Modesty is one of those things that everybody has an opinion about. How short is too short? How low-cut is too low-cut? Can a guy walk around without a shirt? Can a girl wear a 2-piece swimming suit? Maybe you have your own modesty standards (or your parents do). Maybe you honestly don't know what your standards should be. The Bible gives us some great principles to help us figure out what to do when it comes to choosing what we wear.
Let's talk about the biblical attitude of modesty. Modesty actually has nothing to do with clothes. That's right! Let me repeat that: Modesty has nothing to do with clothes. A bikini is not automatically immodest. Runners' shorts and a tank top are not automatically immodest. Biblical modesty goes deeper than just a person's choice in clothes. While some may jump at the chance to hold a ruler up to a girl's knee in order to persecute the length of her skirt, it's the heart God is looking at—not how much skin is showing (1 Samuel 16:7).
Modesty is borne from the heart's motivation and intention and whether or not a person is trying to get attention. The Bible tells us not draw attention to ourselves, but we also (very naturally) deeply desire to be attractive, don't we? Yet when the Apostle Paul talks about how women should dress in church, he says they should "dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God" (1 Timothy 2:9-10).
Just to be clear here, Paul is not saying that girls can't ever wear braids or jewelry or nice clothes; what he's saying is that they should not wear those things in order to get attention. That principle goes for guys AND girls. Dressing with the intention to turn heads is definitely the wrong motivation for wanting to look pretty or handsome.
So if a girl wears short shorts and a tank top because she wants guys to notice or compliment her, or if a guy is going shirtless in order to get girls to gawk at his biceps, then these people have sinned in pride and desiring a form of sexual attention. Proverbs 7:10 describes a woman who is "dressed like a prostitute and with crafty intent." Sounds like her choice in clothing is showing the intentions of her heart quite clearly!
On the other hand, if a girl is wearing the same thing simply because it's 105 degrees outside and she feels more comfortable that way, or the guy is shirtless because he's about to swim, then that is actually perfectly fine, and they are not sinning due to their clothing choices.
Let me add a caveat here though: We're not saying that JUST because you feel more comfortable being half-naked that you should walk around in public wearing nothing but your undies. This is where that fine line comes in. Christians should still try to maintain a godly perspective on how they present themselves to the world. They should be concerned about demonstrating God's glory with their bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) and caring about the spiritual state of their brothers and sisters in Christ (Romans 15:1-2).
Short answer: You can't. As much as we would love to, we have no control over another person's thoughts or actions. The only person we have any chance of controlling is ourselves.
Christian culture gives women a lot of flak about "causing your brother in Christ to stumble" if she wears clothes that show off curves or make her seem sexually appealing in any way—even if she has no intention of trying to get attention. We want to stop that way of thinking right now.
Everybody is responsible for the direction of their own eyeballs and thoughts. If someone chooses to look lustfully at another person, it's the onlooker's sin that defiles the sexual purity of their own mind (Matthew 5:27–29). The object of that lust (whether it's you, a girl on the beach, a man in a magazine, the porn industry, etc.) is NOT choosing sin for the onlooker. Someone else's choice to sin is NOT your responsibility. Can we say that again?
We can choose NOT to look at a person lustfully, just as we can choose NOT to dress in order to get attention. We can't make the choice to sin or not to sin for someone else. Do you see how the responsibility lies separately with each person? We can't control what other people do, but we CAN control ourselves (Proverbs 25:28). No one is responsible for another's sin; each of us chooses to sin or not to sin on our own. We can't MAKE someone sin; they choose to do it by themselves.
As a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), you have escaped the sinful corruption of the world and should "make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:5-8).
That means thinking about others when you dress too. No, you aren't responsible for someone else's lustful thoughts, but if you're dressing in such a way that, while you may be comfortable, you still know that it's going to be provocative and turn heads, then you've still got the problem of pride.
Remember that we are earthly Ambassadors for Christ, and our outward appearance should reflect a godly heart attitude for the world to see (Colossians 3:17; 1 Corinthians 10:31). We should strive to love and honor God with everything we do, while also desiring the same thing for those around us.
Just because much of the world is okay with dressing to get attention, that doesn't mean a Christian should go with those standards. Romans 12:2 says, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." You are different and unique in Christ, and it's totally okay to show that in how you choose to dress!
When faced with the question of "Should I wear this?" remember that modesty is a matter of the heart. Why do you really want to wear that piece of clothing? Are you trying to get attention? If so, choose something else (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). If not, then you're probably just fine. Don't guilt yourself into worrying about unintentionally making someone think lustful thoughts; you cannot control another person's brain or the direction of their eyeballs. At the same time, be wise in your clothing choices, always keeping in mind that you represent Christ on earth (Colossians 3:17; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Romans 12:2).
Cat is the web producer and editor of 412teens.org. She loves audiobooks, feeding the people she cares about, and using Christmas lights to illuminate a room. When Catiana is not writing, cooking, or drawing, she enjoys spending time with her two kids, five socially-awkward cats, and her amazing friend-amily.