I often heard, growing up, that dressing modestly wasn’t about rules, it was about the heart attitude. In other words, if you were focused on the right thing—on God—you would naturally dress modestly, without having to run through a list of rules. You wouldn’t even think about wearing short shorts, or showing your midriff, or wearing clothing that accentuates your bust.
Of course, all of this ignores the fact that dressing in unapproved ways does not actually require intent to lead young men astray. Because that’s the argument, isn’t it—that women wear revealing clothing out of an explicit desire to attract male attention? But that’s frequently not the case. I wear tank tops every day when it’s warm enough not because I want to lead men astray but rather because I find sleeves extremely uncomfortable. I personally like clingy clothing, but not because it accentuates my figure—I like it because it’s what feels most comfortable to me.
It’s not dressing “immodestly” that takes conscious thought and intent, it’s dressing “modestly.” As a result, attempts to claim that evangelical purity culture’s modesty standards aren’t “legalism” or rules-based are at base hollow.
I was struck by a recent post by blogger Kate Schell. In it, she tried to explain, for outsiders, what the non-rule modestly rules look like, in practice. Here is how she explained what it looks like for the girls inside:
- Shorts must be longer than your fingertips.
- Actually, shorts must reach your knees.
- Actually, go for capris.
- Actually, go for full-length pants. Not too tight, though.
- Trousers are preferable to jeans. Denim is worldly and a result of the sexual revolution. (Unless it’s a jean skirt. Those are okay, and proof that you can be modest and fashionable!)
- Actually, wear skirts instead of pants, because they disguise your leg shape and convey your femininity in a society where gender roles are confused and people can’t tell the difference between men and women, much less the sheep and the goats; like the nation of Israel of old, we are a sanctified people and our wardrobes must reflect this spiritual and cultural separation.
- Skirts shouldn’t be form-fitting or made of a clingy fabric.
- Skirts shouldn’t be frumpy, because God created women to be beautiful.
- Tight enough to show you’re a woman, loose enough to show you’re a lady.
- No slits. If you can’t find a skirt without a slit, add a kick-pleat, slip, or underskirt.
- Skirts must be longer than your fingertips.
- Actually, skirts must reach your knees.
- Actually, skirts must reach your calves.
- Actually, skirts must reach your ankles.
- Wear socks or leggings under your skirt to make sure all your skin is covered, especially if you are going to bend over, jog about, or climb stairs.
- Make sure your tights or leggings aren’t patterned or colorful, because that will draw attention to your gams, and gams make your brothers-in-Christ stumble.
- Actually, don’t wear leggings at all, because they are too tight.
- Same with yoga pants.
- And skinny jeans.
- Don’t wear pajamas publicly, because boys will imagine you in bed, then having sex with you in your bed.
- Don’t stretch your body, because boys will imagine you moving your body in other ways.
- Don’t run when males are around, because your breasts might bounce.
- Don’t hug males, because boobs.
- Actually, handshake.
- Distant wave. From your gender-specific sidewalk.
- Don’t wear a bikini.
- Don’t wear a tankini.
- Don’t wear a one piece with cutouts or thin straps or any ornamentation around your, um, danger zones.
- Don’t wear a one-piece without shorts.
- Don’t wear a one-piece without shorts and a T-shirt.
- You may wear a one-piece without shorts or a T-shirt if it is retro. There was no lust in the ’50s.
- Actually, just don’t swim when males are present.
Her list goes on—and on—and on.
Existing within the conservative evangelical purity culture as a female-bodies person means constantly thinking about clothing, words, and body movements, scrutinizing whether any of these may give a young man the wrong idea. Was I too open in my conversation? Could I be perceived as flirting? I dropped something—how can I bend over in a way that does not draw attention to my figure?
And of course, all of this is against the backdrop of adult scrutiny. If Sarah’s mom thinks you’re provocative in your interaction with young men—if you smile too freely or laugh to unguardedly—she may not only limit your interaction with her sons but also spread the word to other moms. If you’re not careful, you could get a reputation as a loose woman.
The modesty teachings—they’re not so simple, really.