Dressing modestly, for feminism and faith

What if the Biblical command to dress modestly is about simplicity and rejecting consumerism, not avoiding lust?

Published May 15, 2018 4:12PM (EDT)


Excerpted from "The Beauty Suit: How My Year of Religious Modesty Made Me a Better Feminist" by Lauren Shields (Beacon Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Sex versus Stuff: Which Matters More?

The Bible has traditionally been used to back cultural norms of misogyny, but the texts used to do so are not as black and white as traditionalists would have people believe. So what do these texts tell us, and why are we so loath to change our thinking in response? Let’s look again at the original language:

Also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.

1 Timothy 2:9–11

Wives, . . . do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.

1 Peter 3:1–4

Look at the words used: “gold,” “expensive,” “fine,” “Do not adorn yourselves outwardly.” What if these texts are not about sex but about conspicuous consumption? What if modesty is actually more about simplicity than lust?

One could confidently interpret these passages this way if there were supporting verses in the Bible, something about how materialism is a hindrance to faith.

Oh wait. There are. A lot.

  • “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13b). This whole section is about how the things of the world are obstructions to God, how love of money and love of God are mutually exclusive. This statement is repeated in Matthew 6:24.
  • “The cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word [the Good News, or words which lead to a spiritual life] and it yields nothing” (Matthew 13:22b).
  • Consider the story of the rich young man who has kept all the Commandments to whom Jesus says, “‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’ [meaning, become homeless like me].” When the young man can’t do it, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:21–24).
  • “And he [ Jesus] said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’” (Luke 12:15).
  • “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:33–34).

These are just a few of the sayings attributed to Jesus himself, to say nothing of the New Testament letters in addition to Paul’s. Here are two examples:

  • “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5a).
  • “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Timothy 6:10).

James, Acts, and Revelation also mention love of money as an obstruction to God, and the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is full of admonitions to help the poor and forgive debts. If Jesus were all about sexual restraint, then we’d see much more about the evils of lust in his ministry, not three verses about men’s superiority over women written decades after Jesus died by a man who had a powerful conversion experience, a man who admitted to not being terribly sexually inclined. Jesus spoke about divorce and adultery, yes, but he was far more concerned with the allure of excessive wealth. So what’s more likely: that Jesus was obsessed with covering the female body even though he himself is not reputed to have said anything about it, or that we’re twisting the doctrine to support the status quo, the same way people have been doing in every religious tradition since time began?

Considering the realities of the modern world, I think that “modesty” does not refer to bodies. I think it refers to lifestyles.

But We’re Not Hurting Anyone

The U.S. is a free country, it’s said. Why can’t citizens buy our senses of meaning if we want to? We can deal with our mortality when we get old, and retail therapy is pretty consistently effective. If it’s working for Americans, why change?

Because none of us lives in a vacuum. With the rise of globalization, we all affect one another to a greater degree than ever before in history, and whatever each of us believes about what happens to us after we die, there will be generations after us who must live on the planet that we leave behind. The rare metals used to manufacture our cell phones sustain bloody conflicts halfway around the world, and due to the way food is processed, each time we eat a hamburger, the greenhouse gases associated with its production are equivalent to having driven 320 miles in an average American car. The vegetables in our supermarkets are often picked by people who have crossed deserts in the dead of night in order to feed their families, people we’ll probably never meet. We do not make our own clothes, instead buying most of what we own from companies that outsource their manufacturing abroad where labor laws are more lax, where sometimes children as young as five—whom we will also never meet—make our jeans and T-shirts. The same thing goes for where most makeup comes from and the damage it does to the planet, due to both what it is and how it’s made. And Americans’ impact isn’t just on people outside this country: remember the figures cited at the beginning of this chapter. We are both more and less connected than ever before to everyone else on earth, and everything we consume has a price, whether or not we personally pay it.

A new wave of religious scholarship refutes the idea that it’s somehow God’s will that humans use up the planet like it’s ours to plunder. And now is the perfect time for such scholarship to permanently alter the church’s environmental tune: as one scholar wrote, “Ironically, the greatest contribution the world’s religions could make to the sustainability challenge may be to take seriously their own ancient wisdom on materialism.” The church has learned to survive by making itself into a saleable good; what would happen if church members used their influence not to accelerate humanity’s selfishness but to help dismantle the system from within?

For example, in "Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible," Ellen Davis writes that the Bible is not merely a book about spirituality but also about the care of the land as part of the life of faith. Davis debunks older traditional interpretations that the narrative is about humanity’s so-called dominion over the earth, arguing that the biblical Hebrew root word and intent of Genesis overall combine to imply responsibility for the care of creation, not unchecked abuse of it. And humanity’s job is not just passively trying to stay out of the way of nature either; Davis explains that in the covenant God makes with humanity, God has made the people active stewards of the planet. We are supposed to be co-creators and co-sustainers of our ecosystems. In treating the earth as though it were merely an inexhaustible resource put here for our use, humanity is not honoring our end of the bargain made with God when we were put in charge of watching over creation. And this is only the beginning of Davis’s argument. Due in part to the work of Davis and others, churches all over North America are greening their surrounding neighborhoods, heading up sustainability initiatives, and holding vegetarian cooking classes (since meat consumption is responsible for the vast majority of damage to the ecosystem).

Or, directly pertaining to the reasoning behind some traditional modesty debates where “love your neighbor” means “make sure he doesn’t lust after you,” one could easily argue that since the Industrial Revolution, and especially with the invention of the internet, everyone is our neighbor. More conservative denominations have traditionally viewed the definition of “neighbors” in a parochial sense, but such a perspective is becoming less realistic. Are we obeying this commandment, which is repeated throughout the Bible, if we show no concern for those in sweatshops or mineral mines whose lives we affect? What about the way we treat the people in our communities whose cheap labor allows us to eat fast food whenever we like? If we look at the plethora of verses throughout the Bible about how we are to treat “the alien” (perhaps the most pertinent of which here is “The aliens shall be to you as citizens, and also shall be allotted an inheritance” [Ezekiel 47:21–22]), how can we propose deporting them or building a wall to keep them out? Are we loving our neighbor and being modest—that is, humble—when we refuse to share our excess with those who have nothing and meet their need with hostility and fear?

Easy for You to Say . . .

I recognize that my point of view is largely due to my privilege. I am lucky that I have the income to buy organic produce and the time to take sewing classes. But I am talking to the people who are like me: folks who take up a lot of room, who have the resources and the bandwidth to consider how our lifestyles affect the rest of the world, and who are willing to ask themselves whether we’re living an outdated version of what it means to be religious. If the church is going to survive into the twenty-first century, it must be honest with its members about what “modesty” means now, today, in a world where our appetite for ostentation is causing harm to others and the planet with which God has entrusted humanity. What I’m saying is, Christians should be leading the charge against consumerism, not coming up with ways to justify it.

I also recognize that change is slow to come. Global capitalism was not built overnight, and it’s a worldwide system with far-reaching effects, most of which I’m unaware. For most of us, it’s not logical to start a giant garden in our backyards or go campaign for workers’ rights in sub-Saharan Africa or stop using laptops forever (I sure can’t). We still have to live our lives. But what if instead of shopping at Abercrombie, we bought our clothes secondhand as a religious practice? What if one day a week women went without makeup to reduce global demand for it, because we’re not supposed to overly “adorn” ourselves anyway? What if we made do with not-the-latest shoes because we really don’t need them or skipped fast food for a month because it’s bad for people, the planet, and ourselves? We don’t have to change the world, but that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands.

This is not to say material wealth is evil or worthless. Many people over the course of Christian history have disingenuously idealized the disenfranchised, claiming that they (poor folks) are blessed because they have so little. It is usually a way to avoid sharing wealth, and it is not what I am calling for. Money buys housing, clothing, and food; it influences education and subsequent work opportunities, health, and life expectancy. Admonitions against the love of money go directly to the privileged, those who have more than enough and still are not satisfied. They go to those who can’t let go of their old clothes even though they don’t need them, because those clothes are who they are. They go to the average white United States citizen, but most pastors are not willing to say this to their congregations of average white people. When they do, the money dries up and another church closes its doors.

One of my favorite verses of the Bible comes from Luke. For me, it ties gratitude with responsibility. “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48b).

Atlanta, June 2011

I can’t look, I think as I cram four or five pieces of clothing at a time into a drop box. If I look, I’ll keep them.

I’ve been dressing modestly for six months. At the beginning of the Experiment I put clothing that was uncomfortable to wear—too tight, or that forced me to sit or stand funny or suck in my gut to look good—into garbage bags. My plan was to see if I missed not having access to them. They constituted about a third of what I owned. (Yessir, when a third of your wardrobe requires Spanx and intense concentration, everything’s fine.) I filled five 42-gallon contractor bags with these items.

As it turned out, I didn’t miss most of them. The pieces I did miss and that were sufficiently modest for those nine months, I dug out and wore. There were perhaps four of these. The rest I decided to give to Goodwill.

But I get to the drop box, and the damn bags don’t fit. So I have to grab each item and stuff it in.

There’s the Blue Ass Dress, so christened by my friends because it was covered in blue donkeys. I wore it on my eighteenth birthday when I went out swing dancing, and all the best dancers asked me onto the floor that night. I haven’t been able to zip this dress up since I was twenty.

There’s the short, button-up red dress, the one I wore in a student film when I was around twenty-two. I sauntered across the screen, singing, my long, blond hair done by someone else and my eyeliner perfect for once. I used to go swing dancing in this dress too, but the last time I tried it on, the shame I felt was physically oppressive.

So many pairs of jeans that I wore on great dates but now I can’t sit in, so many blouses that I bought overseas or on vacation that now emphasize my tummy, so many skirts that bunch up weirdly around my butt. I realize that these are only pieces of clothing and that a changing body is part of life, and up until this point I’d tell anyone who’d listen (and some people who didn’t want to) that a woman’s body’s natural aging process was nothing to be ashamed of. But now, even though I’ve gained less than fifteen pounds since I was a teenager, I find I can’t forgive myself. I’ve changed. At a size 8, I feel fat.

I take deep breaths and stare at the ground, transferring a third of my wardrobe from the bags and giving it to someone thinner. Younger. More relevant. This is ridiculous, I think. Why is it so hard to give away clothes I know I’ll never wear? I feel a little like crying.

When I’m done, I get back in the car and drive away. To my surprise, I feel . . . lighter. Turns out, the hardest part was physically letting them go.

There are good reasons why consumerism is called a religion—and for that matter, the most prolific religion in history. It provides a system of meaning: the things you buy make up your identity and, like the Prosperity Gospel, the more you have, the better a person you are. In fact, the United States even has a sacred Adam and Eve origin story: that of the Founding Fathers. Their resistance to authority and supposed industry is the mold for the American mythos that if one works hard, one will achieve material success, which forever entwines consumerism with American identity.

Consumption also ritualizes our lives: we structure our time and energy alternately around our careers and buying more stuff. Consumerism as religion isn’t all bad; it’s made the United States the wealthiest and most culturally influential country on the planet.

But it also makes us miserable, overweight, and empty. It’s also hurting the environment, a finite resource that many world religions before the arrival of Christianity viewed as highly sacred. It also provides no comfort as old age and death approach, causing an almost comical aversion to mortality, characterized by endless plastic surgery, marriages broken up for younger and younger partners, and, as anyone who has ever watched a loved one die in a hospital knows, an absurd unwillingness to accept the reality of death. Our “religion,” as we are finding out, is failing us spectacularly.

By dressing modestly, I took myself out of this equation. Knowing that I wasn’t bound to “the Ordnung of Madison Avenue,” I no longer felt like I needed to shop every few weeks to feel hip. Knowing that the newest makeup line I saw on TV was just the deliberate conflation of ultimate meaning with powdery chemicals, I felt silly considering the possibility that it would change who I fundamentally was. I saved more money because I wasn’t hemorrhaging it into hair salons, and paradoxically, I worked out more because I liked myself: the model in the skimpy top no longer reflected my sphere of options, so I could ignore her.

Additionally, not having the option to shop when I was lonely or empty forced me to find meaning and solace elsewhere. I found myself crafting constantly, and while I recognize that this isn’t a good option for everyone, I talked to God and read the Bible more than I ever had before. When I was bored I went out with friends rather than shopping online, and while sometimes we did get coffee or something to eat, because they knew I didn’t want to shop, we often ended up in nourishing discussions about our lives rather than wandering around a mall. Sometimes I went out alone and people would ask me why I was wearing a scarf, and I would tell them. I never met a single person who heard about the Experiment and had nothing to say about religion, feminism, or the church.

Dressing modestly didn’t make me better or holier or smarter; it made me more aware. Like habited nuns or Amish folks, modesty gave me the only ironclad excuse I’ve ever found to say no thanks. To all of it.

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Lauren Shields is the author of "The Beauty Suit: How My Year of Religious Modesty Made Me a Better Feminist" (Beacon Press, 2018).

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