The Female Gaze: The Body Beautiful

Each week in The Female Gaze, Faith Newport engages the trends, events, and issues that affect women—and the men who care about them.

Summer is creeping up on me fast.

There are so many more wardrobe decisions that seem to come along with the warmer months. Hemlines sneak their way upward. Necklines slink lower. Tanks, camis, and tube tops beckon from hangers, promising relief from summer heat. Shorts, cropped tees, bikinis… Here we go again. How short is too short? How small is too small? And my least favorite—what do I wear to the pool?

Along with all this comes the vague notion of modesty, and everyone’s opinions on it. For better or worse, our ideas about modesty can get pretty cultural, which complicates making any defining statements about it. Especially since the majority’s view of what is acceptable vs. inappropriate is prone to shifting.

It is fairly apparent, however, that when confronted with women’s bodies and the idea of modesty, many people react by coming up with a set of rules (good or bad) for women. That’s unfortunate, because as Christians we’re not supposed to be living under a set of rules, and sometimes those restrictions can hurt us a lot more than they help us. Modesty can be used to oppress women and place limits on their God-given freedoms. But it doesn’t have to.

Let’s think about Eden for a moment. “God then used the rib that he had taken from the Man to make Woman and presented her to the Man” (Genesis 2:22, MSG). The first time Adam sees a woman, she is naked. She is God’s gift to him. She is his wife.

She, the first woman, immediately inspires the Bible’s first poetry: “Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23, MSG).

I am inclined to believe that women are still God’s gift to men. “A wife of noble character, who can find? She is worth far more than rubies” (Proverbs 31:10, NIV). I am also inclined to believe that we, as a gender, are incredibly beautiful. Shockingly beautiful. Mesmerizing.

“The sweet, fragrant curves of your body, the soft, spiced contours of your flesh invite me, and I come” (Song of Songs 4:6, MSG).

I’m extremely wary of making any general, black-and-white statements on modesty. Not even my own conscience is clear on the particulars of how I should dress. But I can’t shake the notion that my body was crafted with two people in mind: Myself and my husband.

As women, our bodies are capable of exquisite pleasure. Our bodies also bear children, carry us through our lives, and invoke a very unique response in the men who were born with an innate longing for us. My body is for me. But it is his as well. “The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:4, NIV).

So, if that’s true, if my body is more than simply beautiful, more than simply art, if it is truly a gift to the person I love most in life, then what? Perhaps it is reasonable to suppose that he, my spouse, should experience it in a way that is unique to his relationship with me. Perhaps the fullness of the gift is available to him alone.

If that is the case, the questions change. I am no longer confronted with the dilemma of how much skin is too much, but rather how much I prefer to save exclusively for the person given to me by God to appreciate it. This is not about another dress code. It is about empowering women to decide what about themselves and their bodies is precious enough to hold back from the world at large.

“Dear lover and friend, you’re a secret garden, a private and pure fountain. Body and soul, you are paradise” (Song of Songs 4:12, MSG).

About Faith Newport

Faith Newport writes, knits, drinks lattes, and sings in the shower in a small Midwestern town. She lives with two cats, too many books, and her very patient husband. Follow her on Twitter @knittybarista.

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    “Women’s Modesty” is a concept coined by jealous, insecure men. Why should a women worry about how much skin she shows if she is committed? Why should a man worry if he is not overly controlling or insecure?

    Saving the “site” of yourself for just your partner, or even worrying about it is silly. If that is really an issue than muslims have had it right all along.

  • Faith Newport

    I would argue that sometimes the strongest supporters of modesty teaching are jealous, insecure women fearful of a significant other’s “wandering eye”. But that’s a different issue.

  • Seth the Dork

    Stephen and Faith, nice! I agree with you. I’ve been the jealous type, but, when it comes down to it, why?

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    Hahaha, good point. I only spoke of men as it originates from cultures dominated by domineering men.

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    I remember hearing female youth being preached to that they ought to dress modestly so as not to cause their male peers to stray their thoughts or actions… lol

  • Leah Schroeder

    I loved this! Thank you for your thoughts! I agree that this can be such a tough area but I think the heart of what you communicate is wanting to save something special for only you and your husband to share is the whole point. I also think that often women have trouble understanding this whole issue because they grossly misunderstand men. A man who is genuinely concerned for his wife will not suppress her but will be genuinely interested in presenting her as a pure bride to her eternal Bridegroom.

  • Rebecca

    Can’t I save something for my spouse even if I’m naked in public? I am so much more than my flesh, that even public nudity doesn’t expose everything to the public at large.

    This article mentions empowering, but that’s a ruse. It’s really another way to get women to cover up from the gaze of men.

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    I’m always tickled by the fact that everyone is always worried about “saving the flesh” for marriage, but why not long walks on the beach, late night movies, candle-lit dinners, holding hands, kissing, philosophical conversations, hang-gliding, road trips, fine wine, slow songs and rice krispies??

  • Faith Newport

    Rebecca, you definitely are! You bring up such a great point, and I really want to emphasize here that we do have SO much more than our bodies to bring blessings to our men! It’s just one aspect of our womanhood and our intimate relationships.

  • Scott G.

    Throwing something in here, as a male who is endlessly fascinated with (various forms of) women’s perspectives on the world:

    Can “modest dress” be defined as to relate to heterosexual women’s gazes as much as to the gazes of heterosexual men? To me, that makes sense of the term.

    There seems something unchristian about the term “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” Not in a sexual sense, but in general. If Christ calls us to resist the attitudes of those who “lord it over” others, but instead to try for humble self-sacrifice, could that not apply to one’s mode of dress? If one constantly dresses to expose and emphasize one’s most attractive features, while hiding all imperfections, is this not a way of elevating oneself among the social heierarchy of women? On the flip side, is dressing within the generally accepted decorum of any social situation, perhaps even conservatively, a way of resisting a culture that wants to judge women on the basis of their appearance?

    I wonder if we’d have a healthier society if modest dressing was seen more as a way to combat bullemia, female insecurity, &c., and not merely as a way to deal with the perceptions of an exclusively male audience.

  • Scott G.

    Throwing something in here, as a male who is endlessly fascinated with (various forms of) women’s perspectives on the world:

    Can “modest dress” be defined as to relate to heterosexual women’s gazes as much as to the gazes of heterosexual men? To me, that makes sense of the term.

    There seems something unchristian about the term “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” Not in a sexual sense, but in general. If Christ calls us to resist the attitudes of those who “lord it over” others, but instead to try for humble self-sacrifice, could that not apply to one’s mode of dress? If one constantly dresses to expose and emphasize one’s most attractive features, while hiding all imperfections, is this not a way of elevating oneself among the social hierarchy of women? On the flip side, is dressing within the generally accepted decorum of any social situation, perhaps even conservatively, a way of resisting a culture that wants to judge women on the basis of their appearance?

    I wonder if we’d have a healthier society if modest dressing was seen more as a way to combat bulimia, female insecurity, &c., and not merely as a way to deal with the perceptions of an exclusively male audience.

  • Faith Newport

    Stephen, it’s because of the Bible’s teachings on how sex permanently unites two people. Agree with it or not, that’s the source.

  • Faith Newport

    Stephen–Also, interestingly enough, some Christian teachers (Rob Bell, for example) have theorized that a spiritual marriage begins at the act of intercourse and that perhaps in God’s eyes that act is much more significant than any civil, legal contract.

  • Paul Dusing

    Female modesty is an image of God’s unique relationship with his church. The church belongs to Christ and Christ to the church. The church is set apart to be Holy, and so therefore it is called to consider who it gives its body for. I think you’re on to a good point because the bible says that God is a jealous God, and no wonder because Christ loves his bride, it is his possession. Jealousy is not wrong when you have ownership, and so it is important that the man and woman are one, thus saying they belong to one another, because the church and Christ are one, belonging to each other. Good post!

  • Leah Schroeder

    Very true, Paul! This is called “Christ and Pop Culture” after all and so hopefully biblical truth would be most important to the readers and you’ve clearly laid out a biblical truth. And, Scott, I think you have insight into the psyche of women! Hasn’t anyone noticed how often females (especially in high school when there is a lack of maturity) hang out with girls in a similar physical demographic. I believe that just as it can be a temptation for men to lust it is just as much a temptation for women to desire to be empowered by flaunting what they have. That doesn’t mean every man chooses lust or every woman chooses to flaunt but that it CAN BE a temptation. We are more than our skin but what we choose to do with our skin sure reveals something about our hearts whether we realize it or not.

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    I bet the boys have been wondering why I haven’t chimed in yet. No fear; HERE I AM.

    I’m deeply disconcerted by the idea that I should dress modestly because of whomever I happen to be with (romantically) at the time. Does this “save something for your husband” mean that those of us who are perpetually single (ahem) don’t have to dress modestly? Or those of us who are not straight? Or those of us who are widowed/divorced?

    On the surface, this argument is sound, but it only is a thesis that applies to a specific sect of women – women who in a monogamous long term relationship with the opposite sex. While yes, that’s the majority of women in the church, it leaves us singles feeling out in the cold. And also undermines the idea that modesty is a universal command – if it only so that we may save some of the ‘mystery’ for our husbands, well, then, I’m in the clear as a single woman! Unless you want to propose that my (maybe non-existent) future husband has retroactive say over my choices now, which is a really dangerous argument to make because that forces an unhealthy reordering of my priorities.

    Plainly: to me, as a single woman, this argument just doesn’t fly.

  • Faith

    Dianna, the Bible teaches that the focus for any single Christian is to be on serving God. If you believe that exposing your body does not detract from that focus and will not distract those around you from your ministry, then so be it.

    I’m trying to redirect focus to a WOMAN’S conscience. Not her husband’s or future husband’s, not her parents’, not her church’s. It’s silly to try to imagine what some yet-unmet man would want. Ten years from now your life may change, and you may meet someone. In that scenario, what do YOU want? If you never date again, what you do want to hold between only yourself and Christ, the ultimate lover? How does your body being the temple of the Lord affect your dress?

    Furthermore, a gift that is never unwrapped is still equally valuable.

    I think the church makes a mistake when we talk about singleness. You are not alone, you are in a relationship with Christ. Your “singleness” allows you to have a deeper connection with Him. There is no such thing as a single Christian. Some of us are united with Christ and a spouse, some of us are united solely with Christ. Paul D.’s comment is an excellent one for that reason.

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    That comment is a completely different thesis from what you proposed in the article. You said, and I quote, “So, if that’s true, if my body is more than simply beautiful, more than simply art, if it is truly a gift to the person I love most in life, then what? Perhaps it is reasonable to suppose that he, my spouse, should experience it in a way that is unique to his relationship with me. Perhaps the fullness of the gift is available to him alone.

    If that is the case, the questions change. I am no longer confronted with the dilemma of how much skin is too much, but rather how much I prefer to save exclusively for the person given to me by God to appreciate it. This is not about another dress code. It is about empowering women to decide what about themselves and their bodies is precious enough to hold back from the world at large.”

    That is different from what you are saying to me now, where you arguing the modesty is a thing between myself and God.

    Which is it? Am I to be modest because I should save something for myself and my [future] husband? Or am I to be modest because of a relationship with Jesus? In “redirecting the WOMAN’s conscience,” you’ve still put me in relationship to a man, albeit in a more convaluted manner.

  • Faith

    Dianna, marriage is supposed to be a model of Christ and the church (both as individuals and as a community). So it’s really not two separate things we’re talking about here. And, yes, part of being a Christian is making choices based on relationships–especially our relationship with Christ.

    And can I just point out again that I am not telling women to be modest, or to what degree they should be modest? The Bible not does give any specific guidelines or dress codes, so what gives me the right to? My intent was to share (in less than 700 words, which can be a little limiting) how what the Bible does say about women and our bodies can help us to process and discern between the ideas we are presented with (both from culture and church) about how we should dress.

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    Okay, okay, you were saying that women should consider our modesty, which is…basically the same thing, only less direct.

    And, once again, this loops back around to what single people are to do. Does Jesus become my husband in this scenario, because I’m single? Ew. And down the rabbit hole again.

    Look, Faith, I get what you were trying to do – it just didn’t account for a lot of things I think are incredibly important in having this discussion, and exemplifies a philosophy of bodily ownership (vs. bodily autonomy) that I disagree with heartily. Even if I were married, my husband would not have rights to my body without my express consent, and that extends to how I dress myself.

  • Faith

    I agree that we do seem to be going in circles here. Time to agree to disagree?

    I do think it’s worth pointing out, however, that many people throughout history have spoken of the Christian’s relationship with the Lord in marital terms. It’s not anything new or icky.

    This link gives an interesting sampling: http://www.aholyexperience.com/intimacy-with-god/

  • Leah

    I Corinthians 7:4
    For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.


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