“That shirt is way too tight, young lady.”
I felt my face redden, my palms sweat, my heart ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum a little faster. I now know that though she likely intended her words to protect, they sent me into what Brene Brown calls a “shame spiral,” an emotional experience dark enough that its symptoms mimic trauma, hence my tunnel vision and rapid heartbeat.
Friends and high schoolers I know have expressed similar experiences:
“I felt like a slut.”
“I felt like everyone was judging me.”
“I never wanted to go back.”
And yet why should something insignificant, commentary on clothes, trigger such a reaction?
I think I know why it did in my case. I had carefully chosen that shirt. Not with plans of seduction, but because I liked it. I felt pretty. Like the best version of myself. And then with one comment, suddenly I felt small. Dirty. Unworthy. Perhaps it was too tight—I can’t really say for sure, and my 16-year-old self was probably not known for her wisdom (though I know she was longing to please the Lord). But I can say that damage was done to my heart that day, and on several occasions prior and since.
Modesty is an important, but difficult topic. Unfortunately, too often the church has mishandled it, often behaving like those holding stones rather than the Savior who refused to throw them.
Likely each of us could piece together strong opinions on the matter. It’s easy to focus on the ineffective ways to talk about modesty: a disproportionate fixation on the appearance of purity rather than its practice, the dehumanization of women by teaching them to only view their bodies as something to hide, the failure to address men and their ultimate responsibility for their purity, the tendency to ascribe a character flaw to what may have simply been a misstep, and the list continues. When it comes to modesty, those of us who have spent time in church have probably been burned or may have done some burning. Many of us needed someone to guide us in this particular issue, but we received no guidance for fear of rock-slinging.
So how do we approach it? Can we do it in a way that honors one another as image-bearers? Can we do it in a way that reads more like a “challenge towards godliness” rather than a “you can’t sit with us”?
Dear friends, I think we can. Because we are no longer slaves to shame—the inflicting of it or the experiencing of it—and the modesty conversation does not have be wrapped in barbed wire.
- Let’s pursue the story behind the clothes. Often our clothes tell a story, but not necessarily the one we hear. A too-short skirt or a too-tight shirt may seem to scream, “I am looking for the wrong kind of attention!” but sometimes the story is “I want to fit in,” or “I want to feel beautiful,” or “nothing fits right,” or “don’t come too close.” To hear these stories, we must be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). Certainly rules are valuable—parents should outline clear expectations for their homes, student pastors for camp, etc.—but rules should not deafen us to the stories of those in our influence. We must courageously and patiently pursue the story and its mess rather than simply demanding adherence. We must aim at the heart, not the closet.
- Let’s pursue the ultimate issue and not merely its symptom. Fill your home and your discipleship relationships with conversations about purity—not as marching orders or a call to perfection (perfection is God’s job, isn’t it?), but as a brave fight against any barrier from our beautiful Savior. Talk about the overwhelming acceptance we find in Him. Together search for a deeper understanding of beauty as it’s described in 1 Peter 3:4—a “gentle and quiet spirit.” It’s the opposite of the striving the world promotes. It’s not a call to try harder—it’s a call to rest. This is our faithful shepherd leading us beside still waters. We don’t have to exhaustively search for muffin-top-free jeans—we are already done, already beautiful.
- Let’s lavishly recognize beauty in the women around us. No one needs another phony compliment, but we all need to be seen. “I saw the kind way you spoke to your husband, and that was truly beautiful.” “Your eyes always light up when you see your friends, and I love that about you.” “That color looks amazing on you, and you need to wear it forever.” When we are regularly affirming of that which is truly lovely, those around us will be more vigilant in the pursuit of it.
Like most aspects of life, when we are faithful to pursue hearts, we earn ears. Once we’ve earned one another’s ears, we will hear or be heard if God prompts one of us to prayerfully and humbly speak: “Hey, I have always been a fan of your particular brand of beautiful, and I think the length of your skirt is messing with that.” Let the clothing conversation be full of grace (Colossians 4:6), because often, for the girl who knows God, an immodest outfit is inadvertent. She is working out her salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), and missteps are part of the journey. We are all dependent on a loving Savior, who unfailingly picks us up when we fall and teaches us to walk more and more steadily.
Recently after a long day of battle with my two-year-old daughter and eleven-month-old son, I threw on leggings and t-shirt and headed to my happy place: Hobby Lobby. As we strolled, I realized a few things about my appearance: there was wayward banana smush in my hair, and my shirt must have shrunk in the wash. It was certainly not providing its usual coverage, and as such, I found myself traipsing around craft supplies committing the cardinal leggings sin: letting them act like pants. And so I tried to show up that Proverbs 31 lady and not simply laugh at the days to come but laugh at the day at hand. “Isn’t your mother devastatingly beautiful?” I whispered to the kids. And right there next to the acrylic paints, they agreed.