What the modesty movement gets wrong

In my family growing up, dressing modestly wasn’t something we discussed much. My parents were protective, but not in an overbearing “go-back-upstairs-and-change-this-instant-young-lady” sort of way.

I had to beg my mom for my first bikini when I was 12, but in the end she let me get it. I wore it so ragged you could almost see my pre-pubescent bottom through the thinning spandex. Shorts always seemed a little extra short on my growth-spurted legs, but as a girl who loved to ride her bike and climb trees in the Florida heat, the less hot and sticky clothes I had to wear, the better.

In high school, though, I started to read Christian books that talked about throwing away all of your bikinis and short-shorts when you became a true Christian. My family joined an evangelical Christian homeschooling group where moms would pull me aside when I was showing too much skin, urging me to think of the boys.

Though my dad and my male friends had never said so before, I learned that men have an uncontrollable urge to lust when confronted with scantily clad women. Oh, so they feel like I do when I see Channing Tatum without a shirt on in Step Up? Well, no actually, because I was told I couldn’t truly understand how hard it is for guys. Guys are way more visual. Guys can never erase an image of me in a bikini from their mind. If I didn’t cover up, I was basically asking for them to picture me naked.

If you’ve been exposed to evangelical Christian culture, you’ve probably encountered some of the strange things we say and do. Christian men are taught to “bounce” their eyes away from potential lust-inducers (the Victoria’s Secret poster at the mall, the girl in curve-hugging leggings on the way to class, the mom in the low cut V-neck at the soccer game…). I once prayed that no girls would be tanning in their bathing suits on my college’s lawn for the sake of my Christian guy friends who had Bible study there. I know men who believe hiring an attractive assistant is dangerous for their marriage.

I used to be a proud member of the Modesty Squad. But I finally woke up and realized something. This is not the way of Jesus.

And I certainly understand the reasoning behind the modesty movement. When Jesus says we’re guilty of adultery when we even look at someone with lust, yeah, that scares me too.

There is a problem, though, when men believe they are biologically bent toward a particular sin, and instead of dealing with it they run from it. There is a problem when the way we think about lust starts preventing us from fulfilling the greatest commandment.

To you Christian men who have sought to honour me by only looking at my eyes, thank you. Thank you for refusing to see me as a piece of meat and for seeking to value me as a sister. But I want you to know that it hurts me that you feel you must disembody me in order to do that.

I don’t want to be objectified, but I do want to be seen. My personality, my skin, my curves — they are all parts of who I am. You dehumanize me when you refuse to see me as both a soul and a body. I have legs and shoulders and breasts and a butt; I don’t want you to love me in spite of them.

I think we need to start teaching our boys how to see women, really see them, without lusting. To appreciate beautiful bodies the way we appreciate fine art: not with a gaze of conquest and ownership, but with awe and appreciation. Maybe I’m naive, but I think it’s possible.

We live in a broken world in desperate need of love, in desperate need of healing. That world includes a whole lot of attractive, provocatively dressed people. I don’t think we should look the other way.

Photo (Flickr CC) by Vidibio.