This summer I learned to look at modesty in a completely new way through my experiences with many different cultures. For two weeks I worked and lived in Clarkston, Georgia, a refugee relocation center.
Part of our mission at the summer camp I helped lead was to create a comfortable place for conservative Muslim parents to send their children. We had a strict dress code to wear knee-length pants and sleeves when in the community.
At the same time, we had children and volunteers who did not follow this dress code, some wearing clothes I would not dare let my mother see me in. This led to many discussions within our staff about how to respond to this and, more importantly, what modesty really is.
One of the other interns suggested that modestly was a form of humility and that we should not dress in a way that draws attention to ourselves, which may be different from culture to culture. I agreed with her idea in part, but I couldn’t agree with trying to go unnoticed.
Sure, you shouldn’t be dressing in a way to cause others to stumble but I can’t see anything wrong with wearing a bright dress or a flattering top. If that was true, then appreciating the physical beauty of a child’s smile or a grandparent’s soft wrinkled hands could be considered immodest.
Physical beauty, including the beauty of humanity, should be appreciated, though not corrupted.
As I learned more about Muslim culture and other conservative cultures, I saw how many of them looked at modesty as a way to protect their sisters, daughters and wives. I could see the value in this, though I didn’t quite agree with the extreme measures some took.
I personally saw how the Somali girls I worked with were in many ways safer from the leers and negative attention that other girls would receive. At the same time, many of them were fearful of what would happen if they didn’t wear their headscarves.
I had already been considering the question of modesty for a few weeks when one afternoon in my apartment a six-year-old boy helped me see what modesty really is.
The apartment was full of children playing. I sat on the couch with two neighbor boys watching YouTube videos. I moved around, while talking to the girls playing cards on the floor and helping the boys switch between videos. As I did the knee-length skirt I was wearing brushed up my leg.
The little boy beside me carefully pinched my skirt and moved it back to my knee. Then he looked me in the eye and gave me a loving smile.
That was when I realized that true modesty comes from a shared love and respect of those around you and yourself.
And isn’t that how we as Christians and as God’s creation are told to treat each other?
If we apply this to the idea of modesty or even other concepts like tithing or stewardship, we have a greater, more holistic view of Christian practices.