On modesty — an open letter to the ladies

by Michael Fischer

Question: I'm sure you ladies have all been taught on the subject of modesty and the need to cover yourselves, but how many of you can name a good, solid reason why this is so? Something stronger than "my Great-Aunt Matilda would get the vapors if she saw me in a short skirt" or "the pastor's wife told me so"?

Modesty is a word and a concept that men almost never deal with. Modesty in women's dress and appearance has always been a "women's issue," which makes sense, given the sensitive nature of some aspects of it. The idea, apparently, is that mothers will teach modesty to their own daughters, and newly saved women will be taught by the older women of the church, in accordance with Titus 2:3-5 —

Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, 4 so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored. (emphasis added)
The trouble is that the message doesn't seem to be getting out. Walk into most churches and you'll see women dressed pretty much like they'd dress in the workplace or in the local mall, which is to say, they aren't quite as modest as you'd hope to find in a church. I don't believe that the average Christian woman is willfully dressing in an inappropriate way. I think the problem is that they haven't been taught what they need to know. This is especially the case with teens and twenty-something ladies. This letter is not an exhaustive teaching on the subject of modesty, just on certain aspects of it that have not been properly taught in the past. I'm not saying this is anyone's fault. I'm only saying that a problem exists, somebody needs to address it, and I'm somebody. If you don't think I ought to be dealing with this issue, then stop reading now.

There is no shortage of books on the subject of modesty, if you want to find them. I've read a couple of them myself, and most of them make some good points. But they all have one thing in common: they were written by women, for women, to teach to other women, with no male input to speak of. That would be fine if modesty were just an issue that affects women. But because one of the critical reasons for modesty is the way a woman's appearance can affect a man, it seems like a serious oversight not to get some male perspective. I am not a woman, so according to the usual rules, I should not be teaching "women's issues" to women. But I am very well qualified to write on the subject of what men are like. That's what women need to know, that's what they aren't being taught, and that's what I'm going to address in this letter.

For starters, allow me to shock any feminists among you by pointing out a critical fact: men and women are different. We were made different by God, our bodies are different, we think differently, we feel differently, and we react to things differently. Here are a few significant differences, and this list doesn't even begin to scratch the surface:

These differences are not cultural, and they are not learned behavior. Men everywhere are pretty much the same, and women everywhere are pretty much the same. Yes, you can find exceptions if you look for them. But that's what they are — exceptions, not the rule.

These facts are foundational to understand the rest of this letter. That's because, if you don't accept that men and women are different, then you won't accept the key points that I'm about to make. There are two other critical differences between men and women, differences that don't get talked about very much. This is because men aren't supposed to talk to women about them, and women don't realize that the differences exist, because no one has taught them. And that is because their teachers (other women) don't realize that the differences exist, either. I'd like to break that cycle of unawareness and make you aware of these issues, which I call "what every Christian guy wishes women knew about men."

Warning: To explain these critical differences, I'm going to have to touch briefly on some delicate male/female subjects. I'm going to be as discreet as I can. But if I'm too discreet and use too many euphemisms, you won't know what I'm talking about. So I'm going to be explicitly discreet, or discreetly explicit. There's nothing in this letter that would be inappropriate for any girl in her teens, as long as she and her parents have had "the talk" about the basic facts of sexuality. I encourage parents (which mostly means the mothers, in this case) to read this with their teen girls and discuss it with them, rather than turn the teens loose to read it on their own. The mothers may learn something, too. It might also be a good idea for the fathers to sit down with their daughters and make sure they understand that this information is true and important, if they haven't already done so.

Anyway, on to the two critical differences. They are (a) a man's hormones run on a hair-trigger compared to a woman's, and (b) that hair-trigger is just as connected to a man's sense of sight as to his sense of touch.

In practical terms, this is what it means. In order for a woman to be fully ready to enjoy physical intimacy, it usually takes a minimum of 15-20 minutes of very personal touching. A man can be just as aroused in one minute or less, just from looking at you. This can happen even if you're fully clothed, if your clothing reveals too much of the parts of you that we like to look at.

Women are not mentally wired to understand this. The speed and intensity of a man's hormonal reaction, and the way the mere sight of a woman can be the trigger, is utterly alien to a woman's way of thinking. If I try to explain that a man gets actual physical pleasure from looking at a woman, the same level of pleasure as if she were caressing him, most women will think something like, "That can't be right. That makes no sense. I must be misunderstanding him, or he wrote it wrong somehow." Please believe me when I tell you, this is the truth. I am not a weirdo; all men are like this. (If you doubt me, pick a few men you know well, and ask them if this is so.) A comedian once said, "If you women knew what we men were thinking about when we look at you, you would not stop slapping us." Our nature is to be hormone-soaked beasts whose minds dive into the gutter at the first provocation.

Consider this statistic: the average adult woman thinks about physical intimacy about once every 24 hours. Take the time that the average man spends thinking about physical intimacy, spread it across a 24-hour day, and it works out to about once every 59 seconds. Not minutes, seconds. And with a teenaged boy, it's about once every 17 seconds. And those thoughts aren't of the "hey, lookin' good" kind. I'm talking about explicit X-rated fantasies. The person who made the slapping comment also said that the difference between a woman's sexual thoughts and a man's is like the difference between throwing a bullet and shooting it. And one look is all it takes to get us going.

The world knows this. That's why TV commercials are full of bikini babes selling tropical vacations, and miniskirt babes selling beer, and low-cleavage babes selling cars and jewelry, and tight-jeans babes selling major appliances. None of the stuff they're selling has anything to do with the women in the commercials. But they know that, as soon as a pretty woman who isn't fully covered appears on the TV, most of the male audience is going to be glued to the screen, eyes bugging out, maybe drooling a little. And when those males are out and about, and they see the stuff that's being sold, they'll have a flashback to how good it felt to watch that commercial, and voila! Sold!

Of course, that's not how we're supposed to think. Jesus explicitly forbade Christian men from letting their minds plunge into that kind of abyss in Matthew 5:27-28 —

"You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
Looking at women with lust is what we men do naturally, but that is not how God wants men to conduct themselves. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Godly men are supposed to guard our eyes and our minds from all temptations, including the ones we're talking about here. Our job is to keep ourselves pure in thought and deed. But our old nature persists in trying to take us down that evil road.

One unguarded moment, one quick glance is all it takes. We men have to remain on our guard whenever we're in the workplace, or in the mall, or on the street, or even in Home Depot. We never know when our eyes are going to land on a bit of woman flesh we shouldn't be looking at, and if we aren't ready to rein in our imagination at any given moment, that imagination will run away from us before we know what happened. It really is a 24/7 struggle. The last thing we need is to walk into church, which is supposed to be a safe haven from the world's temptations, and find ourselves confronted with those same temptations in the form of our sisters in Christ.

Let me be clear on one point: no man can blame a woman for what he's thinking about, no matter how she's dressed. If a man looks at a woman and thinks himself a thought that he should not be thinking, then he alone is responsible before God to take that sin to the cross, confess it, and repent of it. We are all commanded to exercise self-control, which is an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). There is no room for blame-shifting in Christianity; God didn't take it from Adam (Gen 3:12,17) and He won't take it from us.

Another point to keep in mind is that there's nothing wrong with a wife using her appearance to please her own husband. Actually, this is a very good thing, as the Song of Solomon makes clear. But wives shouldn't be drawing that kind of reaction from other women's husbands, or from single men. There are clothes you might wear in the privacy of your own home, for your husband's eyes only, that you wouldn't dream of wearing elsewhere. No problem. In fact, your husband will bless you for it.

But there's another Scriptural principle that comes into play here, and that's found in Romans 14:13 —

Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this — not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother's way.
That's the woman's portion of the responsibility in this issue. If you dress in such a way that men are likely to sin in their minds as a result of looking at you, then you are putting a stumbling block in their path, and you have made yourself a transgressor. That's something you'll have to take to the cross yourself and make right.

Some women, to be sure, dress themselves as a feast for men's eyes on purpose. There are those who do it to reassure themselves that they've still "got it," whatever "it" might be. Others enjoy the feelings of power and superiority they get from inducing men to stare, salivate, and walk into lampposts. But a Christian woman should not choose either of these paths. If you love your brothers in Christ, why would you want to tempt them to sin? You wouldn't.

Other women, particularly the young and the newly saved, may ask, "But if I don't look good, how will I catch a man's attention?" First off, I'm not suggesting that you make yourselves ugly; that's not a Biblical commandment. But beware — if you dangle that kind of bait, you have no control over what kind of fish will bite. Do you want a 15-year-old boy with greasy hair and an "I [heart] Death Metal" T-shirt staring at you and thinking sexual thoughts about you? Do you want a 50-year-old man staring at you and thinking sexual thoughts about you? For that matter, do you want a woman who likes women staring at you and thinking sexual thoughts about you? If, on the other hand, you want to catch the eye of a Godly man, you'll do a much better job of it if you look like a Godly woman, one who keeps her charms under wraps so her appearance doesn't distract anyone from Jesus.

Now, if Baptists were allowed to bet, I'd bet a large sum of money that some of you ladies are reading this and thinking, "That's all well and good, but I've seen myself in the mirror, and no man would ever think that way about me." For some reason, women are their own worst critics. In this area, false modesty can do almost as much harm as pride, because it can trick you into thinking that this issue doesn't apply to you. If you think you can't be a stumblingblock to men, then you won't consider making any changes in your appearance that might be necessary. But even if your weight, shape, or complexion isn't what you see in the magazines, it's more than likely you're still attractive enough to catch our eyes in ways that you wouldn't want, and the issue does, indeed, apply to you. Trust me on this one — I'm a man and I know how men think. You don't have to look like the fantasy girls on the covers of Cosmo magazine; sometimes, just the fact that you're a woman is all it takes.

So what's the solution? The Muslims solve the problem by completely covering their women from head to toe, so the men won't be tempted, to the point where you can't even tell if the sweating, suffering, dehumanized souls inside those heavy, shapeless garments are male or female. I once visited a church where all the young women wore what looked like burlap bags with sleeves sewn on. They were modest, to be sure, but they were also the most unappealing ladies' garments I've ever seen in my life, and they made the young ladies look pretty awful, too. God never commanded any such thing. But somewhere between a burqa and a bikini, there has to be a way for women to dress so they can look like women, but not start a five-alarm fire in the loins of every man who glances at them.

The basic principles of modest dress are pretty well known, of course, so I won't bore you with an enormous list of the ways you can transgress. Rule #1 is that you don't show too much of yourself, and you're probably familiar with the common problems with women's clothing in that regard —

All of the above are a bad idea for a Christian woman in any public context, but the low necklines seem to be the most common issue. Don't ignore this issue just because you don't resemble a swimsuit model. Your natural endowment, or lack of it, has nothing to do with the impact you can have on a man's thinking.

A secondary problem is that, if someone tries to counsel a young woman on this issue, they almost never respond, "Thanks for the warning, I'll fix that right away." The most common response is anger and resentment, which is odd for women who claim to be seeking godliness. It seems that their desire to "let it all hang out" is more important to them than edifying their brethren and pleasing the Lord.

Some might say, "What's the big deal? Nothing R-rated is showing." The big deal is the messages your appearance is sending. For example, when you're showing cleavage, the message you're sending is, "Hey, everybody! Look at my breasts." When you wear a short skirt, you're saying, "Hey, everybody! Look at my thighs." Is that what you want to say to the Christians and the unbelievers around you? Shouldn't your message be, "Hey, everybody! Look at my Savior"? Do you think you can share the Gospel with someone, or minister in song or in prayer, and at the same time send out sensual messages like those? James 3:11-12 says you can't —

Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.
You need to decide what kind of message your appearance is going to send out, and dress accordingly. If you really want men to be undressing you with their eyes, and fantasizing about what you look like and feel like with nothing on, I can't stop you.

But I may have to avoid fellowshipping with you. My relationship with God is my #1 priority in this life, and sin damages that relationship. So, because my purity of eyes and mind is important to me, I choose to avoid temptations, even from a sister in Christ. A man can't worship and serve the Lord while he's looking at a woman who's sending out sexy signals. Or, if I can't avoid looking at you, then my prayers are going to be hindered while I'm busy fighting temptation, and that's bad for whoever I'm trying to pray for. Do you want to stand before Jesus some day and try to explain to Him why you cared more for your appearance than for your brothers in Christ?

But that's just Rule #1. What's Rule #2? Judging by how the young ladies dress in most churches, I suspect that Rule #1 is all they hear (if that). Rule #2 has to do with how tight your clothing is. You may be fully covered, but if your curves and contours are plainly visible, you can still give a man a hormone attack.

The biggest problem here is tight jeans and slacks. Many an otherwise Godly young woman, who doesn't show any part of herself that would be unseemly, seems to think nothing of coming to church in pants so skin-tight, they look like they were painted on. The message you're sending now is, "Hey, everybody! Look at my heinie." Men notice this, oh yes we do, and we react to it, the same way we react to too much skin showing. Overweight, underweight, or otherwise has nothing to do with it. I'd say this is the second-biggest modesty problem, surpassed only by low necklines.

Of course, if you attend a church where women don't wear pants, this won't be an issue, will it? But a skirt can also conform to your curves so tightly that it leaves little to the imagination. And you have no idea how little a man's imagination needs to launch his mind into places he ought not to go. So don't be too quick to tell yourself, "This doesn't apply to me."

A top that is too tight can also be a problem, although this is less common. Even if your buttons aren't straining at their buttonholes, that doesn't mean you're free and clear. If the room turns chilly, a woman will often have a physical reaction of her own (I'm sure you know what I mean), and if her top is too tight, this reaction will be extremely apparent to every man in the room. You don't want that kind of attention on you, I'm sure.

And, just so you know, Rule #3 has to do with how you move. Any of the clothing issues I've mentioned can double or triple their effect on a man's thinking if you accent them with your motions. I shouldn't have to say this, but when you shake your shoulders to get your chest moving, or put some extra wiggle in your hips when you walk, you're sending a signal to every man who sees you, and it's not a "stop" signal.

Here's a real-life example. While playing volleyball with our church youth recently, I found myself standing behind a young lady in form-fitting jeans who apparently had a song in her head, and, to use an old expression, she was really shaking her tailfeather. I wanted to keep it light, so I said something like, "Hey, we're Baptists; no dancing allowed." She replied, in what I guess was innocence, "It's not dancing, it's twirling." She could call it whatever she liked, but the fact is, if you're doing moves like those, you are doing a dance. A mating dance. Keep it up and you'll find plenty of men who want to be your dance partner. But I don't think that's what you ladies have in mind, so please consider what you're putting in our minds. Your message would be, "Hey, everybody! Look at the parts that are moving." And we men will look, and we will lust, and we will fantasize, and you will wonder why we're always looking below the neck when you're trying to talk to us. Don't send out party invitations when there isn't going to be a party. Know what I mean?

So, if you aren't sure whether your appearance is causing men problems or not, how do you find out? Other women may not be the best judges of these issues. Married women should ask their husbands, of course. For single women, the best answer may be to ask a brother or male cousin, preferably 18 or over, who is a serious Christian. Ask him, "Do you think this outfit is a bit too much? Or maybe not quite enough?"

We men all struggle with these issues, so we'd all be glad for the chance to spare ourselves and our brothers some trouble if you let us. Let your male relative know what you're trying to accomplish, and he won't be crude or embarrassing (I hope). The reason for sticking with relatives is that, if you strike a pose in front of your pastor or a male friend and ask him if your outfit is too sexy, you're probably going to cause in him the very problem you're trying to avoid!

If your "male fashion advisor" says the clothes you're wearing are likely to cause problems to men, then you should believe him, and take appropriate action. If a questionable article of clothing is something you're really fond of, then just wear it at home for your husband, or set it aside until you're married if you're single. Otherwise, you're probably better off without it, "hating even the garment polluted by the flesh" (Jude 23).

For low necklines, you can keep the clothing if you wear something underneath. One woman who wrote a book about modesty likes men's T-shirts for this purpose; they're cheap, they come in any color you'd ever want, and their neckline will never cause a man any trouble. If you need more ideas, the Christian singer Rebecca St. James is a good role model for creative, modest dress.

As I said earlier, men's nature is to be hormone-soaked beasts whose minds dive into the gutter at the first provocation. Ladies, your mission is to not give us that provocation. It may require some changes in your wardrobe and in your personal style. God may lead you to discard some articles of clothing that you're fond of, and you may have to spend some money replacing them.

But if godliness is a goal of yours, then the sacrifice will be worth it. If helping your brothers in Christ to avoid sinning is a goal of yours, then the sacrifice will be worth it. If showing the love of Jesus to your brethren in a practical way is a goal of yours, then the sacrifice will be worth it. If being pleasing to the Lord, and earning a "Well done, good and faithful servant" is a goal of yours, then the sacrifice will be worth it.

Your brothers in Christ will be thankful, too, even though the usual rules don't allow us to say so.

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