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. Earlier this week I asked a question about whether modesty can be redeemed, and I loved Melinda Cadwallader’s answer. So she joins us this week to expand on her view of redeeming modesty, especially in light of being a parent. Melinda is a blogger and co-leads a ministry with her husband. Learn more about her here.
And if you’d like to contribute to this series, drop me a line.
Redeeming modesty, you say? Let’s get naked.
Let’s get naked.
Go ahead, take it all off. Strip down to the bare natural. It’s time to get raw and real about our bodies.
As your clothes hit the floor, let everything else fall with it, every single negative word ever spoken to you about your body – too tall; too short; too fat; too thin; too fit; too flabby; too beautiful; too ugly; too curvy; too gangly; too busty; too flat. Every lie that has veiled your eyes, heart and thoughts. Every hurt, offense, harassment, or ridicule directed at your physical being. LET. IT. GO.
Now look at yourself in a full length mirror and take it all in. What is your first response? I hear some giggling and snickering, but I also hear a sigh signaling a tear revealing grief. It is in this moment of complete shedding that we are able to remove all the garbage of what we believe to be true about our physical bodies, and begin to build a foundation of what God says about us, his precious creation.
I have wrestled with issues of modesty my entire life. At a very young age, I was cornered on the playground by older girls at my Christian school. They demanded I show them my bra because they were convinced I was stuffing it (enter: jealousy, insecurity, and intimidation). Then there was the infamous one-piece bathing suit rule in middle school, followed by the no-strapless-dress rule at senior prom. Interestingly, with the latter there was an exception clause for skinny girls because, supposedly, they didn’t have anything to potentially expose thereby drawing too much attention. I mean, that’s what it all really came down to in our Christian culture bubble – modesty equals the measures we take to ensure that no sign of skin, curve, or form becomes a potential snag for those who are probably already steeped in their own sense of self-loathing.
After so many years wasted whining about wearing bras, along with the drama of finding jeans that actually fit my curvy shape, and the hassle of putting on more clothes to please others when the weather is suggesting a more comfortable ensemble, I gave up on this loaded, ridiculous idea of modesty.
It was not until I stepped into the full knowledge and understanding of what my body is – its magnificent design, the power and life that I am able to give because of its created form – that I began to feel modesty could be redeemed. Really, it was the reality of being a mom. It was the call to lead my daughters into a healthy picture of modesty.
So, I’m committed to pursuing a new vision of modesty. If health is defined as a condition of optimal well-being, then modesty lies in the health of those who hold it. Healthy modesty says, Your body is created in the image of God, every organ, every nerve, every vessel – every detail is designed for great purpose. Healthy modesty says, Your body is created to move, to give life, to express love, and function at its greatest capacity. Healthy modesty does not inflict shame or guilt, but allows grace and authority to stand tall.
When I was the director of cosmetology at a beauty institute, the general age range of our students was 18-25, and it was mainly women. One of our tasks was to instill a sense of professionalism, which would almost always play out in how our students presented themselves to their guests. We never said, “This is the way to dress”; we simply said, “This is who you are: you are capable, you are educated, and you are a professional.” The outcome of speaking life in this way was much more than just a positive picture of self-respect – it was a posture of worth, value, and greater purpose.
My breasts, being larger than my classmates, were always an area of shame for me. They bounced when I ran, so I stopped running. They were heavy, so the bras got larger and uglier. Yay. Tank tops had to be a certain strap width to hide the hideous mom-bra. And then the only body parts that did get complimented or praised were my “strong calves.” Double Yay. Every young girl’s dream is to have her “big calves” complimented frequently. Still, my calves became something that I was proud of. Capris, shorts and skirts suited me well and kept the compliments coming, especially from the popular guys.
After my first child, I watched my body contort back to a “not-even-close-to-the-same-kind-of” shape, which brought a sad longing for the beautiful body I used to have. Nursing in public was embarrassing, inconvenient, and absolutely unwelcome by most. But before giving birth to my third child, I took a class on natural childbirth. I became educated about the strength, power, wonder, and awe that my whole body contains. I finally understood the full and complete process of birth and how our bodies are designed for this incredible journey of bringing life into the world, as well as sustaining that life. Funny, how a “new age” midwife who doesn’t fit the Christian mold was able to express a deeper understanding of the power and beauty the human body possesses than anything I’d ever heard in my church culture. My posture and perspective completely shifted. (Go ahead and cue REM’s Losing My Religion.)
So here’s how it is now. My 14 year old daughter is told she is beautiful, daily, by both me and her father. We take the initiative to point out all of her lovely features as equally as we do her beautiful character. It is intentional. My 5 year old daughter continually asks if she looks beautiful in her all her fancy dress-ups, and we always answer, “Absolutely stunning!” With her as well, we complement those compliments with ideas of beauty being found in the words we use, the love we show, and the integrity we hold. It is intentional.
The most powerful way that we as followers of Jesus can reclaim a spirit of modesty is to reclaim our own healthy view of our bodies. The all-too-common lowly sinner mentality casts a shadow of shame upon our bodies as we cling to the remembrance of past failures or simply hurtful cultural messages. The misconception of humility keeps us thinking less of ourselves and our bodies, when true humility is deep security in ourselves so that we can focus on fully loving and valuing others.
My daughters are being raised to stand in authority as daughters of a King. This is a heightened sense of worth and incredible value that is greater than anything this world can ever offer. Their posture is erect with a confident faith. There is a strong perception that the power of God, the very power that raised Christ from the dead, is living inside them. Their presence and influence in this world is powerful and limitless. If this was the standard set for all children, would we even have to load on these rule-based, shame-filled weights of modesty and decency at all?
I grew up with all girls and my first two children were girls. When I had my son I was to the moon about it. Full disclosure: I became enamored with his penis. No really, in total seriousness and respect toward the human body, I had simply never seen a baby boy naked, nor watched a little boy grow up; it was all a mystery to me! And all those years of “covering up for the Lord” left me kind of intrigued by this little man. He is 2 ½ now, and I’ll tell you what, I have so much more respect for the male species now that I understand their bodies and how they were created. If this last paragraph makes you uncomfortable, I apologize – but don’t you see? That’s just it! We are unable to celebrate the human body without offending someone who doesn’t find it worthy of celebrating!
How about this: instead of projecting a cloud of doom over your daughter when she menstruates for the first time, consider it an opportunity to explain why her body does this, what it really means, and celebrate that rite of passage! Instead of lopping off the foreskin because that’s what your parents did and all your friends do, consider the purpose of the decision, and then stand on it. Instead of fighting over issues of modesty with rules and regulations and measurements, consider speaking about the dignity and worth that our bodies possess, and the full authority we have to walk in it.
It’s called living intentionally. Living with a conscious standard for yourself and your family will bear healthy fruit. And that health will become visible in all kinds of ways – through clothing, media, language, vocation, relationships, marriage, parenting, faith, etc. And that health might even earn the moniker of modesty in some of its manifestations. And that’s good. That’s modesty redeemed, because it’s rooted in the body’s inherent beauty, not shame.
Really, this kind of modesty is a standard born out of seeing how God values us, and responding by valuing ourselves.
And it’s never a standard we try to impose upon others.
In the words of Rachel Held Evans from her brilliant post this week:
Our bodies are not something to be overcome; they are not dirty or shameful or inherently tempting. They are a beautiful part of what it means to be created in the image of God. These are the bodies that allow us to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, the bodies that feel sun on our skin and sand between our toes, the bodies that nurse babies and cry with friends, the bodies that emerge from the waters of baptism and feast on the bread of communion. They are beautiful, and they are good.