Between the Burqa and the Bikini: A Call to Moderate Modesty

Between the Burqa and Bikini: A Call to Moderate Modesty

Burqas. Bikinis. I see them both in one sweeping glance at Sea World here in Orlando. What a juxtaposition! I should clarify and say that most of the “burqa” wearers (if that is even the correct term) were not completely covered. Instead of wearing the toe length flowing black robes and veils that showed only slivers of skin with a slit or a translucent panel for the eyes, most of them were wearing loose fitting, thigh length, long sleeve tunics over trousers, and white or colored head scarves. And the bikini wearers? A mix of “If you’ve got it flaunt it!” and “I’ve still got some sense of decency.”
I keep my eyes on the culture & theology debates on-line, and one that has come up repeatedly in the Christian (especially home school) crowd is the issue of modesty. You might think this would be pretty straightforward and everyone would agree. But what modesty iscan by quite nuanced already, and when it is tied in with related opinions on myriad other topics (as it should, being that our lives are integrated rather than compartmentalized), then you get a whole mess load of controversy, some of it rather sharp.
Those on the conservative end of the spectrum believe that a Christian woman should always wear calf length (or longer) skirts, loose fitting shirts with at least elbow length sleeves, the more layers the better, with muted solid colors so as not to draw any attention to themselves, and extra points for home sewn. If they lean even more toward Mennonite-like standards, they will also wear some sort of head covering to show that they are properly submissive to their husbands.  
On the liberal end of the spectrum, pretty much anything goes. Like bikinis.
As a mother of seven daughters and three sons, most of whom are either teens or adults (two already married, one with two children), I have some opinions of my own. I tend to fall somewhere in the moderate zone, having loosened up quite a bit from 10 years ago when I pretty much only wore calf length dresses and the “home school mommy uniform” of denim jumpers.  Some of them looked pretty hideous, especially the ones I made.  Now I usually wear capris or loose walking shorts in warm weather, loose pants or blue jeans in the winter, and V-neck or scoop neck shirts. Maybe it’s because I’m out of the perpetually pregnant stage, and despite my excess weight, I am getting more comfortable with the shape of my own body. Still, my swimsuit has a nearly knee length skirt, and I wear a black camisole under it to raise the neck-line. No bikinis for me. That’s an act of mercy on my part, as much as it is an attempt at moderate modesty.  
Body shape aside, if I had to choose to wear either a bikini or a tunic and a veil, I know I’d go with the latter for modesty’s sake, even if it seems a bit extreme for the American culture. But that would be my choice in a false dichotomy. In the real world, I don’t have to wear either a burqa or a bikini, and I don’t. While I am still pretty careful to be modest in what I wear, I am not hung up on picky rules or fears, nor do I strictly enforce particular standards on my daughters.
What bothers me is not how some conservative folks dress ultra modestly. I respect and admire that, if that is what is really in their hearts to do as an expression of who they are. The problem is when it becomes another self-righteous standard to check off on a list of “If You Want to Be Truly Godly” behaviors. Often, the women in these groups are exhorted to dress a certain way to conform to the expectations of others, and they in turn exercise the same kind of pressure on their own peers. It can become a form of strident one-upmanship and cliquishness. Worse, it can cause alienation and hostility toward (and from) non-compliant newcomers or teens who are learning to evaluate for themselves what they have always been taught. These kinds of rules love company, so it’s not just the modesty. It’s all the other baggage that can come with it, much of it based on fear: of messing up, causing others to stumble, or appearing to be worldly. Or it may be based on pride: of being the elite ones who get it right, being holier and homier than thou. Please don’t hear me saying that all people who dress modestly are self-righteous or legalistic! That is far from the truth! It’s just tragic when a church or Christian movement becomes centered more on the outward rules and less about worshiping Jesus with our hearts.
On the other hand, while I am not about to call a girl a whore if I see more cleavage than I personally think is appropriate, I think too many who identify themselves as Christ-followers throw off common decency in the way they dress. They might think: “If a guy has a problem with my body hanging out all over the place, that’s his fault, not mine.” While we should live under liberty instead of law, we shouldn’t trade in our liberty for licentiousness. I do not think a man should ever sexually harass a woman no matter what she is wearing, but let’s get real. If you dress provocatively, you are advertising that you are cheap goods. It might be false advertising if you really aren’t loose with sexual activity, but you are appearing that way. Like it or not, you shouldn’t be surprised if men – even Christian ones – don’t treat you with respect. 

I think modesty is mostly just learning what is appropriate for each situation and dressing accordingly. I could write a whole lot more, and I haven’t said much about the closely related issue of femininity, but I’ve pretty much said my piece for now. Instead, I’d like to share several web links about the topic of modesty. Please note that these links are “all over the place” on what they endorse, and I do not agree with everything in them! I’m just trying to present a fair balance, starting with pro-more-modesty links. Also keep in mind that several of these links specifically address the issue of whether lust, sexual harrassment, or rape can be blamed on immodesty.
Pro-Modesty Blogs (Nice Ones!)
  • Teaching Modesty to Our Daughters at Raising Homemakers — This is a single post but you will find many more on this site.  They also have a weekly link up party and many of the linked posts are about modesty. I regularly link there.
  • The Modest Mom blog by Caroline – she sponsors regular link-ups to other blog posts about modesty as well

Other Links

Modesty: A Heart Issue by Rachel Miller at the Aquila Report “To seek to adorn ourselves with a “gentle and quiet spirit” is something to aspire to for all of our lives. When we focus on developing an inner beauty that does not fade with time, we will find that our priorities and goals in life will change. Dressing “sexy” or “provocatively” to get attention will not hold the same allure. Our sons, too, will learn to value women not simply for their outward appearance, if we teach them look for the qualities that God finds precious.”

Mixed-Messages of Modestyby Rachel Ramer: “While immodest apparel focuses attention on women as sexual objects, obsessive teaching on dress codes creates the same focus. Preachers and other spiritual leaders reinforce the destructive message that women and girls are so distracting sexually that they must be covered up beyond cultural sensibilities.”

Excellent series on modesty by Becky at Created to Be His:
Five Problems I Have with Slutwalk Marchesby Mary Kassian – be sure to read the comments! Then read responses at the Emotional Abuse and Your Faith blog: Adventures in Missing The Point and Slutwalk Myths Encouraged By CBMW
My Prayer for Christian Fundamentalist Leadersby Wendy Horger Alsup at Practical Theology for Women
A Legalist Goes Shopping at Recovering Grace, a web site for those negatively affected by the teachings of Bill Gothard, ATI, and IBLP

Finally, a little poem/song I wrote many years ago.  You can see my comments about it here: A Woman of Beauty.

A Woman of Beauty
by Virginia Knowles

A beautiful woman is quiet in spirit 
Gentle in all that she does. 
Adorning the inward part
She trusts the Lord with all her heart. 
She is a woman of beauty! 
She is a woman of beauty! 

She does not need ornaments of fancy gold
And it’s not in how she fixes her hair.
As long as she’s clothed in strength and dignity,
It doesn’t matter what else she wears.

A beautiful woman is quiet in spirit
Gentle in all that she does. 
Adorning the inward part
She trusts the Lord with all her heart. 
She is a woman of beauty! 
She is a woman of beauty! 

What do you think?  Leave a comment!  If you have strong feelings on this subject either way, please remember that I would like to keep this as a cordial dialogue!

Virginia Knowles

P.S. Hello again! I just wrote a follow up article “My Thoughts on the Sexualization of the Church (And Other Problems)”  Please take a look and tell me what you think!


About virginiaknowles

I am a mother and grandmother of a huge family, and I still home school my youngest daughter. I write to stay sane. My WordPress blog is a combination of my Blogspot blogs, and may not be continually updated.
This entry was posted in Clothing, Gender ~ Authority, Legalism. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Between the Burqa and the Bikini: A Call to Moderate Modesty

  1. Thank you for sharing this! I really like your moderate approach to modesty. It sounds like we dress pretty similarly!

  2. Anonymous says:

    A Burka is the black, all-covering robe that you described. It is worn by Muslim Afghan women. What is pictured, though, is a woman in a Suri. Most likely she is Indian, or Hindu. Indian women do not wear Burkas. While both do have a head covering, it is like saying an apple is the same as an orange, since they are both a round fruit. I know you meant no offense by your post, so none was taken! Just hoping to enlighten and share some knowledge with you, and I hope you find this of interest. 🙂

  3. Anonymous, thank you so much for the information! I did see a few real burqas with even the eyes covered that day at Sea World. Most of the other ladies appeared to be Middle Eastern Muslim rather than Indian, though the lady in my one picture was Indian.

  4. Kasey says:

    Excellent article! Very tastefully written with much to think about!

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