Growing up, almost everything I was taught about modesty revolved around the idea that girls need to cover up their bodies to make it easier for guys to have clean thoughts. That has caused a lot of women to feel bitter about the topic, expressing that it’s unfair that their dress styles should be dictated by the inability of men to control their own minds.
The way I understand it, men and womens’ brains are wired completely differently, and I believe there’s a lot of good scientific research to back that up. But that’s not the point of this article. I believe we need to completely reevaluate what modesty means to us, and I have some suggestions for how we can apply the principle of modesty equally to both men and women.
My studies have convinced me that modesty is so much more than an outfit—modesty is a lifestyle. After studying modesty, I now cringe when I hear it being described as an issue primarily for girls and women. I believe that men need to consider their own modesty just as often as women should consider theirs (but probably not in the way you think).
Arousal—A Poor Measure of Modesty
If we believe the goal of modesty is to simply “not arouse others,” then it makes a person’s modesty extremely subjective. That would essentially mean that a person is “modest” according to those who are unaroused and “immodest” according to those who are aroused.
What good does it do to have a goal of being modest if everybody else gets to determine whether we have achieved our own goal?
I personally don’t believe arousal is a great yardstick for measuring modesty. Here’s an extreme example to illustrate my point…
If arousal was truly the measure of modesty, then it would theoretically be possible that some incredibly beautiful people would potentially be perpetually “immodest”, even if they were almost completely and thoroughly covered. On the other hand, it’s possible that someone who completely destroys their body through unhealthy eating, drugs, sleep deprivation, hideous piercings, and nasty tattoos, etc., could theoretically wear nothing and still be modest because they would be unattractive to virtually every soul on earth.
If attractiveness or arousal is really our yardstick for modesty, then we have ultimately destroyed all meaning and usefulness of the word. I suggest we use a better yardstick.
Disclaimer: According to what I found, the aspect of modesty that deals with purity and decency is still legitimate, I just think we’ve emphasized and exaggerated that element to the point we’re losing some of the most important meaning of the word. I agree with what Dr. Kimber says about how the way women dress can do a lot to help men “let virtue garnish [their] thoughts unceasingly,” and I think that aspect will be accounted for if we are really being considerate of others (as described below). When I say, “My studies have convinced me that modesty is so much more than an outfit—modesty is a lifestyle,” I’m saying that modesty encompasses considering what attracts the attention of others and making a decision to use that influence morally and respectfully and so much more.
Modesty as a Personality Trait
I did a topic study on modesty a few years ago and was surprised to learn that my understanding of modesty encompassed only a tiny portion of what the word actually means.
As far as I can tell, the word modesty began to be used in the 1530s and meant “freedom from exaggeration, self-control” (from Middle French modestie or directly from Latin modestia), “moderation, sense of honor, correctness of conduct” (from modestus), “moderate, keeping due measure, sober, gentle, temperate” (from modus “measure, manner”, and from PIE root *med- “take appropriate measures”).
It was later used in the 1550s to mean the “quality of having a moderate opinion of oneself, retiring demeanor, disinclination to presumption, unobtrusiveness”.
It wasn’t until years later in the 1560s that it began to be used to describe “womanly propriety, purity or delicacy of thought or manner“. That means that the most common meaning we apply to the word modesty, referring to purity and propriety of dress, didn’t come about until decades after the term was initially used.
This is very significant to me. The word modesty was initially used to describe our demeanor and conversation—the way we carry and speak about ourselves—decades before it started being used to describe dress styles and the effect of clothing on our thoughts. Ironically, the latter definition is what we most often lean on when we have these extremely awkward conversations about how girls dress.
If modesty is to be a goal, we really need to have a common understanding of exactly what that means.
Modesty vs Humility
As I explained earlier, I believe that arousal is a useless measure of modesty. I personally prefer to use the earlier definitions of modesty which primarily refer to our demeanor and conversation. This understanding of modesty doesn’t necessarily remove the need to discuss outfits, but I believe it should change how we have that conversation.
If we are trying to be modest, I suggest that we change the question we ask ourselves as we choose our clothes. Consider the differences between these questions:
- If I wear this in public, will somebody be aroused?
- If I wear/drive/carry/use this in public, will I spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about myself and what others think of me? Does this outfit/car/jewelry/ allow me to turn my attention outwards or cause me to turn inwards and think about myself? Could this outfit lead others to focus too much on me, and not enough on those around me who might need more attention and love?
The first question places the judgment of modesty on other people. The second set of questions causes us, first and foremost, to be honest with ourselves. The first question focuses exclusively on clothing while the second allows us to evaluate our true intentions and tendencies regarding anything that might cause us to be proud, boastful, or self-aggrandizing.
Have you ever been really under-dressed for an important event or meeting? It’s extremely uncomfortable. In those times when I’ve been dressed very differently from others, my focus turns inwards and I’m constantly evaluating how others are responding to me. My point is that being overdressed, underdressed, or inadequately dressed can cause us to focus on ourselves which prevents us from seeing the needs of others. That, to me, is the real danger of immodesty.
There are outfits that, in my mind, are appropriate for different occasions. I would feel immodest if I work my swim trunks to a formal dinner, and I would also feel immodest if I wore a tuxedo to a friend’s casual birthday party.
I believe clothing is more of a symptom of modesty than modesty itself. A modest person is less likely to wear inappropriate clothing because they aren’t interested in boasting or wearing things that would cause them to focus on themselves.
For these reasons, I’m personally more concerned about what our dress styles do to us than what they do to others.
On the other hand, the way we dress, talk, or behave and what we wear, drive, or use around others can, in a very real way, fuel feelings of failure and discouragement in others. For some people, what they wear or drive, etc., really doesn’t cause them to turn inwards in most situations. However, in the same way boasting can lead others to have feelings of inadequacy, the material things in life—whether that means our clothes, boats, cars, jets, etc.—can make it easy for others to become discouraged as they give in to human nature and make comparisons.
Some may argue that’s simply their problem and they shouldn’t make comparisons. We could say, “Just get some self-confidence and stop focusing on others.” But I have come to believe there’s a better way.
In high school, I fell in love with exercise. I loved the feeling of being physically fit. For most of my life, I was a twig and people made fun of me for being scrawny. I honestly don’t know what my BMI was because I got a “Body fat is unreadable” error on the machines I used to test. After working out for about a year, I was proud of my accomplishments and the way I had bulked up. I was excited that I would probably never be teased again for my size. I wore clothes that made it clear that I had been working out, partially to prove a point and to earn some respect. Looking back, I’m grateful that my dad pulled me aside and asked me how other young men we knew might feel about themselves if I were dressed that way around them. Some guys I knew simply couldn’t put on muscle the way I could, and my dad wanted me to be considerate of them. He didn’t ask me to stop working out, he simply asked me to be more considerate of others in the way I dressed.
A close friend once told me that when she got married, she wanted to have a modest wedding ring that was beautiful but simple enough that she would never have to be uncomfortable or self-conscious if she was visiting families who lived in total poverty. That’s what modesty has come to mean to me.
Some Final Thoughts
I still believe in the principle of dress to impress, mainly because I believe God wants us to get married and be a positive influence to others. Developing a good sense of humor, being charismatic, dressing well, having good hygiene, etc., help us to become more influential and I think that’s a good thing. But I like how the Church has taught us to avoid extremes in appearance. They’ve emphasized the point that we shouldn’t dress or groom in a way that makes it difficult for others to focus on each others’ eyes. If we are underdressed, its easy to turn inwards. If we are overdressed, we often turn inwards. If we are dressed well for that occasion, we can be confident but also not be distracted from really paying attention to other people. I don’t believe it’s wrong to dress in a way that makes you feel confident as long as your being considerate, in the best sense of the word.
I’m still trying to work through the exact relationship between modesty and humility. Could we say that modesty is humility in action? If I understate something about an accomplishment of mine and someone says, “Come on, don’t be so modest!” They’re obviously not telling me to change my clothes. I think over the years we’ve become hyper-focused on one aspect of modesty and we’ve lost some of the most important meaning.
A friend suggested, “A modest person isn’t comfortable being immodest.” I like that thought and I’m going to chew on it a bit more.
At its core, modesty is about humility, not sensuality.
Modesty is about being considerate of others, not boasting, and not dressing or using material possessions in a way that would cause us to focus on ourselves.
Modesty is about compassionately considering how what we say, wear, drive, or use might affect others.
Modesty, as I understand it, applies equally to both men and women, old and young, attractive and unattractive. Modesty helps us turn outwards the way Jesus Christ would.