A few months ago, when my husband was out of town, I indulged myself and stayed up all night on the internet surfing and following whatever bunny trails interested me. I started out shopping for long flowery skirts (which are not as easy to find as you'd think!), but what resulted was an all-night research on the topic of modesty.
It may seem odd to start out a post on the subject of modesty with a discussion of nudism, but bear with me! Yes, there really is a philosophical rationale behind social nudism (note: this Wikipedia article does include photos) and it is exactly the opposite of a perverse voyeurism/exhibitionism. Social nudists (no, I'm not one) maintain that clothes are an elitist expression of rank and power; they speak of the "textile world" in which people use clothing as a power tool to assert their status, wealth, knowledge, and sexuality and to present an (often false and pretentious) image of themselves to society.
This is an anthropological certainty and an important point in any discussion of modesty. Every culture uses clothing, and decoration, to communicate something to others. Often that something is false, pretentious, and power-driven. But because sin is in the heart, simply removing our clothes doesn't remove the problem.
Social nudists also base their ideology in respect and acceptance of the normal, natural human body, in the face of a culture which programs the mind and the eyes with images of impossibly perfect, over-sexualized bodies. This is truly a problem in our culture, and it is important to recognize that modesty is not the same as embarrassment. It is evidenced in our double standard for women of different ages and physiques. A curvaceous teenager wears something tight or revealing and receives compliments and catcalls. An older or overweight woman dons the same outfit, and passersby are appalled at her "lack of shame" -- not meaning that she ought to have a sense of modesty, but that she ought to be embarrassed about her unattractive body and cover it up. This inversion of values also becomes evident in American attitudes toward breastfeeding: a woman can wear a tight, sexy blouse with a plunging neckline and bare midriff that amounts to little more than a bra and no one blinks, but discreetly lift a modest top to breastfeed a baby in public, and you might find yourself the object of the anger, embarrassment, derision, or even legal actions of those around you.
Another assertion of social nudists is that nudity is not in and of itself sexual. Among some native cultures such as the Hawaiians, nudity is (or was) the norm. When Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii in the early 19th century, one of the first cultural changes they introduced among converts was the mu'umu'u. To their great surprise, instead of increasing modesty and chastity, the exact opposite ensued. The men, accustomed to seeing bare female bodies, found themselves inflamed with lustful curiosity upon being confronted with so much mystery.
Which bring me to this: modesty is a universal social more. Every culture, even those which to our western eyes are completely naked, have rules or customs of modesty. Amazon tribal mothers teach their daughters to squat with their knees together. Fathers teach their sons to tie their male members up into a vine belt worn around the waist.
Though modesty is a universal ideal, its cultural delineations are not. Googling modesty took me far and wide, from Christian sites, to funky swimwear, to conservative Jewish instructions on how to tie a head scarf (I want one of these!), to high fashion Muslim styles. Everyone has a different idea about which body parts must be covered. Jewish customs define the torso as upper arms to the elbows, thighs to the knee, and chest to the collarbone, all of which must be covered, as well as every bit of head hair (no curls peeking out!). Serbian Orthodox cover the neck as well as the head and wear socks. Fundamentalist Christians do not uncover the thigh. This Catholic author express the concept well:
Modesty, however, can vary from place to place and time to time. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, modesty concerns four areas of human behavior,
First, "the movement of the mind towards some excellence, and this is moderated by "humility." The second is the desire of things pertaining to knowledge, and this is moderated by "studiousness" which is opposed to curiosity. The third regards bodily movements and actions, which require to be done becomingly and honestly, whether we act seriously or in play. The fourth regards outward show, for instance in dress and the like" [ST II-II q160, a2].
Dress, external behavior, mannerisms, etc. are signs of the person, and become so in the cultural context in which the person lives, and in which it indicates something to others. The Christian conforms to the culture in such matters, unless sin is intrinsically involved (clothing which will have the general effect to tempt the opposite sex). Modesty is humility in dress and mannerisms, an outward sign of the disposition of the inner man. By not standing out the Christian assumes a humble posture toward his neighbors.
Head Coverings in Church, Colin Donovan STL
He rightly points out that modesty has a larger definition, encompassing much more than sexual mores. Modesty is a humble attitude before God and others, a desire to decrease that Christ may increase, self-restraint in all things. St. Paul illustrates this by vivid contrast between outward ostentation of wealth and beauty, and inward meekness and quietness. Donovan's article goes on to argue that head coverings are neither obligatory nor meaningful in our current cultural context. His argument falls flat, however, when he tries to use 1 Cor. 11:16 to support his point that head coverings are a merely cultural expression. An interesting and well-reasoned counterpoint can be found at Fisheaters.
Three points in all my researches interested me most. First, a comment by a fundamentalist Baptist about why clothing with a crotch is inappropriate for women: she points out that crotched clothing draws attention to the crotch area, while a skirt or dress draws attention to the face. When I looked at traditional women's clothing from many cultures, there was one commonality: the crotch area is covered. If pants are part of the costume, as with the Pakistani salwar kameez (which looks deliciously comfortable) a long tunic top covers the crotch area.
Third, the Greek word in 1 Timothy 2:9 katastole refers specifically to loose, flowing clothing, like a robe. It doesn't necessarily imply that only skirts or dresses should be worn, but that clothing should obscure the curves of a woman's body. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago at a public park where a pentecostal group was having an outdoor service. One of the young ladies definately stood out from the crowd in a pretty blouse, a long lacy head scarf...and a long black skirt that hugged every inch of her lower body. There are a million little ways to flaunt the external rules of modesty, because true modesty is an attitude of the heart, born of love for neighbor and a recognition of our place before God.Now, does anyone know where to buy long flowery skirts?!