I grew up in a suburban town stuck in the middle of rural Indiana. I drove through corn fields to get to school and on more than one occasion I did have to crawl through my sun roof to get into my car because I was sandwiched between two monster trucks. My grandfather, an avid bird watcher, waged a personal war against the chipmunks and within one summer caught and drowned anywhere between fifteen and twenty of them until my mom pointed out that he was probably attracting them by putting bird seed on the ground.
I was raised in the non-denominational Christian church and part of my weekly activities was attending youth group. For those of you not familiar with youth group, it’s usually held on Wednesday night for the youth in the church. It’s basically church geared towards pre-teens and teenagers. Some of my fondest memories of my teen years are from youth group. You foster deep friendships in a fun environment and have good role models all the while learning about the Bible in a way that is more easily understood by a young person.
When I was about thirteen I went to a conference with the rest of the girls in youth group. It was a “modesty conference” geared at teaching young women the “biblical” truth of their role as a female and how that translates into how one dresses. We were taught that we are responsible for the relationship between our brothers in Christ and Jesus. One of the ways that we can make them fall is wearing too revealing clothes. If we wore something too tight, too low, or too short, the men wouldn’t be able to control themselves and would sin in the eyes of Jesus. We were encouraged to wear loose t-shirts and shorts that went to the knee in order to keep our brothers from sinning.
The last night was the long awaited fashion show of the conference and we had all stayed up the night before eagerly finishing the dresses we would be modeling the next day. At the end of the fashion show the lead pastor’s wife came out wearing a bikini. We were all cheering her on because she looked great. She stood at the end of the runway shaking and grabbed the microphone. As she spoke, the mood of the room dramatically shifted. She said she would never wear a bikini in public because her body is for her husband alone and other men looking at her would cause them to sin. The sadness and guilt her voice conveyed sobered all of us. We all vowed we would never wear a bikini again and from here on out it was modest, one piece bathing suits for us.
Looking back at this experience, I recognize quite a few issues I want to address. First, teaching young Christian girls that we are not only responsible for our own relationship with Christ, but also the relationship of all men feels wrong to my spirit and isn’t even biblical. Second, teaching us to be ashamed of our body’s natural shape and covering it in baggy clothing so men won’t sin when they look at us is detrimental to both men and women. The detriment to a young girl’s self-esteem because she has strict guidelines reinforced with guilt around dressing herself leads her to thinking there is something “wrong” or “bad” about her body. This also perpetuates the lack of accountability for men, as they grow up thinking they can’t control their sexual being so they don’t even try, placing the responsibility on women. Why do you think the question “well what was she wearing?” asked in the case of a woman’s rape comes up so often? (This thinking comes from the common misconception that rape is an act of uncontrollable sexual urges, not a man exercising an intentional act of power.) These innocent teachings have further reaching effects on society than we think.
Lastly, I want to address what the pastor’s wife shared with the group, particularly her comment on her body being her husband’s. True, our bodies are not our own, they are a gift from God. 1 Corinthians 6: 19 says “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” All God asks in return is that we treat our body respectfully. I don’t know about you, but I see nothing in that verse about a woman’s body being owned by a man. A woman’s body is not to be owned by a significant other no matter what their marital status is, just like a man’s body is not to be owned by a significant other. Language of possession and ownership in romantic relationships needs to be struck from the dialogue of Christianity and replaced with the language of respect.
Since I’m not the gatekeeper of heaven and hell I can’t say for sure, but I’m relatively certain if you wore a bikini you won’t be sending three men plus yourself into eternal damnation. With bikini season around the corner, take some time to reflect on the way you view your body. Do you treat it with respect? Do you own it? Do you love your body? Or have you given away that privilege to someone else? I say as a Christian woman, we unburden ourselves of the responsibility for our brother’s sin. We have enough to do. Like bikini shopping.
Sarah is graduating with her undergraduate degree as a psychology major with a pre-law concentration and minor in women’s studies in 2017. She has accepted a full ride scholarship to law school and is expecting to pursue prosecutorial work. Outside of the classroom, she serves as a Resident Assistant, plays on the championship lacrosse team, and also serves as president of Women’s Circle—the feminist student group that she helped to establish and for which she continues to lead discussion and events.