Modesty = A Function of Context

Here’s a quick point that shouldn’t be ignored in discussions of modesty culture/purity culture/rape culture. The whole idea of modesty is always a function of culture. There are no absolute rules for “modest” vs “immodest.” Let me give a quick illustration that came up over lunch in the Bible Society office recently.

One member of the office had just spent a week in the Philippines. Some of the younger members of the team who had never been there before were told ahead of time that they had to be extremely modest by North American standards. Many wore shorts and jersey-style sleeveless tops anyway. Not bad at all here, except maybe in some of the most conservative churches, especially if we were to reach the mid-40’s Celsius and extremely humid that it was there. We generally in North America consider this forceful modesty to be oppressive.

Another member was at a conference in the Netherlands, staying in a hotel. Clothing was not allowed in the saunas. Clothing was not allowed after 8pm at the pool. It was not even that you were allowed to swim naked. If you wanted to be in the pool area, you had to be naked. And that isn’t particularly unusual in a lot of Europe. If a hotel pool even allowed nudity – let alone forced it – in the southern US, there would be an uproar. Churches would be protesting the vileness of being naked and unashamed.  There would be Internet campaigns for sending hate letters to the people in charge.

Everything Covered But Her Eyes vs Nothing Covered But Her Eyes; Which Is More Oppressive?

This comic has a point…

Christianity Today said something similar this way:

As we travel across the globe, we see what constitutes modest varies from place to place, and in certain contexts, women feel no shame about exposing their breasts. Exposing your knees or elbows in one culture might be like putting “glitter on your boobs” in ours. 

How it gets worked out in terms of our own actions is not a simple answer, but it needs to be considered if we are ever tempted to get up in arms about modesty questions.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • A good reminder. I’ve gotten into arguments with folks on “modesty” before who claim that more “modern” Mennonite women are “immodest”… and a good trump card to use is to point out the problems Mennonite missionaries had in Puerto Rico, requiring the natives on the island to wear the cape dresses and suit coats in the middle of a tropical summer…

    …but, and I know this goes towards modesty culture and purity culture junk… we need to remember that same context when we make our decisions. Again, this is not to “blame the victim”, but as I pointed out in my article on Beyonce’s performance at the Super Bowl this past year, while Beyonce showed her strength and confidence as a woman, the cultural context of the Super Bowl with the sex trafficking cloud that hovers over that event adds information to it… No man should take Beyonce’s dress and movements as excuse to rape or abuse a woman. That is not right. But enflaming an already riled up audience may also not necessarily be the best thing.