Not a Letter to Anyone

This isn’t a letter to a son or daughter. Or one of their friends. Or one of their friend’s parents. It’s not even a letter written to you. I’m more just letting my (5) readers read my thoughts. You can comment, but this blog entry is just me making my way through the strange journey I’ve found myself on in regards to modesty. It’s just random thoughts sort of joining together because of several of those “dear someone, I want to tell you about modesty” letters of late, which have made me examine my own heart about it.
I’ve read a deeply concerned mother’s letter to teenage girls. I’ve read a sarcastic response to that letter from a deeply annoyed woman. I’ve read a future heart-call to a boy from his dad (this is my favorite one, and I’ll explain later why I think it’s perfect for either gender). I’ve read several random things from various parents with concern over Miley Cyrus (maybe this is when all the letters began, I don’t know) and several other articles on modesty, anger about “slut-shaming,” and the like, in the last year.
You know, I used to be a standard, white, female, American, Believer-in-Christ that would look on shocked or disgusted when a woman had cleavage or thigh showing. “How inappropriate! Doesn’t she know she can make men stumble? Why isn’t she being modest?” Or, heaven forbid, she went without a bra (I’ll note this as an off topic at the end). I’d love to point to something outside of myself that caused me to feel that way, but at the end of the day, I blame myself. I choose to allow other’s to influence my thinking instead of seeking God’s Word on the matter and seeking His guidance. I chose to listen to what I had been taught and not learn for myself. After all, I was taught, Scripture says women are to be modestly dressed!

 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” ~ 1 Timothy 2:9, ESV

Which, is absolutely true. What I haven’t seen in Scripture is many rules for outward modesty. It all points for the heart. In fact, of every single person I have read a “girls, please stop dressing trampy” letter from, the mother/father, pastor, etcetera, dress with far less clothing, far more “revealing” clothing than many people did when this Biblical admonition went out. So, it’s difficult for me to take these “Scriptural calls to outward purity” with much more than a look of bewilderment these days.

I hadn’t stopped to think when I changed regarding clothing/modesty, but these letters have made me try to examine that. For now, I’ve pieced this together. I hope it makes some sort of sense.
When I was little (oh yes, I am going back that far), I remember seeing some sort of National Geographic special or something and seeing tribal women without tops on. I was quite young, so my lessons of modesty were extremely straight-shooting and I felt compelled to run to either my Mom or my Gramma. I related with near-terror how there were naked women on tv. It was related to me, very calmly, that that’s how many tribes live, that its not seen as naughty there, and that it was okay for me to continue watching about the tribe. I left extremely confused, but couldn’t form what that confusion was all about with words for many years.
Shoot past the many years of living quite like the concerned mother (linked above). I was a 20 year old wife to a man who was studying to be a pastor and mother to my first, who was nursing. I remember when my parents came for a visit when she was 2 weeks old and we went out to eat at a buffet. Melody napped when we were first there, but woke up about 15 minutes in, and she was hungry. My heart began to race, I thought I was going to vomit, and I was panicked at the thought of nursing her in front of all the diners – what if they give me dirty looks? But she’s so hungry! I’m not making her eat in the bathroom. She needs to eat. I don’t know what to do to satisfy everyone!! My mom calmly told me to nurse her at the table, no one would see it to care. I still heard a hundred voices of judgment. I did one of the things I will always regret as a mother – I scarfed my food, made her wait a little longer for her food (probably another 15-20 minutes), then raced home to nurse her.

This is Leela nursing while I knit. Super awesome moment, because it wasn’t often I could nurse with no hands, because of pain. This photo is probably in the top 5 of my happiest, proudest moments as a nursing mama!

A few more years went by, and I found that I was a wife to a drug/porn addict (the same man studying to be a pastor a few short years before) and a mother to a feisty little toddler. I began looking to Scripture to understand why my husband (now ex-) had been drawn to pornography and what I could do to be a better wife without debasing myself (the wife God wants me to be). I came across several books that blessed me, one of which is The Excellent Wife (I won’t get into how it blessed me now, but will some other time, probably) and the other one was For Women Only by Shaunti Feldhahn. What stuck out to me the most then (and has to this day) was found in chapter 6, Keeper of the Visual Rolodex:

“For those of us who aren’t visual, it’s hard to imagine that a man could have no control over something popping up in his head. We also may not recognize that in our sex-saturated culture, the very act of living is a minefield of possible triggers and potential images that could be recalled days or years later. To use a common example, prime-time television commercials often flash sensual two-second images – say, of a woman undressing – that are up on the screen and gone before a man can look away. Nothing he can do. Boom, it’s added to the mental Rolodex, whether he wants it or not.”

I’m not going to lie. I read through that chapter with a box of tissues. It broke my heart to think of that kind of… imprisoned feeling. To have that “Rolodex” of images you don’t really want there. It still does.

It took me over half a decade to connect the dots and realize that women have a Rolodex of their own, just not necessarily of images.
A couple years go by and Melody was a 5 year old, as I made the choice to follow the call as midwife. I began studying to become a midwife, with a clear focus as a Follower of Christ. Midwifery as Follower of Christ has probably changed me equally as much as my experience with molestation, in the regards of sexuality, modesty, and serving others, honestly. So much so, that it would be hard to pin-point precise moments of my life with midwifery studies, as I can from my childhood and from reading one specific book.
To summarize this, I became more aware of the very good that God called the human body, that it was never something He desired us to be ashamed of. I learned how vital and breastfeeding is for normal health, how small an infant’s stomach is (it needs to be filled frequently!), and how biologically normal it is to breastfeed anywhere, at any time. It became so clear to me that babies should be welcome to eat just as an adult does – whenever they are hungry, without shame in a bathroom stall or with a sweaty tent to hide away in, and even just for the fellowship/bond it enables between those partaking in it (and yes, I believe adults eating with other adults enables a beautiful fellowship!).

“gather the people. Consecrate the congregation;  assemble the elders; gather the children,   even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room,   and the bride her chamber.” ~ Joel 2:18

Breastfeeding was half of the lynch-pin for my heart turning towards Christ and ignoring outward appearances, but I’ll get there… Several years went by, and I still would look with disappointment at women who dressed less than my ideal for coverage. Didn’t they realize they were making it difficult for my husband, who was prone to stumble?

Then, the world that Melody and I knew, as chaotic as it was with a barely-present, drug addicted, alcoholic, pornography-obsessed, jobless husband/father, was turned upside down and became at once more settled and more chaotic (this post is not the time I will get into that dichotomy). My sweet 7 year old confided in me that she had been molested. She described in detail what happened to her, not even knowing the term “molested” at that point in her life. While her mind could not piece time together too well, she described to me neighbors we lived near, when she was molested in a very specific way, and I realized with horror that she had been molested by her father since she was at least 3  or 4 years old and by one of his relatives on several occasions. Thus began her journey from victim to survivor, and my journey from a secondary victim to a secondary survivor.
To say this hasn’t played a massive role in the shaping of my beliefs would be an absolute lie. It shattered all the pretense I had been holding on to, with not much conviction mind you, and left me reeling to understand what modesty really means.
In many of the comments of these “letters” dealing with modesty, I inevitably come across ignorant comments similar to this (comments I didn’t agree with before being a secondary survivor, anyway): “I know that rapists don’t care what their victim is wearing, because it’s not about outward looks, it’s about dominating and controlling the victim… but perhaps they wouldn’t be ‘so tempted’ if women weren’t always wearing clothes that asked to be looked at.” I can’t even describe the level of stupidity I have always found that kind of comment to rise to.
So, it’s the fault of the rapist because he wants to dominate and control anyone, but maybe if his victim wasn’t ‘asking for it,’ she or he would have been spared from the violating control?
What, do they suppose small children should have done, when molested by a predator? Maybe little Billy’s pants weren’t long enough and his baggy jersey was just too revealing. If he could have just worn a giant sack with a hole for his eyes, maybe the 50 year old man wouldn’t have noticed him to want to dominate him. {for those of you who don’t know, that’s sardonicism} Sometimes, I wish vomit could spew from my side of the screen to theirs when someone says something as horrifyingly evil as “maybe they asked for it” or allude to that very thought when referring to sexual assault victims. Maybe they don’t realize how evil that sounds and they are just rather brainless, thoughtless, careless. I am quite sure they nor any of their children have been sexually assaulted.
A few years after this all came out, I shared my favorite breastfeeding painting on my Facebook wall, a beautiful reprint from my friend, Kate Hansen. A gruff response was given to me about “flaunting” breastfeeding, and it made all of my emotions, worlds, and beliefs come into much clearer focus. It was absolutely easy for me to see the same kind of treatment and thoughts given to sexual assault victims and to breastfeeding mothers/babies. And that is when the post, Sexual Assault and Breastfeeding, came pouring out from my heart (I’ll share it later and link it here).
But, let me get more focused, since I’m talking more deliberately about all these “dear someone” letters about modesty. That “visual Rolodex” I wrote about earlier? I believe it’s REAL. I’ve seen letters from some that state, basically, that men CANNOT control themselves with the Rolodex. I’ve seen letters that mock the notion that men have images recalled that they struggle with. I think both of those thoughts are wrong.
Here’s why: Most women have their own Rolodex. I’ve seen it with other women and experienced it in my own life. Our Rolodex is our own little prison if we let it be, just as a man’s can be a prison for them if they let it be. The average woman’s Rolodex I am talking about is an Emotional one. Just like men carry images they might not want to carry, women carry emotions they might not want to carry.
Daryl and I, awhile back, were having a conversation and I asked him if he remembered how he felt when he told me he loved me for the first time. He said, “I can guess that I was feeling butterflies in my stomach… but I don’t remember exactly what I was feeling at the time.” My jaw almost hit the floor. HOW ON EARTH could he not remember that precise feeling? I can remember it like it was yesterday. If I stop and go through the very moment, I can almost feel it all again!
I had to know if this spread across the board for him. I was astonished to find that it did. This led us to discussing why it seems so easy for most men to let go of things when someone wrongs them and why it’s so difficult for so many women to let go: just like a man gets quick visual reminders of things he saw (whether he wanted to or not), women get quick, random reminders of some pain she experienced… and sometimes, she can feel it like it was yesterday (even if it happened 15 years ago).
Still, even by the end of that conversation, I was in awe.
Now… maybe this is the reason I feel like I’m not a part of either “side” when it comes to modesty. It’s this… mocking from the secular world, that men don’t really have this problem, get over it. It’s this finger-pointing from the religious to women, that they are responsible for men not controlling how they interact with their visual Rolodex… as though men have no control over their actions.
Saying that women need to do every little thing to comply with someone else’s idea of modesty is insane, first of all. Everyone has a different idea of what modest clothing is, if they even care at all. While the Amish may blush at the sight of women in pants, I am sure most “modernized” American Believers would prefer a woman in a pair of pants over, say, a mini-skirt. So… can I wake up each day catering to the most stringent modesty standards and still breathe, move, and not sweat myself to death in a burlap sack? Not likely.
Secondly, by pointing to women’s outward appearance, we’re completely avoiding the deeper issue. That of the heart. We treat men as animals to act as though they can’t – or shouldn’t – control themselves, simply because they have a “visual Rolodex.” Just as we would be treating women as delicate little doormats if we used her “emotional Rolodex” in the same manner. Can you imagine if these same mothers/pastors/whoever used this same tear-down style of appeal to men, in regards to women’s emotional Rolodex? Let’s look at how insane it would sound:

“Please hear me out. Women can never forget the wrong that you do them. Ever. They can’t control what they emotionally remember – it can hit them like it happened seconds ago, and it feels just like it did the moment it happened, even if it was a decade ago. It comes from out of nowhere. They can hardly control how they respond to that remembrance, either. It is up to you to ensure that they don’t struggle with emotions of bitterness and anger – so stop saying and doing things that hurt them. You may have no idea what could hurt each individual woman, but that doesn’t matter. Stop doing it. They may struggle with forgiving you for forever, and that will be of your doing.”

Then again, let’s think of it from the flip side – pretending like there’s nothing that women/men could do to help and bless one another, how insane it sounds to act like we should not be compassionate for the little “Rolodex” we all carry in one fashion or form, when people act like a man’s visual Rolodex isn’t real or that big of a deal in his mind/heart. 

Yet, when we shout, “Stop worrying about this issue!!” we are ignoring the many single and married men that deal with this, but wish we could at the very least, try to be considerate of the Rolodex they wish they didn’t carry.  Can you imagine telling others to not be considerate, thoughtful, and loving towards a woman’s heart? Not because “she’s weaker,” but because, heck… why would we want to abuse the power that emotional memory wields with most women… so, why would we want to abuse the power that visualization wields with most men?
Scripture tells us to be modest and dressed appropriately. It does. But… what does that mean?
Surely, almost every modern person in America is a far cry away from the “modest” clothing worn by Followers of Biblical times. Most women in the church I know wear pants, pants that (whether they want to admit it or not) hug the curve of their bottom, show the shape of their thigh, and draw at least a mediocre bit more attention to the lower region of the body than the garments worn by women of the Church in Paul’s time.
For most Believers to be admonishing what modesty means, from a Scriptural aspect, and giving clothing guidelines/critique, is literally laughable… if it weren’t so heartbreaking.
What do we say about people in a tribal setting? Is their attire (or lacking of it) acceptable because it actually is, or because we think they are too “primitive” to know better, or for some other reason entirely? What about Adam and Eve – seriously. Scripture says that after sinning, they covered their nakedness, but it wasn’t until quite late in the game that artists started rendering Eve’s breasts as covered.
Are we missing something here? Sometimes, I think we’d be better off if we lived as tribal communities do – there’s no sexual pretense about the mammary glands. They’d just be hanging out, just like a man’s chest does/”can.”
Apparently, NY state has been forced to see men going topless and women being arrested for it as “indecent exposure” as the culturally-enforced double-standard that it is. Now, for simply being topless neither women nor men can be arrested (before, women only, could be).
For now, I’ve come to the place that modesty isn’t really about outward things at all. It’s all about your heart. Which then outflows to your actions. Our actions don’t always line up with what is going on in our hearts, though. Often, but not always.
Sometimes, really beautiful-hearted girls/women, who don’t want to add to any man’s rolodex, wear something that they had no idea just added to it for 25% (or maybe even 90%) of the men they were in contact with that day. I’m not going to ever bother asking her to change anymore. Not in a letter, God-forgive me if in a look, not in any way my mind can drum up right now.
Her heart was not intent on causing anyone to have to fight her image out of their mind… so that moves right on over to it becoming a man’s responsibility for controlling himself when those images flash up.
Sometimes, I have seen some women in the church wear extremely “revealing” clothing (in my cultural context/understanding) and it is very obvious through her actions that she wants men to be unable to get her image out of their mind.
Here’s the thing though… I really feel like the Spirit, through the Word, needs to confirm to Followers that are close to those women, when to speak and when to stay silent.
One particular woman completely changed her attire from a regularly-worn dress that showed her butt cheeks if she leaned over to even the slightest degree (I couldn’t even help but notice it… a black dress and pale white cheeks, it was hard to miss, or even deliberately avoid), to beautiful, casual clothes that cover all of her “standard modesty” areas for church appropriateness. Her whole attitude at church functions shifted, and she no longer touched men’s shoulders while she snugged up next to them (and many of the men carefully put distance between them) and had a twinkle in her eye at men only.
It then became a twinkle in her eye towards everyone, and her personality shone so brightly. It was easier to see her. I don’t know if anyone talked to her about this or if they just loved her and showed her that a good man will love her for her beautiful spirit, not just her beautiful body that will drastically change given time and circumstance.
I just know that I didn’t talk to her, despite my strong urging to… and God worked.
Then again, there are women like me in the church, that outwardly dress “modestly” for the most part, but have inwardly struggled with the desire to be found sexually attractive and wanted someone to have images stuck in their brain (yes, I struggled with this to a small degree, with someone specific, while I was single mother, before I relinquished that desire to God, and then met Daryl shortly after). That’s the problem, to me. Scripture leans towards our hearts, again and again and again… and modesty is no exception (if you can find actual guidelines/rules for what length of dress is appropriate, what kinds of shirts are acceptable, etc., please do let me know). We can never fully know one another’s hearts… heck, it’s pretty hard to know our own hearts, most of the time. How on EARTH can we look at how someone is dressed and know their heart? We just can’t.

“The heart is deceitful above all things,   and desperately sick;  who can understand it? ‘I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.'”  ~ Jeremiah 17:9-10

That’s why the third letter above, the one a dad prepares to give to his son someday, appeals the most to me. Because it addresses the fact that we can only control ourselves… and we have no one else to be responsible for our actions, but us.

I still wear long hippie skirts and a t-shirt. I don’t really see that changing, but that’s because it’s what I find at once beautiful and comfortable. I’ve found several shirts in the last year and a half that worked super well for nursing my baby out and about, but I am sure some would think they were too low-cut, too snug, too… “inappropriate” by their standards. Then again, many people think a baby nursing outside of their home, with or without a cover, is immodest… so you just can’t win.
I’ve stopped worrying about what someone else thinks and started keeping a watchful eye on my own heart. Am I trying to be sexy for someone else? Am I trying to get attention in some way? When I seek to be modest in attire, is my choice based on Scriptural learning or from a cultural teaching? All of the time now I can say no to the first two questions, but the latter question, I often find that I am basing my own personal ideals of modesty on the American-conservative-Christian culture I was raised in. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not necessarily right, either.
Certainly, I am still growing through this and learning. I am not perfect at it, nor do I ever think I will be on this side of eternity, but I do want to love God from my inside-out.

On a last note, related to these thoughts, but not entirely attached… I want to mention something for health and safety. Something Mrs. Hall mentioned in her FYI letter was “I think the boys notice other things. For one, it appears that you are not wearing a bra.”

This might have been the most laughable thing for me, simply because it was the most obvious issue of cultural context. Sorry, for those of you whom take the conservative route when it comes to modesty, but most of the world doesn’t care about bras. I am a 44DD+ (something) woman that hardly ever wears a bra, even outside of the house. This has nothing to do with tempting anyone and everything to do with keeping myself healthy (especially since I have a failed endocrine system – I need all the help I can get). Wearing bras restricts the lymph system, which in turn messes up the rest of your body.
Don’t ever take my word for anything when I talk about health issues, please study for yourself.

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