I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want: for modest, feminine beauty to be appreciated as it once was and for women to stop rating themselves and each other based on sexual desirability. I know, it’s a goal which is highly idealistic, but I believe women can snap out of it and not only get over the need to turn heads, but also learn the great value of modesty and humility.
In Western culture, up to World War I, women of any sort of social respectability wore extremely modest clothing that left relatively little skin showing. After the war, hemlines got higher and dress style became less restrictive. Women were gaining more rights and independence and this meant they had more freedom in their choice of clothing.
As times changed and our society moved from Modernism to Post-Modernism, women’s fashion became more and more sexually provocative. For some reason the move toward sexier clothing was attributed to women’s liberation and the sexual revolution. But this kind of “liberation” only ended up perpetuating the objectification of women. Although we were no longer tightly laced into corsets, we became constrained by something worse: the pressure to always look young and sexy.
Today there are hardly any social expectations when it comes to modesty. You could walk down the street in little more than your underwear and most people would hardly bat an eye. And according to most magazine covers, it is considered a major achievement for a woman to look great in a bikini – especially a woman who has either lost weight or had children and now has regained a toned abdomen worthy of showing off. Is this evidence of our liberation? Does being more sexy give us more control and equality? Should having a great body to show off really be considered such a great accomplishment for a woman? Because I think the fact that we see this as some kind of ultimate goal only demeans us.
That said, the prevailing attitudes about female beauty pose quite a challenge to Orthodox Christian women because our faith takes humility very seriously. The Gospel teaches us that true power comes from humility and warns us of the deceitfulness of vanity. Even so, when we walk through the mall and see the latest fashion trends on display, we can easily forget that certain clothing, although socially acceptable, is not appropriate for Christians to wear. And Christians really need to be careful not to compromise their piety for the sake of dressing fashionably.
The Orthodox Christian faith teaches that in order to worship God, we must first put aside our earthly cares, vanity and pride. Orthodox Christians, as you are being mindful of your life: to pray, fast and give alms, be mindful about letting the clothing you wear reflect a humble heart. Do it out of your personal desire to honour God, as well as out of respect for those around you.
I know it’s not the 1800’s anymore and no one expects a woman to cover herself from the top of her neck to the tips of her toes. But Orthodox ladies, I’m going to be very blunt right now: we don’t want or need to see your thighs, midriff or cleavage. We don’t want to be able to see the outline of your every curve through your Lycra blend clothing. We don’t want to see your breasts on display, as if served up on a platter. Please spare your Christian brothers and sisters the awkwardness and embarrassment of seeing too much of you.
What I really, really want is for women to reclaim their beauty in all its wholeness and goodness, to respect it and be wary of how easily anyone can fall into the sin of vanity. There are so many temptations in this world; why should we add to them? God gifted women with beauty. Of the two sexes, let’s face it, we are the pretty ones. But God didn’t give us beauty so that we could seduce everyone around us, or please the lustful eyes of others; he gave us beauty to glorify Him. Sure it feels good to be told you’re attractive and if “you’ve got it” society says you should flaunt it. A scantily clad woman may be able to attract men like moths to a flame, but for a Christian, it is far better to attract the grace of God.
St. Isaac the Syrian said
Even devils in their craftiness and beastly manners and with their arrogant minds; they become like dust when they face a modest person.
And St. Anthony the Great had said,
I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”
Many times we are admonished in the Scriptures to put certain things on while taking other things off. For example, in Colossians chapter 3 we are told to put off anger, wrath, malice and blasphemy and instead put on tender mercies, kindness, humility and meekness. Then Paul writes “but above all these things put on love.” Ah yes, the first and most important commandment: love. This is the key to humility. By contrast, without love, there can be no humility.
We work so hard sometimes to look great on the outside and forget to work on the true substance of who we are, the part that is eternal, the part that God sees. So as St. Peter says:
Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.
So, put on love…and for goodness sake put some clothes on too.