In Christian circles, at least, the question of modesty is one that is frequently the topic of hot debate. The debate, for some unknown reason, almost always turns around the following question: Is it alright for a girl to wear a bikini? I have been involved in many such discussions, and I have always been a little disturbed by the inherent tendency of a certain people in the debate to set up as an infallible rule that it is always, in every circumstance, not honoring to God, for a woman to wear a bikini. This claim is, properly understood; the same as saying that it is a sin to wear a bikini. This is a disturbing claim because it is the same thing that the Pharisees were doing in Israel; Laying down as a law, not something that was explicitly commanded by God, nor implied by anything God said, but, a personal opinion on a subject. Typically this practice is known as legalism. The subject in question is the subject of modesty.
There is another disturbing tendency that I have noticed in these conversations, namely, no one seems to have a clear idea of what the word “modesty” or its negation, “immodesty” actually means. It’s thrown around as if it carries a lot of weight, but, no one takes the time to define it, and explain how it is, that, in light of the definition of modesty, wearing this or that is immodest. It seems obvious that the term modesty does not primarily apply to clothing, but to an attitude. It is simply ignorant to lay down the law without first establishing the foundations upon which the law is to be based. In this case the foundation should be the definition of modesty. So, in this short thought on modesty, I will first explain what the term means, and then I will give some practical examples that will illustrate how to be modest.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term modest, primarily, as “placing a moderate estimate on one’s abilities or worth.” The definitions that follow read, “neither bold nor self-assertive: tending toward diffidence; arising from or characteristic of a modest nature; observing the proprieties of dress and behaviour (decent); limited in size, amount or scope; unpretentious.” To be modest is primarily to have a particular attitude. It is to be moderate in how one portrays one’s abilities and character. Modesty involves the outward portrayal of one’s proper worth; it is how we present our self’s to others. Therefore, a person who is immodest could also be described as being pretentious or over extravagant. Interestingly, a person who is shy, withdrawn, or, as far as clothes are concerned, drab, is also immodest. That is, they are not, to use Webster’s definition, “placing a moderate estimate on their self-worth.” They are underestimating, or downplaying, or, as we might say, they are committing the sin of “false humility.” You see, moderation is all about the mid-point; it’s all about not going to EITHER extreme. This by the way is the common biblical teaching on almost every ethically “grey” subject. So, to be modest is not so much about what clothing you’re wearing as about the attitude that drives you to dress in that way. Modesty is also about the circumstances in question. This is where we get have some fun.
As I mentioned above, it is almost official policy of many Christians to claim that bikinis are in and of themselves indecent. Of course, if modesty is defined as we mentioned above, then we cannot make such a declaration. Rather, bikinis, and any article of clothing, will be moderate or immoderate depending on the circumstances. There are two ways, based upon the above definition, in which a piece of clothing could be modest or immodest. The first way depends upon the person wearing the clothing, and the second depends upon the circumstances that the person is in. Certain clothing, with might be modest on one person might also be immodest on another, and that same piece of clothing might be modest in one circumstance, but not in another. (This is not, by the way, the claim that ethics is relative, but, rather, the claim that the answers to many ethical questions are based upon the proper application of the appropriate principle. The principles of moral philosophy are absolute, but, they must be applied with wisdom and discernment, in each circumstance.)
Let us begin with the second way, that is, how the circumstances determine the modesty or immodesty of an article of clothing. Let get some examples on the table. Some of these I take directly from those people who claim that girls should not wear bikinis. Is it immodest for a woman to wear a bikini when she will be spending the evening alone with her husband in their spa? Is it immodest for a woman to wear lingerie, or even to be naked, when having sex with her husband? Is it immodest for a woman to wear a bikini in a spa, at a party, to which only girls are invited, at a private house? It seems that the answer to each of these questions is NO! In these circumstances, at least, it is not immodest for a woman to wear a bikini. Therefore, we must, in fact we are obligate to conclude, that a bikini, as such, in and of itself, is not immodest. Rather, it is the circumstances in which it is worn that will decide if the girl is immodest. Note the change of emphasis in the previous sentence. It is not the bikini that is modest or immodest, but the girl wearing it, depending on the circumstances. Let’s get some more examples on the table.
If I’m going to a dinner party that is a formal affair, is it modest or immodest for me to wear my jeans, with the hole in one knee, and my favorite hoody, with the black skull on the left shoulder? Now most people, in discussing modesty, never ask this type of question, because all they are concerned with is how much skin is the girl allowed to show? But that is only one circumstance in which modesty, and the principles of modesty, applies. The answer the question that I just asked is that it would be immodest for me to wear those jeans and that hoody in that circumstance, because I am not dressed appropriately for the circumstance, I am not decent. The other side of the coin is that it is equally immodest for me to wear a black suit to a superbowl party.
Another example: Most of those who tend towards the claim that bikini’s are immodest; don’t find any problem with one piece bathing suits. However, is it modest or immodest for a woman to wear a one piece bathing suit when they go to graduation, to a wedding at a church, or to a funeral? Obviously in each of these circumstances it is immodest because the circumstances require that one dress either in a suit or some other formal attire. So, one piece bathing suits are not always modest. Was it modest or immodest for Yulia Nestsiarenka of Belarus, who won the gold medal for the 100 yard dash in the summer olympics of 2004, to wear the equivalent of a sports bra and a bikini bottom to run that race? We would tend to say that this is a ridiculous question as that is just what Olympic runners wear. Yet if she were to wear the same outfit to visit the queen of England, it would be immodest.
Now let us give some examples of how one piece of clothing can be modest or immodest depending on the person wearing it. Some examples will help to clear up this issue. Take for example a red, medium size, one piece bathing suit, such as female lifeguards frequently wear. For a woman of a certain size, that is, a woman for whom that bathing suit is a perfect fit, it is perfectly modest. However, for a woman who should be wearing a small, extra-small, large or extra-large, that bathing suit is immodest. For myself, it would be immodest, and honestly, bordering on ridiculous for me to wear a size 50 pair of jeans. However, that pair of jeans would be perfectly modest on a bigger man. A small t-shirt would be modest on a woman who is thin and about 5’4”, give or take, but that same, small t-shirt would be immodest on a woman who is big-boned and 6 feet tall. The shorts that my daughter wears are perfectly modest, on her! If a grown woman were to put them on, they would be immodest.
Modesty and immodesty applies as much to men as to women, and is determined not by the piece of clothing in question, but by the person wearing the clothing, and by the circumstance in question. We cannot just point to a piece of clothing and declare that it is in and of itself immodest, rather, the person is modest or immodest based upon what they are wearing in the circumstances in question. Of course, and I have not taken the time to explore these areas, modesty also has to do with how I act, and speak. The same principles apply to actions and speech as to what clothing I wear. What we need to be developing are not people who never wear bikinis in public, or, it pains me to say it, Speedo’s. Rather, what we need to be worried about, is teaching people how to properly determine what to wear, how to act, and how to talk, based upon the situation in question. That is called practical wisdom, which includes modesty, which is being used to properly portray one’s own self worth, in each circumstance in which we find ourselves. So, women, there is no need to throw away, or burn your bikini, you just need to be wise about when is the appropriate time to wear it. I, personally, have never found an appropriate time for wearing a Speedo, though I have friends who, perhaps wiser than I, have.