H&M has released a 'modest' fashion line called LTD. Each item covers the wearer’s knees and shoulders, and avoids figure-hugging body-cons or low necklines.
The launch caused a high pressure weather front on Twitter and a small storm brewed around whether describing anything as “modest” is helpful.
Some people celebrated an alternative to miniskirts and strappy tops, giving those who choose clothing that covers for cultural, religious or personal reasons another option. As a teenager who struggled with ever showing my thighs and hating most of the clothing marketed for me, this would have been a big deal.
Some people have suggested that describing the clothing as “modest” implies those who don’t cover this much skin are “immodest”.
Esther Opoku Gyeni runs her own fashion line encouraging women to be comfortable in their own skin. She said: “I have often felt confused and conflicted trying to navigate the space between expressing my femininity and not causing my mother to have a heart attack! I have questioned whether I’m submitting to a patriarchal society that feels the need to police my body or God’s divine purpose for how my womanhood should be expressed.”
Why should this make any difference to those of us working to raise the next generation of Jesus-followers? For one, they probably wear clothes. As H&M is the second largest global clothing retailer I bet some of the clothes worn by our young people are bought in one of their 4,500 stores.
Plus, I am stating an obvious fact here, but young people care about how they look. 33 per cent of them marked their personal appearance as one of the top three things they care about in Youth for Christ’s Gen Z research.
If young people care about their appearance then we need to consider what we’re saying about it formally in our sessions around things like identity, and informally in our conversations and through our own lives.
Body image and the Bible
I doubt I have to tell you how tough the years between age 10 and 18 can be, but it’s worth taking a minute to remind ourselves of all the changes that come physically, mentally and emotionally.
Nine out of ten teenage girls are uncomfortable with their body according to those surveyed by Bliss magazine before they shut up shop in 2014. Some choose to dress to seek compliments from peers or comfort in themselves, face to face and online. Others may choose to cover up the parts they are uncomfortable with. Either decision comes from an unhealthy root. Psalm 139 tells us we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, while Matthew 10:30 reminds us that God knows us so well he can number the hairs on our head. Our faith tells us that our bodies are exactly as they should be in the eyes of their creator.
When a young person tells us they don’t want to smile because their teeth are wonky, how about letting them know that their teeth prints are as unique as their finger prints? No-one else has the same one.
When a young person tells us they hate their thighs, how about telling them that the femur can support 30 times the weight of a person’s body. That makes it ounce for ounce stronger than steel!
Our bodies are incredible because their creator is incredible. If young people choose to display or cover their bodies, we need to be careful of why and encourage them to have a healthy relationship with their bodies.
Deeds not clothes
Teenagers need to know that their beauty is not skin deep. In 1 Peter 3:3-4, Peter’s advice to wives is to avoid seeing their beauty in their “outward adornment” but their “inner self”. Too easily verses like this are used to tell people to cover up, but surely that misses the point of what Peter is saying. These verses read to me as an encouragement to ground our identity in our gifts, abilities and personality not in what we’re wearing, advice that would be great for those worried about how they look.
Bobbi Kumari passionately advocates modest fashion. She said: “When I work with schools I always try and make teenagers understand that showing off flesh isn’t what makes someone desirable. Less isn’t more. I think it’s so crucial that parents, guardians, mentors and educators are helping children discern and reject the toxic influence of the media and at the same time, from a very young age helping young people to consistently recognise and be confident in, their intrinsic value as precious human beings who have been made in God’s image, who are worthy of love and acceptance - no matter what they may look like on the outside and no matter what mass culture may portray as being attractive and desirable.”
Conformity and transformation
If you’ve ever watched The Devil Wears Prada then you will recall the famous scene where Meryl Streep rips into Anne Hathway for failing to recognise where her wardrobe came from, or the influences it has from wider patterns in high fashion. Young people today may be equally unaware of how far their fashion choices and their very identity can be governed by social media and other societal trends. Consciously or subconsciously, many young people model themselves on celebrities, role models or what gets the most likes on Instagram.
Natalie Collins points out that we need to be talking about what our young people are wearing, but they need to make sure their choices are not made in relation to men. “Teenage girl’s clothing should not be framed as a ‘distraction’ to men. Whilst conversations about identity and clothing should make links with wider societal beauty standards and the sexualisation of women and girls, it should not place responsibility on girls or women to stop male sexuality. That is entirely the responsibility of men and boys. Girl’s should never be shamed for their clothing choices.”
How can we encourage them to see their influences (possibly in a kinder way than Meryl!) and recognise which are healthy?
Sharlene-Monique points out that we don’t have to be so obvious in how we encourage and influence young people. She is an award-winning singer songwriter who runs choirs for primary school children and has founded a fashion and empowerment blog called Be Uniquely You. She said: “A lot of the clothing I choose and show on my blog covers a lot of me. I never point this out. But then I don’t feel the need to as people comment anyway, saying that they have noticed that I dress quite modestly and celebrated that.”
She pointed out that “comparison is a killer” but teenagers often go through phases as they work out who they are and are easily swayed by what is popular. All we can do is support them in that.
Sharlene-Monique pointed me to a quote from pastor Bill Johnson, that will hopefully also inspire you and your young people: “If you knew who God made you to be, you’d never want to be anyone else.” Let’s hope our teenagers reach this place and express it in their clothes.