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Can You Teach Modesty Without Body-Shaming?

Can You Teach Modesty Without Body-Shaming?


Mar 6 2013
Girls told to cover their "irresistible" bellies, boobs, and bodies.

It seems like we can't stop talking about modesty lately. From the Super Bowl to the Grammys, Brooklyn storefronts to Christians' closets, we're fixated on what women are wearing… or not wearing. Amid all the chatter and clatter, what's a modesty-minded Christian woman to take away from all this discourse?

Enter Dannah Gresh and Secret Keeper Girl, a website designed for Christian tweens. A Secret Keeper Girl, she says, "values modesty, she surrounds herself with wise friends and she embraces Godly beauty. So, she keeps the deepest secrets of her beauty for just one man." So far, so good. But as I clicked my way around the playful pink-and-orange flower-filled website, I started to feel decidedly uncomfortable. Something, that I couldn't quite put my finger on, felt off.

Much of what is offered on the Secret Keeper Girl site I found worthwhile and helpful; I applaud any attempt to encourage clothing retailers to offer age-appropriate choices for young girls, as the Secret Keeper Girls do, and I also applaud anyone, anywhere who speaks out against fashion magazines and their objectification of women and their bodies. Dannah Gresh's short devotional on self-talk is wonderful:

It's almost a popular thing for girls and women to say really terrible things about themselves…but here's the cold, hard truth about negative selftalk: When God created you, he said, 'Very good. Exactly as I need her to be.' When you say degrading things about yourself, you're telling God it wasn't 'very good' when he created you. If you say something negative about yourself long enough, you'll eventually believe the words you're saying, and that's how you'll live. Isn't that sad to think about?

That's a powerful message.

But beyond that, the Secret Keeper Girls and I start to part ways. When I clicked on the "Truth or Bare" link—sparkling flowers trailing my cursor all the way—this is what I read:

Stand up straight and pretend you are going for it in worship, and extend your arms in the air to God. Is this exposing a lot of belly? Bellies are very intoxicating, and we need to save that for our husband!

Bellies are very intoxicating? On 8-year-olds? Yes, they are, secular media would say...and apparently, Gresh would agree. The website then goes on to suggest how to tell if your shorts are too short, your shirts are too low, or your tops are too tight:

Press into [your] shirt right in the "valley" between the breasts! Count to three...and take [your] fingers away. If [the] shirt springs back like a small trampoline, it's too tight!

Yuck, I thought. Yes, much of what is being marketed to little girls is highly oversexualized, and we need guidelines on what to wear and how to keep ourselves pure. But the underlying assumption the Secret Keepers seem to endorse is that the female body, if not bad, is at least overwhelmingly tempting and tantalizing: something that must be covered, hidden, and locked away.

Same goes for "Is this Modest?," a website that showcased photos of young women and discussed whether their clothing, hairstyles, and poses were "modest." If that sounds a bit troubling to you, add in the fact that the (now shut down) website's manager was a 36-year-old married man, posting girls' senior portraits without their knowledge or permission, and editorializing them with comments like, "I have no idea what she's wearing under the blanket, but the heels aren't high. The top is a bit concerning. First, it's rather tight. Second, the fact that the outer layer is so opened up means that it looks like we're getting a peak at her underthings--and they aren't very high." (Quote via Dianna E. Anderson, who discussed "Is This Modest?" on Faith and Feminism. To read about what happened to the site, check out her post or—language warning—this writeup.)

Is there a way to take on the fashion industry, or Hollywood, or any aspect of our culture that sexualizes young girls, without vilifying the very bodies we are striving to protect? Is there a way to teach our daughters to be modest, without covering them in shame? How can we, as the Body of Christ, talk about modesty without demonizing women?

Placing the primary burden for modesty on women's bodies reduces women to little more than bodies, walking temptations that must be dealt with lest we cause our brothers to sin. Patheos recently ran an article about how the "modesty doctrine" harms young men as well as young women. (Though I don't agree with all of Sierra's conclusions, the piece is thought-provoking and worth a read.)

The "modesty doctrine," she argues, seeks to place the blame, and thus the responsibility, for all sexual attraction on women. But "sexual attraction is a biological norm," she writes. "It lasts for a second and you get on with your life...What you do with sexual attraction is what makes you moral or immoral." An honest discussion of modesty must be rooted in the fact that neither sex, nor sexual attraction, are inherently bad.

On a discussion forum hosted by ExMormons.org, one poster summed up the Secret Keepers thusly: "A Secret Keeper Girl values being repressed, she's surrounded by control freaks who pretend to be wise friends, and she is brainwashed into embracing a narrow vision of beauty that is deathly afraid of how amazing the human body is, naughty bits and all."

I wouldn't go that far, yet I resonate with what this poster highlights about a fear of the human body, particularly certain parts. But the truth is, God made those "naughty bits." And He said that they were good. Is there a way to instruct in the proper care and usage of those bits, without rendering them "naughty?"

"Is it possible to have a sane discussion about modesty?" Jezebel asks (language warning). "Not if modesty means...that it's a woman's responsibility to prevent men from thinking impure thoughts."

I tend to agree. An honest discussion of modesty must begin with the premise that what God made is good. We navigate that goodness through a fallen, sinful world, but it doesn't change the essential goodness of what God has made.

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Can You Teach Modesty Without Body-Shaming?