“In Judaism, the term used for modesty is tzniut, and it refers to both the inward traits of humility and the outward observance of laws pertaining to dress,” writes Rachel Evans. It’s more of a state of mind than a list of rules. Tzniut is about dressing so that “your inner self is allowed to shine through…”
(Here are the other blogs, if you want to have a look: Three-Thousand-Year-Old Inferiority Complex, Girl Gone Mild, Martha Stewart Theology, Obedience: My Husband, My Master, Bird’s Eye View of Rachel Evans’ Book, Eshet Chayil, and My Breasts Are Like Towers.)
Evans borrowed from a variety of traditions to create a temporary “Biblical” dress code and some behavior modification for herself:
- Wear a head covering at all times.
- Wear only full-length dresses and skirts; no slacks or jeans.
- No short skirts, short sleeves, or V-necks.
- No jewelry.
- Dress and speak plainly.
- Hang out with the Amish.
Evans explains how following these rules affected not only her but those around her as well. She notes that Biblical “instructions regarding modesty find their context in warnings about materialism, not sexuality,” and consequently she adds, “I’ve heard dozens of sermons about keeping my legs and my cleavage out of sight, but not one about ensuring that my jewelry was not acquired through unjust or exploitive trade practices.”
This is a beautifully written chapter, and without giving too much away, I’ll offer one quote that summarizes Evan’s sentiment:
We cling to the letter [of the law] because the spirit is so much harder to master.
More often than not, this backfires, and our attempts to be different result in uniformity, our attempts to be plain draw attention to ourselves, our attempts to temper sexuality inadvertently exploit it, and our attempts to avoid offense accidentally create it.
Perhaps this is why Paul encouraged women to “adorn themselves” with good deeds, why he instructed all Christians, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ,” and why the valorous woman of Proverbs 31 is praised because she “clothes herself in strength and dignity.”
My own experience with modesty began in elementary school at Pine Hills Christian Academy, where the dress code for girls was knee length dresses or modest blouses and skirts. For P.E. we wore our green and gold PHCA shirts with green”gouchos” – a combination of pants and skirt.
I didn’t mind the dress code too much, because we all had to adhere to it. It wasn’t as if I were the only girl wearing different clothes. But in 1984, my attitude about the dress code took a serious turn for the worse (or the better, depending on how you interpret my story). One day, I wore a shirt that had zippers all over it. One of the spiritual fashion police, I’ll call her Mrs. X, pulled me aside and told me my shirt was immodest. I couldn’t figure out why, though, because it didn’t expose any cleavage or midriff, and it wasn’t tight or see-through. So, even though I knew it would probably get me in trouble, I asked Mrs. X, to explain what in the world made my shirt immodest. She said something about how the zippers were a message to boys, that I wanted them to unzip my zippers! Admittedly, I did want one boy in particular, to find me attractive, but it hadn’t occurred to me until that day, that I might be able to get his attention by dressing a certain way.
From 1st grade through 6th grade, I had dreamed of being a cheerleader like my older sisters. I had been told that when I was in 7th grade, I would be allowed to try out for cheerleading. Unfortunately, the question I had asked Mrs. X was, in her opinion, evidence of a “bad attitude,” and since girls with bad attitudes weren’t allowed to try out for cheerleading, I had to kiss that dream goodbye.
Mrs. X’s intentions were good. She wanted to protect my innocence. The rule about cheerleaders having good attitudes was probably created with good intentions as well. But in making false assumptions about the intentions of my heart and then misinterpreting my skepticism as a display of rebellion and then punishing me for both, Mrs. X’s plan completely backfired. I became the exact opposite of who she wanted me to be. In the years that followed, I dressed provocatively on purpose and had an “attitude” problem that would give Mrs. X nightmares!
As an adult, I’ve found a comfortable equilibrium between extreme modesty and provocative attire. To some people, I might seem rigid, to others I might seem a little bit slutty. I just don’t care what they think. I wear what’s comfortable and appealing to my personal sense of fashion. Modesty is not really even something that I think about any more, so reading Evan’s chapter on modesty, for me, was a trip down memory lane, a reminder that there are still lots of people out there still struggling over what to wear, or what NOT to wear. Thankfully, God’s idea of modesty is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ had a lot of things to say about what goes on inside a person’s heart but nothing at all to say about what to wear.