Should my Daughter Defy Modesty Rules at the Youth Group Beach Retreat?

*This is part of Ask Unfundamentalist Parenting series where I answer real life parenting dilemmas. You can submit questions to cindywords@icloud.com*

Tanya asks Unfundamentalist Parenting:

My 13 year old daughter wants to attend her church’s summer youth trip this year. I am not opposed to her exploring her faith journey with her peer group of friends – however this trip is to the beach, and one of the requirements is that all girls are to wear shorts over their one-piece swimsuit. I am vehemently opposed to this expectation and have expressed this to my daughter. Is this something I should challenge with the church leadership? Or let go? My husband says we shouldn’t encourage her to defy the rule which would cause her to stand out. But I do NOT want to just go along with something that I feel perpetuates a system of oppression. She assures me she doesn’t care. But I feel like I am doing her a disservice by letting her comply. Please advise. I am so discouraged.

Dear Tanya,

My first reaction is the same as yours—angry, indignant, and then discouraged. And that is because we know patriarchy is alive and well and it has inevitably encroached upon your daughter in the form of modesty rules, enforced through a religious institution. It’s infuriating and unacceptable for those of us who demand equality for our daughters.

But first, let’s regroup a little bit and consider our strategies for both long term and short term gain. The long game is to fight against entrenched patriarchy, the battle is this specific, immediate situation with your daughter’s church youth group.

If you challenge church leadership by demanding they change the rules so every girl can wear whatever beachwear they are comfortable in, and they comply, it would be a tremendous gain both in the short term and the long term. A win against patriarchy in this battle and a stride towards equality overall.

Realistically speaking however, this may not happen. Because what we know about institutions of power is that it will squash every voice of resistance and will not easily die without decades, even centuries, of costly revolution. So, if you decide to go the route of challenging church leadership–be prepared, both for yourself and your daughter, for the very real possibility of losing this battle.

swimsuit

Image: Pixabay

But this is where the bad news ends and the good news begins. You and your daughter may lose this fight but you have already won in significant ways. The insidious nature of patriarchy is such that it plants lies within the hearts and souls of women and girls so that we actually believe our worth is less than men–that our bodies are objects to be consumed and therefore need to be covered up, and that we can’t discern for ourselves how to dress.

And you, fierce mama, have already exposed that lie and refused to acquiesce. Before your daughter has had a chance to internalize those subtle but toxic ideas, you’ve helped her see the deceit for what it is.

One important thing to remember in our fight against patriarchy is that we cannot resist alone. Together, we’ll go much farther, as an African proverb wisely reminds us. And unfundamentalist parenting is about empowering our children and partnering alongside them to live justly in our world.

Therefore, it is vital to shift our attention to the role your thirteen year old daughter plays in this story. The long term goal is to ultimately empower and partner with her to resist patriarchy, but the first step to raising a feminist is to give her autonomy to make choices that impact her own life. 

You say, “I am vehemently opposed…and have expressed this to my daughter… She assures me she doesn’t care.” I assume this means she is willing to wear the shorts over her swimsuit and still attend the beach trip to have a good time with her friends. She has made her decision according to her desires.

I am concerned if you go against your daughter’s wishes and confront church leadership, that you may be sacrificing the long term gain of boosting your daughter’s autonomy. Not to mention the blow to her spirit should the results of the confrontation not turn out in your favor.

This is not to say if she decides she is ready to confront leadership, that you don’t throw yourself 100% in support of her decision to do so, even if the possibility of setback is real. But the key difference in this scenario is that it would be initiated by your daughter. Her life. Her choices. Her resistance.

You see, even if this church changes their mind, there will be other churches that continue this oppression of young women and girls. And if not other churches, other organizations, institutions, and systems of patriarchal power. We can expend all our energies whacking moles and winning small battles, but better to invest in the surefire strategy of smashing patriarchy: letting our girls thrive in all of their God-given beauty and resilience.

If your girl knows how much she is valued, from the deepest parts of her soul to every inch of her body, it won’t matter what oppressive institutions try to cover up, her light will still shine.

If she cultivates her character of strength, courage, vulnerability, and kindness; no force on this earth can keep that suppressed, she will still rise.

If she listens to her own heart and holds tightly to the truth against the lies of hate, no one will be able to silence her, she will still speak.

Just as you have learned to do so. You’ve spoken your truth over her. You are her number one line of defense against the ridiculous, sexist modesty standards.

Regardless of your decision, I end this piece feeling hopeful knowing you exist and are raising your daughter so fiercely and thoughtfully.

Sincerely,

Cindy Brandt for Unfundamentalist Parenting


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  • Obscurely

    As a male, I know I don’t have any right to comment on this particular post, but as a progressive/social justice pastor I hope you won’t mind my offering this as an alternative perspective that supplements (and doesn’t oppose or rebut) your excellent advice?

    Maybe this is premature counsel for a 13-year-old but what about Paul’s idea of Christians taking the conscience of “weaker brothers” into account? His argument (see Romans 14) in a nutshell is that YES, we have the liberty in Christ to do many things, but love sometimes constrains us to curb that liberty to avoid offending those with a less mature view of the same liberty?

    • hicklostville

      Then have it work both ways. I’ve never seen a church with rules about what type of swimsuit a male can wear. I’ve never seen a requirement that boys wear shirts over their swim trunks. Is the assumption that boys can’t see a girl without lusting, but boys have no affect on girls? Also, it’s clear that Paul is referencing the conflicts that arose as Gentile Christians and Jew Christians worked out differently how to live as a people no longer under the Law, not about whether girls in 2 pieces turn on adolescent boys and therefore must be controlled. Perhaps most importantly, even if this were in any way applicable to the present debate (which it isn’t), Paul gives the decision making status to the person with the freedom. He doesn’t restrict that freedom by imposing rules. If a female wants to “protect” her male friends by dressing more “modestly,” that should be her call, not the people in power.

      • Obscurely

        I agree with you, the best scenario is having it work both ways — but I don’t think the mother or daughter have any control over what the boys wear in this case? I also agree that the mother and daughter have the freedom here NOT to consider the ‘weaker brothers’ …

        However, I respectfully disagree that Paul’s teaching doesn’t apply here. Sure, he’s addressing a local/cultural situation, but he’s almost always doing that in the epistles (as Jesus often was too, for that matter) — but (IMHO) that doesn’t mean we can’t apply the spiritual principles he was using to our own situations. For example, we have several alcoholics in my congregation, but I won’t drink in their presence (even at church suppers where wine is served), though I enjoy wine and beer otherwise …

        • Beth Rogers

          Actually, I think her best approach is to use this exact example (that boys should be wearing shirts, if girls need to wear shorts). If they are willing to place that restriction on the boys, then I wouldn’t argue about the shorts.

          • VisionaryJax

            But how fun is that at the beach, everyone fully clothed? Why is anyone even telling kids how to dress at the beach? It’s silliness. IMHO

          • Beth Rogers

            I totally agree. Not sure how the girls are suppose to swim if they are forced to wear shorts the entire time. My hope in pointing out the boys are actually half dressed is to see the ludicrous nature of their request while not places her daughter on the receiving end of any “authority” wrath.

        • VisionaryJax

          Obscurely, you say “but (IMHO) that doesn’t mean we can’t apply the spiritual principles
          he was using to our own situations. For example, we have several
          alcoholics in my congregation, but I won’t drink in their presence (even
          at church suppers where wine is served), though I enjoy wine and beer
          otherwise.” A couple of points there:

          Your church suppers do serve wine — you just choose not to partake, out of deference to the alcoholics there. This is your choice as an individual, not the church telling people they can’t drink because it’s too hard on the alcoholics.

          And at the same time, the issue of a woman’s body is much more linked to her mind and soul than alcohol is linked to anyone. You can say, “I’m foregoing wine so I won’t tempt my alcoholic brother,” and it is saying: wine is the temptation, not that YOU are the temptation.

          But when you tell a young woman she has to cover up her body so she won’t tempt the boys, you are basically telling her: YOU are the temptation. It’s apples and oranges, as it were.

          Even if we were to apply this principle here, it would be applied individually by each young woman herself as she considers what she’s going to wear — that is Christian freedom — not mandated by the church authorities, which is legalistic as well as patriarchal, don’t you think?

          • Obscurely

            Yes I absolutely agree, this is about individual choice, not the church controlling behavior — and I think Paul is pretty clear in Romans 14 that foregoing Christian liberty is a decision only for individual conscience … and I think I made it clear myself in my first comment I wasn’t rebutting the advice given in the post, but just adding an alternative perspective as grist for the mill of further discussion — which your excellent comments here are also doing, may I say!

            And if you’ll pardon some further ‘devil’s advocacy’ :) — why can’t your argument be used to say teenagers should be free to just swim naked together?

          • VisionaryJax

            You are right, this is where my reasoning could go, and considering that we will probably be “naked and unashamed” in paradise one day, that’s probably OK. Except that this moment when we’re still suffering the effects of a fallen world,
            clothes seem to be necessary. But I feel like the style should be at the
            discretion of the individual, or for underage individuals, at their
            parents’ discretion? Rather than the church’s mandate.

    • John

      As a man you have every right to address this issue, especially if you are a parent or have young adults under your care. This issue affects us all, especially in the family of God. We need to learn how to address it positively and with some give-and-take because we know we will differ on opinion.

    • UsafMom

      You make an interesting point. However, I feel like that is telling our young men and boys that they are the “weaker brother” and somehow unable to control themselves. It does them a disservice and provides an excuse for poor behavior. We should teaching and modelling the example of loving our neighbor as ourselves.

  • John

    On a youth group trip, addressing modesty is not out of bounds for responsible adults. Everyone has a modesty line and we are all different. So, in such a setting, who will decide and how will others respond? It is smart to pick your fights and your advice here is practical. But any comments about the larger issue of authority making decisions for others, especially in the area of modesty? What is your theology of modesty, so to speak?

  • David Neely

    This doesn’t have anything to do with patriarchy. It has everything to do with adolescent horny males and young females who may or may not have the ability to discern the right response to a come-on by one of those horny young men. Why put your daughter in that position? There is no shame in wearing shorts over a swimsuit, it is not a cop-out and its not a fashion statement. That one small act may be enough to save both male and female from a single moment of indiscretion that would affect the entirety of their lives. I guess I don’t get why this is even an issue.

    • Beth Rogers

      How about we teach the boys to not be jerks instead of putting the responsibility entirely on the girls shoulders? I’m all for modesty, but the boys should have to cover their chests if the girls have to wear shorts.

    • VisionaryJax

      David, that sounds right to you, but please try to think of it from the young woman’s perspective:

      “You are a problem for the boys in your youth group. If they see your body, they may want to touch you and have sex with you. You will be tempting them if you don’t put shorts over your swimsuit. If one of the boys assaults you, and you don’t have your shorts on over your swimsuit, it would be your fault. It is your duty to cover up so boys can’t see you.”

      David, if you really can’t see why this is an issue, then you are handicapped by your own place in the patriarchy and could do with a serious study of where that kind of messaging leads women — to a burqa, for instance — and men (to rigid fundamentalism for one). Please reconsider.

      Thanks.

      • Obscurely

        Boy, I really hate it when BOTH sides in a debate are right! (progressive pastor here)

        I hope you won’t be offended at my turning your good advice around on you? Have you tried to see this issue from a conservative Christian’s point of view? or are all such Christians in your view simply complicit in an oppressive patriarchy? Honest questions here, not set-ups …

        • VisionaryJax

          Thanks for the caveat — (honest questions, etc.)

          I guess I am trying to see this from a “conservative Christian’s” point of view, but I can’t see how anyone would think it was OK to place the responsibility for boys’ thoughts and behaviors onto girls – whether you’re liberal or conservative, you must believe each person is responsible for their own actions?

          But perhaps I am misunderstanding what you mean by the viewpoint of a “conservative CHristian.” Is that a Christian who feels that women’s bodies are inherently a temptation and not to be seen until the wedding night and then only by their husbands?

          If that’s what you think, then I fear that sort of thinking is, in fact, complicit in the patriarchy — especially if they generalize it to other people: “I should not be forced to see a girl in a swimsuit unless she has shorts on over it.”

          There’s no way to state that message that doesn’t imply “women’s bodies = bad.” And that is the patriarchy. Right?

          • Obscurely

            Wow, I just re-read David’s post and realized he didn’t even claim to be a Christian, much less a conservative one — MY BAD on that, more later when I have more time to reply …

    • corky

      Does what girls wear stop “horny males” thinking? Doubt it, even with a burqa and doubtful if wearing shorts would stop an “indiscretion”

  • http://www.socialwork.ilstu.edu/faculty_staff/biographydetail.asp?u=diecht Daniel Liechty

    I am anything but a fundamentalist parent, but I most certainly forbade my tween, then teen, daughter to run around in those “fashionable” short-shorts that – well, I don’t have to describe them, EVERY parent knows just the ones I am talking about. It was a struggle between parents striving to bring up a daughter who respects herself/her body, and a culture that strives to totally commercialize the body. I am, quite frankly, dismayed that obviously intelligent people interpret as a “feminist issue” their “right” to capitulate to the culturally commercialized fashion industry that seeks nothing else than the commodification of the human body for the enhancement of the industry bottom line (the bottom line, of which, BTW, is more than on display in those short-shorts referred to above…) Of course boys need to be educated as well in terms of how the culture places the female body on display for them – like a storefront window – and what this does to their emerging sexual psyche and sense of self in relation to females. We need young men who will stand up and be counted against this. But there are already far too many cases in point to illustrate the problem just in the media alone – we don’t need “progressive” parents allowing their daughters to step up as living illustrations of this tiring trend of cultural decadence.

  • Brenda Finnegan

    As a former youth group leader who took many teens on beach trips, and as a feminist, may I suggest an alternate response? This is where the parents need to get involved in the youth ministry at their church. If the message that is being to sent to young women by this policy (that parts of their bodies must be covered up bc the young men have uncontrollable sexual urges that must not be provoked) is a part of this youth ministry, then it needs to be changed from the inside out. By pointing out the multiple subtle ways that this message is being perpetuated all year long at youth group, this mom can hope to enlighten leadership and make a change for next summer.
    BTW, we only required that midriffs be covered for all students (including the boys who wore colored t shirts with their trunks or the girls who wore colored t shirts over a 2 piece). T shirts also help prevent the over-done sunburn fiasco too for the kid who insists he doesn’t need sunscreen–another common youth group nightmare.

  • NanaLynne

    I want to know what the boys are mandated to wear at the beach? Will they have to wear undershirts? T-shirts? Swim trunks as opposed to Speedos?

  • UsafMom

    If my daughter was OK with the wearing shorts, I would find her a cute pair of girls board shorts and send her to the beach with the group. I’d voice my concerns to youth group leadership and with church elders.

  • http://drmichaellubbers.com Michael B. Lubbers

    Cindy, what are your priorities?. Isn’t the big picture the spiritual formation of young people, developing strong Christian men and women doing God’s work on earth? You seem to be more concerned with the secular political agendas of the feminist movement–as meritorious as some of those are.
    I think the 13-year-old has it right. She just wants to be with her friends at the beach where they’ll study the Bible, sing around the camp fire and hopefully come back feeling closer to God.
    Please take your fight to the fashion industry that makes sex objects out of women of all ages.
    God bless, Michael Lubbers

  • danarana

    Boys swim in swim shorts all the time. So long as there’s a no-speedo rule for the boys, having girls wear swim shorts too isn’t particularly unfair. And trying to dress everyone modestly to keep sexuality out of the mix as much as possible sounds nice.

    I can also guarantee that some of the girls *appreciate* the rule, and are glad they’ll be able to cover up more without having to worry about being teased for wanting to. That’s how I felt at my church swim parties.