Like many people raised in the evangelical Christian church, I attended a Christian summer camp throughout my middle school years. Like most Christian summer camps, this one had a dress code for girls: no two-piece swimsuits, no super-short shorts (Nike shorts were fine), and no revealing tops.
The counselors explained to us girls that “no revealing tops” meant no crop tops, no low-cut necklines, no tank tops with thin straps, and no shirts that showed even the tiniest bit of sports bra. These things would distract boys from focusing on getting to know Jesus, which was, after all, why we were at camp.
This was fine by me. I’d been going to a school with a dress code all my life. I had heard all about modesty before. I didn’t want to wear a crop top or a bikini. I wore my normal clothes and never got told off.
A couple of days into camp, however, I noticed something disturbing. While none of the girls were clad in revealing tops, the guidelines for the boys appeared to be different. Many boys were wearing tank tops with huge arm holes that exposed the full length of their scrawny thirteen-year-old chests.
Wait a minute, I thought. Why don’t they have to follow the same rules as us girls? Why is it not OK if my cabinmate’s shirt exposes a tiny bit of sports bra at the shoulders, but these boys can walk around with half a shirt on?
That was distracting for me–not in a sexual way, but in an irritating way, like how you can’t focus on the sermon if the preacher’s tie is crooked. I wondered why there were all sorts of rules in place to prevent girls from distracting boys, yet there were none to prevent the reverse.
And then it occurred to me that these were teenage boys. No matter what kinds of rules the camp imposed on the girls, nothing would stop the boys from being distracted. How could they say that the amount of leg exposed by Nike shorts was less distracting than the corner of a sports bra?
Yet as much as this camp stressed “modesty” with girls, they stressed “chivalry” with boys. Boys–nay, young men–should always let girls go first and hold the door. That’s what chivalry was.
Let me clarify that I do not think that modesty and chivalry are bad things. In fact, modesty and chivalry are both good things. Nor do I think that Christian summer camps are bad things. I understood key points of doctrine for the first time at this same Christian summer camp. But I do think that Christian culture lacks a full understanding of what modesty and chivalry are, and how they relate.
We haven’t defined our terms. It’s that simple.
The code of chivalry stems from the Middle Ages, and it was originally “a moral, religious, and social code of knightly conduct, generally upholding the virtues of courage, honor, and service.” It was created to prevent knights from abusing their power. Since we don’t have knights of that sort today, an updated definition is needed. Chivalry is courage in one’s daily battles and gentleness in one’s interactions with others. I base my definition on C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Necessity of Chivalry,” in which he says that
“The knight is a man of blood and iron, […but also] a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man.”
That’s right: he used the word “modest.”
For my definition of “modesty,” I’m not going to impose some kind of Official Standard for hemlines and inseams. In fact, modesty doesn’t have as much to do with clothing as you might think. Modesty is displaying your glory in the right context without excluding others. (Here are two blog posts dedicated to defining modesty, from which I derived this definition.) For example, it would be immodest for a basketball player to dunk on a team of fourth graders. But it would be perfectly fine if the basketball player was participating in a dunking competition among peers.
The thing is, modesty is a part of chivalry, and neither modesty nor chivalry should be confined to a single gender. To be chivalrous, one must be gentle and submissive in one’s interactions with others. That might mean holding the door for someone. That might mean giving someone your seat on the bus. That might even mean leaving your tank top with gaping arm holes at home when you go to church camp. You don’t have to wear a regular t-shirt–if people are “distracted,” that’s their problem, not yours. But you should look at the context, decide if it’s appropriate to display your body in this way, and make a decision.
So allow me to make this humble suggestion: Instead of teaching pubescent girls to cover up and pubescent boys to hold the door, the Christian community should instill true chivalry in both genders, teaching girls and boys about modesty as a subsection of chivalry. In this way, we will grow a strong generation who can
“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
What are your experiences with modesty and chivalry? How do you feel about my take on both of them? Let me know in comments!
Want more Theology Thursday? Read all of my Theology Thursday posts here.
Many thanks to Bailey Steger at Ezer. This article of hers, featured on WordPress Discover, was the catalyst for me to write this post. She is an intelligent, insightful blogger who is always ready to continue the discussion in the comments section–check our her blog if you haven’t already!
P.S. I am out of town this week, so there will be no post tomorrow. After that, I start school, so I will only be posting on Fridays for the remainder of August. Thanks for reading, and see you next Friday!