Think Before Wearing: My Personal Principles for Dressing Well

8:00 AM

The modesty discussion needs to be reordered around this central issue: respect for a woman’s body as an intrinsic part of who she is and what it means to reflect God’s image.

With all this clamor to cover up and how tight is too tight, I think women feel shame for their bodies—shame that their bodies seems to automatically trigger disrespectful thoughts in men, shame that their nakedness and beauty is seen primarily as sexual. There’s shame for uncovering too much and shame for covering it up. Sometimes it seems that a woman cannot dress without someone criticizing her for wronging a man—those nice jeans will cause a stranger to stumble, those looser jeans will disappoint her husband who wants an attractive wife.

What men think and how other people react form the central hub of modesty conversations.

Let’s step away from that.

God gave women bodies in a perfect union of body and soul in the perfect creation of woman for the perfect human reflection of what it means to be God. A woman’s body is not just for bearing children or attracting and pleasuring a husband. A woman’s body is a part of who she is—a part of being human, a part of being an image-bearer. Her bodily beauty has value. Her body itself has value. It houses a woman’s soul, it enables her to love others, to serve God, to worship, to live.

And that is not shameful.

Favorite spring dress. Not a size 8.
 What does that have to do with conversations on modesty?

The origin and the purpose of women’s bodies is beautiful and God-given. It means women’s bodies are not to be seen as primarily sexual. A woman’s body should be celebrated and respected as a woman ought to be celebrated and respected—by both herself and by others around her, including men who struggle with lust.

For some people, this principle gets twisted into hiding a woman’s body—hiding her curves, her legs, her breasts, her nakedness. This principle stems from seeing a woman’s body as primarily sexual. It replaces her body’s shape with cultural stereotypes: to be a woman, wear a skirt. That’s how you’ll identify her: not by her creation as a woman, but by her conformity to cultural womanhood.

That attitude is wrong. (There’s nothing wrong with wearing skirts or enjoying a particular culture’s feminine fashion. I like pink twirly skirts.)

For other people, they think a woman ought to bare all and enjoy her sexual power expressed through her body. That’s just the same wrong on the opposite end of the spectrum—not even the woman herself ought to view her body as a sexual engine.

Both the purity culture in conservative Christian circles and the counterattack to it often fall into viewing a woman’s body as sexual.

Let’s stop that view with the right attitude—a respectful celebration of women’s unique bodies.

I saw a photo series where a photographer took photos of her post-childbirth body. She posed in the nude, covering her private areas. It was one of the most beautiful series I’ve seen honoring a woman’s body and particularly how a woman’s body can mother well. It wasn’t sexual, it wasn’t disrespectful, it wasn’t tasteless. In her nude photographs, she captured more for me of what it means to celebrate and respect a woman’s body than many women in their ankle-length skirts striving to be modest.

But that’s art, not real life. I’m not going to be running around naked. Here’s how I apply this principle of respectfully celebrating my particular womanly body in everyday wear.

Another cute dress...that I lost.
1. I’m not ashamed to show that God created my curves. I don’t have many of them, admittedly—just enough to inform you I’m a girl. This practically means that I choose outfits that fit me well. I try to eliminate saggy pants, baggy shirts, and shapeless dresses. I prefer more fitted things that flatter my body shape. At the same time, I’m not purposefully hunting for skin tight clothes that squeeze me in odd shapes. That’s not respectful—or comfortable.

2. Clothes were made for the body—not the other way around. The primary purpose of clothes is to be functional and comfortable. God invented clothes, actually—He invented them to hide the shame of nakedness that Adam and Eve felt about their bodies. And they were also necessary for blocking out UV rays and protecting them from the thorns and thistles that came with the curse. If a certain article of clothing impedes my hobbies, work, or everyday life, I ditch it. I’m not going to wear a skirt while working out (I’ve totally done that, though). I’m not going to wear high heels on the beach. I’m not going to wear long sleeves while weeding a summer garden when I’m sweating and in need of a tan—I’m going to throw on some shorts and a tank top...and then make myself some lemonade.

Dance rehearsal!
3. More on the comfortable part: When buying clothes, I go by my gut reaction a lot. Do I feel comfortable wearing this? If I don’t feel comfortable, for whatever reason or definition of comfortable, it stays in Goodwill. If I’m constantly tugging up strapless dresses or tugging down super short skirts, the logical conclusion is don’t wear them. It’s not hiding the shame of my nakedness (see above point). It’s embarrassing me and embarrassing the poor people who are trying hard to pretend like they don’t notice. That article of clothing is failing its original purpose—toss it. This goes for all kinds of clothing, not just the ones typically railed against: don’t wear that tank top if your bra doesn’t fit it, don’t wear that blouse if it makes you feel drowned in fabric, don’t wear those super high heels if you can’t walk in them.

I can drive sisters in this outfit. Check!
4. P.S. About the Shame of Your Nakedness: That natural feeling of embarrassment because your skirt keeps flying up and revealing your panties is the definition of the shame of your nakedness. Modesty is another word for it. It’s what makes girls stand in the corner when they change costumes in the dressing room. It’s why we wear clothes in the first place—so we don’t feel embarrassed that people can see our private parts. Some people don’t possess this sense of modesty or don’t share the same idea of what to cover—fair enough. After all, Genesis never tells us exactly what Adam and Eve tried to hide. For me and myself, I think it’s healthy to respect my private parts enough to keep them away from prying eyes. I possess a painful sense of modesty/natural embarrassment despite my years of dance and theater. I respect and abide by that emotion.

5. Dress appropriate to the situation. After my general guidelines about keeping private parts covered, appropriateness is situational. It’s important for me to be sensitive to cultural norms and others’ expectations. I’ll wear sweatpants and workout leggings up the hill to eat after a trip to the gym with no qualms—it’s a college campus, the cafeteria is the equivalent of my dining room, and nobody bats an eye about it. (Well, it might cause a stir: Bailey’s athletic?) For class, meetings, and work, I dress up—or at least leave the lounge clothes at home. I love dressing up, so I’m ever only dressing down when I’m sick or cold, or rolled out of bed too late to throw together an outfit. In workout, dance, swimming, or formal wear situations, I’m fine showing more skin and wearing tighter clothing, just because those are culturally acceptable situations to do so. There’s tacit agreement between audience and dancers that the body becomes part of the art form in dance. It’s safer and easier to dance in skin-tight clothes. I’m fine with that within the dancing-world context. For the same reasons, I’ll be wearing a strapless bridesmaid dress for my best friend’s upcoming wedding. I hate strapless anything, generally, and find them out-of-place outside of formal situations.

Favorite formal dress -- a hand-me-down from my boyfriend's mom! Aaaand chocolate strawberries are awesome.
Photo Credit
6. Dress to love. If it comes down to the choice between wearing what I want or showing love to someone else, I hope I will always choose love. It’s impossible to dress in a vacuum of standards, expectations, and people in general. (Unless you’re on a deserted island. In which case break out the bikinis, I suppose.) I don’t wear pants or some of my dresses at my more conservative church back home lest I offend someone or cause them to lose respect for me. I’m okay with that. Love is more important than showing off my cutest spring dress. Since I’m on the church topic, I remember Peter’s rebukes about immodesty—in Peter’s example, decking oneself out for church in order to draw attention to my style or wealth. If I’m leading worship, I try to dress nice enough to not draw attention to my casualness but not flashy, cutesy, or any other adjective that would distract from those trying to worship. I want to dress to serve, not to make myself look good. That’s why I wore my new skinny jeans and a blouse while serving in the nursery. I was there to get on the floor and play with little kids, not to look good. And it’s a good thing I wore those jeans—I ended up sitting cross-legged on the floor with a grumpy little one for most of the hour, and then crawling around picking up blocks and wriggling through playhouse doors.

Jesus accepts my worship even when I'm in jeans.
Dressing to love also applies to loving guys—or anyone else—who takes offense at a particular article of clothing. If it’s been made clear in my church or group that wearing certain articles of clothing offends people or causes guys to stumble, I refrain from wearing those kinds of clothing—and feel freedom to wear them again in a situation away from those people and standards.

And those are my personal principles for dressing well. Emphasis on personal.

What are your principles for dressing well?
Any questions or comments about mine are more than welcome!

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11 impressions

  1. Yes yes yes. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Bailey!!

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    1. Thank YOU for your encouragement! It's been great chatting with you throughout the week over this topic!

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    2. Yay, you too. ;-) I've only recently gotten back into actually *reading* the blogs that I follow....yours is on of my favorites. Can't wait to continue following along. ♥

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  2. Very practical, reasonable, and best of all, healthy.

    Interesting side note: my daughter wears long, flowing skirts to school almost every day by her choice. That is the way she feels most comfortable both in terms of physical comfort (she does not like being squeezed by tight jeans), and comfort in her appearance (she wants to look nice so she's not going to school in sweat pants, but she also doesn't think she looks good in skin tight clothes). She has been asked more than once if she wears skirts because of her religion or even if she wasn't allowed to wear pants, and she always says, "No, I just like skirts!" She too is very practical though. She wears stretchy pants for musical choreography rehearsals. :-)

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    1. I appreciate your assessment of this post!

      And good for your daughter! Long skirts rock. I'm so glad they're coming back in style, which means they're getting stocked in Walmart and Target at cheaper prices!!

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  3. Wonderful post! I agree. ^_^ It is so refreshing to see a non-stifling, /encouraging/ viewpoint on this topic.

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    1. I'm so glad this encouraged and liberated you, Leah! That was my primary intention. :)

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  4. I love this post. Thank you so much for this. I love what you said about different standards for different contexts. So many people I know have issues with this and ask why you are willing to show more skin at a beach or gym than in church, but I love what you said about how it's culturally acceptable to wear tighter clothes to the gym or in a college cafeteria. It's also like when Paul talked about the issue of eating food offered to idols in 1 Corinthians and he said we shouldn't offend others even if we don't have issues with something.
    All that to say, I agree with you and love how you tackled this issue.

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    1. You're so encouraging! It's great to feel understood and agreed with. ;) Thanks for commenting!

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  5. One of the best & most refreshing modesty posts I've ever read. love it!

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    1. Yay! That's a high compliment! Thank you!

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