Is modesty cultural?

I am still technically teaching my children at home this year, although my oldest takes all of his classes from the community college and my younger two attend a part-time private school.

My daughter came home from school the other day and asked if what she was wearing was inappropriate. Apparently “a girl gave her a look,” so she wanted to double check if it was merited.

She really should be past this stage as a sophomore, but sometimes homeschoolers are a little behind. And that is fine. Homeschoolers, private schools, gangs — they all have their own culture.

For example: when we first moved to Idaho, I didn’t know what LDS meant. Most people who grow up outside of Utah and Idaho aren’t familiar with the term, and are barely familiar with the word Mormon. I read several books to get information about Mormons when I first arrived and one talked about their culture.

I’ve lived in Idaho ten years now, and I hadn’t realized how submersed I was in this “culture” until we visited California for a family reunion this past summer. Everywhere I looked — naked shoulders!

Naked shoulders don’t bother me, but I hadn’t seen so many in a decade. It never dawned on me that I wasn’t seeing them, until I did.

Our pastor mentioned modesty once, he basically told the old ladies to lighten up on the next generation. But he often talks about meeting people where they are — without the clichéd term.

To me, it seems that the things you find modest, are largely due to what you are used to seeing.

In high school, I had a friend who was a Brazilian exchange student. I’ll never forget when she walked out to the hot tub and all the girls gasped. She responded in a thick accent, “What? I brought my most modest swim suit for America.”

On the other end of the world, women are covered head-to-toe in black drapes. If you ever get a chance, read Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This is a fabulous book because she was a “True Believer.” Anytime I read a book about someone leaving a cult, religion…culture, I don’t want to read about someone who always knew it was wrong — but someone who believed with all their heart, first.

She embraced the Muslim faith and ideas when she was in college and approaching life with that unique early-adult passion and strength. However, and one point her group started to decide that women in burkas should wear soft-soled shoes because even though they were completely covered , if a man were to hear her feet he would begin to think of the shapely legs attached. And then — he would not be responsible for where his thoughts went next.

Growing up in California, I never gave tank tops a second thought. I imagine if I had grown up in Brazil I wouldn’t give much else any additional thought either.

There are two ways to look at this. One is that we have freedom from human rules: Colossians 2:16. I mean, the last thing I’d want is for my daughter to try to fit into the slot a group of teens designed.

And second: being aware of the culture when you need to be, just as Paul was. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

Do you believe modesty is only cultural, or is there a standard?




7 thoughts on “Is modesty cultural?

  1. Mary Ann Young Robinson says:

    Also growing up in a different part of the country, in the so called Bible Belt, it has taken me years and living in 5 states to try and figure out these issues. There is also the culture within church denominations. For a Christian I do think it is of worth to try to understand where all of our standards and beliefs actually come from. I raised my daughters to be modest. My oldest is now a pastor’s wife and I am thankful that she has a good take on what that means as a role model. I also see young women who just want to feel accepted and make many bad decisions based on that. Maturity usually helps with that as they start to raise their own children and have that maternal care. BUT, it is still OK to have your personal standard in addition to what you believe the Bible teaches. The world and society will teach that anything is ok in any century, so we still have to watch out for that “roaring lion”!

    • Hilarey says:

      You are right about the culture within church denominations. I know some consider it unacceptable to go to church without make-up. SO much difference a hundred years make.

  2. Becky Lyles says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Hilarey. We’re headed to California soon, where I’m always a bit surprised at how much cleavage exposure I see, even within the church and our family. Your post helps me understand we don’t all share the same culture and standards.

  3. Katie says:

    I believe “modesty” is completely cultural…in many “cultures” people believe women should only wear dresses not to disobey Deuteronomy 22:4-6. But when this was written men wore what we would now consider “dresses”. Who dictates what woman’s or mans clothing other than society? In 1 Timothy 2:9 we are instructed to wear modest clothing but then Paul specifies the modesty of riches pearls, gold ect..I have yet to find another specific dress code verse. I also feel that we get a basic understanding of our modesty from the fall of man, though this is often depicted that Eve wore a bikini and Adam wore a speedo made out of leaves. Written in Genesis 3:7 the pair sewed fig leaves together. My understanding is that the Hebrew word “chagowr” was used for their clothing. This is used 5 other times in the bible as “girdle”. This means Adam and Eve only covered up their loins…..and this by no means is modest in our current society. I only have young children (oldest is age 9) but I have learned modesty doesn’t seem to come natural! I instill my own belief or “culture” of modesty on them.

    • Hilarey says:

      Thanks Katie. I remember hearing an interpretation of that verse saying it just meant women needed to look like women and men needed to look like men. But even that standard varies century to century and culture to culture.

  4. Hilarey says:

    One funny thing that comes to mind is when Corrie ten Boom said her aunt believed she held the last God-ordained dress pattern. That Corrie’s generation was completely unacceptable!

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