Smokin’ Hot Conversations: Elizabeth Morrow on Modesty

All summer long, I’ll be running a series of guest posts here on the blog called “Smokin’ Hot Conversations.” These will be posts about gender, relationships, power, and the church, meant to move us to deeper reflection and conversation about the often distracting or harmful messages in Christian culture. Elizabeth Morrow joins us this week with a post about modesty messages in the church, which often become harmful and may even perpetuate rape culture. She’s a style blogger from Tacoma, WA, and she also does graphic design and photography. Learn more about her here.

And if you’d like to contribute to this series, drop me a line.

A style blogger navigates the waters of modesty, rape culture, and responsibility. For real, you guys.

Elizabeth Morrow

Lately the concept of modesty has been on my mind. Between current events like the Stubenville rape case and pieces like Zach’s Smokin’ Hot Wives post, and the stories of countless women experiencing rape culture and objectification, modesty is a concept that seems to be subtly at the center of things.

I don’t think about modesty on a daily basis these days, as modesty isn’t something I strive for when I’m getting dressed, but the idea of modest dressing seems to be brought up whenever the topic of rape is brought up. How much cleavage was showing? Was her skirt long enough? Were here heels too high?

When I was in high school modesty was something I thought about a lot more. Going to a Christian school, the dress code was a frequent topic of conversation. It was pretty lax, not really too much more strict than any of the public high schools – we didn’t have to wear uniforms or slacks and turtlenecks or anything. And, let’s be honest, living in Alaska it wasn’t really that hard to abide by it. There was no way in hell I was going to try and wear a mini skirt and tube top when the weather outside was below zero. There were a few girls who tended to dress more in that mode, however, and would have to change their outfits at school to fit the code.

But ever since the days of the code, thoughts about modesty have at least been percolating in the back of my mind. And, more and more I’m coming to believe that modesty, as a value, can be particularly harmful to women for many reasons. This isn’t to say that modesty is inherently bad – but handled poorly it can leave women saddled with deep shame.

Getting dressed, stumbling brothers, and sexual beasts.

High school is such a strange time to navigate the waters of understanding beauty, love, sexuality, and relationships, and yet, that’s exactly when we start learning about it all. In high school I wouldn’t wear makeup. I didn’t want a boy to like me because of my make-upped appearance, only to be disappointed by my bare face. When I went to college I started becoming more creative in the way I dressed, and started wearing some makeup. Not because I figured it would make me more apt to land a man, but because I liked wearing it. It made me feel beautiful, not for men, not for women, but for me. I didn’t care if an outfit was immodest to some because I wasn’t dressing for anybody but myself. Getting dressed made me feel creative and happy. It was a way to express my personality in a visual way. I could communicate something about myself to the world without saying a single word. It was empowering and I gained so much self-confidence in that time.

Honestly, I wish I could’ve viewed getting dressed that way when I was in high school.

Instead, I was trying to figure out how to keep my brothers from stumbling – which is a tall order when you consider the hormone fueled sex drive of the average 16 year old male.

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Emphasizing modesty contributes to rape culture by placing the blame on women for men’s lack of self control, when really it’s about much deeper issues of violence and power. It’s simply tragic when our culture asks, “Well, what was she wearing?” because that immediately communicates, “She was asking for it,” as if her rape was predestined by her predilection for wearing revealing clothing. But no one deserves to be raped, regardless of how they are dressed. Hell, I don’t care if she’s walking down the street naked – if you steal an unlocked car with the key in the ignition, you’re still guilty of theft.

On the flip side, emphasizing modesty tends to villainize men. It paints men as sexual beasts who are unable to control themselves if there’s T&A in their immediate vicinity. While I do know that teenage boys are definitely struggling to come to terms with a flood of hormones and overwhelming sexual desire, when we tell them that it’s not their problem to overcome – rather it’s the woman’s problem to cover up – it implies that it’s not important for them to develop the ability to restrain their eyes and thoughts. It also feeds the lie that men are only interested in a woman’s body, and teaches girls that their most valuable asset is their bodies, despite the fact that dressing modestly is supposed to take the focus off of their bodies.

In the same way, it downplays the importance of the beauty of a woman’s body by turning it into a taboo, rather than a beautiful creation to celebrate. We naturally feel shame about our bodies when we are told we need to cover them up. We don’t view our bodies as amazing and beautiful, but rather something shameful that needs to be hidden from sight. The female body is unparalleled in it’s beauty. Think of the nude statues and paintings by the world’s greatest artists. They are a celebration of a form that is inherently beautiful. God chose to express beauty through his creation, and the female body is one of those beautiful creations. Instead, we tell women that our bodies need covering, as they are objects of untold temptation. This undermines girls’ understanding of healthy sexuality, sensuality, and beauty. We move the female body from a breathtakingly beautiful creation by God, to a sinful, shameful temptation that must be hidden, lest our brothers in Christ, who are sexual beasts mind you, are overcome with lust!

A lady on the street, but a freak in the bed.

It gets even more confusing when you get married and all of a sudden you’re supposed to embrace your sexuality and your body is supposed to switch from being an object of shame to something beautifully pleasurable for both you and your partner. To keep pure till marriage, you’ve hidden your body and done everything you can to avoid sexual attraction. Now, your main job is sexual attraction. Attract your husband. Be the smokin’ hot wife. Be constantly sexually available. And if you’re not? Watch out, some immodest slut might steal your godly husband. So, spend 20-30 years doing all you can to be anti-sexual, hiding your beauty and sensuality, then flip a switch and be as sexually attractive as humanly possible. But only around your husband.

Like Ludacris said, “We want a lady on the street, but a freak in the bed.”

(I got exhausted just writing that.)

Let’s be honest, modesty is hyper subjective. What’s modest for a girl in public high school isn’t the same as for a girl in a private Catholic school which isn’t the same for a girl in an Amish community. What’s considered modest in a hot climate is different than what’s modest in a cold climate. There isn’t a hard and fast definition out there for what is modest. It’s an opinion that not only differs from culture to culture, but from person to person – and dramatically, at that.

To complicate matters more, women’s bodies are so radically different from one woman to the next that an outfit on one girl may be “modest” but the same outfit on another girl with a different body could look totally “immodest.” Just recently a local girl was kicked out of her prom for showing too much cleavage, despite having searched high and low for a dress that would just fit her fuller figure properly. She was told she could stay if she covered up with a shawl. The message is clear. Your body is only an object for sexual pleasure. You must cover it up.

Within the church, holding up modesty as a virtue can make judging immodest girls okay, and paints them all as “sluts,” sexually promiscuous, and un-Christian. It places low value on them automatically because there’s no way “immodest” can be painted in a positive light. It is a negative word by design. Women who dress modestly, with the intention of not tempting their brothers in Christ, can start to acquire a sense of superiority and self-righteousness and look down on the “slutty” immodest girls who are causing all the men to stumble. And really, what does that accomplish, other than creating pain, anger, and separation? Does that attitude make the “immodest” woman want to listen to the opinion of the “modest” woman and become more modest? I’m going to guess that if you feel judged by another person, you probably want nothing to do with them, much less sit and listen to them talk about how you need to change your ways and be more modest. When an environment of judgment is created, relationships are broken and open discussion is almost impossible. When we approach one another with respect and seek understanding, doors are opened.

So, in light of all this smokin’ hot conversation, let me make a modest proposal.

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think that modesty, while it’s complex and often gets mixed up with a bunch of other issues, has value, especially for younger girls in junior high and high school. It’s important to communicate that you shouldn’t have to show cleavage or wear a short skirt to get a guy’s attention. Your body is NOT your most important asset. We place a lot of importance on bodies in our culture, and there is a crap-ton of shame and guilt that surrounds the cultural view of women’s bodies (just look at the epidemic of eating disorders). But a lasting relationship is ultimately going to have very little to do with a hot body. We need to move beyond Victoria Secret ads and porn depictions and start thinking about our bodies in a new way.

Our bodies are beautiful and incredible. They are strong, full-figured, slender, curvy, miraculous, naturally sensual, and capable of producing life itself! Even down to the amazing functions our bodies perform second by second, our bodies are so much more than flat abs and perky boobs. Yeah, modesty is a damaged word with a lot of confusing messages. So we should begin with the message that you are worthy of love, love that isn’t conditional on hotness, that your body is a beautiful thing that is desirable and powerful, and that a relationship should have a much stronger foundation than physical attraction. Then, we can begin to acknowledge that appearance is, in fact, a powerful thing, and what we wear (or don’t wear) can absolutely have an effect on men. And sometimes the wearer knows this and is trying to get that attention, that attraction, that reaction.

However, what a man chooses to do at that point is fully the man’s responsibility. He can choose to turn someone into an object of sexual desire, or he can choose to move past his feelings of sexual desire and see through someone’s appearance and experience the image of God, the beautiful creation God has made. I’m not saying it’s not difficult, but it’s worth it not only for the man’s purity, but for the woman as well. To show her dignity and respect. Because she is God’s creation, and Christ died for her. What more do we need to convince us that she is worthy of more than objectification?

Sexuality is already so confusing. So much weight is placed on it, and women feel most of that weight, especially considering that sexuality for a woman involves that whole baby-making thing. Women deal with the stress of balancing between “prude” and “whore,” something men by and large have no issue with. Modesty is often one more weight that is placed on women, shouldering them with the task of keeping not only themselves sexually pure, but keeping men from even thinking about them in a sexual way. I not only have to manage my own thoughts and feelings about sex and my body, but I’m given the task of keeping the thoughts of men around me on the straight and narrow as well.

So here’s my proposal: Instead of stressing modesty, let’s stress responsibility.

Responsibility, not only for women, but for men as well.

Responsibility for your actions, your thoughts, your appearance, your attitude, and your speech.

Because in the end, that’s what you can control.


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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • Amy Thedinga

    When I was in high school the church youth group would go to water parks or have pool parties.  The boys could wear regular swim attire, but the women had to wear a one piece bathing suit with shorts AND a (non-white) t-shirt over it.  As a result, I grew up with a total complex about my body.  The complex Elizabeth has identified about feeling that your body is a “slutty penis trap” to borrow Suzannah’s words. 
    I love this statement that Elizabeth makes:  “There isn’t a hard and fast definition out there for what is modest”.  I don’t want my daughter to be thinking about boys at all when she’s getting dressed.  Not whether she’s trying to attract them or prevent them from stumbling.  I want her to wear what makes her feel beautiful and confident and like the princess she is.
    Thanks for a great blog Elizabeth and Zach.

  • uponacloud

    This is me pre during and kind of post eating disorder > Getting dressed made me feel creative and happy. It was a way to express my personality in a visual way. I could communicate something about myself to the world without saying a single word. It was empowering and I gained so much self-confidence in that time.

  • Elizabeth | Delightfully tacky

    Amy Thedinga “Slutty Penis Trap” OMG.  Right?

  • Bev Murrill

    Fantastic. Really sensible and intelligent answer to so much of the claptrap that is has been put out there all these years.

  • AndyHogue

    Elizabeth | Delightfully tacky Amy Thedinga  No, not “OMG.”  Start honoring God and you’ll begin to understand why the Bible teaches modesty.

  • zachhoag

    AndyHogue Elizabeth | Delightfully tacky Amy Thedinga Andy, why do you assume that these two women are not honoring God? Are you just reacting to the edgy phrase or something more substantial in their posts?

  • uponacloud

    zachhoag AndyHogue Elizabeth | Delightfully tacky Amy Thedinga I suppose it’s the OMG but I may be mistaken…
    I can’t remember any part of the Bible in which modesty is defined in the way we are calling out here by the way. It’s much deeper than cover yourself so a man won’t lust after you.

  • RyanPendell

    Good thoughts. I think you’re right that modesty conversations often reduce men’s psychology to sexuality, just as much as they reduce women’s bodies to sexuality. People just seem to accept that men are just sexual–and that there’s no heart, no deep feeling behind those sexual thoughts.
    The older I get, the more I see how men’s sexual issues are often not about sex. Men look to sex for comfort, to escape loneliness, to avoid anger, to deal with stress, to find control in a world where they often feel powerless. Sexual fantasies are often consolations for completely non-sexual frustrations. If a man is driven to sexual thoughts, it’s usually because there’s something else in his life that he’s trying to avoid. He feels stuck, trapped. 
    When men have rewarding work, meaningful projects, good friendships, and a sense of power in their lives, they are much less vulnerable to sexual fantasy. Often when you find out about the politician/pastor who had an affair, you find out that they felt incredibly isolated and friendless.