October 26, 2011

Modesty in Christian Fiction

One of my biggest pet peeves is the lack of modesty in Western culture. The American culture has thrown modesty to the wind completely, and even a heartbreaking number of professing Christians have either ignored the issue or interpreted it so loosely that their definition and execution of it don't come close to the actual, Biblical meaning. This saddens and, honestly, infuriates me. I take every opportunity I can to talk to people about it, and I'm also going to take this opportunity to talk about the issue of modesty as it applies to Christian fiction.
When it comes to modesty, books have the advantage over movies in that a much greater amount of description and detail is left up to the reader's imagination. If a writer doesn't really describe a character's outfit in any way that applies to modesty, the reader's interpretation is going to be left up to their mindset. If they are inclined to envision a character as being dressed modestly, that's how they will see it, and vice versa.
I have never read a book in which the author took a great deal of time or effort to describe just exactly how high a character's collar was, or how far down their leg their skirt came, and I don't think it's really necessary to do so. The instances in fiction where modesty becomes a legitimate issue, and the instances I want to focus on in this post, are more in regard to modest behavior on the part of characters.

First off: Regarding male characters taking off their shirts.
Here's the deal (and this goes for guys and girls alike): If your shirt is on fire, or has just been splashed with corrosive chemicals, or infested with fire ants, then by all means take it off as quickly as possible and you will not hear one peep of protest from me. Under those circumstances, I'll even help you get it off.
However, the circumstances had better be pretty convincing, and if it happens more than once in a story, I'm going to start getting very suspicious very quickly. I have lived on a farm for twenty-three years, working with animals large and small, domestic and wild, heavy equipment, pesticides, and herbicides, I've been involved in multiple car accidents, and never once in all that time have I been faced with the sudden desperate need to take my shirt off. So it's not like these things just happen at the drop of a hat.
Now, I'm not saying the legitimate need never arises. When my cousin fell and landed in a giant hill of fire ants, that was a legitimate need. When my dad accidentally doused my brother with diesel, that was a legitimate need. It does happen, and those circumstances don't bother me.
What bothers me is when authors almost seem to be seeking out reasons for their male characters (and 99% of the time it just happens to be the main guy character whom the main girl character is falling in love with) to take their shirts off. I guess a lot of Christian authors really want to show that for some reason (probably in a crippled effort to make their fiction appealing and mainstream, but I really don't know), but because it's Christian fiction, they feel like they have to have some 'acceptable' excuse for doing it. In my opinion, those authors are missing the point of how and why Christian fiction is supposed to be fundamentally different from secular. And don't think the readers won't see through it, because they will.
This applies to a lot of 'exceptional' circumstances I've seen in fiction - circumstances where it was painfully obvious that the author was just aching for some excuse to push the line under the guise of 'an exceptional circumstance that couldn't be helped'. Those circumstances always seem to conveniently end up with the highly buff guy character ending up shirtless or the gorgeous girl character ending up in some weird corset-type thing that conveniently happens to showcase her figure perfectly. And it never seems to happen when a character is alone, it always happens in front of other people. It bugs me, and it doesn't make me inclined to like the author.
Am I saying guys should never have their shirts off for any reason in fiction, or that there aren't genuine, realistic circumstances in which a serious wardrobe malfunction or breakdown might occur? Of course not.
Injuries represent scenarios in which there's simply no way to get around a bit of immodesty. In speculative fiction, especially fantasy, severe injuries are a relatively common occurrence, and I can tell you that it's impossible to treat a life-threatening wound without removing some clothing. It's not a big deal, so don't waste time and effort worrying about it or dwelling on it. Just say what needs to be said and move on. It's that simple.

The second big issue I wanted to discuss is dealing with characters who simply don't dress modestly, period. After all, every character in Christian fiction doesn't necessarily conform to Christian standards of behavior and dress, and those characters love to cause problems for their authors as well as their fellow characters. So how do we as writers deal with those characters and their skanky behavior while still holding to a high standard for clean content?
In my current WIP, I have a character who absolutely does not conform to any kind of Christian standard whatsoever, be it in dress or behavior. There's even a scene in the book where she has changed out of her military uniform into civilian dress and is primping in front of the mirror while contemplating how to enlist the help of one of the male characters for the plot she wants to set in motion. Suffice it to say that the dress she's wearing is part of how she plans to coerce him.
So here's a problematic situation. How do I deliver this significant but nonetheless distasteful plot point in a way that's clean and Christ-honoring? Here's how I did it:

"[She] turned sideways to the mirror, smoothing the front of her dress and examining her reflection. The green-gray silk was fitted and flattering, its floor-length skirt giving her the appearance of being taller than she actually was, and the color nicely complimenting her dark red hair and fair skin. The created effect was perfect: far from attention-grabbing, but far enough removed from the rigid convention of her uniform to provide a distraction for anyone even slightly willing to be distracted."

And then I move on with the story. Everything the reader needs to know is right there: the basic concept of the dress's appearance and style, and the character's attitude and purpose in wearing it. I didn't go into vivid, freaky detail, but the readers still (hopefully) get the idea pretty clearly. The power of suggestion plays a significant role in it too, by showing and suggesting just enough to the reader to let them put the pieces together on their own without you having to paint the whole picture.

Really, handling the modesty issue in Christian fiction isn't complicated. It takes some thought and situational awareness, but it's not horrendously difficult. Just remember: don't over-think or over-complicate something that's relatively simple, don't feel like you have to go all or none (either avoiding the subject completely or diving into all the gruesome detail), and don't feel like you have to include something you're uncomfortable with just to make your novel 'appealing' or mainstream.


  1. I've been thinking about this recently because I have a sword-bearing girl who needs to dress in a way that makes sense. She can't do her job well in a long dress, but women in this world don't wear trousers, so... knee-length dresses and leggings, or what?

  2. Well, you have some options there, Lostariel. You could do something like the riding skirts women often wore during the 19th century. A riding skirt looked like a regular skirt, but it was actually a pair of pants with very, very wide legs. With a pair of tall boots that could suit your sword girl's purpose.
    The knee-length skirt and leggings are also an option, although in a situation like a sword fight a knee-length skirt could be problematic from a modesty standpoint.
    In my current WIP, I invented a garment for the women in the main cultural group I focus on. It's a pair of pants and a skirt attached at the waistband. The skirt can be long and full, or not. With something like this you could still have the skirt your fantasy culture requires for a woman, but also have the modesty and practicality of a pair of pants.
    I don't know if any of these suggestions are helpful or not, but I hope I've at least given you some ideas.

  3. What is WIP? This is probably something I should know, but I can think of what it is. Also, thank you for this post. I hate it when the characters dress immodestly or when the author gives way to much detail about how a character is dressed.

  4. WIP means 'Work In Progress'.
    And you're welcome. : )

  5. I rarely describe clothing. Most of my charries are wearing knee-length, at least, robes.

  6. Excellent, Mary! I completely agree. It does make me mad when authors (especially 'Christian') feel the need to put immodesty in their stories. What I hate the most is when the main female, who may be fairly modest generally, gets into an awkward situation with her love interest. Now, how many times is this likely to happen? It's uncomfortable because, even though it's not described, you know very well what is going on and have a picture in the mind.
    A good example of one of these annoying instances is in It's a Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart's character is walking a girl home at night. She had gotten her clothes wet and had to go home in just a bath robe, and in the course of their walking, he steps on her robe and it falls off. She escapes into the bushes, without the viewer seeing anything, but it's an extremely uncomfortable thing to watch :P And it was NOT necessary!

  7. Hahaha, the part about the guy taking off his shirt for no reason calls to mind Captain Kirk on the old Star Trek TV show. His shirt ripped off probably more times than not, and always in a situation where the fighting was really not that intense. Of course, one of the reasons this was funny (other than the fact that if kept on happening) is that Captain Kirk did not have a buff torso, at all. Good ol' silly TV shows. :D
    More seriously, I agree with your points. I find it interesting how some authors feel the need to go into unnecessary details in order to be descriptive or to just tell the story. In my own experience, I have often found that "less is more", so to speak, and things like immodest dress descriptions are often better left alone. Not to say that the descriptive rants of some authors, when well done and colorful, aren't spectacular. Take J.R.R. Tolkien! :)

  8. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, contains many passages that I consider inappropriate -- and earthy enough to cause me to blush -- yet they are there.

  9. Very true, and that is something that bears thinking about. A lot of it, I think, depends on the age group you're targeting with your writing. Relevance to the story has a lot to do with it also, even if it's intended for a very mature audience.

  10. Very thoughtful post, Mary. Because of the nature of books, I tend to think of this issue less in terms of modesty than in terms of sensuality. Rather than someone's state of dress or undress, it's how it is presented that makes a difference. As an example, in the Bible David dances before the Ark clad only in his undergarments. Yet the inclusion isn't sensual in the least, rather it serves to illustrate an entirely different point. I think that's what you're getting at with your example of the heroine running into the hero without his shirt on (and subsequent focus on rippling muscles and so forth) versus removing someone's shirt to tend an injury or for some other practical need. It really is about focus and emphasis. What picture is the writer painting with his or her words? And what emotion is being evoked?


What are your thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear your comments, questions, or ideas, even if you don't agree with me. Please be aware that I reserve the right to delete comments that are uncivil or vulgar, however.