Today my daughter attended VBS (Vacation Bible School) and was leered at by high school boys. One even commented how he wanted a girlfriend like her because she was so pretty. She is eight years old and still has a slim boyish figure with no breast development. There is no mistaking my daughter for a child in middle school or high school.
When I commented to other moms about this incident, not one agreed with my disgust because they thought it was “cute” and my daughter should feel “lucky to get such attention from older Christian brothers.” One even asked, “How was your daughter dressed? Was she wearing a short skirt to make guys stare at her? It is a reflex for males to do this.”
The behavior of the boys and the comments from moms was upsetting, but I believe it reflects the acceptance of this type of behavior in society and in the church. Boys or men who act in a flirtatious manner are harmless. They are not inappropriate. If anything, we should accept that men are visually oriented and tell our daughters to dress modestly, so she does not cause Christian brothers to stumble. For males struggle with sexual thoughts, and females need to do all they can to help them fight off this sin. Sharon Hodde Miller writes about this in her Her.meneutics article, “How ‘Modest is Hottest’ is Hurting Christian Women.” She believes this type of teaching and acceptance in the church makes the female body be “perceived as both a temptation and a distraction to the Christian community. The female body is beautiful, but in a dangerous way.”
When I first heard about the female modesty issue, I was a young high school student and I remember feeling confused and ashamed because the conversation was full of judgment toward women. Girls were being approached by boys in my church and being rebuked about their style of dress. My youth pastor felt proud about men being honest and believed this type of conversation was helpful and affirming to both genders. Unfortunately, what eventually happened were judgmental attitudes among young women and men about clothing. Modesty was the rubric used to measure a female’s spirituality. I was confused because there was so much tension about being attractive, feminine, and gentle but not sexual. Also, I believed that modesty was about female clothing.
This approach to modesty and the body can be destructive to young women for several reasons:
1. It tends to place the origin of sin in the female body.
In this way of thinking, the sin is not where an individual’s mind goes or the action they choose to take; the sin is the woman’s body. Even if that is not explicitly stated, this concept is conveyed through the continual placing of responsibility on women to “protect” fellow Christians from seeing too much of their bodies—lust happens because women’s bodies are sexual and men cannot easily overcome the temptation. In the end, it comes down to the physical characteristics of the female body and no amount of clothing is ever enough. The women cause the men to stumble. Her body contributes to male lust.
2. This understanding of modesty encourages a sense of shame about the female body.
It is the origin of sexual sin; I have to cover my body so that my friends will not lust after me—if my body did not look the way it does, my friends would not struggle as much with lusting. As a young woman, I became ashamed of my body. The way modesty was discussed in our youth group, it seemed that no matter what I tried to do to cover my body it was never enough—I was causing others to sin completely against my will and I felt that my body was the cause of sin in fellow Christians.
Modesty can be defined too narrowly to only include the way women dress, rather than encompassing how Christians, both men and women, live. When we define modesty so narrowly, it places unfair burden on women that can lead to shame for being female.
3. The way modesty is taught disempowers women.
In this definition of modesty, the women become responsible for the men’s sin. There is little conversation about how dressing immodestly or marketing one’s body affects the psyche of young women. Rather, the conversation is focused on the effect on the young men and their spiritual standing before God. The standard for “modesty” is always up to the men in the community to decide. How women view their own bodies or a woman’s own standards of modesty become a secondary concern.
Unfortunately, when I was a young woman in the Church, almost all conversation about modesty was centered on female clothing. There was some conversation about how the media objectifies women, but either way, I felt a huge sense of shame because of my body and gender.
I remember how my youth group, made it seem like men were sexual animals. Their lusts could not be controlled. The Bible verse of God asking Adam, “What have you done?” and Adam saying, “It was the woman you gave me” was used when teaching about sexual attraction. I know the topic of sexual attraction is hard, but when discussing modesty with young ladies and men, clothing can be discussed, but not because they are causing others to stumble.
The bodies of young women are developing and changing drastically. They need to feel empowered to deal with bodies and sexuality in a healthy way. Instead of conversations about modesty focusing on the biology of men and women—aspects that cannot be changed. It should also be affirming the value of the female body. A woman’s body is not something distracting or tempting, but as Sharon Hodde Miller writes, “Women’s bodies glorify God. A woman’s breasts, hips, bottom, and lips all proclaim the glory of the Lord. Each womanly part honors Him.”