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More than Hemlines

Learning Modesty


It used to be a black and white division between bikinis and one-piece bathing suits. Harsh judgement for the girl in booty shorts and approving resignation for my own stitched-up knee shorts.

It was about hemlines and skin and avoiding the aghast grandmother. Easy to be modest whilst quietly labeling others hussy (but still sort of wish you could wear a pencil skirt that snug).

I am confident modesty is a Godly way of living, but I spent many years following the letter of the law without conceiving of God at all. Fortunately, I am learning.

Learning Modesty: An Anecdote

Last month I learned about modesty in an unexpected circumstance.  I agreed to substitute teach Zumba for my friend, and it was tooootally out of my comfort zone. I don’t dance or wear spandex under normal circumstances, and I don’t dance or wear spandex as an instructor. So while I quasi-danced in loose shorts, I felt self-conscious. But I really wanted to serve my friend.

I learned something about modesty that day, but it had nothing to do with spandex versus basketball shorts. Actually, it wasn’t about clothing at all.

Summun Bonum

On the one hand, I felt self-conscious. And on the other, I wanted to serve my friend.

That is it, my friends; the summun bonum of modesty as I understand it. Satan wants me to focus on myself. God wants me to think of others. How I dress* is a token of which master I serve.

So when it comes to clothing, self-conscious Satan encourages glitzy, glammy, too tight, and a little lower to draw attention to myself. Or he promotes sloppy and unattractive to reinforce negative beliefs about myself. Either way, he leads me to think about me. Self-conscious.

In contrast, God doesn’t dwell in the closet too long. “Look nice, be clean; we have people to look after!” is what I hear the Spirit say.

How short can my skirt be? How tight is too tight? If I have to ask, I’m probably distracted from a greater cause. And when I judge others for their clothing choices, I’m forgetting the greater truth. In dress and physical appearance, as in all things, God wants me to follow the higher law: to love God with all my heart, and to love my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:36-39).

I love the way Susan Tanner described modesty. When she was an insecure teenager, Sister Tanner’s mother repeatedly taught her this higher law—

“You must do everything you can to make your appearance pleasing, but the minute you walk out the door, forget yourself and start concentrating on others.”

So will I continue to wear knee-length shorts and sleeves? Yes, for a variety of reasons. But whatever length my shorts, I hope to dress with God in mind. According to the Savior’s example, I wish to reinforce service-oriented thoughts and actions, not self-conscious ones (Luke 4). And the way I dress is a token of this truth.

*(and think and speak and act). Because modesty applies to more than clothing.

Ps. The best writing I’ve seen about modesty is Nonreasons, and Actual Reasons, for Modesty. If you’ve not read it, you really should.

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Jenny Harris
Jenny is a star-gazing, book-clubbing mother of two. She has a Master’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies, which is mildly comical (but also a boon in parenting and relationships). Her kids will attest that she’s crazy about reading aloud, time out of doors, and creative play. Her family’s goal is the “abundant life,” as prescribed by Jesus. You can read more posts by Jenny here.

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