Immodest Proposals: De-universalizing conviction

My car broke down last summer when I was transitioning between jobs. I didn’t have the funds to fix it, so I used public transportation for a few months. The first time I went to my newly full-time job, I wore a striped dress and my favorite teal high heels — nothing super fancy, but an outfit I felt good in.

Portland may be infamous for its homogeny, but the demographics of the folks who ride the bus in my neighborhood are very mixed, along every axis. There’s quite a few people who, you can tell by their appearance, would qualify as down and out. You know: Bad teeth, plastic bags filled with belongings, K-mart clearance work clothes.

I got a lot of side-eyes as I clickity-clacked to an open seat in my first-day-confidence-boosting finery. I already have straight teeth and white privilege. Never mind that I grew up among K-mart connoisseurs, never mind that I bought those shoes several years ago on sale or that I was taking the bus because I couldn’t afford to fix my 20-year-old car — it still seemed like I was flaunting perceived wealth. It felt not just awkward, but also inconsiderate. So from then on I wore less attention-grabbing boots or flats.

Maybe that sounds silly or even prideful to you, but I was doing what seemed right. It felt like by temporarily abstaining from my kitten heels, I was making the people around me a little more comfortable. And you know what? That might be the most modest thing I’ve ever done. (And I’ve worn a lot of capri pants on really hot days.)

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The modesty proof-texts that purity culture reduces to “don’t be a slut” do say some provocative, valuable things:

Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.

I’m not going to go all exegetical on this. You can google it for the details on the original languages and cultural context. But from my googling and concordancing and reading, it sure seems like this and similar verses were emphasizing not so much hiding your lady parts, but rather, not being a rich jerk. Something like this: If you have money, don’t flaunt it by wearing gratuitously fancy-pants stuff around those don’t. Don’t use Gucci to draw attention to your great superiority over your sister in Lane Bryant. You are not the point of the universe. You are not the point of the Church.

This seems like a pretty relevant concept for we, the people of the consumer culture. It’s a concept that I’ve felt convicted about for a while. It applies to what I buy and how often. Honestly, I often do not live up to my convictions. But I hope to continue adding little changes in how I deal with money and stuff.

I want to emphasize here that my convictions about where and how much I consume may not be your convictions. The stupidest way to fix the overemphasis of modesty culture on rules about how loose your shirt should be would be by overemphasizing rules on how many shirts can be in your closet and whether you must buy them at a mall or sew them yourself from locally-sourced, recycled leaves. The issue isn’t “gold and pearls” or rules. The issue is humility and following through on your principles.

And you cannot regulate humility. You cannot police the leading of the Holy Spirit.

One person might believe the best way to follow the spirit of modesty verses is to make their own clothing. Another might believe it’s to buy only second-hand. Still another might believe it’s to invest on a few well-made, even name-brand, things that will last a long time. It’s not my job to decide which of these is best or holiest, and it’s not your job, either.

Occasionally while on the bus, I would notice other women wearing heels. For me, yes, doing so would have been a minor violation of my conscience — but these women sure seemed like they were just going about their day, not vilely denying common decency or spiritual conviction. They made their choice, I made mine; neither was superior.

In my next piece, I’m going to wrap up this horrifically bloated series, at least for now, with some milder and more holistic approaches for how to talk to girls about clothing (because of course there are alternatives to the rules besides everyone joining a nudist colony or dressing like Rihanna at a church potluck). But for now I want to sum up everything I have said and will say with this: Follow your own convictions, and leave others to theirs. Read the verses if you believe the verses, pray if you pray, be aware of your surroundings, and choose clothing you are comfortable in and can stand behind.

If that means you can or should wear a jean jumper, then wear a jean jumper. If that means bonnets and petticoats, wear bonnets and petticoats. If that means leggings and peplum, wear leggings and peplum. If that means Goodwill or Gucci, wear Goodwill or Gucci.

My problem with modesty is not that individuals may feel convicted to dress a certain way. It’s not that they may decide to wear something — a long denim skirt, a headscarf, a burka, a nun’s habit, or just capris instead of shorts on a warm July afternoon — as a spiritual discipline of sorts. Like fasting, it can be a deeply significant act or practice. I respect that. The problem begins when an institution, whether it’s from a pulpit or the pages of advice books, decides to universalize one person’s convictions, canonizing arbitrary rules (while denying any individual autonomy or freedom in Christ). And then women turn against each other as they’ve been taught, judging hearts by hemlines.

There is a better way. Follow your own convictions, and leave others to theirs.

Other posts in this series: An Introduction (with links list)The Rules | Learning Shame | Brothers and Sisters | Elephant in the Room | Alternative Principles

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One comment

  1. Love your take on this, and your honesty in sharing your choices.

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