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The Plain Testimony
- Francis Clare Fischer
I was just browsing through the sites on the Internet devoted to modest clothing. There aren’t oodles of them, so it did not take a great deal of time. But one Orthodox Jewish site had some wonderful reading material about why they dress modestly. It set me thinking.
The site told a story which I had heard before. Several Orthodox Jewish young people were asked to speak at a liberal synagogue. They were modestly dressed, and were asked to explain about that. They explained, in essence, that covering with modesty keeps the sexual expression of life safely inside marriage. One of the teenage listeners, a boy, said: “But I don’t see anything sexual about a woman’s elbow!” And an Orthodox boy cried out, in all innocence, “Oh! That’s too bad!”
Jewish Orthodox women and men cover from below the elbow to the neck. The men wear long pants and the women wear dresses long enough to cover most of the calf area. And, of course, the women cover their heads and, for many, all of their hair. Plain Christian men and women do not have quite so strict a code but it is certainly similar. Why do we do this?
There are scriptural reasons which most of us know. But why should scripture be so concerned with what we wear? It has occurred to me that scripture directs Orthodox Jews, Conservative Muslims, and Plain Christians to be more realistic about sexuality than most of the prevailing culture. We need only point to the steep rise in sexual crimes in the “enlightened” modern world to support this suggestion. The human sexual urge must, like that of all creatures, be fairly strong. If it were not so, we would think twice about the pain and danger of childbirth and view our sexuality with great fear. But that is far from the case, no matter what our religious persuasion! The Lord created us in such a way that no matter what the ultimate pain and danger, we would be drawn to each other.
Our sexuality is sacred. It is the door through which life comes. Modesty protects our sexuality and grants it a reverence of which the modern world is almost completely ignorant. Modesty is a commitment to keeping our sexuality cloistered within the walls of marriage.
And once we have submitted to that blessed cloister, we find that it does something unexpected. Modesty allows all forms of the human body to be beautiful. In the modern world only extremely thin men and women can be scantily clad and still maintain a modicum of dignity. The rest of us look woeful at best. Our beauty is actually hidden by modern dress, or the lack thereof!
Yet when we are modest those imperfections, which even air brushed models possess, are kindly draped and guarded. The eyes which see them are only those which love us most and very much in spite of our many imperfections. The world finds round and bountiful bodies so horrifying that young women, and an increasing number of men, starve themselves to death rather than face the possibility that they may not have the body of a model.
In fact, only three percent of the population is genetically inclined to have a model’s body! And even models often do not have these perfect bodies. The pictures are often airbrushed and now with computers they are changed and enhanced. I was stunned to find that the poster advertising Julia Roberts in the film Pretty Woman in fact showed a model’s body with Julia’s head. Now if this remarkably beautiful woman is not beautiful enough, what hope have the rest of us poor mortals?
All jesting aside, our hope is modesty. Modesty gives us a freedom the world cannot give. My students feel they are greatly liberated and not bound to wear much of anything at all, even to class! Yet they are plagued with fears about their bodies and with a level of self consciousness which is debilitating. This is a serious problem for my students who are going into a field which is extremely harsh and critical of their appearance. I tell them that they should enjoy their beauty [and they are all beautiful], and that this is the time of their lives when they are often at the height of their beauty. They need to stop all the self hate, and love what they are. They, at least, must believe in themselves. My words very often fall on deaf ears. Because my words run so counter to the world which tells them that they are never pretty or handsome enough. . . but maybe they will be if they buy this and that product.
Women and men are disrobed in modern culture precisely because that disrobing sells products. If all were dressed modestly, eschewed makeup and fancy clothing and covered our heads, what would advertisers do? They are dependent upon people being uncovered and filled with disgust because they are not one of the three percent with the body of a model. What a way to run a world!
And of course, not only does it do terrible damage to the people so disrobed. It does horrific damage to the larger world. We, in the so-called developed world, are the smallest portion of the world. But like the lords and ladies of old we exploit the majority of people in order to maintain the vanities of our lifestyle. Modesty does not answer all those problems, to be sure. But it could answer a few. The sweat shops are not turning out cape dresses and prayer caps! And how much smaller our wardrobe needs to be if we have only a few sets of clothes because, by and large, each piece of clothing looks much the same.
Holy modesty really is holy. It preserves the sanctity of our sexuality. It provides for our inevitable imperfections. And grants the sight of them only to loving eyes. It gives us great freedom. We can walk streets of the world with calm and confidence, unfettered by the shame of imperfect bodies and blatant sexuality. Wherever we go, we walk in the cloister which Scripture has prepared for us.
- printed by permission from the author