I don’t stick to what most people would consider “conventional Christian” views on wardrobe choices. Maybe you don’t, either. So to be clear, I’m referring to the perspective that more revealing clothing choices are inherently immoral, such as two-piece swimwear, short shorts, spaghetti strap tank tops, skin-tight leggings, and so forth.
Although I used to adhere to this conventional ideal of Christian modesty.
When Family Fails Us
I grew up participating in a Christian denomination that prefers women to wear skirts below the knee, no makeup, long hair… all that. I stuck with it for many years, the very picture of prairie innocence as an adult.
In fact, somewhere in my garage, you’ll find a box of actual prairie dresses. I fully embraced the “modest is hottest” ideal. Leggings were for keeping your legs warm under your dress and so on. Why am I not there anymore, you ask? Because it’s my opinion that it doesn’t work.
In the hot summers when I was a young child, I sometimes wore these short, thin pillowcase nightgowns to bed that my grandmother made for me, leaving my legs bare to make up for the lack of air conditioning in the house.
When wearing such traditional nightwear at around nine years old, I was molested by an adult male relative who was supposed to be babysitting me. For years, I assumed the blame for this tragedy because I wore my summer pajamas that failed to cover my knees. I never thought to fault the adult who made his own choices, so like 90% of child sexual abuse victims, I didn’t tell anyone what happened for years.
You see, long before that night, I’d been taught that wearing things like a summer nightgown equated to giving consent, but I’d believed that it only worked with a dating partner. You know, this stuff only happens when you’re 16 and you dress too skimpy and go too far with your boyfriend, and then they can’t stop. You’re to blame for forcing the guy to fail, of course.
That night and for many years to follow, I thought I was an adulterer condemned to hell because I’d assumed a nine-year-old couldn’t give consent to a non-boyfriend, through my fashion choices.
The way that fashion was included in morality didn’t work for me that night. It doesn’t work for a lot of the 25-33% of girls who are sexually abused by 18, many of whom think it’s their own fault.
When School Fails Us
I also attended schools with all the common dress code standards, including rules about
- how long your hem had to be,
- how high the neckline was, and
- how wide your tank top straps had to be.
These standards claim to teach how to dress for the environment, dress for success, how to act in the adult world, and so on. But the lesson is fundamentally flawed.
I met the dress code by wearing high-necked men’s t-shirts because most women’s shirts have a slightly larger neck opening than men’s, and they show the collarbone which was a no-no. I completed my school “uniform” with either baggy jeans or surfer style long shorts. I found, like most of the girls in my school, that this approach guaranteed our learning wouldn’t be interrupted by adults wanting to measure our bodies.
Thanks to this system, I graduated high school with a set of “wardrobe skills” that actually hindered me in the working world. What should corporate bosses think of younger female employees showing up in a “uniform” of a men’s t-shirt and jeans? Needless to say, I wasn’t learning how to dress for success; I was learning how to dress for a lifetime of “you want fries with that?”
When Religion Fails Us
Here’s the most important reason that I don’t hold to common Christian views on fashion.
Men are human beings, created in God’s image.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
Genesis 1:26 (NIV)
Now, either we believe that men are created with all the intelligence and self-control that God says men have, or we don’t. Either we believe that men are capable of this kind of leadership, or we don’t.
Either we believe the Bible, or we don’t.
But if we believe it, then we can’t teach our kids that men are mere figureheads. We can’t teach our kids that women were created to treat them like perpetual toddlers in need of someone to control their every thought and action. We can’t teach our kids that God’s plan is for the fox to guard the henhouse while the hens spend their lives hiding in grain sacks, to keep the fox from noticing that they look like a tasty snack.
We can’t teach our kids that, but we do. And we teach the teens and adults the same broken theology.
Nevermind how one-sided this is. I’ve mentioned only women’s clothing so far in part because I am one, but mostly because I’m unaware of whether moral values are attached to various menswear choices at all.
I don’t think they are.
My Choice to Move Forward
We can only do so much about the predators of the world, and schools will always be mostly reactional, but our Christian worldview is our responsibility.
We must stop teaching (and believing) that God’s plan is to put the most dangerous of wild animals into a position of authority over the most vulnerable of us. That starts with not teaching our girls that God wants them to use their personal choices in passive-aggressive style to control every man they’ll ever meet, and instead teaching our girls to make fashion choices based on fashion preferences rather than fear of being victimized by (or victimizing) half the human race.
Then we have to each decide for ourselves whether the conventional Christian thinking about feminine fashion makes sense in our own lives.
For me, they don’t.