Bikinis are not immodest. Yoga pants are not immodest. Lingerie is not immodest. Nudity is not immodest.
And I can prove it.
The most common definitions of modesty involve two things: sex and other people. Take, for instance, the definition currently up at Wikipedia: “Modesty is a mode of dress and deportment intended to avoid encouraging sexual attraction in others.”
This definition is flawed, which will become clear in the posts to come. But let’s start here and see where it takes us. It’s certainly the unspoken definition in the Christian circles I run in.
So. Bikinis. I have three daughters, and I interact constantly in Christian culture. I grew up in it. I know very well that when packing for summer camp there will be a line in there about “modest swimwear” followed by the parenthesis (one-piece). There is a Bible verse somewhere that says, “Thou shalt not wear the shameful swimwear of two pieces. Nay, thou must wear only the swimwear of one piece, and it shall cover all thy secret parts and behold, a vast expanse between them shalt thou also cover.”
I met a college student recently who had recently become a follower of Jesus, and she had been told to bring a “one piece” swimsuit to a Christian event. She was shocked that everyone was so judgmental and angry about her swimsuit, a sexy one piece with a thin strip of cloth in the center, held together with a metal ring. “Not all one-pieces are modest,” I hear you say. Well, yes, that’s true. Let’s remember that: not all one-pieces are modest.
But let’s get to the topic at hand: bikinis.
As I said, I have three daughters, and I have never been so thankful for bikinis as I was when they were toddlers. If you’ve ever tried to peel a wet swimsuit off a three-year-old while they are shouting, “I have to peeeeeeeee” you know that bikinis are one of the greatest parenting inventions of all time.
Surely we can agree that a three-year-old in a bikini is not “encouraging sexual attraction.” It’s a question of pragmatism, comfort, maybe style (it’s hard for toddlers to resist outfits with rainbows, unicorns and kittens on them). So bikinis aren’t necessarily immodest. Right?
So what about yoga pants? I’ve heard there’s a hard and fast rule about yoga pants that they are immodest and no one should wear them outside a yoga studio.
Okay. But they’re fine in a yoga studio? So they’re not immodest in that particular situation. Which means there may be other situations in which they’re modest?
For instance, I’ve talked to more than one young mom who has told me that after giving birth the only pants that feel comfortable are yoga pants. They were afraid to wear them because they didn’t want to “cause anyone to stumble.” I don’t think a mom, worn out and physically brutalized by giving birth, suddenly becomes immodest by sliding on a pair of yoga pants.
Yeah, but lingerie. Surely we can agree that’s immodest.
I don’t think so. Do you think it’s immodest for a young woman to wear lingerie on her Honeymoon? No?
What about nudity? Definitely immodest. Unless… I don’t know, what if you take off your clothes for a doctor’s appointment? I’ve been naked with strangers in such a situation, and I guarantee you it wasn’t sexy, immodest or remotely fun.
So you’re saying the situation matters, I guess. That clothing in and of itself can’t be modest or immodest. But that means there is no such thing as a “modest swimsuit” or even a “modest outfit.” A bikini might be modest depending on who wears it and where and when.
You’re saying that the intention of the wearer matters. Because getting naked for the doctor isn’t about modesty. Because a woman on her Honeymoon could be modest wearing lingerie or even naked. She could even be attempting to arouse sexual attraction in her husband, which strikes a weak spot in the definition above, doesn’t it?
You’re saying that rules are insufficient to define modesty. Ah. Interesting. So a bikini might be modest. A low-cut blouse or a short skirt might be modest. A long, conservative dress might be immodest. We don’t know. We’re uncertain, because there aren’t effective, consistent rules laying it all out.
So, how can we tell if something is modest or not?
One of the basic problems, one of the basic flaws with our thoughts about modesty is that clothing can’t be modest or immodest anymore than it can be brave or righteous or intelligent. Clothing has no character.
Modesty is about us. It’s about our character or lack of it. It’s not about our clothes. Modesty is a character trait, not a set of behaviors.
That’s what the next post will be about: how to tell if you are modestly dressed. We’ll try out a new definition of modesty and see if it works, and try a couple thought experiments on the topic.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with this post? Why? What else do you want to talk about related to modesty? Do you have any: Questions? Thoughts? Angry diatribes?
Here are later posts in the series:
Topless and Totally Modest (a look at culture’s effect on modesty)