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October 21, 2010

Some years back, as I was brushing a daughter’s hair and complaining to her about how she should take better care of it, the Lord spoke to me in my heart and said something I never forgot. He told me she was going to be beautiful, and that I needed to get on the right side of her relationship with her beauty if I wanted to be available to her when she needed me. I never complained again while I was brushing her hair. I made sure that my husband and I were the first one to tell her, without fanfare, that she was pretty and that we enjoyed it.

It is something to consider.

Several YouTube pieces devoted to modesty have recently been offered for consideration in my local homeschool support group, the principal message being that immodest clothing is an occasion of sin for others, particularly that girls’ immodest clothing is an occasion of sin for young men, but briefly noted, also young men’s muscle display is a possible occasion of sin for young women. The conclusion of the discussion (4 clips) is that we should have the courage of our convictions about modesty and dress in a manner that proclaims those convictions.

The videos are sincere and obviously based on experience. The message is clear and overdue in many circles. The background music varies from clip to clip, but some of it is quietly disturbing, as the message is meant to be. The speakers are all dressed modestly: the young men and young women both have their arms covered, a certain equality of responsibility being emphasized in this. The young women and the mom both have a minimum of jewelry – earrings, maybe a bit of lipstick. Almost everyone’s shirts come up within an inch of the neck. No cleavage, of course, in fact not even a collarbone. No biceps. The message against tight shorts is explicit and unequivocal, and the message about sleeves and collar heights is visually clear.

However incontrovertible the argument, however, the one-sidedness of the presentation leaves something to be desired. Will it really help mothers get on the right side of their daughters’ beauty?

Perhaps, but the arguments offered in favor of modest clothing take only slight account of customs or of changing fashions. After all, it’s not so long ago that a woman in America could be faulted because her ankles showed; should we now deem this exposure an occasion of sin? While it is true that men and women don’t change, fashions really do, and even granting that present fashions have been deliberately pushed in a direction calculated to diminish chastity, the fact remains that sensitivity to the sight of skin really does vary.

Given that fashions change, and given that customs differ so that sensitivities also differ, what is our responsibility for the temptations of others? Certainly we have some; I think Paul is explicit in this matter. But how far does it go? Should we commit ourselves to wearing faded colors down to the knee and elbow and up to the neck? Even for sports and while swimming?

A mother of several daughters will quickly notice that one daughter wants jewelry practically from birth, while another takes a later and lesser interest. She will want to be sure that the one who flashes knows Jesus and will make every effort to protect this child from a loss of innocence as she develops a sense of personal responsibility about her feminine presence. The mother will understand that if the flash is merely squashed, it may go underground and come out the worse for it.

In dealing with the daughter whose beauty is a later development, or whose sense of self-presentation naturally turns on muted colors, a mother will avoid suggesting that plainness is a virtue, which it is not. But again, she will work to be sure that this child who does not immediately attract admiration knows Jesus intimately and senses the perfection she has in her parents’ eyes, so that she is able to move gracefully into maturity, without the anxious hunger for attention that makes a plain girl vulnerable to abuse.

C.S. Lewis made an interesting remark about two kinds of jokes, and it’s an insight that applies to clothing: some girls wear sexy clothing because they want to flash and sexiness is generally built into flashy clothing. Other girls want to be sexy, and wear flashy clothing because that comes with sexy clothes. Whether or not this makes a difference to the guys (how would you know?) it is a significant difference within the heart of a girl, and for you as a mother, this is of first importance. Accusing someone of immodesty when she is simply high-spirited just makes Christianity look dull. Paul has a firm word to parents whose discipline makes their children lose heart.

We have a great father and king! He is constantly calling us to his heart, and is asking us to bring others to him. In order to best do this, we have to remember that people come to him along enormously varied paths. Like God, who makes the rain to fall on the good and the evil, we need to let our joy and hospitality fall widely and peacefully on those around us, reserving our judgment for those few he has specifically – and usually briefly — called us to correct.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    October 21, 2010 2:24 am

    “Paul has a firm word to parents whose discipline makes their children lose heart.” Perhaps you could lead us to the quote for this, please?

  2. October 21, 2010 1:47 pm

    I have thought about these issues in relation to different cultures. Some cultures allow naked breasts (and on men mostly naked everything else) with no thought of impropriety. It is a difficult subject requiring much thought and sensitivity. Thank you for your excellent comments. This is a lovely blog.

  3. October 21, 2010 2:07 pm

    Mary, I love how you wrote this:
    “Like God, who makes the rain to fall on the good and the evil, we need to let our joy and hospitality fall widely and peacefully on those around us, reserving our judgment for those few he has specifically – and usually briefly — called us to correct.”

    What a beautiful essay on loving our children and guiding them in the way they should go without employing the harsh tool of legalism.
    Agreeing with Janell -this is a lovely blog = )
    Lisa, who is praying for more grace as I seek to let joy and hospitality fall widely and peacefully on those around me.

  4. October 21, 2010 5:40 pm

    Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they will not lose heart.
    Colossians 3, 21

    Several other English versions at

    Is this the one you referred to, Mary?

  5. Ruth permalink
    November 11, 2010 9:29 pm

    This is an issue I’ve discussed with friends and sisters many, many times, and my own style of dressing has changed along with my opinion. I went through a period of time, for example, when I did not wear sleeveless shirts or dresses, etc., when I knew I would be around men. I have since decided that a woman’s arms ought not to be an occasion of sin –not in mainstream America, at least — and that the beauty of a woman’s arms, like that of her face, is not immediately sexual in the way that, say, cleavage, or tight-fitting shorts/skirts/jeans are. Moreover, dressing in a way that hides feminine beauty merely forces a false dichotomy between modesty and beauty — only two options present themselves: modest frumpiness and provocative sexiness. Given that choice, is it any wonder that the vast majority of young women in America choose sexiness? There must be a third option that is both beautiful and modest. Dressing with care and with attention to beauty is its own kind of apostolate — and I have been blessed to know many women who manage it.

    I like your way of describing variations among people and your way of dealing with those variations, and just want to add my thoughts in a general way — I haven’t seen the videos you mention. One danger that I see in others and have felt myself, in part as a result of repeated speeches about modesty, dress, sexuality, etc., is a fear of the power of physical beauty. One response to that fear is an attempt to hide it, whether it is one’s own or another’s — this is NOT modesty, obviously. Moreover, it is damaging to a girl’s security and sense of self and is likely to make her ashamed of her beauty — a different sort of sin against modesty, I think. And certain representations of “modesty” seem to portray feminine beauty as essentially provocative. This is unfair, and in fact it is even more dangerous than simply making young people frightened by the power of beauty, because it correlates femininity with sinfulness: femininity is not merely perilous — it IS the peril — and thus it follows that it is wicked to be feminine. Teaching young women that femininity is wicked

    Of course we are responsible for our own actions, and, as you say, to some degree for others’ responses to us, but virtue on our part does not and cannot secure the virtue of those around us. Christ showed us this dramatically in His own suffering at the hands of wicked men, and though it is unlikely that we will suffer crucifixion and death as He did, we can certainly anticipate suffering from the same cause in circumstances both large and small. A perfectly modest and modestly dressed girl may well be treated immodestly by a weak or wicked person — in fact, such treatment, at some point in her life, is nearly guaranteed — and if her apparent modesty is based on fear of her beauty, that fear will be confirmed and heightened. A fearful attempt to avoid being an occasion of sin cannot, should not, must not be the basis of decisions about clothing — or of anything else, for that matter. Clothing cannot protect her in such an instance; a sense of self and of self-worth based, as you say, in an awareness of the love of her parents and of Christ, can.

  6. Rachel permalink
    November 19, 2010 6:33 pm

    Interesting comments. Plato thought that beauty which is visible is often the first rung of the ladder which leads ultimately to heaven. Beauty comes in many forms in this world, and that it often manifests itself in women is a glorious fact which we should celebrate. Young girls are in particular danger, obviously, of too much provocation which distracts or too little celebration of their own beauty. It takes a lifetime to master this one. Anyway, I liked Ruth’s comments that too much humility can end up being a problem itself. We’re not supposed to hide under bushels or hijabs just because men supposedly can’t handle seeing arms or legs.

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