December 12, 2013

My Daughter Talks to Her Dad About Modesty

Gary Thomas — 

My youngest daughter Kelsey is strong-minded, as a college editor-in-chief (which she is) needs to be. That has led to some fascinating discussions on what it’s like for a 21 year old woman to sit in evangelical churches. Rather recently, she challenged the way modesty is often handled in local churches. In a follow-up email, she added some thoughts that I’d like to share with you (with her permission), to start the discussion on the best way we can teach this important biblical principle to today’s generation.


So I never really got to finish my thoughts on why I thought the way the church has approached modesty in my experience is harmful. I pulled out a few thoughts from my journal and added to it here. This is really long, so if you make it all the way through I will be grateful.

In all honesty, there are some things that as a man you will never be able to understand.

You don’t get whistled at walking down the street. You don’t experience the feel of men’s eyes helping themselves to your body on a regular basis. You don’t get cat calls walking out of a coffee shop that only get worse when you put your head down, ignore them, and walk quickly. I’m sure you’ve had a girl whistle at you a few times in your day, but the fact is this isn’t a constant reality for you. And for me, and most women, it is.

I can’t think of the last time I went more than several weeks without receiving an unrequested comment or call from a stranger about my body. What you then, as a man, also probably don’t know is that it makes absolutely no difference how we dress. The type of comment might change (“why so covered up, pretty lady?” is as offensive to me as whistling at my sundress), but the frequency doesn’t. Men are able to objectify women with little provocation. In some cultures, seeing a women’s hair or ankles is considered tempting and evocative. Men can undress a woman with their eyes whether she is wearing a bikini or a burka.

The world tells women on a regular basis that they are objects. If they dress “modestly” and are virgins they’re called a prude. If they wear slinky tank tops and sleep around they are called a slut or whore. Either way, women are objectified and considered a sex object.

When women are constantly having this degrading message beaten into them all day out in the world, it would be wonderful if they could come into a church and find refuge from objectification. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Growing up, I went to my share of modesty talks and was told it was my responsibility to cover up my body so that I did not lead boys into temptation. I went to a private middle school that walked around handing out oversized (and smelly) t-shirts to girls supposedly not covered up enough. I have a vivid memory of sitting between Willy Hanson, who was sporting a cut-off, and a girl in a spaghetti strap tank top, when the head of the school came in with her bag of t-shirts and made the girl put one on and completely ignored Willy. In high school I got a rash from having to wear a shirt over my two-piece swimsuit at a church camp while all the guys were allowed to run around without a top at all.

This way of approaching modesty gives women the exact same message as the rest of the world: your body is a sex object. You are a sex object. Your body is dirty and needs to be covered up.

Telling women to cover up for men holds women responsible for men’s lust. And that’s rape culture. It’s no large leap from that to telling women it’s their fault they were raped because they were wearing a short skirt.

My freshman year at Baylor, I went to a seminar for all freshman women on basically how to not get raped. The whole time I was wondering why the freshman boys weren’t forced to go to a seminar called how to not rape girls. And you know why? Because it’s seen as my responsibility. It is my job to cover up my breasts so they don’t lead men to lust, and it is my job to not attract or flirt with a man in case this leads him to have sex with me against my will. At their nature, these two responsibilities are not such different things.

I dress modestly because I have known my entire life that I am loved and I have worth and I am valuable, but it is increasingly rare for women to grow up with an intrinsic sense of self-worth like I did (thank you!). Far more beneficial than telling girls to put on a t-shirt to cover up their bodies is to tell them they are loved. They have worth. They are valuable. They are more than a sex object. Because the world isn’t telling them that.

It is even more crucial for men to hear the same thing: Women have worth. They are valuable for far more than their breasts. No type of dress gives a man license to objectify a woman. It is men’s responsibility to change the way women are talked about and looked at by men.

Basically, I believe the church is objectifying me as much as the world. Yes, the church is giving women a different solution: modesty as opposed to parading their bodies around for men to enjoy. But a different solution is not good enough. It’s time the church stopped obsessing over the length of my skirt and changed the message all together.

This is me (Gary) again. This post is already pretty long, so I’ll refrain from making any other comments except for this short one: what Kelsey hits on that the church might be missing is that whenever Paul addressed relations, he spoke to the men first. He doesn’t tell wives to submit to their husbands until he tells husbands to become sacrificial living martyrs for their wives. Have we missed this with our youth? Have we made young women (rather than young men) bear the burden of dealing with lust?

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47 responses to My Daughter Talks to Her Dad About Modesty

  1. What an awesome post. Thank you wouldn’t be enough. The way we as a society ( and some churches) treat females is upside down from biblical standards. I have experienced exactly what she is talking about. If a man is going to lust, he’s going to lust, because it is INSIDE of HIM. Yet both of the sexes and I emphasize BOTH should care enough about one another to dress respectfully, first for GOD, then each other. I don’t want to be assaulted driving down the road passing a shirtless man jogging either. That’s a violation of my person! Thanks for this article so much.

  2. I didn’t read all the posts but she is right in so many ways. And yes guys are visual. Stop hiding behind that talking point. But guys treating women as an object will see the object beyond the clothes and even the turtleneck and plaid skirt with knee high socks can draw the bad boy out if he’s thinking of her as something to conquer. God made us that way to draw us together. He made women in such a way to curb man’s sexual energy and teach them respect and honor beyond the visual. A million more reasons too. As an addict of porn for 35 years and one who used sexual gratification both in relationships with women and on my own, I continually cursed myself in the cycle of objectifying women. We talk to kids about it on both sides but we rarely bridge the gap of pornography that outshines and out yells anything we talk about in a once a year college seminar. Young men think that the prudish woman is just playing hard to get and that the one who is less modestly dressed is calling out come and get it. We need to raise young men to recognize their worth and value and cause them to realize that women have that same value and they are not to breech that because it is no different than stealing priceless art. To recognize the joy of self discovery and discovering each other is what makes long term relationship (especially marriage) so wonderful because you take the time to discover each other for years and that’s one of the greatest adventures in life. If you hop in bed early, you destroy that ability to go any further into one’s soul. That’s sexy. That’s allure. Women want that opportunity to discover their husband and men should chill enough to do the same and not live their life as a wild mule deer in rut. The more you know of each other the more you recognize the worth and value of each other. The more you do the same with Christ increases your ability to know true intimacy and trust with Him and that gives you more downloads on how to live purely in mind for each other.

  3. Jeremy, I agree. Feminism shouldn’t be couensfd with women wanting to be like men but women wanting to be women. BUT, this is where it does get cloudy. Both camps, if you will. tend to blend together in the eyes of many. I have a hard time distinguishing it because I tend to hear so many voices about whatever a man can do a woman can do better. So many times my pysche wants to think that woman want it all and want to dominate it all. This is my perception and I know that perception is not 100% yet the message is being interrupted this way alot.

  4. There are things, as you said, that men will never understand from a woman’s perspective since we were made different than women, by God.

    There are also things that you will never understand from a man’s perspective since a woman was made different than man, by God.

    There are two really good books on the gift God blessed men with when it comes to how we see the world. Both are by Shaunti Feldhahn:

    1) For Women Only

    2) Through a Man’s Eyes

    I do not and will never condone a man objectifying a women in a sexual manner and we should take responsibility for controlling our thoughts; however, if a women walks by with a low cut top, her Vicky’s push up bra working overtime, and a skirt (or shorts or yoga pants) that stop just shy of the equator, it will be extremely difficult for any male not to look.

    Women must realize that we are not the same, period.

    It frustrates me when I hear women say, I find men visually attractive, therefore, I know what it’s like to have a man’s visual sense (or something similar).

    No. You. Don’t.

  5. “Men can undress a woman with their eyes whether she is wearing a bikini or a burka.”

    That sounds like rationalization to wear whatever you want as if it “doesn’t really matter what I wear” since they’ll lust either way anyway. If that were true, the bible would not have instructed women to specifically dress modestly in 1 Timothy 2:9-10.It would have just told men to not look (the bible teaches both). Yes, there are Perverts who would lust at you even in a giant bag, but there are real Christian men trying sincerely not to lust and you need to not be a hindrance, since you are their sister in Christ, and since you have God’s love for His children, you should care for their spiritual well-being. Read my previous post as well, it elaborates more on this specifically. God bless all my brothers and sisters in Christ.

    • When Gary’s daughter says ,“Men can undress a woman with their eyes whether she is wearing a bikini or a burka.” You could use that logic as far as to say a woman could be a nudist in church, since guys stare either way…it’s an excuse, a bad one.

      Immodest women everywhere who claim to be Christian, need to look at their brother’s who are ‘weak in the faith’ and not do anything (including dressing immodestly or naked) that would cause them to stumble (Romans 14:21/Luke 17:2).

  6. It really bothers me when Christian women will dress immodest and say “it’s not my problem” if a guy lusts at her. That is a cold hearted and loveless attitude, because you should care about your brother’s spiritual well-being. . 1 Corinthians 8:13 shows us that even if something wasn’t necessarily sinful, that we should love each other enough to not cause each other to stumble in sin. Paul was willing to give up delicious meat to avoid causing a brother to stumble, women need to give up bikinis and immodest clothes, even if only for their brother’s sake (unlike the meat, many men stumble in this area). The immodest Christian woman thinks she has found a biblical loophole, she gets to retain and enjoy the benefit of the attention she wants, but puts all the sin on the man, even though she is enjoying his sin. The bible makes it clear that if you cause someone to sin, you sin by doing that, and if you cause a young one to sin, it is even worse (Mathew 18:6). Poor curious 12 year old boys barely stand a chance now days (or even mature men). The church should be a safe haven from the exposure we get in the world. I should be able to attend church or fellowship with believers without a girl in a low cut top or tight yoga pants. And you are God’s house, so treat it like His, wherever you go. If Jesus were picking you up for dinner instead of your boyfriend would you dress the same? I am not trying to attack women, I am just so sick of how they have rationalized that somehow they have found a loophole and they get to dress however they want and it’s all on us. Along with this by the way, sand and water do not trump God’s word for modesty either. The beach has become an excuse to show off the body in the name of swimming. Both of us are responsible though. Guys need to guard their eyes. Girls need to be considerate of their brothers in how they dress. They need to think about their brother’s well being, not their brother’s attention the wrong way.
    Eve blamed the snake, Adam blamed the woman. We all need to own our own sin; The man for lusting, the woman for enticing and seducing in the name of attention.
    Regarding lust: Guys like to look, girls like to show off. It’s that simple. We need to admit our sin and stop blaming the other. Lust of the flesh,lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, are all issues in this. Pride mainly for women showing off what they got (and lust through seduction), and lust for men looking.
    Verse on modesty: 1 Timothy 2:9-10
    P.S.- I always found the modest woman was more attractive because she had a mystery about her and further proof of respect for God, Which is very attractive to a true Christian man.

  7. Your daughter expressed my sentiments so well! If a guy wants to lust after a woman and undress her with his eyes, it doesn’t matter what she wears or doesn’t wear, he will do it anyway. Sure some clothes women wear are more tempting than others, but it is the will to lust that makes the difference.

    Many nudists, people who are true to the nudist ideals (not the voyeurists who mascarade as nudists), say that a naked woman is much less attractive than when she’s clothed. I haven’t tested the validity of their belief myself, but I do believe them.

    So, we should stop blaming women and start teaching men to appreciate them treating them with the respect they deserve. We should train boys and men to guard their thoughts and trust God to help them for, ultimately, we can never be the Thought Police. That’s in God’s jurisdiction.

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