Ten years ago, I published my first book. Like many of my peers, my work draws from personal experience and uses elements of memoir. After all, I became a writer in the heyday of confessional blogging when Glennon Doyle and Jen Hatmaker were writing from their kitchen tables about the struggles of domestic life and womanhood. The first blog I ever read described the pain of childbirth in all its gory detail.

But that openness is nothing compared to the kind of self-exposure that today’s platforms demand.

As blogs gave way to social media, content became both more staged and, ironically, more intimate. Instead of writing from the kitchen table, influencers go live from their kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms. Nothing is off-limits. Audiences are invited to ride the dramatic arc of personal relationship, sexual experience, and religious doubt. Together, we celebrate milestones in the lives of children we don’t even know.

In publishing, the pressure to expose one’s personal life is rooted in the author’s need to drive sales through online presence and platform—what has been deemed the “personal brand.” Writer Jen Pollock Michel, whose career mirrors mine, recently confessed that she’s considering stepping back, not from writing but from book publishing, because “there are fewer and fewer ways to publicize a book that don’t look self-promotional.”

All of this makes for a deeply immodest publishing culture—one in which self-exposure is deemed a virtue.

To name authorial self-promotion as a problem of modesty may strike you as misplaced. It’s gimmicky, to be sure, maybe even cringe as the kids say, but immodest? Part of the reason I think of it in terms of modesty is because gaining a following in this noisy, crowded space requires catching readers’ attention. And one sure way to do that is by exposing yourself.

This frame of reference is also challenging because we often misunderstand modesty, especially in spaces shaped by purity culture. At best, it is a kind of humble self-deprecation (which social media could use more of); at worst, it’s a way to shame women’s bodies. But when we define modesty in these terms, we miss the ways in which it could help us enforce and hold healthy online boundaries. After all, modesty isn’t a question of what is hidden but from whom something is hidden.

In this way, modesty is deeply related to intimacy, which Christian ethicist and Duke Divinity professor Luke Bretherton suggests is the basic building block of human community. In A Primer in Christian Ethics, he presents intimacy as the ability to come near each other in vulnerability and trust. While intimacy includes sex, it is more than this. It is the means by which we open ourselves to the possibility of bonding with others and pursue the mutual dependence necessary to flourishing.

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But this also makes intimacy risky—because in the same way that intimacy allows us to bond, it also opens us to exploitation. When we expose ourselves, we trust that others will not take advantage of us and will honor the sacredness of what we share. When others let down their guard and unveil themselves to us, we must not abuse their trust. We must hold faith with each other.

Ideally, unspoken norms and communal covenants protect such vulnerability, but the ideal is not reality. Unspoken norms are no longer even norms. Covenants are left unenforced while communities turn a blind eye to abuse. East of Eden, we must evaluate who is trustworthy and who is not. We must learn with whom we can become vulnerable. To whom can we turn the soft undersides of our bellies? Who will honor our sacredness?

The relationship between intimacy, vulnerability, and trust lies at the heart of modesty and is why it is so necessary to online engagement. Modesty—whether physical, emotional, or spiritual—recognizes the inherent risk of nakedness in a world set on desecration and covers us just as God covered the man and woman in the garden (Gen. 3:21). We still have the choice to unveil ourselves, but unveiling is dependent, in part, on context and relationship.

This principle explains why the sexual passion of Song of Songs is modest and also why the book is written in poetry—why it is veiled. The vulnerability of the lovers is sacred because of its defenselessness, because of its freedom. As such, it must be honored and protected by the community around it. This includes shielding it from voyeurs.

Alternatively, some places and relationships preclude intimacy—not because unveiling oneself is inherently wrong but because the space or people cannot be trusted to honor us. They will either abuse or disdain the sacredness of our disclosure. Some spaces, like social media, are inherently precarious. The anxiety and uncertainty we feel in them is not about the thought of opening ourselves so much as our instinctual understanding that we are deeply unsafe when we do.

Modesty is also why readers will never get every detail of my life or process—why I refuse to expose certain parts of myself online or in writing. One of the earliest reviews of my first book suggested that I wasn’t telling the reader everything. The critique amounted to this: The insights in my writing suggested a certain amount of life experience and even suffering. So, the reviewer wondered, where had those insights come from? What was I not sharing?

Everything. And nothing.

In much the same way that I clothe my body, I also clothe my words. The shape of my heart is still discernible, but even as readers can trace its contours, I won’t expose its flesh. And just as I cover physical wounds to prevent infection, I won’t expose the wounds of my soul until they are healed.

I make no apology for this. Some things are too sacred for public consumption, no matter how many books they sell. Our pain, grief, and even joy must be set apart and made holy because they are so vulnerable. Sometimes, too, we choose to veil the most beautiful parts of ourselves to preserve them for only those who can perceive their value.

My life has changed a lot in ten years. I’m no longer running after little ones. I don’t blog anymore. I still live in the same place, but the people who live there with me have changed. I don’t garden as much, and my house is quieter than it’s ever been. I’m part of a local church but not in leadership. I’ve returned to school. I probably need to update my bio.

Some of these changes I’ve shared with readers, and others—especially the ones that involved loss and grief—I’ve kept to myself, choosing to honor their sacredness. When necessary, I’ve stepped away from social media for extended seasons of cocooning while parts of me recreate in private.

I’ve often wondered what we owe each other in this limitless age. Without the boundaries of space, time, and embodied relationship, how do I know whom I belong to? How do I know whom I can trust? At times, I’ve unveiled myself in innocence only to have my openheartedness met by a knife. But instead of protecting myself by hardening my heart, I’m choosing modesty. I’m choosing to actively shield the soft parts of myself so that they can remain tender, so that I can remain myself.

Constantly exposing ourselves online desensitizes us, making it difficult to honor the sacredness of our lives. Modesty may run counter to prevailing wisdom, but I believe it works for the good of my soul. In the words of Mark 8:36–38, I find myself asking, What will a woman give in exchange for her soul? If she gained the whole world and sold out all her books and won every award and made the New York Times, what would it profit her?

Our stories and souls are far too sacred to sell to the highest bidder. They hold wisdom, yes, but they also hold people and realities too holy to be named in common places. Insofar as we can share what we’ve learned with the world, we must, but everything else is just details—details that, once revealed, will not change the life of the reader but whose telling would definitely change mine.

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Hannah Anderson is the author of Made for More, All That’s Good, and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul.

[ This article is also available in Português and Français. ]