The Skinny on Appearances

2:30 AM

A member of our faith family graciously offered to guide his businessman friend around New York City. The businessman had never been up there before, so he accepted and the two set off. As a business professional, the man had dressed to the nines in a suit and coat. He waited in the car while his friend stopped at a gas station. A couple minutes later he emerged in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt -- the classy Saturday griller look.

"Ok, why are you dressed in shorts?" the businessman asked.

"Never mind," said the man: "you'll find out."

So down the streets of NYC they strolled, the man in his shorts and Hawaiian shirt, the businessman in his well-put-together outfit. The casually dressed man enjoyed his jaunt through NYC. The businessman? He was crawling with panhandlers, people with dying children and starving wives and pitiful backstories.

Understandably, the businessman was upset: "Why didn't you tell me how to dress?"

"Well" -- the man grinned back -- "you've got to learn your own lessons."

A couple days ago I published "Pretty Christian Women," how the current expectations on beauty -- for Christians, no less -- borders on the absurd. Several pointed out that I neglected to understand that clothes do matter, looks do matter, our testimonies are affected when professing women wear sweatpants and ponytails. This is my response:

Yes...but no.

When it comes to dress, appearance and externals, many of us go about with the businessman's approach: if I wear X, I get Y response. That sort of naivete ignores the fact that much of what we deem beautiful, classy and put-together is not found in an addendum to the canon (2 Mascara 10:1 or whatever): it is solely rooted in cultural expectations. Culture has leaked into every fiber of our Christian life -- made it almost impossible to get back to Christianity, period, instead of Christianity, Western style.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, but Western expectations are hardly Biblical, and look awkward packaged in Christian terms.

The frustrating part of this discussion is that not only do we have to go back to Scripture, but we also have to unwrap Scripture from layers and layers of culture. We want to read the American dream, a Western paradigm, into the pages of Holy Writ -- and are offended and alarmed when somebody suggests that maybe what we deem important just isn't. Our preferences, upbringing and culture dictate what Scripture ought to be saying. It's mind-bending for me to try to grasp the nuances of my understanding of dress and appearance; and it gets worse when I'm trying to communicate my position. The shift is subtle but huge; it's freedom without license; it's loving others through dress and appearance in a brand new way.

Perhaps what bugs me the most is the dogmatic assertion that clothes do matter, looks are important, the outer does reflect the inner. Because of that assertion, certain articles of clothing get attached with certain meanings: you wear skinny jeans? You heathen. You wear a suit and tie? You wonderfully Biblical man, you. You wore flip flops to church? You rebel.

This is far too simplistic. Yes, clothes can matter, looks can be important and the outer sometimes reflect the inner. That looks like a quibble in syntax, but it's huge: the outer is not an infallible expression of the heart.

When you put on a jumper, you are not putting on modesty. You are wearing a jumper. When you put on jeans, you are not putting on laziness. You are wearing jeans. That's it. Nothing more, nothing less. It is true that, perhaps, you put on that jumper with a heart full of submission to God and modesty -- maybe. How can I, a human who only sees your jumper, determine your godliness factor by pieces of cloth sewn together?

"We get that," advocates say. "We understand that the heart is more important, that you can dress great and have an ugly heart."

Gently, I fear many do not understand. If the problem of immodesty, laziness and disrespect starts in the heart, then logically we should go directly to the root of the problem -- the heart. Instead, we have checklists and tutorials on what's modest and what isn't, what article of clothing conveys what. There's always that disclaimer -- We understand that you can be great on the outside and lousy on the inside, BUT -- but it is usually tucked away somewhere toward the end and obscured by the twenty-five tips to looking like a more godly Christian woman.

Christians have placed ridiculous expectations on clothes to boost their righteousness -- and women especially rely on appearances to express their femininity. There has been a whole crusade to get women to wear skirts again, alleging that they will feel more feminine and godly -- and people will see them as more feminine and godly. Personally, I feel just as much a woman of God in my cupcake pajamas and college sweatshirt or when I wear black or when I run around without makeup in my capris. One can culturally look and feel more feminine -- pink, long hair, jewelry, flowing skirts -- but it has little to do with Biblical womanhood.

I was told that if I wore skirts, men would be more inclined to open doors for me. I wore skirts 24/7 for most of my life and doors loved slamming in my face. Any man who held the door open did so for the woman in pants ahead of me, too. I was also told that guys appreciated modestly-dressed women. Not really.

Which is fine, because I wasn't doing it for the attention in the first place. I did it because I believed God said so. This is another fact of life many Christians neglect: you have to be raised in the same social culture to understand what meaning to attach to what piece of clothing. We women dress modestly and respectably as a way to bless others -- when most couldn't care less. We wear pink because it's allegedly feminine: to others it's just a color, and that is why men wear it too. We dress up as a testimony to our faith, when only the insider Christians (in the appropriate circles) understand the depth of our sacrifice.

So often modestly dressed girls are labelled as frumpy and judgmental -- even in other Christian circles. That's why many are rallying against jumpers, sneakers with skirts, camo, and socks with sandals -- it gives us a "bad testimony." I say leave them alone and go check out the plank in your eye. Frumpy is not a mortal sin. Judgmentalism is not a jumper brand.

Julie, commenting on this post, nailed the true reasons many are tooting the "dress nicely" horn:
I honestly feel we are idiots as Christians. We are masking what we really think with these verses. Let's be honest for a minute. Who wants to be ugly? Who wants to be fat? We look down on that. Christians are becoming more one with culture. Put on a nice sweater instead of the tshirt. Don't let yourself go. That's what Jesus wants us to do. No! You want to feel better about yourself for being okay with cultural standards. You want to spend the money on that nice sweater, hair, make-up, and drive in your nice car to your beautiful church. 
Several of my favorite women in the world don't wear makeup or do much with their hair or wear anything besides t-shirts, jeans and shorts. They don't give off the impression of slobs, because they don't purposefully dress to turn people off. They give the impression that they're authentic and concerned about real things (like the people they allegedly should dress for) and have simple tastes. Their hearts are beautiful. They are beautiful. I love hanging around them -- partly because I feel like I don't have to match a vague beauty standard.

So that's the theoretical part. It's possible to reject the false, dogmatic correlation between inner and outer while still dressing to the nines -- because it's not about clothes. It's about the heart. Still, theoretical aside, we do live in a culture where looks are just about everything. Meanings are attached to clothes. What's a Christian to do?

I can't give you an exhaustive list for that. You have to make your own decisions based on your own circumstances and acquaintances and attitude. But ultimately, the goal is love -- if you purposefully wear something knowing it will offend others, that's overstepping your Christian freedom. Overspiritualizing aside, there's no reason why a Christian can't conform to a classy, socially adept look. I don't wear pjs to Perkins or a swimsuit to a job interview not because I'm such a righteous, loving Christian but because it's a social nightmare. I don't want to look bad. I want to dress appropriately, professionally -- again, not because of my Christianity but because of my humanity, my Americanism, my mother who raised me better than that. I don't need a spiritual reason to deal shrewdly with the world -- the social pressures and my own vanity take care of that.

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17 impressions

  1. It's high time Christians started realizing just how much of the expectations placed on them come from the world-- not just in fashion and appearance, but in many, many other areas as well.
    I'm thankful that you are able to point these things out so articulately. :)

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  2. I've really been enjoying this posts. :) Just wanted to let you know.

    And amen to Julie's comment! The modern church doesn't look much different, inside or out, from the world now- so focused on beauty and wealth.

    ~Kristin

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  3. This post is so clear and, in my opinion, exactly what the 'experts' need to hear. Thanks for writing it! :)

    Also, I think almost all ideas of Christianity have been warped by Americanism this way - not just clothing, although that is one of the more affected areas. American values and culture's ideas aren't always 'bad'; what's bad is when we take an American belief and turn it into a 'Christian' one.

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  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you. The best article in the series, stating so succinctly what I was trying to express in earlier comments, (though your version is more thoughtful and put together!) Thank you for articulating exactly what the whole clothing issue is about!

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  5. My thoughts on this post are really mixed and varied, Bailey. I agree that false churches have become very consumed with appearance, but I have to admit that from all my church experience (which is fair; my dad's a pastor and we've visited quite a few churches) I've never met a Bible-believing, God-fearing church that treats appearance in a non-biblical way, congregation OR leadership. That being said, I'm trying to figure out where you have seen this sort of worldliness and hypocrisy. Do you mean it's in the church at large, false churches, or specifically true churches? I'd appreciate that specification.

    ....................................

    "This is far too simplistic. Yes, clothes can matter, looks can be important and the outer sometimes reflect the inner. That looks like a quibble in syntax, but it's huge: *the outer is not an infallible expression of the heart.*"

    That's one statement in this post that I can totally and utterly agree with-- I've known girls who have been forced to wear denim skirts down to their ankles every day, but they in their secret hearts yearn to be in shorts and t-shirts. What we wear is not necessarily a manifestation of our hearts.

    BUT-- it often can be. "When you put on a jumper, you are not putting on modesty." This is true, but I'd like to point out that clothes *aren't* just clothes. If I'm shopping and selecting modest clothing, it IS a manifestation of my heart; I'm trying to honor my Christian brothers and most of all, honor the Lord God, by choosing outfits that don't draw attention to myself.

    Long story short; I choose what I wear for my Lord God. I see you pointing out that we need to stop dressing for the world, which is a really great challenge. But I'd also like to challenge girls to being dressing for their heavenly Father. This isn't just a put off-- this is a put on! Every "no" to this world should be caused by an unending "yes" to our Lord God.

    ....................................
    "I was also told that guys appreciated modestly-dressed women. Not really."

    This part really snagged at me, Bailey, and I'd appreciate some clarification. I have a thirteen year old brother, a twenty-five year old brother, and four teen guy cousins-- and let me tell you, honorable guys after God's own heart DO appreciate modestly-dressed women. On the flip side, they are very much DIScouraged by immodest dress. Please, on behalf of the young men in my life, consider the effects of immodesty upon guys!

    ....................................

    I liked this post overall, Bailey, and I think this is a really good calling and challenge! Thank you for the food for thought.

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  6. So, I am jumping into this without reading the prior post's comments . . . I'm leaping before I look.

    It is true that culture and the prosperous American dream dominates most of our American churches--and really that's okay. No, if a certain cultural aspect which is sinful enters the church, we should not allow it. But just as we hope Armenian churches hold a meeting in an Armenian way and just as we hope the Nigerian church will sing according to their most natural way so the American church will reflect its culture. I think there is a difference between "culture" and "worldly"to some degree.

    I believe there is genuinly no sin in wearing washed out, thrift store finds. However, we do live in a world where some only see the surface. Just as I get nervous with the greasy mullet/tattoos, so do others with mismatched, frumpy jumpers. Some will dismiss this comment due to its gramatical/spelling errors; some may look past that and find a bit of encouragement.

    Perhaps it all comes down to this: judge not that you be not judged. Let us learn to love those who dress frumpily (some would think I do) and let us learn to love those who are on the other side of the scale. Because unltimately, we are fighting a war and we shouldn't be wasting so much time on arguing that his armor is more shiny than mine.

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  7. Yes, yes, yes. I did find your last post slightly confusing, but with this one I get what you're saying in both - and wholeheartedly agree. :)

    "The frustrating part of this discussion is that not only do we have to go back to Scripture, but we also have to unwrap Scripture from layers and layers of culture."
    Exactly! I think a lot of people forget that Western Culture and Christianity are not the same thing. Good for you in pointing that out as a reminder!

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  8. I enjoy reading your posts. You are such a wise young lady. God is doing an amazing work in you.

    when I got married and moved to the US, I remember wearing a bit of eye liner, mascara and lip stick. It was the same make up routine I used as a career woman in Brazil. For some reason, in Brazil, women do not use as much make up as women do here in Brazil. we are more natural women. There they prefer to show skin than to cover it up with foundation and clothes. :( anyway...

    I never cared much for make up; my DH doesn't care for it either. once my first child was born, I dropped the make up altogether. I don't even wear make up to church much less to go to the grocery store.

    The point is I don't wear make up because I don't like it; it's too much work; my husband doesn't care for it and I want people to see me for what I am.

    I had so many comments of women amazed that I didn't wear make up. the comments were good though... they would comment on how pretty I was without make up. But they could never go without because they have skin problems, or they were ugly. Nonsense!

    I believe the essence of a person is their soul that shines through their eyes. It's a good thing to be clean and wear clean clothes, but all this excess concern with appearance is not Christian at all.

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  9. Love this post, loved the first one. Totally agree with you! I wrote a series on modesty that is kinda along these lines at http://www.createdtobehis.com/?tag=modesty

    I used to believe that I would "feel" more feminine, submissive, humble, etc. if I dressed a certain way (skirts, long hair, etc) but I had it backwards. Jesus is clear that righteousness begins on the inside, not the outside. If external things were of value in fighting sin or making us holy then why did Jesus have to die? God could've just instituted dress codes to solve the problem of pride and lust.

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  10. I have to say that this is an issue that has confused me for a couple of years now (I'm 13). I've worn skirts all my life--so have my mother and sisters. I like them. At the moment, I don't have any plans to stop wearing them. I realize that you won't be more of a Christian if you wear a skirt or whatever--it's really all about your heart--but it still confuses me. Where to draw the line??

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  11. Wow Bailey....this is SUCH a good post!!! When I read your last post on The Pretty Christian Woman I liked it but sort of disagreed with it...but now I totally see what you mean. Dressing up gets all spiritualized, but all it is is our Western cultural norm playing Christian.

    It makes sense. I grew up as a jumpers-only gal...even headcoverings for a while. But I honestly got sick and tired of being different....now of course Christians ARE to be different, but the Bible does not specify that as prairie skirts and long braids. I was sick of being asked if I was Amish. And now? As I right this, I'm in a very comfortable pair of jeans. And no I have not turned atheist because of it. I feel I've actually grown a lot as a Christian over the past 12 - 18 months...realizing that a lot of these things I've unconciously labled as "evil" and "ungodly" are simply my own man-made standards that have nothing to do with what God really says.

    Anyway, all this to say that I love your posts SO much; they are refreshing and you write so well!!! Please keep these thought provoking, God honoring posts coming. They are helping me a lot.

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  12. Dear Bailey,

    Guess what? I'm driving through your neck of the woods next week with my family! :) So when we pass by a sizable house with a small grove of trees I shall be sure to wave. If you see a white minivan with a Oklahoma license pass you by with a crazed girl leaning out the window gesturing wildly just turn to the side and act like you didn't see nothin'! :) Hope your having a wonderful time at camp!

    Your Friend,
    Savannah

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  13. Joy -- I believe that the line on the skirts/pants thing is different for every Christian woman. Nobody has a right to dictate to you which to wear and you don't have a right to dictate to others, but you DO have a right to dictate to yourself how to dress for God the way you believe He is leading you.

    Here's what I would encourage you to do: what do you feel most comfortable wearing -- pants or skirts? Do you feel you personally cannot (or will not) wear pants? Then by all means, don't! A pure, clean conscience is precious before God. That honors Him far more than your clothes. If you would rather wear skirts for whatever reasons, than do so. That is your Christian liberty.

    Many people try to turn the pants/skirts issue into something bigger than it is -- you're unholy if you wear pants or you're legalistic if you wear skirts only or whatever. Block that out and listen only to God. You have the freedom to dress in the way that you feel pleases God.

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  14. AnnaKate --

    I'm not talking about a specific church or group, just American Christianity in general. It's something that I've been immune to for a long time because I grew up American and didn't detect anything wrong until I started seriously studying the Gospel. Emily Rachelle mentioned this concern of mine -- taken American values and parading them as Christian. This issue definitely transcends the fashion department!

    Thanks for catching me on the guys and modesty part -- I needed to clarify but forgot. Of course godly men will appreciate modestly dressed women. But I was told that men in general appreciated it...and that has not been true in my experience, especially the sort of modesty I practice. For instance, guys don't open the door for me because I'm wearing a skirt (I get a lot of door slams); they don't treat me with respect/admiration/etc. -- the more "questionably dressed" girls or the ones they're friends with get all their attention. So I'm definitely not quibbling with the idea that godly men appreciate modesty or that immodesty does not affect men. I'm just pointing out that modesty's cause-and-effect isn't as infallible as usually promised. (Immodesty's cause-and-effect is pretty dead on, though.)

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  15. You've been nominated for the One Lovely Blog Award! http://maybeteenauthor.blogspot.com/2012/07/one-lovely-blog-award.html

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  16. If only Eve & Adam hadn't sinned.... Then we wouldn't even need to worry about all of this. ; )

    That brings me to an idea, actually. Before sin, Adam & Eve didn't even realize they were naked. They weren't self-conscious. Perhaps that should be an attitude as we dress ourselves. Does what we are wearing make us think about ourselves too much?

    If I've chosen something to wear that might possibly offend someone, then I'll be thinking about that (and therefore, myself) all day. If I'm dressed too casually or too formally for a certain outing, I will also be self-conscious. Do you see where I'm going with this? I hope so, because it's late and I can't think of any more examples right now.

    Love you.

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  17. I think, Jenny, that is the most balanced, simple, Biblical view on the subject. You should stay up late more often. :)

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