In our world, modesty is looked at in many incorrect ways – and that’s true both inside and outside religion. Often, it’s approached in a narrow way that limits the full meaning and understanding of modesty as a principle.
Growing up, whenever I learned about modesty, it was always in the context of my body. What I could wear, what I couldn’t. To me, modesty was a list of rules and nothing more. The problem with this approach is that, when you are given a lot of rules but don’t understand the principle behind the rules, it’s easy to think that the rules aren’t actually a big deal.
I can understand the frustration a lot of people – especially women – have with modesty because when you see modesty as a list of what you can and can’t do, it can feel restricting. In fact, this is a problem many people have with religion as a whole. It looks like a lot of restricting rules.
But what people often miss when they look at religion – or, in this case, modesty – is that there are principles behind the rules and guidelines that inspired the rules. Those principles, when understood, give deep reasons for the rules. And when you understand the principles, the rules no longer seem pointless or arbitrary. They make sense.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more about modesty. Just understanding the full meaning of the word helped me see it differently. It is a principle we live our lives by, and it’s much bigger than how we dress or use our bodies.
Modesty is About More than How You Dress
Let’s start with a couple of definitions of modesty that have helped me. I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, but I like to look up the definitions of words that I think I know. I’m usually surprised to find that the words have definitions that change their meaning for me, and modesty is definitely one of those.
Two simple definitions of modesty that I like is “having or showing regard for the decencies of behavior, speech, dress, etc.” and “free from ostentation or show extravagance.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gives a similar definition:
Modesty is an attitude of humility and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If you are modest, you do not draw undue attention to yourself. Instead, you seek to “glorify God in your body, and in your spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:20; see also verse 19).
Obviously, the Church’s definition takes a more religious perspective, but the point of each definition is the same – modesty is a principle that encompasses everything a person does. Yes, that does include how you dress, but it goes far beyond that as well. It includes how you act, speak, interact with others, and perceive yourself.
Those definitions alone have been illuminating for me. Like I said before, I always learned and saw modesty as a list of rules about my body. But I didn’t realize until I was an adult that modesty has to do with a lot more than how I dress. Instead, it’s choosing to not be extravagant or seek “undue attention” in any aspect of my life.
When I look at modesty this way, it’s easier to see why members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as members of other religions are encouraged to be modest. If we take Jesus Christ as our model and example in all things, you can see that He chose to live His life in this way. His focus was doing His Father’s work and serving those around Him, not drawing unnecessary attention to Himself.
Some Misconceptions About Modesty
Because the word “modesty” is so often limited to only part of its definition when it’s taught, I want to point out some myths about modesty that are sometimes taught and believed because of the limited definition that we commonly use.
Myth: Only Women are Responsible for Modesty
Here is probably the biggest myth about modesty – it’s only for women and only women are responsible for living modestly.
Take a second and look back at the definitions I shared a minute ago. Did you notice it? There is not a single mention of women in those definitions. Here’s why – modesty is a principle for everyone to follow. Both men and women. Simple as that.
Everyone – not just women – are instructed to live modestly by the Church. And that means being modest in behavior, in speech, in dress. Even being modest with things like social media. Can you imagine what it would look like if we were all – men and women alike – making the effort to live every part of our lives modestly?
The other side of this myth is that women are often the ones expected to be responsible for modesty. In fact, it’s often put on women to be responsible for the modesty, chastity, and values of men.
But again, look at those definitions. Women are not responsible for men’s modesty. We are all responsible for our own personal modesty. Does that mean it’s okay to do things that make modesty, chastity, etc. harder for others? No. We are all individually responsible for our own modesty, but if we – men or women – do things that we know will make modesty or chastity or whatever harder for someone else, we likely aren’t being modest ourselves.
Frankly, there are no excuses here. No one can say, “Oh, they made me think that inappropriate thing, “ or “It’s their fault I did that thing.”
Nope. It’s on us to be responsible for ourselves – our own behavior, our own language, our own clothing, our own social media posts, our own weaknesses. But remember, even though we need to be responsible for our own actions, we don’t have to do it alone. Christ will help us understand, heal, and change when we are willing to turn to Him.
Myth: Modesty is Restrictive
I mentioned that when modesty is looked at as only a list of rules, it seems restrictive. But when we look at it as a principle of behavior, it becomes less so.
Principles teach truth, and when we live our lives by truth, we become free. Free from negative consequences, free from harmful behaviors, and so on. It’s a different kind of freedom than people usually talk about these days. The way I hear freedom described usually sounds more like agency than freedom. There’s a fine line between their definitions, but here’s how I see it.
Agency is our inherent ability to choose whatever we want. We can choose how we live, whether or not we follow the law, what we want to eat, and so on. That ability is built into us as humans.
Freedom, however, is what we have when our choices don’t control us. Yes, we can choose whether or not we follow the law, but we have to recognize that following that law gives us freedom while breaking the law subjects us to a loss of freedom, with consequences such as imprisonment.
Consequences are inherently going to follow our choices, but some consequences give us freedom while others take it away. We don’t get to choose what those consequences are. We only make the choices that bring the consequences.
Modesty gives us freedom because it helps us become more like Christ. It keeps us safe from the consequences of extreme behavior. For example, extreme anger can lead to damaged relationships, whereas modesty in our behavior helps us maintain good relationships.
Modesty or restraint in our choices is not always popular in the world. But restraint and modesty keep us free from damaging consequences. They do not restrict our ability to choose but do guide us to make choices that maintain our freedom.
Myth: Modesty is Only About Our Bodies
I already touched on this, so I’ll keep this brief. Modesty encompasses all of our behaviors. But so often modesty is talked about as something that is only relevant to our bodies – how we dress and how we act sexually.
This way of teaching modesty limits our ability to live this principle to the fullest. Modesty in every aspect of our lives will give us freedom and safety in every aspect of our lives. And though that does include how we use our bodies, it is not limited to how we use our bodies.
If we started teaching modesty as a principle that is relevant to every aspect of our lives, I think we’d do away with a lot of the damaging perspectives people have toward each other and themselves. And I also think that modesty would be easier to live if we all saw it as something everyone should live in all their behaviors and choices.
Myth: Modesty is Dangerous
I’ve seen this perspective more and more recently, and I’m a little bothered by it. It comes from the idea that modesty is strictly relevant to your body, not other parts of your life as well. And when modesty is looked at only that way, I can see why people could think modesty is dangerous because that perspective suggests that women are guilty for rape or should be ashamed of how their body looks and so on.
I’ve already talked about how modesty is not only about a person’s body. But the reason this perspective bothers me is that it hyper-focuses on one aspect of modesty – that can be damaging when portrayed incorrectly – and demonizes the whole principle as a result.
Modesty is not dangerous – when it is taught correctly and completely. Satan wants to limit and degrade each of us, so he is, of course, going to perpetuate the incorrect or incomplete teaching of principles. And when we allow him to perpetuate these teachings, then yes, these teaching do become dangerous.
Modesty is one of those teachings that is not always taught completely or correctly, and yes, that can make it dangerous to our physical and spiritual welfare. But instead of demonizing the whole principle based on incorrect or incomplete teachings, let’s all help each other to understand it correctly and fully so we can teach it correctly and completely as the wonderful principle it is.
Myth: Immodesty Diminishes Your Value
Finally, I want to address this myth. When modesty is taught incompletely or incorrectly, people sometimes come away with the idea that if they or someone they know are dressing immodestly, then they are diminishing or cheapening their inherent value as humans.
Please, if you have ever believed this, pay attention to what I’m about to say – your value as a person does not change no matter what choices you make in your life. Every single one of us – including you and every single person you’ve ever met – is a beloved child of God.
Your value to Him does not change. He cannot and will not withhold the consequences of your choices, but that does not mean that He does not love you or that He thinks you have lost value. You are His. You are His child, and He loves you regardless of what you do. You still have value when you dress immodestly, when you’ve suffered rape, or when you make a mistake.
His love does not give you an excuse to do whatever you want without consequences. God is a just God, and He will enforce justice. But He is also a God of incredible mercy, and He has made it possible for you to grow, change, and return to Him.
Let’s Reassess Modesty in Our Lives
When modesty is fully understood, it can be taught completely and correctly. Part of that understanding comes from our own self-assessment. How modest are we in all aspects of our lives? This is something we will all have to work on throughout our entire lives, but any step towards living modestly is a step in the right direction.
Let’s also take responsibility to teach modesty completely. We will all be more willing to live it when we understand and teach it completely. Our goal is to lift ourselves and each other closer to God, not to judge or belittle each other. Understanding the fullness of modesty will help us all see it differently and help us help each other live it better.
Most importantly, let’s try more to see Christ in modesty. To see how He lived this principle and set the example for us. We can be more like Him as we try to learn from Him and His actions.