Modesty and “The Legging Problem”

Maryann White is the mother of a Notre Dame student, and last week she penned an Op-Ed for the Notre Dame campus newspaper titled “The Legging Problem.” The basic thrust of White’s article is a complaint against immodesty among women. In particular, she has a problem with the legging trend. She writes:

I’m not trying to insult anyone or infringe upon anyone’s rights. I’m just a Catholic mother of four sons with a problem that only girls can solve: leggings.

The emergence of leggings as pants some years ago baffled me. They’re such an unforgiving garment. Last fall, they obtruded painfully on my landscape. I was at Mass at the Basilica with my family. In front of us was a group of young women, all wearing very snug-fitting leggings and all wearing short-waisted tops (so that the lower body was uncovered except for the leggings). Some of them truly looked as though the leggings had been painted on them…

I was ashamed for the young women at Mass. I thought of all the other men around and behind us who couldn’t help but see their behinds. My sons know better than to ogle a woman’s body — certainly when I’m around (and hopefully, also when I’m not). They didn’t stare, and they didn’t comment afterwards. But you couldn’t help but see those blackly naked rear ends. I didn’t want to see them — but they were unavoidable. How much more difficult for young guys to ignore them.

As you can imagine, the students at Notre Dame did not appreciate this Op-Ed. Some students protested the Op-Ed by organizing a “Love Your Leggings Day” for the campus last Tuesday. The Washington Post reports:

A student group, Irish 4 Reproductive Health, similarly declared Tuesday to be “Leggings Pride Day.” On Facebook, the group explained that White’s letter, although well-intentioned, “perpetuates a narrative central to rape culture” by implying that women’s clothing choices are to blame for men’s inappropriate behavior.

Wow. Rape culture? This mother’s simple plea for modesty is supposed to be viewed as advancing rape culture? To be sure, there are lecherous men in the world who are more than willing to blame their evil behavior on how women dress. We can recognize that any such insinuation is a moral dodge and must be repudiated. The sinner has himself to blame for evil choices that he makes, and he cannot rightly blame anyone else for what is his own fault.

Having said that, it is really problematic and sloppy to equate modesty with rape culture. Albert Mohler discussed this on The Briefing this morning and said this:

Illegitimate is the argument that concern for modesty is simply part of that shame culture, that talk of modesty is just a way of shaming females. That is not a legitimate argument. The Bible makes clear it’s not a legitimate argument. The Bible makes clear why we wear coverings for those private parts in the first place. Then the question is, “As we extend from that to appropriate clothing, what would that look like?”…

Wearing clothing that directs attention to those private parts rather than away from those private parts is inherently problematic. It is by biblical definition, whether male or female, immodest. One final thought about this for Christians, one of our responsibilities to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ is to encourage one another to holiness. Everything we do, including our choice of clothing, but including everything else should at the very least be judged by that standard.

I couldn’t agree more. Modesty is not “rape culture.” The way in which we choose to adorn ourselves is morally implicated. In fact, modesty is a part of biblical virtue (1 Tim. 2:9). Kevin DeYoung elaborates:

Modesty operates with the Bible’s negative assessment of public nudity post-Fall. From Adam and Eve scrambling for fig leaves (Gen. 3:10), to the dishonorable nakedness of Noah (Gen. 9:21), to the embarrassingly exposed buttocks of David’s men (2 Sam. 10:4), the Bible knows we inhabit a fallen world in which certain aspects of our bodily selves are meant to be hidden. Indeed, this is precisely what Paul presumes when he speaks of “our unpresentable parts” which must be “treated with greater modesty” (1 Cor. 12:23). There’s a reason momma called them private parts…

Modesty demonstrates to others that we have more important things to offer than good looks and sex appeal. The point of 1 Timothy 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:3-4 is not an absolute prohibition against trying to look nice. The prohibition is against trying so very hard to look good in all the ways that are so relatively unimportant. The question asked of women in these verses–and it certainly applies to men as well–is this: will you grab people’s attention with hair and jewelry and sexy clothes or will your presence in the room be unmistakable because of your Christlike character? Immodest dress tells the world, “I’m not sure I have anything more to offer than this. What you see is really all you get”…

If the Bible is to be believed, this whole business of modesty is not irrelevant to Christian discipleship. Our bodies have been bought with a price. Therefore glorify God with your body (1 Cor. 6:20). Which means we don’t show everyone everything we might think is worth seeing. And it means we won’t be embarrassed to keep most private those things that are most precious. Shame is a powerful category, in the Bible and in our own day.  The key is knowing what things we should actually be ashamed of.

Amen.

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(You can listen to the rest of Albert Mohler’s commentary below or download the audio here.)

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