Most people, thanks to the bad influence of conservative Christians and other religious conservatives, believe that modesty means not revealing too much skin or the outline of one’s body, and that a modest girl or woman will not be too revealing when it comes to her body and clothing. The truth, however, is that a woman can walk around topless — or even naked — in public, and still be completely modest, because modesty is actually the opposite of vanity, not the opposite of nudity.
Nudity was extremely common in Bible times, yet never called a sin in the Bible. God did not condemn Adam and Eve for being naked (in fact He created them naked and saw them as “very good,” and if nudity wasn’t inherently sinful before the fall then there’s no reason to claim it suddenly became sinful after the fall), but rather asked them who told them they were naked after they sinned and realized they were. He didn’t say, “Oh no, your nakedness has been exposed! How could this have happened?!” since He made them that way and left them to enjoy the garden that way. The reason they sewed and put on clothing was because they were suddenly ashamed, not because they were suddenly naked (and the reason God made new clothes for them out of animal skins was because the dead animals covering them were a type of Christ covering sin, not because they suddenly needed clothing — they already had clothing at that point, after all). The truth is that sin distorts our perceptions and makes people feel ashamed of their bodies, just as it makes them feel guilt and shame over all sorts of innocent things. Puritanism over our physical bodies is not a scriptural virtue, but it is a form of gnostic dualism, which is enough to tell us we should be avoiding that kind of prudishness. In fact, God even sent Isaiah out to prophesy naked, so obviously nudity just can’t be considered sinful.
Modesty is still important, but it’s about not showing off, not about not showing skin or curves. When Paul called for modesty in the church, and asked women to dress modestly, he meant to dress “with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.” It had nothing to do with their bodies and everything to do with their attitudes. Basically, he was telling them not to wear fancy outfits that would make them appear more important than those who weren’t able to appear as wealthy as them. Similarly, Peter wrote that beauty should not come from “outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.” Nobody in their time would have looked twice at somebody showing a bit of skin, or even at being completely naked, and Scripture certainly didn’t condemn it, so neither should we. But Scripture is clear that we should not try to make ourselves look better or more important than those around us with expensive clothing and lavish hairdos, so true modesty (humility) is something we should certainly aim for.
And as for the concern that not dressing like a prude might cause men to lust or feel sexual desire, anyone who knows what “lust” really refers to in Scripture knows that the idea as religious conservatives understand the concept isn’t actually a problem at all. Just as modesty doesn’t mean what most Christians have misunderstood it to mean, the lust that’s condemned in Scripture isn’t about enjoying the way someone’s body looks, or even about fantasizing about them in a sexual manner, so if someone tries to use that argument, they need to go back and learn the facts about lust as well. (I’ve written about it here, so please go read that article if you aren’t familiar with the truth about what Scripture actually says about lust and sexuality. In fact, this post you’re reading now is taken from a small section of that article.)