the power (through force, influence, or trade) to enforce “them” adopting “our” cultural mandates.

This certainly created confusion and conflict. Take, for instance, this story from the 1950s about missionaries to the Congo trying to convince the Christianized tribes that their women needed to wear blouses. The chief told the missionaries that only prostitutes wore blouses (as everyone knows!). The chief had no interest in dressing his entire tribe like prostitutes. Or in the same passage we hear about a chief who wanted to make sure legs were completely covered, because legs are unquestionably sexual.

But we told them that Good People always wore tops. Because… our culture said so.

Not because the Bible says so. I’ve heard people say the Bible teaches that bikinis are immodest, or yoga pants, or short skirts, or tight clothes, when actually the Bible never mentions any of those things. More on this in the next article, where we’ll take a look at what the Bible does say about modesty.

The bent of rule-based modesty is always toward restriction. That’s what rules do best, tell us what’s off limits. Typically, we allow cultural values to influence our dress and behavior (i.e. making “modesty” decisions based on how most people will respond to our outfits).

So, for instance, when I lived in Asia it was considered immodest for women to wear shorts before a certain time of year. So our whole team knew not to wear shorts at that time. We quickly (maybe not happily) adopted the cultural norm. However, in the same culture it was considered perfectly fine for women to wear thin, transparent shirts, because it was so hot. We never had a conversation about, “Oh hey, everyone, it’s perfectly fine for the ladies on the team to wear thin, transparent shirts.”

That’s because our bias in rule-based modesty is toward restriction.

If we’re going to adopt the stricter thoughts on modesty in a culture, it seems that adopting the less strict thoughts in that same culture would be a valid choice.

Now, for those who say that it’s clear what is modest or immodest based on the response of “most people,” we have to acknowledge that means we’re making adaptations for the sake of the culture. That’s fine, but let’s remember that culture shifts and changes, which means that our standard of modest dress and behavior will also shift. “But,” you say, “couldn’t we just stick to our current definition of modesty even if the culture changes?”

Okay, sure. We said that our standard now is what “most people” would think. To “freeze” our modesty standards means that suddenly it doesn’t matter what “most people” think, and we’ve moved completely away from the idea that modesty is about “others” and we’ve embraced instead that modesty is about rules. About the law. About legalism. This is a valid choice, but please remember that the “rules” you have adopted are not about “sin” or “righteousness” but rather about conformity to a cultural modesty standard that has since changed.

One more issue to consider as we think about the ramifications of culture on definitions of modesty. If you live in the United States (and many other places, but particularly the U.S.), then you live in a pluralistic culture. It’s “multi-cultural.” It’s getting increasingly difficult to make broad cultural assumptions. In a large city, a woman might walk through a Hassidic Jewish neighborhood, turn right at Chinatown and make her way from there to a large multi-national business run by Brazillians and staffed mostly by white Americans. To try to wear one outfit that fits the modesty expectations of each of those cultures is, to say the least, complicated.

This is called a “burkini.” They’re becoming popular in parts of Europe right now.

Likewise, in an organization like the one I’m in, which has workers all over the United States. When we come together for an all-staff meeting in Colorado every two years and some of us hang out by the pool, there is likely to be some cultural clash. I grew up in California, and bikinis were a common fashion choice for women at the beach. They weren’t particularly controversial or lust-inducing or immodest culturally. Now that might change even in California if you went to a private Christian school, or to “church camp.” But generally in California it just wasn’t a big deal. Now maybe someone else grew up in, I don’t know, Kentucky. Maybe in Kentucky “nice girls” only wear one piece swimsuits (I literally don’t know… I do know that people from the South are more likely to have strong opinions on this than people from the west coast). Their cultural value will say that bikinis are immodest.

So what do we do, in a culturally diverse world?

You can say, “follow the most conservative culture” but then the women will all be wearing burkas, or swimming in a women’s only pool. You can say “follow MY culture” meaning “do it the way I’m comfortable with” which is also a fine solution.

But if I do it the way “I” am comfortable with, I have to make room for “them” to do the same.

In other words, in a multi-cultural world we may very well have to make room for one another’s cultures and ways of doing things rather than trying to conform everyone to our own way of doing things. I don’t tell you that you’re too narrow if you choose not to approve of bikinis, you don’t pull my daughter aside and tell her she’s immodest when she chooses to wear one. It means if someone from the “majority culture” becomes a Christian, not forcing them to adopt Christian cultural values only for the sake of cultural assimilation.

I guess part of what I’m saying here is that on all sides of the question there needs to be a presumption of good will rather than a spirit of judgment, condemnation and horror at those who come from a different point of view.

So what am I saying? That my friend from college should be allowed to go topless? Well, like I said, she decided that the effect on people around her was a distraction and she made another choice, as a capitulation to the culture, and in deference to those who were offended.

I should hope, if we happened to be on the beaches of Europe, that we should show similar respect to her rather than judging her culture and finding it immodest according to our own cultural standards.

What do you think? I realize cultural conversations are hard, because everything inside us screams THAT IS ABSOLUTELY CRAZY instead of just quietly saying, “Huh, I disagree with that.” But I am very curious about your thoughts, feelings, feedback and questions.

Still to come:

What does the Bible say about modesty?

 Sexism in the modesty conversation


By Matt Mikalatos

Matt Mikalatos is a writer not a fighter.