Is Modesty Relative?

Last week, swimsuit designer Jessica Rey lit up Facebook and the blogosphere with this video . The result was a lot of buzz on the topic of modesty…which seems to raise controversy and get people all fired up. People who are both “for” it and “against” it.

Is Modesty Relative? |

For the record, I am “for it.” I am one of three sisters raised in a conservative Christian home. Let’s just say modesty is something we heard about on a regular basis. I have vivid memories of wearing homemade “gauchos” (looooong before “gouchos” were en vogue) to church camp because shorts weren’t allowed. I later attended a high school (and college) where women were required to wear dresses and a female staff member was tasked with measuring any skirt of questionable length. Yes, I am familiar with the concept of modesty.

While I’m thankful for the lessons in modesty I learned early on, it wasn’t always easy (my apologies to my parents for the teen years). And although I didn’t rush right out and buy a bikini as soon as I left home (you’re welcome), I do live most of my life in a pair of Levi’s and avoid dresses if at all possible.

The concept of modesty continues to be a hotly-debated, and somewhat subjective, issue even in “religious” circles. What one family (or church, or belief) deems modest does not meet the standards of another family (or church, or belief).

We would all agree that the standard of modesty has changed drastically in the last several decades. If it was wrong 100 years ago for a woman to bare her elbows, and now we think nothing of it, has modesty changed? If it was tactless and indecent 60 years ago for a woman to wear a bikini and now it is the norm, is modesty relative?

I’ve read the through Bible a time or two, and I’ve never come across a mention of how long your skirt (your shorts, or your gauchos) should be. And I’ve not seen anything about how many pieces your swimsuit should be or whether you should wear a t-shirt over it at the beach.

Here is what I have found in Scripture, and what I hope to teach my daughter about modesty:

“What matters is not your outer appearance—the styling of your hair, the jewelry you wear, the cut of your clothes—but your inner disposition.” (1 Peter 3:3,4 The Message).

She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. (Proverbs 31:25)

Your value comes from your Creator. God made you beautiful, inside and out. Dress, and carry yourself, in such a way that others will see your whole worth (not just your physical beauty) so you can bring glory to God.

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; (1 Corinthians 16:18, 19)

In our over sexualized society, everything is related to sex. Do your best to avoid any type of clothing that will draw attention only to your body, taking the focus off you as a person.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of [clothing]…it is wrong for a person to [wear] anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to [wear questionable clothing] or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. (Romans 4:19-21). [parentheticals mine]

Yes, each person is responsible for his own actions, and no girl “deserves” any unwanted advances (or worse). Still, as women, we need to make choices in our clothing and lifestyle that appropriately reflect who we are as Christians. We need to ask ourselves, “What does this shirt/skirt/outfit/swimsuit say about me as a Christian?”

“Modesty isn’t about hiding ourselves. It’s about revealing our dignity.” ~Jessica Rey

Let’s teach our daughters to live in modesty and teach our sons to value it. But let’s also realize that it has less to do with whether our daughters wear pants or skirts and more to do with the condition of their hearts.

Let’s set standards in our homes so our daughters learn to dress appropriately and our sons learn to recognize modesty. But let’s also show grace to those whose standards might be different than ours. (For the record, “grace” does not mean changing your standards.)

Most of all, let’s not confuse modesty with purity. While the two are often related and modesty can be relative, purity is not. There may not be any guidelines for hem length in the Bible, but God has laid out specific commands for sexual purity. Those have not changed over the years.

Let’s teach our daughters that a life lived in modesty is the foundation for a life of purity.

So as all the hoopla dies down, this middle-aged mama is thankful for beautiful young women, like Jessica Rey, who recognize modesty as an attitude of dignity, not a yoke of oppression. Who don’t feel the need to sacrifice modesty (and conviction) and for the sake of style. And as my daughter reaches the tweens and the weight of my voice begins to grow faint in her ears, I’m thankful Jessica, and others, are willing to stand up and be an example to my daughter and so many like her.

If you haven’t seen it already, I encourage you to watch Jessica’s video. It’s only nine minutes, and it’s time well spent:

How can we best approach this discussion of modesty with grace and truth?



41 thoughts on “Is Modesty Relative?

  1. Oh my. Gouchos …I remember them well. LOL

    And while I did not usually appreciate my very conservative parents clothing choices when I was younger, I do now very much appreciate the value of modesty they instilled in me. Even though my clothing styles are different from my mom’s the values are the same. Now it’s my turn to teach modesty to my daughter, which we’ve actually been discussing lately. It’s definitely a concept that must be taught, because it doesn’t always come naturally.

    I loved this video, too! She spoke with such grace on a touchy topic–even in the Christian world.

    1. Lora, I’m sure if I look hard enough I can find a picture of the two of us in our gouchos. HA! Don’t worry, I won’t look too hard. 🙂 I love how you said even though your clothing styles are different than your mom’s “the values are the same.” That’s exactly it. I’m finding that modesty is a harder concept to teach my daughter (at least at this age) than I thought it would be. I think because it is so “subjective” and she’s still very much a black-or-white thinker. So I, in no way, have this all figured out. I think I wrote this post to help me organize my thoughts on the issue, more than anything else!

      Thanks for stopping by and for the kind comments!

  2. This is the most intelligent, biblically sound thing I have seen on modesty in awhile. I was raised much like you, and very much appreciate the message that this is more about dignity than whether or not to cover skin. I love that you pointed out that modesty is not purity, but certainly irrevocably linked.

    I also appreciate that you pointed out that modesty is, to a point, relative. I work in a primitive tribe in Peru where women regularly go around topless and children are often naked. A friend of mine works in a place where women who walk around in tank tops are considered promiscuous.Yes, it IS relative culturally.

    So far as Jessica Rey is concerned (speaking as an American to Americans)…
    I love her line and actually am ordering my summer suit from her. I appreciate her heart and think most of what she said is good. However, I took major issue with her interpretation of the research she presented. If you look at the article she sited (linked below), you’ll see that actually men did not view bikini clad women as objects. “Hostile sexists” viewed bikini-clad bodies (no heads) as objects. That is a very, very different thing.

    As a mom of boys, I have a real issue with anyone telling me that they can’t help but objectify women who are showing skin, that it is just biology and they can’t help it. Actually, they can, and actually, they are responsible for what they do with what comes before their eyes. This kind of rhetoric is exactly the same as what is used in parts of the Middle East and India to justify rape (he couldn’t help it; she tempted him; he is just a product of his biology). It’s wrong, and it is dangerous, and it is untrue.

    Should women be culturally modest and intentionally guard our brothers’ eyes by not flaunting our flesh? Will be be held accountable for whether or not we “showed preference to the weaker brother”? Yes and yes! But let’s not reduce 50% of the population to biological urges.

    1. Dalaina, thank you so much for your kind words about this post. I consider it a high compliment coming from you! I’m so glad you mentioned the cultural differences in modesty. I had wanted to get into that, but the post was already very long, so thank you for bringing it up! I agree with the concerns you raised about being the mother of boys and the issues with Jessica’s research. As the mom of a boy, I agree we need to teach our boys to be responsible with their thoughts and their actions. I also believe we need to educate our daughters to realize that boys and men are wired differently than we are and we need to keep that in mind and, as you said, “guard our brothers’ eyes” (love that!).

      Thank you for linking the original article from Jessica’s research…I’ve been wanting to read it.

      I’m so glad you stopped by and took the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. Blessings, friend! ~Nancy

      1. Honestly, I think the “wired differently” line of thought holds no water. Women are just as lustful as men (seen checkout mags lately? Women lust after men quite a lot). The difference is women are taught from a very early age to control their urges, and penalties for not doing so are very, very stiff. Not so much for men: “Boys will be boys!” “Men and women are wired differently!” “Men are more visual!”

        Lies we teavh ourselves to not give men the same intense training and scrutiny we give women. I’m not saying women shouldn’t dress appropriately for a situation; we should. But so should men. And we should not treat men as incapable of not controlling themselves: they can, and often do. That lack of control is often more noticeable in religious men, I’ve noticed, because so much energy is put into controlling girls and women (I mean, little girls can’t act like children Because Boys. And Because Femininity (women are to be these delicate weak flowers wholly unable to manage life)!”

  3. I’ve heard a lot of buzz about this video, but hadn’t seen it yet. Thanks for making it available, and for adding your thoughts.

  4. I appreciate Jessica’s courage and insight. I am having discussions on this topic with my 12 year old daughter, about the why’s and what-for’s of modesty these days. This is exactly the type of things I want her to understand as she begins making more and more choices for herself.
    Thank you for sharing this – now I know what all they buzz has been about!

  5. Dear Nancy
    Great post, thanks. When I got married 28 years ago, an off-shoulder wedding dress was not a good example of modesty!! Well, I am also mostly wearing jeans, and I agree with you and our Lord that a still, quiet spirit of a woman and wife loving her man, is true beauty. This kind of beauty can only be found in Jesus, our beautiful Lord.
    Much love XX

  6. I’m loving the perspective in your post!
    I have two young daughters and am trying to find my footing in the murky waters of Christian modesty…so many opinions!
    I found your blog on a comment over at Chatting At The Sky! Can’t wait to come back and read more 🙂

    1. Mindy, I’m so glad you stopped in from Chatting at the Sky and that you found the post helpful. Modesty is a tough road to navigate as a parent. Rely on God’s wisdom and grace as you do! Blessings! Nancy

  7. Modesty has been something God has placed on my heart recently.

    It’s not that I don’t dress modestly, it’s just that it never really was something I thought about.

    Now I’m choosing to wear more flowy skirts versus shorts, shirts and blouses with higher cut necklines (or camis underneath). It’s a slow process for me but it’s progress.

    I really enjoyed this video. I haven’t seen it before and I feel she makes some really good points. Living on an island, bikinis are just the norm- for almost every body shape and every age. Those who wear one pieces or tank tops/shorts to swim are the minority. It’s hot year round and folks just want to be comfortable. For the past 2 years I’ve only worn one pieces with shorts. I’m going to check out Jessica’s swimsuits for more fashionable options. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Vanessa, thanks so much for stopping by and for your sweet comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and the video. Blessings on you! Nancy

  8. We lived in Hungary for 5 years, and the American culture is actually far more modest than the European cultures, for the most part. In several countries in Europe, children swim nude under the age of 3 and some older children dress and undress at the pool in front of others. Christian women wear necklines to church that most of us would consider immodest.

    I believe modesty is important to God and should be important to us. But I’m not sure what cues I get from culture and which from God. At one time, Americans thought it was immodest to show a woman’s ankle.

    Can modesty be taken too seriously? I think the Muslims do it.

    It’s really hard to determine the correct standards, so we do the best we can, and probably make some errors. As you said, God doesn’t mention specifics in Scripture. I suppose I take most of my cues from modest women in my Christian culture who are in between the extremes.

    I listened to the video and agreed with her. But I have questions about the study she cited. The study showed that men view scantily dressed women as objects, not people. Surely that study must mean scantily clad strangers because I’m sure God didn’t design men to look at their wives in that way when they are undressed. The study must have included some other criteria.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. Good food for thought, and we should all be thinking about what God wants, not what our culture accepts.

    1. This is an article about the study she sited, and you have reason to be concerned. She was very misleading. It actually showed that men already labeled as “hostile sexists” viewed headless binkini-clad bodies as immodest. Big difference.
      I love that you pointed out husbands because I am pretty sure mine sees more than an object when he sees me in my bathing suit or my birthday suit! 🙂

      1. I appreciate all the thoughts shared here on this subject, especially this last one that has brought up the way different cultures view modesty.

        I have been wrestling a lot with the relativity of modesty and really seeking the Lord about how I should be dressing. I live and work among Muslims in Malaysia, a country a lot of foreigners and with three major people groups – Chinese, primarily Buddhist with some Christian, Indian, primarily Hindu with some Christian, and Malay, almost 100% Muslim. If I lived in a completely Muslim area, I would have absolutely no issue with dressing to meet their standards of modesty, even to the point of being fully veiled. I think that sacrifice would be totally worth it to win people to Christ!

        But here, there are three very different standards of dress. My first inclination was to just dress like the Muslims because that’s who I want to relate to, but it is seen as so very weird when I do so, and I spend a lot of time relating with all of the other groups. It’s not practical for me to run and change to make each group happy, and I think it would look pretty hypocritical.

        I want to reiterate that my only concern is to not be a hindrance to the Gospel. But I have no idea what that looks like in this context. Thanks for listening to my ramblings. I’m not really looking for answers from you. Maybe just prayers for wisdom from anyone listening and a realization that this is such a bigger issue than whether someone is objectifying you or not. Like every other issue, I think we need to realize it’s not all about me! In many cases, eternal destinies can be at stake as people refuse to listen to us because our dress offends them. Or they can be confused into thinking that we earn our salvation in part by dressing modestly. This is an issue we must address with so much prayer and caution!!!

        1. Dear Tina,
          I have other friends who are doing mission work among Muslims, and I know they have had to struggle with these issues as well. You’re right that winning people to Christ is more important than maintaining our modesty beliefs. I will pray for you as you seek to do that which is most pleasing to God. Bless you.

          1. Ladies, such a fantastic conversation here. Thank you for being so honest and so encouraging to one another. Tina, I will be praying for wisdom for you. Your heart is in the right place and your motives are pure…to advance the Kingdom of God. God will give you direction as you continue to seek Him. Thank you for the fabulous conversation, ladies. Blessings!

  9. Visiting from Bible Love Notes and I’m one of the other bloggers who shared a post about modesty today…100% agree with you! The “rules” about what’s modest and what isn’t drive me nuts. Even when people simply share their personal rules of modesty, it often comes across as though they wish others would dress the same and it’s all just so confusing.

    P.S. One Scripture people actually use to say that God does have standards about how long skirts should be is Isaiah 47:2-3, but you have to read it in the KJV in order to understand why they think showing the thigh = nakedness. It makes zero sense in other translations.

    1. Yes, Elizabeth. Gotta love when scripture is taken out of context (*sarcasm*). Thank you so much for stopping by. I can’t wait to read your post on modesty, too! Blessings!

  10. I’m aware of the furor this video caused on FB and beyond, Nancy. And I really appreciate your views on this subject. In fact, I agree with them wholeheartedly and feel like you’ve expressed them in a “gracious” and kind way. Modesty has always been something I’ve wanted in my life. Even as a child (not just as a teen) I didn’t want to wear a bikini, even if my friends did. I’m thankful for that view/desire from early on. It has kept me out of a lot of troubles in my dating years! 🙂 Thanks for your words here, Nancy. They are important and the topic needs to be discussed more and more.

  11. Great post, Nancy! Modesty is something that is so near and dear to my heart, but I tend to focus more on the “inward” aspects, as I believe the outward appearance is just the overflow of the heart. If you are modest at heart, you will wear what you know to be modest on the outside.

    I watched her video and I think it’s really sad to see how far we’ve fallen as a society. To go from a “house”, 36 square feet, to 36 square inches.

  12. Such good thoughts, friend! I do not have daughters, but I appreciate mother who talk to their daughters about modesty because I have two sons :). An important issue to keep talking about.

    1. Thank you, Laura! I agree…I have a daughter and a son, so I feel the importance on both sides of the issue. 🙂 So good to have you drop in again!

  13. I am all about modesty. But as you mentioned, modesty means different things to different people. Some people think I take modesty too far, others think I am not modest enough. I have learned that the key is to pray about and seek my husband’s opinion. Great post!

    Thanks for linking up with Woman to Woman’s Word Filled Wednesday! Join us next Wednesday too!


  14. I am one of those who is most comfortable in jeans, too. I did not raise daughters but I did watch my friends struggle with trying to find clothes that covered their daughter’s midriffs and chests and something that didn’t make their young children look like teenagers.

    I have a friend who once told me that she had been concerned that her blouse was too low cut and she said she had checked herself in the mirror and couldn’t see any cleavage. I told her that I could right down her blouse because I am taller than her.

    I think the trick for that is to look down and if you can see something, so can someone who is taller! Thanks so much for linking up to the “Making Your Home Sing Monday” linky party! 🙂

  15. Nancy…I can totally appreciate your post. I changed my approach to clothing a few years ago and have moved to more dresses and longer skirts with a modest mindset. I have also been teaching my daughter about modesty as well. It is truly my desire to glorify God in what I wear and that directs my decisions. I hadn’t seen Jessica’s video but am glad I have now. Thankful you shared this at WJIM. Have a blessed week.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your story Naomi! I think modesty means different things to different people (and in different cultures, etc.). I think the key is to be obedient to what God is asking you to do and do it with the right heart. I’m so glad you dropped by!

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