This week we shared two pieces about the culture of shame around women’s bodies, especially purity culture within the church. Each piece mentions the importance of modesty in church culture, where women are encouraged to dress and behave in a particular ‘appropriate’ way. The reasons behind women’s modesty vary from loving to nefarious, but the general expression of this idea often leads women to feel unable to express themselves. This same ‘modesty’ or ‘purity’ culture was historically used to ban menstruating women from church and to silence those women who might desire to speak up.
By controlling women’s bodies in this way, we are effectively reducing the female body to a sexual commodity. The way we treat women differs depending on what they’re wearing or how they present themselves. Women are also encouraged to judge and disparage other women for their clothing, body types, or dance moves. Our judgment of women is already cast before their mouths have even opened.
This is not to say that men are never judged by their clothing. Church attending males often feel pressure to conform to the usual masculine clothing norms. But it is rarer that they are judged by the sexiness of their appearances before they are given the opportunity to speak. There is also not this tension between needing to be physically attractive to a future spouse and requiring modest dress. Men’s clothes are not designed to be either sexy or modest, whereas women's wardrobes often are. As Boriana put it: Once the ring is on, we are expected to magically transform into sexual beings for our partner.
“But, 1 Timothy 2 mentions how women should dress modestly! It’s biblical!” True, Timothy does tell women to dress modestly when attending church, but not because they are distracting lustful men. Not because there is something wrong with women's bodies, or that they should be hidden from wandering eyes. Women are called to dress in a way that reflects their hearts, to dress in moderation because they are not there to impress others, but to commune with God. The ‘modest’ dress in this situation doesn’t look any one way, but is an individual expression of humbling ourselves before God. A woman can be covered up and not dressed modestly if she is dressed that way to show superiority. This also applies to men.
Women are called to dress in a way that reflects their hearts, to dress in moderation because they are not there to impress others, but to commune with God.
Breaking free not only from wardrobe related restrictions but also from the mindset that a woman should be judged first by what she looks like, is imperative to move towards gender equity. As Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” The responsibility for lust is in the eye of the beholder, and so we should be teaching the beholder to fall in love with a woman's personality, and not lust after her clothing. Only then will women be free to express themselves as they wish.
The responsibility for lust is in the eye of the beholder, and so we should be teaching the beholder to fall in love with a woman's personality, and not lust after her clothing.
It would be great if we could reclaim modesty as a way of being. Modesty is not a physical phenomenon at all, but a way of being which stems from the acceptance and understanding that everything we have, we have because of the grace of God, and it is enough (more than enough). God sees us all as equal, regardless of what we have, what we do, and what we wear. This truth should bring us to a place of worship where we desire to accentuate those gifts and shake what our Father gave us. We should be able to love ourselves and our bodies and let others do the same as an act of worship.
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