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From the Word: Modesty: A Vanishing Virtue (Part 1)

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Modesty: A Vanishing Virtue (Part 1)

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Upon traversing America in the 1830s, French author and statesman Alexis de Toqueville attributed the extraordinary prosperity and growing greatness of the nation to "the superiority of their women," who were protected by "punishing rape by death." Continuing, he noted that "no other crime is judged with the same inexorable severity by public opinion. There is reason for this: as the Americans think nothing more precious than a woman's honor." It was a time of chivalry, honor and modest dress. It was a time when a woman "could walk anywhere alone without fear, so great was men's respect for their modesty" (Wendy Shalit, A Return to Modesty, Discovering the Lost Virtue, 1999, pages 39-40).

The times have obviously changed. Today, many women struggle to be treated with respect yet dress with little regard for modesty. Many men enjoy viewing immodestly dressed women while claiming to respect them. What went wrong? How did modern styles of dress develop and how do they affect those of us who are striving to live godly lives?

Within the Church, there are many individuals who have set wonderful examples in the way they dress. This article should not be construed as a complaint against these people. To the contrary, they deserve our praise and emulation given the modern trends within our society. As we will see, we Christians are clearly involved in a clash of values concerning dress—one of the most visible aspects of modesty.

Surveying today's fashions, we see that designers have decided skin is in. For those who watched the latest Super Bowl game between the Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (which reportedly had the second highest number of television viewers since the event began 37 years ago, with an estimated audience of 137.6 million people), there was ample evidence. Whether viewing the commercials or the musical performers, there was the same consistent message: skimpy, skin-revealing clothing is what's hot.

Television viewers of this annual American football classic saw a controversial commercial for Miller Lite Beer in which two young women get into a fight over whether the beer tastes great or is less filling. During the fight, the women rip each other's clothes off as one gets thrown into a fountain and they continue their fight in a mud pit wearing only the bare minimum of clothing.

Women's groups quickly denounced the ad as exploitive of women while the company defended it. A spokesperson said that it was only a lighthearted look at the way some guys think and that all the controversy was unwarranted. Of course, controversy helps enormously in spreading the company's message.

During the game, the Miller commercial wasn't the only glimpse of exposed flesh. Another ad featured women wearing skimpy swimsuits and the half-time entertainment included a lead female wearing basically a bra for her top and a lead male without a shirt. Marty White, editor of ChristianityToday.com Connection wrote, "I haven't watched a Super Bowl for several years...But I did watch it this year, and it was interesting in more ways than one. The commercials were entertaining, of course, but it's disheartening to see how much further the envelope of good taste (did I say good?) is pushed each year" (Jan. 29, 2003).

Pushing the Limits

The decline in standards of dress depicted during Super Bowl XXXVII didn't happen overnight. Popular musicians, movies, television and fashion designers have all made their impact as a multidimensional attack upon the modesty of previous generations.

Laura Sessions Stepp wrote about the recent history of these trends: "In terms of sexy dress and power, there was no bigger celebrity than pop singer Madonna. Girls who weren't even born in the 1980s know that's when Madonna started turning underwear into outerwear. Through her MTV videos, Madonna made sure we knew she was a self-possessed woman who would take from life exactly what she wanted, regardless of what any man might want from her.

"She was followed, of course, by vocalists Spears and Lopez, who reinforced the idea to millions of fans that titillation equals liberation. During these same years, designers, manufacturers and retailers bought into a concept called 'deconstructionism,' meaning the near elimination of clothing.

"In 1989, the same year that Madonna sang 'Express Yourself' as she grabbed her crotch, bare-breasted models were walking the runways followed by women in corsets and black stockings, hip-slung pants and slip dresses. (Fashion analysts at the time gave the slip dress less than a year. They were wrong, as any middle school dance will prove.)

"Adult lines started ad campaigns featuring teenage girls, and it was only a matter of time before the juniors market stepped in, followed by children's wear. Stores like Wet Seal, Hot Topic and Gadzooks picked up the Playboy line, then Hotkiss, whose marketing director knew exactly what to say: 'We appeal to an independent girl with enough self-confidence to wear our body-conscious and provocative clothing'" (Washingtonpost.com, "Nothing to Wear: From the Classroom to the Mall, Girls' Fashions Are Long on Skin, Short on Modesty," by Laura Sessions Stepp, June 3, 2002, page C01).

Interestingly, young women who choose to remain virgins until married (a trend that is increasing in the United States but is largely ignored by liberally biased media), often see no problem with dressing provocatively. Consider the case of Daniela Aranda.

"Even though she lives 700 miles from the nearest ocean, Daniela Aranda was recently voted Miss Hawaiian Tropic of El Paso, Texas, and her parents couldn't be prouder. They've displayed a picture of their bikini-clad daughter smack-dab in the middle of the living room. 'People always say to me, "You don't look like a virgin,"' says Daniela, 20 who wears supersparkly eye shadow, heavy lip liner and a low-cut black shirt. 'But what does a virgin look like? Someone who wears white and likes to look at flowers?'

"Daniela models at Harley-Davidson fashion shows, is a cheerleader for a local soccer team called the Patriots and hangs out with friends who work at Hooters. She's also an evangelical Christian who made a vow at 13 to remain a virgin, and she's kept that promise. 'It can be done, I'm living proof'...Daniela knows about temptation: every time she walks out onstage in a bathing suit, men take notice. But she doesn't see a contradiction in her double life as a virgin and beauty queen; rather it's a personal challenge" (Newsweek, "Choosing Virginity," Dec. 9, 2002, page 64).

Revealing clothing is not limited to female recording artists and beauty queens; the sexy look is available for most everyone—in all sizes. It is becoming increasingly popular to see male models without shirts and young men wearing saggy pants to reveal the tops of their boxer shorts. Not to be left behind, females now wear low-slung pants showing off the tops of thong underwear from behind and bare midriffs from the front. And if the clothing isn't skimpy, it is likely to be skin-tight.

A Trip to the Mall

A visit to a local shopping center can be revealing in several ways. From east coast to west coast and across the fruited plain, young people can be seen strolling the corridors sporting the previously mentioned clothing. And according to some, it is challenging to find more conservative styles. With stores displaying mannequins donning the bare essentials, the pressure to conform is enormous. The not-so-subtle message is, "Everyone is dressing like this and so should you."

Sadly, Americans are listening to the message and responding. The pressure to look sexy is now even directed to preteens. According to Laura Sessions Stepp, "This is the world of naked fashion for girls from high school on down—even to elementary school—the less-is-more look flaunting breasts, bellies and bottoms. Many, if not most, schools forbid or discourage it, parents and teachers complain about fighting the 'whore wars,' and yet the trend shows no signs of letting go after a decade of growth.

"What many find truly astonishing is the tender age at which it's first aimed, a trend that older teenage girls themselves tag as disgusting. You can find terry-cloth bikinis at GapKids, metallic-looking bras and bikini underpants labeled 'Girl Identity' in the girls' department of Sears, and thongs for girls ages 7 to 14 at abercrombie, the kids' arm of the youth chain Abercrombie & Fitch.

"'Do you actually sell any of these?' a visitor asked an abercrombie clerk in Virginia recently, holding up a pink-and-yellow-striped piece of stretch cotton only slightly larger than a Band-Aid.

"'Unfortunately, yes,' replied the clerk, no more than 21 or 22 herself. 'Last week a mother came in here accompanied by two girls—they were maybe 10 or younger—and said she had to buy a thong for each of her daughters because they told her every other girl in their classes had one.'

"An abercrombie spokesman announced...that the company would no longer supply youngsters' thongs because of a letter campaign by aggrieved parents. But they could still be found on the shelves of several local stores."

Key Messages

Whenever parents or schools label current styles as improper and strive to curb the wearing of such clothing, there are consistent messages about personal freedoms that are often shouted back by those who oppose. Many believe it's OK to flaunt it, if you've got it, and that sexy dressing is power. To such individuals, just about everything is fine if you are comfortable with yourself.

Among those who dress provocatively, there is little concern for the impact upon others. Among teenage girls, there is a widely held belief that a girl isn't trashy because of what she wears. Most reason that a girl is only trashy if she is having sex. Many say if boys have a problem with what they wear, they should just get over it since girls have as much a right to express themselves as boys. Besides, they say, it isn't the girls' job to keep the boys in line.

The Effect on Christianity

Given the fashion scene around us, what is the effect upon those of us striving to live godly lives? Author Wendy Shalit notes that "a society that has lost its respect for female modesty is not just one which no longer teaches men to be protective of women, it is a society which treats its women as a kind of joke" (A Return to Modesty, Discovering the Lost Virtue, page 146). How ironic that our society—which professes great respect for women—accepts standards of dress that undermine that principle.

Doug Phillips, in his introduction to Christian Modesty and the Public Undressing of America by Jeff Pollard, explains that with "the rise of antinomianism (the rejection of God as lawgiver), the resurgence of Gnosticism (the belief that God is not concerned with physical things) and the widespread acceptance of the neutrality postulate (the notion that the Lordship of Christ over human action only extends to spiritual matters), many 20th-century Christians have simply allowed themselves to be swept away by cultural trends, rather than following the biblical admonition to take every thought and action captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ" (page 12).

Continuing, Phillips writes: "In past centuries, Christian peoples were often noted for their modesty, and heathen peoples for their immodesty. Today, the line between the professing Christian and the savage tribesman has become increasingly blurred, as more and more 'Christian' people resort not only to the pagan practices of scarification, tattoos and body mutilation, but have thrown off the 'restraints' of modest dress in favor of the trendy and the physically revealing" (page 13).

Of course, it is not just women who are affected in a society that lost respect for modesty. In the book of 2 Peter, we read about righteous Lot who lived in the sexually perverse city of Sodom. The text explains that Lot "was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked" and that he was "tormented...from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds" (2 Peter 2:7-8, emphasis added throughout).

Within the Church of God

If righteous Lot was affected by the society around him, are we not also affected by the trends of the society in which we live? What we see and hear does have an impact. As 1 Corinthians 15:33 puts it: "Do not be deceived: 'Evil company corrupts good habits.'"

The Bible reveals the principle of cause and effect. As Proverbs 6:27 explains, "Can a man take fire to his bosom, and his clothes not be burned?" Since the world does have an effect upon us, let's consider how it is displayed.

At United Youth Camps, provocative clothing occasionally shows up even though instructions to the contrary are included with every application. In most cases our youth are respectful to the staff members who ask them to change into more modest clothing, yet the message is clear. When our youth live in a society of declining standards, it's hard for them not to become desensitized to what they see around them and dress similarly.

Immodest dress can also be seen at church functions among adults. Whether it's someone in a skimpy swimsuit at a beach party, a revealing dress at a dance or a plunging neckline and rising hemline at services, the influence of the world has made an impact.

Acknowledging that declining standards of dress have affected us is not meant to be a slam against anyone because many within the Church dress impeccably. It's simply recognition of the times in which we live and the challenge we face. Realizing there is a problem is the first step in being able to personally evaluate the way we dress. In the next article, we will consider some of the biblical principles we can use to make godly decisions in this area. UN