Bodies, Dating and Modesty: Misunderstood but Important

A friend of mine posted a link to this blog over at Christianity Today’s blog for women. The blog responds to the common phrase that “modest is hottest” which seems to run around in many Christian circles, particularly youth groups. The response is a good one, pointing out that the phrase actually objectifies women by making the female body a thing to be feared rather than an expression of God’s beauty.

The conclusion is one I cannot sum up better than it was originally said, so I quote:

Finally, language about modesty should focus not on hiding the female body but on understanding the body’s created role. Immodesty is not the improper exposure of the body per se, but the improper orientation of the body. Men and women are urged to pursue a modesty by which our glory is minimized and God’s is maximized. The body, the spirit and the mind all have a created role that is inherently God-centered. When we make ourselves central instead of God, we display the height of immodesty.

I think the phrase “understanding the body’s created role” is a bit ambiguous, though of course we are to pursue God’s glory (I do know a book on the role of the physical body, if you’re interested).

An interesting off-shoot of this thought, though, is a discussion of the idea that anyone who pays attention to physical beauty is shallow. I think that if our bodies are to be cherished, they should be cherished in our marriage or even dating relationships. My instincts tell me that we should value other peoples’ bodies in the same way that we value their minds or hearts, though perhaps the limitations are different. The reason that this view can be problematic, though, is that we struggle with seeing beyond our own particular cultural expressions of beauty; we often only have two or three body types that we would call ‘beautiful.’ I think the key here is to recognize beauty in more than just those few body types or facial structures, seeing–and I actually do mean seeing, not just claiming that something is beautiful when we don’t truly believe it–beauty in each bearer of the image of God.

I want to make sure I am clear here, since what I’m saying may be counter-intuitive, to some; if bodies are important–and the Creation narrative and the Incarnation both suggest that our bodies do matter–we shouldn’t be so quick to write them off completely when we begin to talk about dating or marriage. The suggestion may be controversial to some primarily because we have spent a good amount of time proclaiming things like ‘modest is hottest.’ Because we treat the female body as a thing to be feared, we (men and women) have glorified other forms of attraction, be that personality or intelligence or perhaps proclivity at some shared hobby. These things are good, of course, and certainly worth appreciating and admiring. My point is simply that we mustn’t throw off the body in such a way that we ignore it. If God saw fit to take a body and to create mankind with bodies (remember, bodies were once sinless), then I think we would be wise to avoid simply discarding them.

Yes, I do think we tend to focus too much on physical attraction during our ‘dating years’ and, of course, it is true that our looks will change over time. But the solution to this is not to ignore our bodies or turn them into objects to be feared; rather, we should develop our own visual palate that we may enjoy and appreciate beauty that steps beyond what our particular culture sees as attractive. Seeing real beauty in an aging body is a mark of wisdom, not foolhardy romanticism.

Don’t hate your body, but don’t fear others’ bodies either. Remember that God took the form of a body and continues on in a glorified body. Remember that we were created as perfect, embodied images of God. Exercise modesty as an orientation of the body; let’s glorify God with all of our selves: body, mind, and soul.

Image from Flickr.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • Jennifer D Gaertner

    Good job on this one, James. This is an exceptionally good post. You take an approach to appearance that is shared by far too few in the west.   

  • Mackenzie Mulligan

    I remember having a Torrey session about the Song of Solomon, in which the suggestion arose that the writer was, in fact, sexist, and was merely objectifying the woman. 

    As the solitary three (four?) men of Plato were huddled in a corner near a door, hiding from the feminine hordes, Dr. Campbell came to the rescue, asking if she was then shallow for enjoying her husband’s appearance. And thus we were saved from the terrifying dilemma of women wanting us to notice and praise their beauty, and being called shallow and sexist when we do.

    When a loving husband is asked if his wife is beautiful, he will never answer, “That’s not important.” Same goes for a wife, I should think. I cannot imagine a marriage relationship in which the body is viewed as anything less than beautiful (and I am just now realizing why my wife doesn’t mind that I’ve put on a little weight). 

    I think the key here is to recognize beauty in more than just those few body types or facial structures, seeing–and I actually do mean seeing, not just claiming that something is beautiful when we don’t truly believe it–beauty in each bearer of the image of God. 

    I think it’s Love that unlocks the beauty. Not just romantic love, but the broader love as well. It allows us to see the beauty of the image of God, just walking about like it’s no big deal. Love is not blind, it does not shut the eyes to flaws: It opens the eyes to what lies beneath the flaws, the original creation. 

  • J.F. Arnold

    Thanks, Jen. Long time no talk.

    What might we learn from eastern views of the body? I’d love some insight, but am really just at a loss on most of eastern thought (I’ll be remedying that a bit this summer, at least). Just wondering if you had something in mind.

  • J.F. Arnold

    Spot on, Mack, as usual. Love is certainly what drives us to recognize beauty, partially because we recognize God in more as we learn to love more deeply. This is, after all, part of why the body matters: the greatest expression of love came through the Incarnate Christ. If bodies didn’t matter, why did the Son of God take one?

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Jen. Long time no chat.

    Did you have something in mind when you mentioned the west? Are there eastern thoughts that might be helpful in this area? I’m afraid I’m not terribly knowledgeable about eastern thoughts, though this summer should help alleviate that, if only slightly.

  • Anonymous

    Spot on, Mack, as usual.

    After all, love took the form of a body, once. Even died. Not to mention returned, in an even better body.

  • Jennifer D Gaertner

    Hi James. Yes, it has been a long time. I hope you are doing well these days! 

    I admit my comment was vague. I didn’t have eastern thought specifically in mind actually. Though I do think that traditional cultures (when centered around the family) have a far healthier idea about aging than we do. My comment stemmed from my observation that our culture is in denial about age. It has a phobia of anything “unsexy,” and aging tends to be at the top of that list. 

    Since leaving Biola, I have been surprised (perhaps I shouldn’t be) by how many people express hatred towards themselves for their body’s imperfections. …behaving as if they are morally obligated to be attractive (according to what is considered “standard” these days). 

    While I do think beauty is important, if our physical nature is inextricable to our humanity (as you’ve pointed out), a person should be able to approach their body in a constructive way—loving their bodies and others’, as a gift, instead of something to be manipulated and used. 

    Let me put it this way: it is a very good thing to care for one’s body and to desire to look one’s best, when you have a framework that allows you to “see it for what it is.” It is quite another thing to make it the final source of your identity. In my experience this is what many do. As one writer put it (unfortunately, I don’t remember who), people will often focus on their bodies as a way to mask the deeper troubles that lie inside them.

  • Anonymous

    I think you’re right. That sounds like a good middle ground. My hope was to push against the idea that our bodies are unimportant, or that they are things to be feared or hated.

    I don’t want to land in a place that says our bodies are of supreme importance or the only thing our identity should be found in.

    But it does seem true that our bodies shape our identity; after all, our entire set of experiences have come through our bodies, in some way or another.

    Lots to think about.

  • Gearydavisproject

    I think that modesty is important but I think that it’s more important to be modest in spirit and words as well. There have been many cases where a person (male and female) appear to be modest but they are burining with lust within. Without complete control over the mind, an outward modest appearance is only that – AN APPEARANCE

  • Soujirou7

    When I first realized how removed the body is from most Christian thinking (at least from a positive light), I couldn’t help but think, “how lop-sided.” Recognizing ones fear of the body or fear of ascribing importance to the body is a great first step. But I’m left wondering, beyond teenage proclivities and “modest is hottest,” how did we end up here? Its a discussion both intrigues me and suggests a clearer path forward might be found. (like untangling a string so to speak) Did you ever write on that perchance?

  • jamesfarnold

    I haven’t tried to work out the historicity of it, no. A lot of people would trace it to the puritan view of bodies (cover up everything!), I suspect, but I’m not sure it is so recent.

    Honestly, I think it is a path that’s easy to trace from the teachings of Jesus. That doesn’t mean I think it is right (it is still a path away from the teachings of Jesus), but it shouldn’t be too difficult to see. When Jesus tells us that we should cut off our hand if it causes us to sin, and that we ought to gouge our eyes out if they cause us to sin, the only real shift we need to make is towards causing others to sin (which some extrapolate from Paul’s “causing a brother to stumble” language).

    If the ‘modest is hottest’ line is attempting to convey that it is more attractive to be holy than sexy, it’s missed the point. But I think that’s often what it is doing: you shouldn’t show some arbitrary section of skin (how tight is too tight? how low-cut is too low-cut? etc.) because it will cause your brother to stumble.

    But Jesus never said that if your right hand causes your brother to sin that you should cut it off.