Is not wearing a bikini an act of modesty or shame? I really don’t like wearing bathing suits. I’m not even talking about bikinis. One-piece bathing suits. Bathing suits with little skirts to provide additional coverage. No matter what the style, and pretty much no matter what type of crowd is around me, I’m not a big fan of me in a bathing suit.
I don’t like what I think about myself when I’m in a bathing suit, and I don’t like what I think about other people. The last time we were on vacation where most people were wearing bathing suits, I found myself constantly assessing the women (very rarely the men, and what’s up with that!?!). My internal monologue: Wow, that’s a lot of tattoos! Or, I did not need to see quite so much of your behind. Or, Are you really okay with exposing all of that flesh to the whole world? Or, I wish I could look so comfortable in a bathing suit…
Modesty or Shame
I’m expressing judgment towards other women and towards myself with every one of those thoughts. I might think these are judgments about modesty (or lack thereof). But what I’ve realized recently is they are actually judgments that arise out of a sense of shame. I have inherited a set of cultural norms about what bodies should look like, and when I don’t measure up to those norms (straight, flat, thin), I feel shame about myself. When other women do measure up to those norms, I judge them for flaunting their bodies. And when other women challenge those norms by showing their bodies even if they don’t “measure up,” I judge them for exposing too much flesh.
These thoughts came up for me again when my friend Niro Feliciano and I were talking last week about the Super Bowl halftime show. For many years, I’ve confused shame with modesty, and I’m trying to sort it all out.
We don’t talk a lot about modesty in our culture. Modesty, according to the dictionary, is not thinking too highly of oneself or one’s accomplishments. Modesty, when it comes to how we dress, similarly means dressing in a way that does not call attention to the self. Dressing with modesty also usually implies dressing to avoid sexual attention. And here’s where it gets tricky.
Modesty is an Act of Love
First, modesty, on a deeper level, is an act of love, towards self and towards others. It emerges out of respect, not out of shame.
I believe that there’s a place for modesty, but my way of living—with shame and judgment—might look modest without being modest.
Modesty is Culturally Determined
Second, modesty in dress is culturally determined. What I call my granny bathing suits (a black skirt and a separate, full-torso-covering top) would have scandalized people 100 years ago. As Niro explained in our conversation, formal attire in her Sri Lankan culture includes women—of all shapes and sizes—wearing saris, which includes exposing the midriff, and is not considered immodest or sexual.
As someone who has grown up as a white, affluent woman in New England, I bring my own cultural assumptions to what I wear, what I think about what other people wear, and whether or not I pass judgment.
Modesty for the Sake of Love
I might think I dress modestly, but my judgment of my own body and my judgment of other women’s bodies suggests I actually dress with a sense of shame. I want modesty to emerge out of love, not shame.
Love for the beautiful, valuable human beings God has created us to be.
Love for the bodies we’ve been given.
Love for the people all around us.
I want to live (and dress) modestly, and I want to teach my kids to live (and dress) modestly, but only for the sake of love.