Earlier this summer, I watched two teenage girls playing in a pool. They were both carefree, both playful, and both fairly new to their suddenly womanly bodies. The first wore a bikini, the other a one piece swimsuit with a high neckline and shorts. The first was an exchange student from Europe, the other my sister. As I watched the exchange student frolic in her bikini, innocently and without a care in the world, I wished that I had been able to be so comfortable in my body so early.
It is difficult for any girl in today’s culture to have a healthy body image. The media, whether it’s television ads, billboards, or fashion magazines, emphasizes female perfection and holds up a model that is impossible to obtain. My parents actually thought that by teaching me the importance of modesty and that what matters is what’s on the inside would help counter these negative messages and result in a healthy body image. Nope, sorry, that didn’t work for me.
As I looked at the two girls in the pool, I thought back to when I was their age. Back then, I dressed in the same swim uniform as my sister, a modest one piece swimsuit and shorts. I didn’t simply wear this because I was required to wear it; I wore it because I would have felt subconscious, embarrassed, ashamed, and immodest without it. I didn’t like my body. I believed that my body was ugly and unattractive. Wearing long, baggy dresses and shorts with my swimsuits actually helped, because it allowed me to mask my ugliness beneath a cloak of virtue.
The truth is, the relentless drone of “modesty” is enough to make any good Christian girl wonder what is wrong with her body. Cover up! Don’t wear that! Put on another layer! Why? Because there is something wrong with the naked female body. There is something to be ashamed of. While the modesty-supporter will never say that to a girl, that is the message I received.
My parents and those like them call for modesty because female beauty invites lust. They believe that you must, in any way necessary, stop lust, for it is the same as fornication and adultery. The only way to stop lust is to cover the female body. Beauty is then bifurcated into “bad” beauty that attracts lust and “good” beauty that is merely aesthetic. “Worldly” beauty invites lust, girls are told, so you must be beautiful in an asexual girlish way, sweet and smiling under yards of cloth. Do you see how confusing this can be to a girl, a girl who naturally wants to be beautiful but is almost afraid to be recognized as such? Hide it, cover it up, keep it hidden under long jean skirts and high necked blouses.
My parents told me that beauty is fleeting, and that it’s what’s on the inside that matters. This may on the surface seem like good advice for a teen girl struggling with becoming a woman, but to me it simply said “yes you’re ugly, but that’s okay; get busy with your homemaking skills and you may find a husband yet.” The thing is, appearances do matter. Teenage girls desperately want to know that they are beautiful and desirable. They need to be taught to take care of their bodies and how to properly groom themselves. They need to learn about body language and be told that clothes send messages. I didn’t get this stuff. All I got was “outward appearances don’t matter and for goodness sake don’t wear something that would make one of your brothers in Christ stumble!”
I am reminded of something I read recently for my studies. Supporters of segregated schools argued that they were doing what was best for both races, allowing children to study together with those who were like them in equal facilities. The problem, besides the fact that blacks and whites were rarely given equal facilities, was that this sort of separation sent black children and white children alike the message that there was something wrong with being black. Supporters of segregated schools swore up and down that this was not the intent of segregated schools, but it was nevertheless the result.
The modesty issue is similar. Parents who teach their daughters exacting standards of modesty claim that they are merely trying to protect a beautiful thing, trying to keep girls and the young men around them pure in heart and mind. They claim that they don’t teach that the female body is evil or something to be ashamed of, only that lust is evil and should be avoided. The problem is that if you tell a girl often enough to cover up and not show her body, she will inevitably come to the conclusion that her body is something problematic, something to be ashamed of, something to be hidden and ignored.
The funny thing is, my mom is extremely comfortable in her body. When I was young she used to wear short sundresses and bikinis, and even today she is confident in her self image and proud of her looks. But then, she was raised in a fairly ordinary American family and grew up being confident in her body. She was a child of the 1970s. This confidence remained with her, and I don’t think she ever realized the damage her teachings about modesty were doing to her growing daughter.
Even after I left my parents’ home and beliefs, I remained ashamed of my body. I didn’t think I was beautiful or attractive. My body repulsed me, and showing it made me feel embarrassed and immodest. It took me years before I was comfortable swimming without shorts, and years more before I was ready to attempt a two piece swimsuit. For some time, even wearing short sundresses made me incredibly self-conscious. Learning to be confident in my body is a process that has taken years.
This summer, for the first time in my life, I am comfortable wearing a bikini. I put it on and walk to the pool across the way to the pool without feeling the need to hide behind my towel or cover my naked skin. Finally, finally, I like my body. I am comfortable in my body. I feel beautiful. I love who I am.
As I watched those two teenage girls splash water at each other several months ago, one an exchange student and the other my sister, I thought about what I had lost. The exchange student was not particularly pretty, but she was comfortable in her body. She wore her bikini with pride, and felt no need to cover up. I looked at my sister and I saw myself at her age. Ashamed of my body, embarrassed by my naked skin, quick to cover up and hide a body I believed was ugly. I looked at the exchange student swimming next to her, and saw the girl I wish I had been and the confidence I only now have gained.
This post calls for pictures. You see, in the last couple decades an entire cottage industry has grown up around providing girls like my sister with modest swimwear. Yes, some of these swimsuits are kind of cute, and (most) of these girls look happy, but remember the messages that are being sent. These girls are learning that there is something wrong with their bodies – something they need to cover up.
If you want to check out some more “modest” swimsuits, go here orhere orhere. They seem to be proliferating, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them at homeschool conventions in the future! Finally, I have to ask, if you’re going to go down this road, why not go all the way? There certainly can’t possibly be any lusting going on here! (Yes, these are swimsuits!)