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From Vanity to Modesty

By December 29, 20114 Comments

These last 2 weeks have been significant for me as a writer. In case you didn’t hear, I wrote a post for Her.meneutics on modesty called “How ‘Modest is Hottest’ is Hurting Christian Women” (I did not come up with that title, by the way), and it has received a lot of attention. Very rapidly, it became the most read post of 2011 and the feedback has ranged between anger and “Amens.”

Whenever I write for Her.meneutics, I am limited to a word count of 1,000 words which means I don’t have room to write everything I would like. Additionally, some issues arose in the comments section of the post that were not fully addressed in the piece, so I thought I’d share a few closing thoughts here.

First, when it comes to blogging and writing publicly there is one thing you should know about me: I don’t like criticizing specific people or ministries. Even when done respectfully, there is an element to this one-sided format that seems a little unfair and is most likely hurtful to the person being criticized, so I avoid doing it as often as possible. However, writing for Her.meneutics has taught me that I cannot make blanket statements about “Christians” without giving specifics. It’s just not good writing. That is why my editor asked me to be a bit more specific about which Christian leaders have endorsed this phrase, which I did as delicately as I could.

Whenever I do air a public disagreement with another Christian(s), I try to be loving and respectful. I pray for them, and I pray that they will receive my words in the spirit that I wrote them. Even so, there is a time for disagreement, and this was one of those times. A number of the commenters felt that I was attacking the women who endorse the phrase “modest is hottest” and not giving credit for the work they are doing. That was not at all the tone I hoped to strike. Christians should be able to disagree with one another as long as the disagreement is done in spirit of Christ. Whether or not I was successful in doing so is up for debate, but at least you know it was my intent.

Returning to the issue of modesty itself, my article was motivated by one primary issue: God created the female body, the female body is good, and our language and treatment of the female body should reflect that truth. It frequently does not. I think I made that point clear in my article, but there is one final point I would like to make here. It concerns the basic definition of modesty.

Merriam-Webster defines modesty the following way:

  • Freedom from conceit or vanity
  • Propriety in dress, speech, or conduct

As much as Christian modesty is traditionally given to women to uphold, this definition clearly has implications for both men and women. I particularly love the first definition because it provides us with a great standard against which to measure our ideas about modesty. A Christian woman might cover her body from head to toe but that does not guarantee she is “free from conceit or vanity.” In fact, some of the “modest is hottest” ideology helps women to be “modest” without having to sacrifice their vanity.

In 1 Timothy 2:9 Paul instructs women to “adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.” Notice that there is nothing here about covering one’s cleavage, though it is possibly implied. Instead, the emphasis is on vanity. Paul is concerned with our priorities, what we consider most beautiful and highly valued, and what brings us glory. Is it our outward adornments, our wealth, our bodies, our successes, or is it a life lived in submission to God?

I would love to reclaim that definition of modesty, one that both men and women can strive after. It is a definition that reveals the current hypocrisy in teachings about modesty and orients us rightly toward God. It is a more difficult goal that goes beyond legalistic appearances in favor of spiritual transformation. But it is the kind of modesty we should teach Christians. It is the kind of modesty I desperately need the grace of God to embody. It is a modesty free of pride and free of vanity. Let us strive for that.


  • Al Hsu says:

    Sharon – FYI, we’re publishing a book next year on Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, and that book notes that Western Christians always read the modesty in 1 Tim 2:9 as sexual modesty, not showing skin, etc. But in the original culture, most women would not need to have been told to be sexually modest in their dress. Contextually, Paul’s point may well have been more about economic modesty, not flaunting your wealth with expensive clothing or gold jewelry. So I think you’re right on target to look at vanity as the umbrella issue, which includes appearance and sexuality but is certainly not limited to it.

  • Becca says:

    Sharon –

    Thanks for taking the time to expound on modesty in light of your recent Her.meneutics piece. I want you to know that your blog over there was helpful for me in my spiritual transformation. I know I don’t have the right understanding about modesty because in my childhood and my teen years, it was about shame and covering cleavage.

    When your post about ‘Modest is Hottest’ came out, I was already working out a few things in my mind. Here’s a blog I wrote in the midst of that week:

    Know that God is using your words to help us women think, process, heal, and sort through the lies of the enemy. And also to embrace the humility Jesus so perfectly modeled. As the Holy Spirit continues to work out restoration in this broken world, may His redemption penetrate every area of our lives.

  • Tim says:

    You’ve given us a great insight here, Sharon: “It is a more difficult goal that goes beyond legalistic appearances in favor of spiritual transformation.” When it comes to leaglistic dress codes, there is nothing modest at all about a woman wearing something beceause she is forced to do so.


    P.S. Your intent in the post was plain to me!

  • mdoe says:

    This is good. It makes me think. I once heard someone say that modesty is as it relates to your attire is like humility expressed in dress. In some ways I think that would affect our motivations to show off our bodies sexually or to show off our status. IDK. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this concept. This next question may totally miss the mark for the purpose of this post but i will ask anyway… I know it’s not about showing cleavage or wearing your clothes too tight but what are your thoughts about how does this definition of modesty (which i agree with) affect our dress? I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think men and women should be taught how to dress in a way that honors each other and the Lord. The problem is so many people have different opinions on what “right” looks like. Appreciate your thoughts

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