I am a pervert. At the mall, I’m a pervert. At the beach, I’m a double-pervert. At home, I’m a pervert when I look out the kitchen window at joggers passing by. And then there’s the computer, where I turn into a triple-pervert. I have no willpower. I am nothing more than a weak, sex-crazed monster who thinks women were born for my erotic pleasure.
At least that’s what I’m told.
If I listened to the messages of the Modesty Lifeguards, their shame slathered on as thick as sunscreen, I would be sunburned with false guilt. I cannot do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I am a victim of my own passions, just as Darwin taught. I am a pervert.
On the surface, the intentions of the Modesty Lifeguards appear pure. They want to protect men and women from sexual sin. But the assumptions that lie under the surface are inconsistent with a Christian worldview. Two issues, especially, need to be addressed.
The first is that women are objectified. They are told their bodies, the vehicle God gave them to move upon the earth, are too powerful in a purely sexual sense. A woman’s body exudes so much sexual power, in fact, that men can’t resist. It is clear then that sexual bodies are bad.
Some men do objectify women. Yet instead of challenging this devaluing of women, the Modesty Lifeguards join in with their own brand of objectification. Women are too sexual, meaning they are not persons of value but objects of lust. They are told to accept the false labels, to agree with the lie, to deny their personhood. The only solution that is put forth—given the power of a woman’s sexuality and the assumed weakness of men—is to cover these sexy objects! Modesty is redefined to mean that a woman will deny who she is by minimizing her sexuality. If women submit to the dictates of the Modesty Lifeguards they will be living as shamed, covered-up objects, believing their bodies are liabilities.
The second big lie is that men are pitifully weak and lustful. A biology teacher who is a Christian told me he couldn’t help but hook up with girls because evolutionary biology insists he mate with as many women as possible. The Modesty Lifeguards play into this narrative by agreeing that men can’t help themselves. A woman’s mere presence is taken as a silent invitation. It’s just the way men are.
The result of believing that women are incredibly powerful and their power is present in the attractiveness of their bodies—and that men are astoundingly weak and unable to resist a woman—presents a strange contradiction in this Christian subculture’s view of masculinity. On one hand, men are told to be “strong leaders” to whom “biblical” women submit because women are weak. After all, Eve was deceived in the Garden and the susceptibility to deception, we are told, was handed down to all women.
Yet if a woman slips on beachwear that shows a belly button, these strong men become instant weaklings. Suddenly, the strong male leaders of the church become the weaker brothers who need to be protected from women by women (see 1 Corinthians 7). The only way to protect these vulnerable, slobbering maniacs is for the women to cover up.
Men are taught (though not explicitly) by some sectors of the church that women are objects, not persons, conforming to men’s desires: Martha in the kitchen and Delilah in the bedroom. Women are sexual beings and not a lot more than that. Women are attractive, which means they invite attention. Men learn that all of these things lead to the same sinful outcome. Attraction invites lust, which is equal to adultery. Women then become the scapegoats—blamed for men’s lust!
To prevent these weak men from giving in, women have to accept their role as objects and cover their bodies to mask the female form. Longer skirts, baggier jeans, and proper swimwear are required. Gone is the idea that men could relate to women as persons and could appreciate beauty without losing control.
Recently, one Modesty Lifeguard and widely quoted blogger wrote that when a man lusts after a woman, the woman is also committing adultery with the man. Just to make sure women know how abhorrent a woman’s beauty is in God’s eyes, the message has been manipulated to this: immodesty is adultery. Sadly, the message continues to shift more and more away from honoring women. First, women were denied personhood and redefined as powerfully sexual beings, as objects. Now, according to the argument set forth by this blogger, women are adulterous objects.
How do we guard against the reverse-objectification of women and the strangely parallel emphasis on powerless, oversexed men? There are ways to navigate out of this gnostic heresy and reclaim an appropriate appreciation of our beauty, humanity, and freedom.
First, everyone is beautiful. Beauty is a gift from the Father of Lights. God did not design our bodies so we would live in fear of their power. Arousing desire and sensing our desire are not realities to be feared, but part of the stewardship of being human. God thought our bodies could even inform us about him. To become more fully human means we walk into loving our brothers and sisters with our bodies, unafraid that they will trip over our beauty.
Second, instead of a focus on “covering up what is bad” we need to “dress up what is good.” We don’t need a theology of modesty but a theology of clothing. The first mention of clothing in the Bible is in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve betrayed each other and God. Clothing signified distrust; it was not a protection against lust. Clothing continues to signify relational clues, such as familiarity or respect. For instance, nakedness in marriage is a symbol of vulnerability, bared souls, and trust, while a three-piece business suit signifies respect, formality, negotiation, and sometimes distrust.
Third, we need to acknowledge that dress is not absolute but relative: circumstances and activities dictate the type of clothing we wear. Baggy jeans are not appropriate for running a marathon. Office attire does not fit at the beach. And the most modest of bathing suits is not appropriate dress for a bank loan officer.
If we can move away from the shrill condemnation of the Modesty Lifeguards and return to a positive view of clothing, we may find ourselves both more beautiful and more appropriate to living as valued persons, honoring and respecting one another. God wants every one of us to reflect him in the earth. Objectifying our beauty dehumanizes all of us. Fearing that our beauty is too much for others to handle shames us and others.
There is another way. The God who became flesh wants to see our beauty. Let’s dress knowing that he celebrates us as his created reflections on earth.