Last April I attended Q LA, a gathering to discuss ideas for the common good. The event is structured similarly to TED, where each presentation is under 20 minutes. At Q, presenters speak for 18, 9 or 3 minutes. One of the talks I heard came from Jessica Rey on modesty. This past week, I’ve seen her video “blow up” on Facebook. I actually had mixed thoughts on her presentation and thought it might be worthwhile to discuss here. I’ll begin by saying that Jessica had the 9 minute slot, which anyone will admit is challenging to thoroughly discuss any issue in-depth, not the least modesty. I’d also like to add that I do support the practice of modesty, as long as we are willing to enter into the nuances of what modesty is and is not.
My main frustration with Rey’s talk is the oversimplification of the modesty issue. To talk about modesty is to consider issues of the body, shame, views towards women, objectification, manipulation, sexuality, control, and relationality (by no means an exhaustive list). It is through the complexity of this list, that I realize that this whole conversation points to something more significant than clothing.
I hear a deeper echo. An echo of the heart, which is more complex and nuanced than we can fully comprehend.
We are sick at a heart level and our messy beliefs about our bodies and sexuality leak out of our hearts. We have been told lies and half-truths and have internalized them as fact. It follows that modesty is not at its core an issue of clothing, but rather is an issue of the heart. If we are to engage in a conversation on modesty it has to start at a heart level.
When the conversation begins with clothing, it becomes rule based. Wear this. Don’t wear that. I do not need anyone to participate in my modesty. I can just put on a turtleneck and baggy pants and I can check off the modesty box. Yet, no matter how much I wear the “right” things, this in no way addresses the root of the matter. I still may feel body shame. I still may lust. When we start with the heart, we get to the root of what is truly motivating our actions.
Starting the modesty conversation at a heart level also acknowledges that we are needy and cannot do this alone. I need you and you need me. And we both need Jesus like no other. Both men and women are welcomed into the arena at a level playing field. What’s needed as we step into this issue is not a bunch of do’s and don’ts’s , but rather a willingness to get real about what is in our hearts. To listen. To explore why we lust. To explore why we feel shame about our bodies. To relate to each other. To open our hearts to God and let him teach us true modesty. A modesty that seeks to love and honor the other person, while also cherishing our God-given bodies. Not a “modesty” that seeks to control and isolate.
As our distorted views on the body and sexuality come to light, they will not be healed ultimately by more or less clothing. That isn’t to say that there will not be shifts in what is worn or how we view the opposite sex’s bodies, but it is not the clothing that will lead to modesty. It is solely through relationship with God that we can be healed and learn what it means to have a modest heart. Modesty is not something you wear, it is a character of the heart. And it is from the heart that all else flows.
Lord, show us the way.
Further reading on modesty:
Rachel Held Evan thoughtfully explores they ways in which the modesty conversation can lead to the objectification of women. I’d definitely recommend your reading it.
A discussion on whether the modesty movement is helpful or hurtful by Jonathan Merritt.
A collection of varying thoughts on modesty from the excellent Her-meneutics blog.