I hate shopping for clothes. I hate taking my kids shopping for clothes. And as my oldest daughter gets closer to becoming a “tween” I hate it even more (which is why I’m thankful that my wife takes the lead on such tasks). What amazes me are the, ahem, mature fashions now seen as acceptable for young girls. Yes, I’m one of those parents who would prefer childhood last more than the five minutes our culture seems to allow.
I’m not the only one. There has been a growing movement, by both religious and non-religious groups, to champion the value of modesty. Some push modesty as a means of protecting their children from the dangers of a sexually super-charged culture. Others hope to aid their daughters in
developing a healthier self-image and push against the objectification of women that dominates the media and advertising.
But could the modesty movement backfire? Could attempts to de-sexualize girls in fact do the opposite? And could attempts to not objectify women actually do just that?
I came across a thought-provoking article by a writer named Sierra at AlterNet. She was raised in an ultra-conservative Christian community where modesty was the dominant value. But by emphasizing the dangers of showing too much skin, the community actually caused Sierra to obsess about her appearance. In other words, rather than making physical appearance a non-issue, modesty actually made it the dominant issue. She writes:
Modesty taught me that I was a decoration. Everything about my life was governed by whether or not a man was watching. How I moved and what I ate or wore all depended on the male gaze. Modesty taught me that nothing I did mattered more than avoiding sexual attention. Modesty made me objectify myself. I was so aware of my own potential desirability at all times that I lost all other ways of defining myself.
Please read the whole article. It will give you plenty to consider.
What it helped me remember is how easy it is to prescribe cures that are worse than the disease. For example, in response to the declining commitment to marriage in our culture the church has responded with decades of emphasis on the holiness, sacredness, and centrality of marriage. But in the process we have unintentionally dishonored the growing number of single adults in our communities by making them feel like second-class Christians. (And ironically the Apostle Paul actually extols the virtues of singleness above marriage in 1 Corinthians 7.)
And rather than focusing on deconstructing the cultural sanctity of personal desire or elevating a vision for the value of self-control as an essential element to Christian sexuality, many church leaders have decided to fight fire with fire. They launch 30 day sex campaigns and sermon series that promise more satisfying sex awaits those who maintain biblical boundaries. But rather than deflating the over-sexualized atmosphere of the culture, they are only adding to it while at the same time denying sexual fulfillment to individuals who do not qualify. I’ve had more than a few newlyweds speak to me about the unrealistic sexual expectations they inherited not from the culture but from the church.
And Sierra’s raw reflections about the unintended consequences of the modesty movement show how easily we can do damage in the process of seeking to do right.
I don’t have any great wisdom about how address this problem. But I do know this: I don’t want my daughters to see themselves as objects to be displayed, nor as objects to be hidden. But as image-bearers of God, fearfully and wonderfully made and loved by him.