Friends, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started writing this post, only to find that I am unable to finish it. Most of the time, I feel as though I’m not qualified to write this; that my words are ineffective or not enough. Other times, I am unable to write because I feel so much anger that my words come out jumbled and scattered. But in spite of all these obstacles, my soul refuses to let it go. So with a fresh brewed cup of coffee in hand and a fiery pit of righteous anger in my gut, I attempt to write.
I grew up in the age of “Modest is Hottest”, a snappy slogan printed on t-shirts and stickers that were marketed to both shame and encourage young women into buying them at Christian events. I was taught that thin-strapped tank tops were of the devil and bare shoulders were traps of temptations. Most of all, I was taught that my body was inherently sexual and it was my job to do everything I could not to let it lead my “brothers in Christ” into temptation.
Truthfully, I don’t think that was the message my youth pastor’s hoped would come through. But nevertheless, it was implied heavily in every girls event I attended throughout my time in youth group. And I thought nothing of it. It never occurred to me that the weight of purity only fell on the girls and never the guys. It never crossed my mind that they weren’t confronted with the same amount of responsibility that us girls were. It was just something I accepted.
Until, I was in a position of leadership and criticism for how I dressed began to pour in from those above me.
Looking back, I can’t help but laugh because it wasn’t until my early twenties that I began to even feel comfortable showing more skin. Back then? I dressed like a puritan. So much so that my mother would beg me to show even a little amount of skin. But it didn’t seem to matter how covered I was. Every week after church or youth group, I would come home to a message about my outfit of choice such as: “great job at church today, but I wanted to let you know that your bra strap was showing, keep that in mind” or “hey, cute outfit today! but when you bent down, your shirt didn’t exactly cover your bottom and it wasn’t exactly appropriate” (I was wearing leggings).
On and on it went. It made me feel horrible. With every message I received, my shame grew deeper. Was I truly inappropriate? Was I setting a bad example for the girls and guys in the youth group? Was I dressing in a way that was sexual? I never felt like I was wearing anything immodest, but it didn’t matter; my sense of self-worth was shattered. My body was no longer my property. It was dictated by the demands of others.
And this is where my post always seems to implode.
The amount of harassment women face on a daily basis is unacceptable. Women are raped, assaulted, accosted. Yet, somehow, in far too many instances, they are blamed for it. Somehow, an issue of consent turns into an issue of what the victim she wearing, as if what a woman chooses to wear is an indicator of what she does or doesn’t deserve.
How is it that my body, which is my own, bares the weight of responsibility for a man’s desires? I certainly never consented to the level of sexuality that it has been assigned.
Please keep in mind that everything I write is always motivated by a deep love of the church, and in no way, do I claim that the church should take the blame for any of this. They are just one small part of a narrative that already exists. But as a church, we cannot continue to pretend ignorance of some amount of responsibility. How many stories of sexual abuse in the church have been hidden because a church doesn’t want to wreck the image of itself of pastor it has created? Are we, a body of believers and followers of Christ, so determined to keep a facade of perfection that we convince ourselves it’s okay to brush aside a victim’s story? The answer should be obvious but unfortunately, for many churches, it isn’t.
How do we change this? I wish had an answer, but I’m not sure I do. One thing that I do know, however, is that we must change the way modesty and purity is taught in the church.
Using shame as a motivator is not acceptable. Placing all of the responsibility of sexuality on women is also not acceptable.Men in leadership, instill integrity and respect in the men under your care. Teach them to take responsibility for their actions. Teach them not to shame a woman for the way she dresses. Reject the “boys will be boys” mindset.
Women, please understand: you are not responsible for the thoughts of others. Your body is not a source of sexual temptation. It is beautiful and it is yours. And God’s. Dress in a way that makes you feel beautiful. Find your own style. And demand the respect that you deserve.