Subjectivity makes things difficult

I think Cane Caldo is doing a good work on bringing out the difficulty modern American Christianity has with the concept of modesty. When dealing with clothing, there’s a continuum between something that basically everyone can point to and say, “That’s immodest” – like skintight pants or shirts that show off lots of cleavage – and then there’s all the other clothing that people can get into disagreements about. Hemlines on skirts and collars on shirts; sleeves and headdresses. That means that modesty is a conversation in which people influence each other, rather than a debate in which there is a winner and a loser. How irritating!

One of the other reasons it’s difficult to have a productive conversation is that people will use various gambits to defend themselves whenever they perceive criticism of their choices. First there’s the quote that Cane points out, which is the defense of those who don’t want any rules for modesty: “Any intentional setting of boundaries–even by the community–immediately disqualifies such boundaries as phony.”

I haven’t been following the comments closely enough to pull context on that one; I may have some time to track down a direct link later. But let me just say that the above attitude would have come as quite a shock to both Baptist-run private schools that I attended in middle school! They were quite strict about their intentionally set boundaries, and the girls were given objective guidelines as to the placement of our skirts’ hemlines in relation to our knees. (Ironically, I didn’t like the uniform at one of the schools because I felt that the skirt was too short.)

So I certainly think that disqualifying an intentionally set boundary as “phony” merely because it is intentional is a laughably transparent excuse to defend doing whatever one wants without criticism. Localities have intentionally set boundaries on what qualifies as appropriate public attire since time immemorial, and will continue to do so in the future. People do need guidelines, and it’s a very masculine trait to want to sharply define these, even in a realm of life more given to subjective influences like women’s fashion. (Yiayia probably just “knows it when she sees it,” rather than using rulers and objective scales to determine immodesty.)

Those who wish to be more modest than the current mainstream culture are going to have to set some boundaries, deliberately, rather than going along with the flow and doing whatever everyone else is doing. Disqualifying boundaries simply because they’re artificial makes no sense, especially when dealing with clothing! ALL clothing is artificial!

However, there’s another defense that springs out whenever this topic involves a discussion with people who don’t always see eye-to-eye on where the boundaries ought to go: the Holier-Than-Thou Card. It occupies the opposite extreme to the You’re-A-Pharisee (the phony boundary) Card, and serves the exact same purpose: to shut down conversation.

I’ll have to thank Cane for kinda-sorta pulling this one at the end of his blog post, because I think it illustrates very neatly the problem of sticking to the narrow path. I’d like to avoid attributing bad motives to people in this discussion, so I want to make plain that Cane’s got a really good point. There are people out there who will say exactly those things in order to keep the shepherds from doing any shepherding. Christians do need to keep in mind that they should serve the Lord even when everyone else around them is going astray. But there’s a temptation for people who are “holding the line” against temptations to attribute this “They’re sneering at me because of my serving the Lord” motivation to people who are criticizing means and not ends. 

Looking at the extremes, on the one hand, we have sexual immodesty (and its defenders) and on the other hand, we have religious immodesty, and its defenders. And caught in the middle are people who’ve been burned by both, trying not to get into the internet-argument equivalent of PTSD triggers, which have a tendency to derail everything. I don’t want this to devolve into the usual religious flame war between the You’re-A-Pharisee set and the Holier-Than-Thou set. I actually agree with Cane completely that Christians need to stand firm in serving the Lord in the face of sneering. It would be so much easier if we could just have objective standards, but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a non-culturally-dependent expression of exactly what constitutes modest women’s fashion. Phooey.

Which means I actually need to talk about modesty.

So what do I mean by religious immodesty? Let us consult the dictionary, and look at definition 2 for modest: “free from ostentation or showy extravagance.” Modesty is not just about hemlines, spandex, and cleavage. Your clothing can be ostentatious no matter how pure and sincere your intentions are. Just as a woman could be wearing something immodest without realizing it, the modesty crowd can fall into ostentation without meaning to. This is the source of my concern for young girls who would rather wear something other than hand-sewn clothing considered utterly strange by all her peers. If she’s getting teased for consistently dressing more modestly than her peers, that’s one thing: but being teased for dressing like someone with no fashion sense is another thing entirely. Are those girls internalizing what you think you’re teaching them? Or are they going to hear nothing but an endless list of rules for fencing the law? That danger exists, at least for some. I don’t want other families to suffer the same way mine did, over a totalitarian form of outward morality that put the process above the goal.

Nor is the choice of fashion a binary one. There’s more to choose from than leggings and hand-sewn out-of-style dresses. For instance, you could wear hemline-modest clothing that isn’t ugly. There are modest, non-European modern clothing styles readily available in many areas, too. If part of your goal is to make a startling visual statement – immodest modesty, as it were – I’d recommend picking some appealing style that might catch on in your area just as a tactical maneuver. It’s not that standing out is to be always avoided – since following God’s commands means that Christians are going to stand out. But…

If you’re deliberately dressing in a way that draws attention to yourself, are you really being modest?


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13 Responses to Subjectivity makes things difficult

  1. Cane Caldo says:

    But there’s a temptation for people who are “holding the line” against temptations to attribute this “They’re sneering at me because of my serving the Lord” motivation to people who are criticizing means and not ends.

    But you actually did sneer. You called out Mennonites and Amish specifically as uncool and unattractive. On what basis have you made this denunciation of them? Is there a call in the Scriptures to be cool and attractive? From where do you pronounce judgment.

    You sneered at them, and now you’re trying to rationalize it.

  2. I find it interesting that you jumped on the fact that my daughter gets comments, but you immediately passed judgment without sufficient information as to why. So allow me, please, to enlighten you:

    My daughters and I do not wear pants in public. By that, let me clarify by stating that we do wear them when working out with a skirt over as in that case the pants protect modesty. By the same token, both of my daughters have a supply of shorts they also wear for the same reason. But a skirt is always over all. She wears elastic waist, fitted waist, pleated and gathered, tiered and so forth, every style except a straight style and nothing that will fit tightly around the hips. I also don’t allow her to wear waistbands at her hips, something which I have seen is getting to be the style these days….just like all those boys with their pant waists around their hips. Not in this family. ‘Tain’t happenin’ as long as I’m living and breathing.

    My daughter got comments from children at our homeschool co-op because she doesn’t wear pants. When she goes to Little Flowers (that’s a Catholic girls’ club, you can read more about it if you do a Google search), the uniform is the uniform shirt with jeans. She wears the uniform shirt with a denim skirt, same thickness of fabric as her brothers’ jeans. I made it; mid-calf length, elastic waist and a good, full skirt with side pockets. It’ll last her as long as she doesn’t grow taller. 🙂

    I talked to her about why we don’t wear pants. I told her that I wanted her to get used to dressing like a girl. However, I also told her that I wasn’t going to absolutely forbid her unless her father absolutely forbade her, and that I didn’t want her doing it just because her mother made her dress this way; I wanted her to understand why and make it her own. If she hasn’t made it her own and only does it because Mom tells her to, then I have failed as a mother. Praying at the abortion clinics was a huge factor in this, as it opened the door to teaching in purity. This led to the “why”, with modesty being the shield for purity, and an understanding that impurity naturally leads to murder — in this case, the murder of the unborn, because tempting the boys to lust through our dress can lead people into sinful relations, leading to unplanned pregnancies, leading to murder….you get my drift, so there is no point in dragging this out.

    When I grew up, my mother was big on necklines….practically everything had to be up at the throat, but she wasn’t too worried about our hemlines for some odd reason. She was from the sixties, where hemlines hit literally right at the knee and seldom below, so I think that was a big factor. I asked my husband about this. He said that length of skirts was much, much more important than necklines being right at the throat. I figure he knows what he’s talking about. My mother has a fit if I wear a jewel neckline without a collar, but sneers at me because she thinks my skirts are too long; she says I’m dowdy. Her hemlines hit just barely below her knee and if there is a breeze around, yikes…

    If you saw us on the street, you’d not think we looked odd, unless you think a woman and some girls wearing mid-calf skirts that are not form fitting to our posterior ends odd and unfashionable. It would be worse, in my opinion, if I went about with form fitting clothing and dishonored my marriage vows. My body is for my husband to see and delight in, not any other person.

    • pancakeloach says:

      Mom-in-the-Shoe, I hope you don’t think I’m “passing judgement” on you or your daughters for doing as your husband wants. That is absolutely not my intention and I wouldn’t care how odd you looked, you have to do as your husband wants. Period. You mentioned being worried over the potential for ridicule, so I merely offered my own opinion on the general circumstances, informed by my own observations, which you are welcome to ignore totally. I’m just a random woman on the internet, after all.

    • It would be worse, in my opinion, if I went about with form fitting clothing and dishonored my marriage vows. My body is for my husband to see and delight in, not any other person.

      This, right here, is the exact problem. Pancakeloach says “If you dress in a particular way you will look weird”.

      Mom in the Shoe reads is as “It’s better to wear form-fitting clothing and dishonor my wedding vows than wear odd-looking clothes”.

      You got offended MitS, understandably, but it affected your judgment of the situation. You are reading him wrong and imputing motives he never expressed.

      This happens to me all the time. I will say something and people will think it really reveals my secret liberal motives because I don’t agree with them on everything. But it doesn’t. It means what I say and no more, and if you think it implies something else you can ask me and I’ll clarify.

      • pancakeloach says:

        Yes, thanks, Malcolm. I recommend choosing your weirdness with an eye to local tactical advantage – without compromising on whatever the truly important elements are, like form-fit. When fighting a Culture War, it’s better to be a trendsetter than on the fringe. Basically, ID what’s really important and what’s just accidentals, assimilate anything useful and popular locally to up the appeal factor, and take the fight to marketing your brand as the awesome new look in your circle. If you can pull it off, not only can you stop worrying about your kids getting teased into being ashamed of their appearance and start worrying about them getting inflated egos instead, but you’ll have won a big victory for good, too.

  3. pancakeloach says:

    I used “Mennonite” because that’s the subculture with which I associated that particular style of dress that Mom-in-the-Shoe linked when she was talking about being worried over the teasing her daughters receive. If they lived in a Mennonite community, there wouldn’t be any such teasing, because their clothing wouldn’t stand out. Now, you could say that I’m misremembering what Mennonite people wear and thus I shouldn’t be referring to that style as Mennonite, but the truth of the matter is that if you wear something that is drastically out of style, no matter WHAT style it is, you’re going to get negative attention. That’s just the way human socialization works. I could have easily used some other example of cultural displacement, but I used the one that *someone else* brought up FIRST because it was APPLICABLE, not because I have a personal animus against people whose dress offends my delicate sensibilities. If there’s a better word for it than “Mennonite” that wouldn’t require me to stick a long explanation in every time I refer to it, I’d be glad to run a search-and-replace on these posts.

    /flames on

    You’re so quick to say that I’m sneering and judging, but observing that a certain style of clothing is out of place is an observation of FACT, not a moral judgement. Pointing out that people will mock you for wearing something out of style is not a sneering judgement of that style or some kind of moral denunciation. Having a difference of opinion on aesthetics is not the end of the world. When did I say that people in Mennonite communities should change their style because I happen to think it’s ugly? In those communities, it’s not lame or ugly, it’s normal. If I lived there, I would wear similar clothing, too – because I would want to fit in and not draw attention to myself by wearing something so different that it screams “Look at me, everybody!!!” Even if I preferred a different style. I could be just as modest dressed in an Indian saree… and still get odd looks and negative comments, just for being DIFFERENT. Not different in a good way, or different in a bad way, just different. That’s all it takes.

    Clothing has regional dialects just like language. Using it effectively means taking into account how others will perceive you. Isn’t that the point of dissing the yoga pants and spangled-butt spandex jeans so strongly? To tell women that men will perceive them as flaunting sex if women wear them in public? You’re not trying to create a perception that’s not there already – AND NEITHER AM I.

    It seems to me that you’ve spent so long heaping scathing moral judgement and condemnation on modern popular styles – and I’m not saying that you don’t have a good reason for doing that, mind – that you’re reading the same attitude into my writing even when I’ve gone out of my way to say that I DON’T think there’s some kind of inherent moral failing in dressing like a Mennonite, or even like a nun, if that’s what you feel is right. But I’m not going to fall for this emotion-based shaming where saying “Hey, that style looks totally uncool in this community, so if you’re concerned about peer hazing, how about trying a different style that still meets your objective criteria like hem-length?” is somehow The Worst Thing Ever. Are you REALLY that concerned with what others think is cool, Cane? Why does my opinion, stated AS an opinion that people are perfectly free to disregard without my calling them immoral for doing so, bother you so much? You’re the one making blatant negative moral judgments about other people’s clothing! Whereas I’m just saying that I find that style less than aesthetically pleasing and suggesting some alternative approaches to modest dress that might cut down on a problem someone else originally brought up. With that style IN PARTICULAR.

    I have spent my ENTIRE LIFE looking Uncool and needing the intervention of others – usually expressed in negative terms – to even BEGIN to grasp the elements of style and communicating effectively with clothing. So yeah, if you whine about how others treat you based on your clothing and refuse to do anything to adapt, then I’m not going to be real impressed. Whether you’re a slutwalker or an uber-tradcon, the whining is *exactly* the same tenor of “I’m being OPPRESSED by society!!!” – just with different flavors of oppressor.

    Are you SERIOUSLY trying to moral-guilt-trip me over my not liking what is just one of many possible styles of modest clothing? Because that’s what it looks like. I’m sorry, but “lame” is dependent on context and independent of an individual’s personal desires, and I’ve worked too hard to try to understand that in my own life to go back to the blinkered entitlement attitude that casts all negative reaction to dressing like a weirdo as some sort of specifically anti-Christian animus.

    /flames off

  4. Cane Caldo says:


    Are you SERIOUSLY trying to moral-guilt-trip me over my not liking what is just one of many possible styles of modest clothing?

    No, my blog is guilt-trip free. I used you as an example of what is widespread. I could have used other examples, but you had already linked to me. It only seems fair.

    The fact is you did sneer. Those clothes reminded you of Mennonites and you think Mennonites are to be sneered at for looking different. You now present this as “FACT”. It’s not fact, and you did sneer.

    • pancakeloach says:

      No, you DID attempt to guilt-trip me. You attempted to use shaming language to punish me for daring to disagree with your opinions AND YOU ARE STILL DOING IT. Not only that, but you’re now blatantly substituting your own uncharitable, personally offended interpretation of my thoughts AFTER I have attempted to clarify my position to you.

      I can’t have a reasonable discussion with a man who conveniently dismisses anything I say about MY OWN opinion in favor of his reading my mind for me.

      You are not arguing in good faith, sir, and you are no longer welcome to comment upon this topic on my blog.

    • There’s a difference between “are to be” and “should be”.

  5. Pingback: Uses and Misuses of Joshua 24:15 | Something Fishy

  6. “I haven’t been following the comments closely enough to pull context on that one; I may have some time to track down a direct link later. But let me just say that the above attitude would have come as quite a shock to both Baptist-run private schools that I attended in middle school! They were quite strict about their intentionally set boundaries, and the girls were given objective guidelines as to the placement of our skirts’ hemlines in relation to our knees. (Ironically, I didn’t like the uniform at one of the schools because I felt that the skirt was too short.)”


    I am very, very familiar with the type of behavior you describe here. I happen to have grown up in a very legalistic, severe religious tradition myself, and am no longer a part of that church, as I could see where my own children would end up. All children were forbidden to associate with anybody who was not exactly like them, and they all fell away into never attending church anywhere at all, plus abandoning their parents’ teachings for all sorts of wild lifestyles. The outside world was so “bad” that nobody was allowed to mingle amongst anyone, and especially other “groups” within the religious tradition, because they weren’t “exactly” like our group. It was insane. We got ourselves out of there when our three oldest children were still quite young because we knew exactly where they could end up, and we weren’t having any part of it. Shunning occurred regularly, particularly if you brought a friend who wasn’t a part of the “group” who maybe didn’t dress as modestly as they ought. Both the newcomer and the person who brought them would be shunned. It was horrible. So, yes, I know whereof you speak better than I care to.

    • pancakeloach says:

      Yikes. I have never personally had to deal with a group like that, thank God, and I’m glad your family is out of there! Even with no predilection in my family’s church to shunning the outside world, due to my introverted and reclusive nature, I had enough trouble adapting to interacting with people outside my childhood social circles as a young adult. If someone else had been micromanaging my every decision from birth off of an ironclad list of rules so that I never learned how to evaluate things independently…. I have no words for how horrifically bad even just the thought of it is! 😦

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