2 Ways to Talk About Clothes Without Body-Shaming

By Dannah Gresh

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By Dannah Gresh, Founder of True Girl

I'm often called a "leader in the modesty and purity movement." Let me tell you why I find that ironic! When I wrote my first book, it was because I did not feel the movement's conversation was complete, compassionate, or fueled by an intelligent faith. The messages were often built on verses that were siloed off to make a point and don't make me tell you how I felt when there were object lessons about chewed up bubble gum or trampled roses.

I was that chewed up gum.

But not in God's eyes. He saw a girl redeemed by His grace. So, I wanted young women growing up behind me to know they were masterpieces created by God. And that if they, like me had missed God's best, there were second chances.

I'd like to think that I entered the conversation and made it a little bit better, but I realize that I myself am not perfect. So, I am continually analyzing how Christians—myself included— have approached the topics of modesty and purity.  This month, our team at True Girl has decided to tackle the topic of dressing with dignity. And I know you may have some of the same concerns that I do that we get it right. So, hold our feet to the fire and add your own thoughts. But let's continue to make a complex conversation better.

My greatest concern is that most Christian teaching on modesty is limited to the outward appearance. The rules about clothing. Rarely are pastors, speakers or authors taking time to explain why God has those guidelines written down for us. This oversight often results in missing the point of Christian philosophy on the body and beauty. Take this verse, for example:

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (1 Peter 3:3-4 ESV)

The purpose of this verse is to encourage Christian women to pursue the work of understanding and cultivating true beauty, which is an act of internal disposition. The verse begins with instruction about clothing and accessories as a reminder not to be obsessed with the worldly standards of beauty. Isn’t that what we do when we go on a rampage against them and hyper-focus on what we can —and mostly cannot—wear, rather than investing the time to teach our daughters to do what really matters: grooming their hearts?

Limiting our teaching on modesty to the length of a skirt or the tightness of a shirt is nothing less than putting the cart before the horse.

Modest expression is a fruit that will grow naturally from a heart that has chosen to wear the character and disposition of our God.

Here are two things we can aim to do well as mothers and Christian educators to communicate a complete theology of body and beauty to our daughters.

1.) Teach them that a Christian philosophy of beauty is essential.

The world philosophy of beauty is that the physical is paramount. Our culture seems to know no end when it comes to cultivating an obsession with outward appearance. As a result, the standard of beauty becomes unattainable and fictional, and those who pursue it find themselves in a hopeless quest.

The average size of an adult female today is 16, but the average model is much smaller. One of the most-watched social media influencers, Kylie Jenner, wears a size 8, which could classify her as a plus-size model. Brazilian model Gisele remains the highest-paid model in the world and wears a size 4, which is more consistent with industry norms. Add to this unattainable standard, the hours of professional, flaw-removing, cheek-bone enhancing makeup followed by fictional Photoshop perfecting.

The impact on our daughters can be devastating. According to a study in Pediatrics, about two-thirds of girls in the 5th to 12th grades said that fashion photography influences their vision of an ideal body, and about half of the girls said the images made them want to lose weight. There is danger in the world’s way, which continually sends a message that we need the next product or diet pill to actually achieve physical beauty. After 20 years of working daily with tween and teen girls, I have yet to find a young woman saturated in today’s fashion and beauty who actually feels lovely. In fact, it seems the harder a girl focuses on the world’s standards, the less confident she seems to feel about her body and beauty.

Certainly, physical beauty is permissible, and some women are more physically beautiful than the rest of us. God does not condemn this beauty, nor the expression of it. In fact, He continually adorns Himself with things we consider beautiful, such as a rainbow above His throne. (Revelation 4:3) Our desire to express ourselves with physical beauty is just one piece of evidence that we were created to be like Him, and is not to be condemned.

But neither should the pursuit of physical beauty be all-important. After all, it will fade.

The Christian philosophy of beauty turns us away from the permissible and points us to the essential standard of inner spiritual beauty.

God tells Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7, “For the LORD sees not as man sees: Man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (ESV). The beauty of the heart is “unfading” and of “great worth in God’s site.”  Pursuing it changes the way we see ourselves, and breathes life into our spirits in a way no lipstick or brand-name jeans ever can. It is essential.

I have learned this lesson on the hot pavement of life. As a high school girl, I was on one hand obsessed with my physical appearance and on the other horrified by it. I’m not altogether unfortunate looking, but back then I would not even so much as glance in the mirror. The sight caused me such deep emotional pain. (To this day, I can put my mascara on in the dark because I originally learned to do it by feeling the brush against my lashes.)

During my college years, I developed the discipline of spending time every day in God’s Word. Little did I know, I was pursuing the beauty of my heart. One day, I was standing at the bathroom mirror and I realized, “I’m looking at myself! I’m actually looking at myself and I feel OK with what I see!”  In fact, I felt beautiful. Bathing my mind in God’s Truth caused me to begin to believe I had worth. What I saw in the mirror was changed by what was adorning my heart.

The core promise of I Peter 3:3,4 is that we will come to understand and know true beauty when we pursue the grooming of our inner selves, as opposed to spending too much time on our clothes, and hair and accessorizing. I have long told girls that the simple question this Bible verse begs of us is this:

Did I spend more time in front of the mirror today making my face beautiful, or did I spend more time in God’s Word grooming my heart?

While our daughters are responsible for the grooming of their own hearts, you can make it an essential task to train them and give them opportunities to pursue inner beauty.

2.) Tell them why the clothing they put on does matter.

Approaching the modesty texts in Scripture with the essential intention of cultivating inner beauty does not mean you get a bye on the topic of modesty. You cannot turn a blind eye to what your daughter wears. Bible verses on modesty and the cultivation of inner beauty do mention clothes, and so must our instruction to our daughters.

As a mother, I rebelled against the then-current Christian legalism of making one-piece swimsuits a holy grail. (My girls wore tankinis growing up, as I felt them to be considerably more tasteful.) I communicated to the body of Christ that measuring girls' skirts was about as archaic as using a ruler to smack a student’s hand. I'm often asked to write articles on why a current style is unacceptable for Christians. I generally decline. (In fact, I cannot think of a time that I said "yes.")

Instead, of focusing on what our daughters wear, I think our conversation about clothing should focus on why.  Modesty clothing is not nearly as important, as the Christian philosophy behind the decisions we make about fashion and self-expression.

It was my hope that I could initiate a conversation—coupled with the essential training on inner beauty—that would create room in my own daughter’s hearts to make good decisions for themselves. This inevitably brought us to the word modesty and since the Scriptures used it, I have embraced it because God does.

But what about body-shaming? Hmmmm! Good question. Interestingly, the ubiquitous topic of body-shame goes way back to the Garden of Eden and this brings us to the most interesting reason why clothing matters. From the moment they sinned, Adam and Eve were acutely aware of their nakedness. The freedom they once knew of being “naked and unashamed” was no more. Now, there was no one to body shame them, but the lost innocence and marred intimacy results in an awareness of their nakedness. They craved a covering.

“God provides for them in their nakedness,” writes Robert Covolo for Christianity Today. “Theologians call this a protoevangelium—literally a ‘first gospel.’ The gift of clothing reveals a God who meets us in our shameful, sinful condition and covers us through a sacrificial death.” What a beautiful image! The clothing actually was what removed the shame.

Fast forward to today. There’s not much shame about nakedness. Your kids are going to hang out with friends on social media, which stats tell us may include the clothing optional selfie. Fifty-four percent of today’s teens say they have sent a sext message, with 28% of them stating that it was a nude or semi-nude photo. According to our modern conversation, there’s no shame in that.

What is shameful? Hiding your body. New York Times best-selling author Wendy Shalit wrote in TIME that “the pressure on girls today to take sexy selfies comes out of a culture that routinely equates modesty with shame, instead of recognizing it for what it really is: an impulse that protects what is precious and intimate.”

Shalit's poignant quote marked a new awareness in me. Satan has reversed the order of shame. We no longer crave a covering, but to be uncovered. It made me wonder, are we erasing the “first gospel,” and so putting the gospel of Christ at risk of becoming more and more marginalized?

Clothing matters because it does its small part in telling the story of the gospel. Just as the fur garments in the Garden of Eden made a statement that God had comforted the first couple, so what we wear tells a story about how the gospel has touched us.

How's that work in a conversation with your daughter? Well, when skulls and crossbones became a mainstream rage and many girls were embracing a dark, goth expression of fashion, I posed these kinds question to my daughters: “What story does that look tell? Is to consistent with the life-giving salvation story of your life?” Asking questions, rather than making rules about what my girls could or could not wear, proved effective in cultivating girls who grew into beautiful young adult women that express themselves with decorum.

Today, my adult daughters make me proud. They have elegant dignity in the way that they dress. Their expression of beauty doesn’t always line up with my own taste. And one of them recently communicated to me that her opinion of modesty differs from mine. (This was not news to me.) But sometimes, it is wise to look past the outward appearance and see that God is continuing a good work in their hearts. And nothing is more beautiful than that.

The way we teach our daughters to embrace beauty and modesty matters, but maybe we could put less emphasis on the clothing and do the much harder work of teaching them to pursue inner beauty. When we do talk about clothes, let’s arm them with a biblically-based philosophy on why what they wear matters.

This conversation matters so much. And I have seen the Church get it wrong again and again. So, I've written a magazine-style booklet to help you explore what you believe about clothing, dignity, beauty, and how we dress.  Each article answers questions like these:

  1. Whose Idea Was Clothing?
  2. Why Do We Fight Over What We Wear?
  3. Do We Need More Than a Change of Clothes?
  4. Does God Really Care What I Wear? 
  5. What Does Dignity Look Like?

At the end of each article, you'll find conversation prompts for you and your daughter to discuss the topic of dressing with dignity. Clothed in Dignity was written as a resource for our True Girl subscribers, but this  month we're offering it for a donation of any amount to support the ministry of True Girl. I'd love to send a copy to you.

Get your copy by making a gift of any amount.

As soon as we receive your gift, we'll ship Clothed in Dignity to you!



Our True Girl theme verse:

"So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31,32

Mom, the best way to teach your daughter to live like an authentic True Girl is to live like an authentic True Woman. And to do that, you've got to get your life lined up with the Truth of the Bible. Listen to Dannah Gresh every weekday on Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth's Revive Our Hearts podcast. The program features biblical teaching, interviews that offer godly advice, and other opportunities to abide in God's Word.




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