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Published Date: October 16, 2017

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Bikinis, Bodies, And How We Talk About Modesty

This submission is one of our top ten CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!

It was a typical summer weekend service at our local church. I was perusing the bulletin announcements about our son’s upcoming youth group trip that included a water park excursion. Amidst the details for the trip was the following blurb instructing students what to bring:

Bring: Sleeping bag, pillow, toiletries, change of clothes (dress for the weather), swimsuit (girls one-piece or tankini please), towel and $$ for two fast food dinners.”

I was immediately uncomfortable with the assumptions behind the swimming suit instructions; the question became what was I going to do about it? A a busy mom of four boys ages 7-12, it took me a couple weeks to carve out time to sit down, pray through it, and identify what bothered me so much. When I did, two primary myths surfaced.

Myth #1: The female body is inherently sexual and is therefore dangerous to males. Inversely, the male body is neutral and not sexually tempting to females.

Consequently, females must go to special lengths to hide their bodies because it is their responsibility to ensure males don’t lust after them. When prohibitions on types of bathing suits are given only to females, it implies that only females are potential sexual objects.

Similarly, it implies it is not normal for females to be attracted to the male body. Females get the impression that their bodies are sexy, whereas male bodies are not. If you are a teenage girl and you do find the male body attractive or sexy, you might feel ashamed because church culture and subtext imply this is abnormal. It’s as if female sexual feelings do not exist because they are not acknowledged.

Some suggest we also instruct males to refrain from wearing tight bathing suits, but this is not the best solution. Instead, we must stop body shaming altogether. We need to teach our youth that they can’t control what other people wear, but they can control their thoughts about others. (For more on this topic as it relates to adults, check out my That’s What SHE Said! blog entry: “Breasts, Chapel, and a Shirtless Man”).

Myth #2: It is inherently male to lust after the female body; it’s how males are wired. Therefore, when a female allows too much of her body to show, the male’s sin is her fault.

While I certainly do not want to imply that the individual, rather than the community, is at the center of decision-making, I absolutely do want to critique the notion that males are not responsible for lusting after a female if she is dressed in a particular way.

If teenage girls don’t wear bikinis, then boys won’t lust after their bodies, right? Wrong. If teenage girls do wear bikinis, then it’s their fault when males lust after their bodies, right? Wrong.

The primary tenet of rape culture dictates that it’s the female’s fault if she is sexually objectified and assaulted because of the way she dressed or something else she did or did not do. The male is excused from all culpability. But the truth is that a male who is taught to honor women and conduct himself with self-control will not assault a woman, even if she is dressed in a bikini.

Interestingly, my family attends an amazing egalitarian church with many female pastors and other women who preach on a regular basis. I strongly suspected that the youth pastors did not believe any of the above myths about the female body and sexuality. Yet the language and instructions about girls’ bathing suits was front-and-center in the church announcements.

Not surprisingly, when I met with the two youth pastors (both females, by the way), we had a delightful time chatting, connecting, and conversing about the girls’ bathing suit instructions. Like I suspected, they did not buy the myths implicit in the instructions. I am so grateful to be part of a church whose leadership invites conversation and genuinely listens. After agreeing that the language was not representative of our church’s beliefs, we spent some time discussing alternate language and ways to equip youth. I offered the following ideas:

  1. Students, wear a bathing suit that you feel comfortable in. Keep in mind that we are going to be swishing down some pretty sweet water slides and crashing around in a giant wave pool.
  2. Students, we’re going to be hanging out at the water park in our bathing suits and seeing a bit more of each other’s bodies than we’re used to. For some of us, this feels like no big deal; for others, it might feel awkward; and for some, it might feel kind of exciting. Wherever you’re at, we want you to know that we’re here for you to talk it through when you’re ready. We also want to emphasize that curiosity is totally normal, and that each one of us is responsible for our own thoughts about others and ourselves. If you find yourself thinking thoughts that are negative (bad self-talk, lust, pride) about your own body or others’ bodies, remember that you can make a conscious effort to stop that thought, take it captive, and make it obedient to Christ. We can’t control what other people wear, but we can control what we think about them. Let’s honor others and ourselves!

Of course, the above two suggestions are just that: suggestions. They require context, relationship, and the skills of our amazing youth pastors who know how to connect with students. But if we are committed to teaching our students a more egalitarian understanding of bodily stewardship and sexuality, we might want to consider replacing the status-quo prohibitions of female two-piece bathing suits with more balanced teaching about self-control. Whether male or female, we can honor God with our bodies and with our thoughts.

More on Purity Culture:
5 Purity Culture Myths and Why They Are False Promises
7 Lies That Purity Culture Teaches Women
5 Things the Bible Does (and Doesn’t) Say About Modesty
Modesty, a Fairytale Witch, and Growing Up Dangerous

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