I don’t know about your circle of friends, but my circle seems to be talking a lot about modesty lately. Well, kind of. They’re talking about an itsy bitsy corner of modesty – specifically, whether or not it’s immodest for women and girls to wear bikinis.
They’re not talking about men being modest. They don’t tsk-tsk at them for going shirtless – that is, completely naked from the waist up – detailing how that might affect others around them. They’re not talking about men wearing those ratty t-shirts with the entire side cut out (you know we can still see everything, right?) and how that might lead someone into temptation. They don’t seem to take issue with that.
They’re also not talking about the interpretation of the biblical passages on modesty that is a little outside the mainstream school of thought that suggests that the problem of immodesty is primarily material. They’re not discussing the possibility that biblical modesty might mean not dressing in a way that is showy or puffed up or exudes privilege – that it might call for us to lay down that privilege in order to unify across socioeconomic boundaries rather than divide between the Haves and Have-nots. They don’t even want to consider it, because isn’t the whole point of the American Dream to be a Have? Surely, the Bible wouldn’t call for us to be less American!
They want to define modesty. The difficulty with trying to do that, though, is that this pesky concept of modest dress is culturally bound. What is perfectly innocent in one culture or subculture (or even in a particular situation within that culture) is scandalous in another. When asked to give a clear definition of immodesty, even its most outspoken dissenters are at a loss. What comes out is the answer historically given to other provocative behavior – “I can’t give you a definition, but I know it when I see it.”
Enter the bikini. The bikini is the perfect scapegoat du jour. It shows a lot of skin, and it does it on purpose.
It seems that this recent call for modesty started with Jessica Rey’s PR campaign for her new modest swimwear line, and while her speech ruffled my feathers in all the wrong directions, I have to hand it to her – it’s a brilliant marketing scheme. Say something to this effect (I’m paraphrasing, of course) – “Here’s a chaste, modest alternative to our Godless, sex-crazed culture” – to the right crowd, and just watch the money flow in. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. And to have such initiative to identify this need/market, develop an answer to it, and present it in such an articulate way at such a young age…I can’t even be mad, despite my disagreement with her premise.
It also doesn’t hurt that her designs are super cute. In fact, I have my eye on a couple of them. Well, I might have my eye on them in the future, in the unlikely event that the thought of having to wear any kind of swimsuit in public – to have my worst flaws that exposed and vulnerable – ever stops being the stuff of nightmares to me.
You see, what I wear doesn’t have anything to do with modesty. In fact, the issue of modesty never even enters my mind when I’m choosing my clothes. Don’t get me wrong – I dress in a way that most people would find sufficiently covered. In fact, I dress in a way that most people would find old-maid-school-marm-going-home-to-twenty-three-cats. I wore a knee-length skirt the other day without tights. Six people said to me that day – “Oh my gosh – you have legs!” I routinely cover up, usually to what many would consider excess.
But it’s not about modesty to me. It would be convenient for me to claim that it is. It would be easy to present myself as an example to young girls about how to honor their bodies and safeguard
their predators the people around them from seeing them as sexual objects.
That wouldn’t be honest, though. Covering up to guard my virtue/prevent others from having impure thoughts/etc. never even crosses my mind. What does cross my mind are all the reasons why I should cover up to hide the truth of how I look. My thighs are too fat. I have a lot of bruises and don’t know where many of them came from, indicating that I am so clumsy I don’t even know how to maneuver myself correctly. My scars are ugly. My arms and stomach have lost their tone and are mostly flab. And my gargantuan ass is such a source of embarrassment to me that I can’t even bear to write anything more detailed than that in such a public place.
If I were to wear a bikini, it would not be for attention or compliments. I would not wear it to lure poor, unsuspecting men into my bed or even to tease them into thinking about it. If I were to put on a bikini and walk out of my house that way, it would be because, for the first time in my thirty-eight years on this planet, I looked into the mirror and didn’t so despise what I saw there that my immediate reaction was to conceal it. It would be because I finally no longer hated my body. It would not be about immodesty or making a statement or proving anything to anyone (except possibly, to myself). It would be about grace. It would be about freedom. It would be about actually believing that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
It would be a miracle.
It wouldn’t mean what you think it means. And I suspect that that might be the case for women who wear bikinis now.
Maybe it’s because the bikini actually fits. Maybe she has a long torso and can’t find a one-piece that doesn’t give her a wedgie. Maybe she has a short torso and can’t find a one-piece that doesn’t bunch up comically in the center.
Maybe it’s because the sun and the wind feel infinitely better on bare skin than they do through a mesh of fabric.
Maybe she has children who need to see the skin on the belly that once held them – maybe she wants them to know that that is not only sacred space but space worthy of being celebrated and that it is beautiful.
Maybe she has a daughter who watches every move she makes, and she knows that how she views her body will likely temper her daughter’s view of her own body, and there are so many ways to screw that up, but if she must err, she wants to make sure it’s on the side of acceptance rather than shame.
Maybe she has a son who needs to see how people react to her in a bikini – to see how hurtful it can be – so that he will grow up to be a man who doesn’t see or treat people that way.
Maybe it is a little bit about you, but not in the way that you think. Maybe she’s mad as hell, and she’s not going to take it any more. Scoff and point all you want, but she’s done living her life as an apology for your weakness.
Maybe she just likes it, and she likes the way she looks in it. Do you know how rare that is – to be a woman in this society who actually likes the way she looks? Do you have any idea how hard that is to do? If you did – if you really had any clue – would you be so quick to judge her for it? Or do you judge her precisely because she seems to have escaped the body image hell that still plagues you? Maybe let’s stop doing that.
And maybe let’s stop acting like it’s okay/understandable for people (because despite popular opinion, objectification is not just a male problem) to demean others in thought, speech, or deed, just because they make different clothing choices than we do. Let’s stop pretending that our problem is their fault. Let’s stop treating the symptoms and address the actual problem. That’s the only way this ever gets resolved. It’s number one on any twelve-step program – the first step is admitting that you have a problem. You. Not the girl in the bikini. Not the guy in the speedo. Not “the devil made me do it,” or “THAT woman that YOU gave me.” You.
If you look at scantily clad people and see them differently than you would if they were fully clothed, you have a problem. I’m not talking about thinking, “Oh, she has nice legs,” or “Wow, she’s pretty,” or “I like his arms.” That’s attraction. That’s appreciation. That is normal and healthy. Attraction and lust are not synonyms. But if you immediately start fantasizing about what you want to do to them, regardless of the fact that they have given you absolutely no indication that they would be interested or consent to it (because we all have been walking upright long enough now to know that wearing a bikini or a short skirt or going shirtless is not asking for it, right? Please tell me that you know that), you might have a problem, and you need to take care of it.
If you aren’t religious or spiritual or insert-your-faith-word-of-choice-here, you are not off the hook. You don’t get to be terrible just because you don’t have a God to blame or sacred texts that you can manipulate to rationalize it. See a therapist; find a support group.
I am shy about speaking to those of religions other than my own, because I just don’t know enough about them to know how to address this. I do suspect, however, that most of them have something to say about the value of humanity, so pray or meditate or otherwise get really near to that, however that works in your tradition. That should be a good place to start. Then seek out someone who does know how to address it. Religious therapy.
Christians. My people. My tribe. And oh, my breaking heart. Why are we so afraid of taking responsibility for our own sin? What do we have to lose? Pride? Self-righteousness? Shackles and chains? Good riddance! Do you remember the story where a group of men brought a woman caught in bed with someone who was not her husband to Jesus? They said to him, “The law says we should stone her. What do you say?” Jesus looked at her. He didn’t have to avert his eyes, lest he be led astray, even though she couldn’t have been wearing much clothing, if any at all. He didn’t look down on her. He didn’t go all Bro Code and say, “I know, man. Women these days,” and start a Bible study on how to handle it, peppered with thinly veiled misogynistic rants. What he did do was this – he turned their pointing fingers around and instructed them to look at their own sin. He stood up for her, protecting her from the people trying to slut-shame her to death. He specifically pointed out to her that she was not condemned. He didn’t ignore her problems – he said, “That thing you’re doing that’s wrong and hurts you? Stop it.” – but he waited until the others had all walked away. Because it wasn’t about them. It. Wasn’t. About. Them. That is how a person who values humanity treats people. So Christians, if you have a problem valuing humanity, get on your face before Jesus, and do not get up until you are changed. And if you have ever used the phrase “caused me to stumble” or sat idly, passively by while someone else excused your behavior by using that phrase to vilify your victims, go ahead and repent for that, too. Get free.
No matter how you deal with it, though, you had better deal with it.
Because one day, I’m going to wear a bikini. It might be while I’m still 198 pounds, or it might be at another weight. I don’t know when it will happen, but I do know this – it will be a godly act of freedom. And I know I’m not alone in this, so while it’s about me, it will be a little bit about you, too. Just not in the way you might think.