Poolside Purity & Bikini Battles

Here we go again. It’s summer time, which means at any given time, in any number of churches nationwide, pastors, youth pastors and leaders are giving their kids (read: their female students) the “one-piece” talk.

A few years back at our church, some students actually petitioned our pastor to include Tankinis. It was a big win for preteens everywhere. I imagine they sat by the pool that summer in their tankinis and drank virgin daiquiris to celebrate.

We have all been there for that dreaded talk. It’s painful for everyone involved and it smacks of legalism. As one student recently said to me, “It just feels like another instance of the old people at church telling people to behave because you’re at church.” It’s absurd, I know. In case you are unfamiliar with the one-piece talk, it goes something like this:

Ok, ladies, it’s summertime, and we’re going to have a lot of events where water is involved (or we’re going to camp, or to an amusement park, or your event-du-jour). You know, guys are visually stimulated, and can’t help but think about sex a lot of the time. We wouldn’t want to make them stumble. So swimsuits should be one pieces only. No exceptions. If you show up in a two-piece, you’ll be asked to sit out.

It’s sad but true. What are you going to do? Those hopeless, slobbering, drooling neanderthal boys are just going to be hopeless, slobbering, drooling neanderthal boys.

Right?

Lately, that thought is giving me more and more trouble. I can’t get around the idea that somewhere in the jungle of one-piece swimsuits and hormones, we are missing the true message of the Gospel. Here are three MAJOR overhauls that we need to apply in the way we talk about purity with our teens.

1. STOP giving boys a pass.

I saw a man wearing a TShirt at the grocery store today that proudly boasted, “World’s Okayest Dad.” Hilarious. Men are bumbling idiots. Watch any show on TV and you will find manhood defined as boyhood, but with a wife instead of a mother. Who screws things up? Dad. Who is there for comic relief? Dad. Who can’t even perform “dad” kinds of tasks without ending up in the hospital? Dad. Mancaves. Nagging wives demanding attention (how dare they? Don’t they know there’s a game on?). Homer Simpson. Peter Griffin. Al Bundy. Fred Flinstone. The list goes on.

It’s time we take back our view of manhood. Boys chase one girl after the next. Men treat them with dignity and respect. This message has to be reversed and it starts in our homes.

Fathers: It’s not a “rite of passage” when you take your kid to Hooters. It’s not funny when you nudge them when pretty girls walk by, and give them “the wink.” It’s not funny when you encourage your kids to carry on the stereotype that the first and only thing a man is supposed to think about when he sees someone of the opposite sex is how physically appealing she is.

Every time we do that, we send the following message to our young, impressionable sons: “Look for the skinny girls. Look for the girls with big chests and tiny waists. Check out anyone that walks by with high cheekbones and a perfectly-manicured look. The ‘ugly’ ones aren’t attention-worthy. And don’t give ‘the nudge/wink’ for an overweight girl unless you’re making a joke.”

MAN. FREAKING. UP. The first step to changing the poolside-purity culture in our churches is to stop participating in treating women as if they are objects to be attained.

Instead, we need to teach our young men to honor women for what they are: God’s creatures, created in his image; a gift to man so that we wouldn’t be alone; companions; sisters in Christ; people with feelings, and thoughts, emotions and aspirations.

Putting all the pressure on the girls to “protect” the hopeless boys is a biblically backwards way to look at gender relationships, and is degrading to the boys. If you want to change our poolside-purity culture, change the message you give to the young men, and start it when they are young boys. 

2. Stop putting so much pressure on young girls.

Let me get this straight: On top of keeping up with fashion trends, and social stigmas around dressing right, and on top of parental concerns about modesty, and on top of body image issues and concerns like “that weird mole that I hate on my arm” or “my hair won’t lay flat” issues, you’re telling me that you want to add to a teenage girl’s morning routine, “Is there any possible way this could make any boy I will see today lust?”

Why do we keep telling them that protecting the boys’ struggles and temptations are their problems to bear?

Every guy finds different things attractive. Different guys will like the “dolled up” look, while some may be more attracted to the “relaxed” look, complete with sweatpants and ball caps. Even when girls aren’t “trying” to be “sexy,” men may still lust after them.

But the girls don’t cause that. That’s on the young men.

But here’s what really bugs me about this approach. If we are honest, it’s only a meaningful conversation when discussing “attractive” girls. I mean, we address everyone, but when chubby girls wear tight pants or short shorts, society’s reaction is rarely “that’s inappropriate” and more often “that’s gross, no one wants to see that!” It’s disgusting, I know, but I’m just pointing out where we are as a society.

Make no mistake, when we tell girls that it is their responsibility to keep boys’ lust in check, we are asking them to run through a checklist of their body asking, “Is my butt lust-worthy? What about my boobs? Do I need to cover those, or are they not lust-worthy enough? Maybe I’m just inherently ugly enough that it doesn’t matter what I wear…” And the monologue meanders on.

If you want to change our poolside-purity culture, stop telling girls that they need to judge for themselves if men would find them sexually desirable or not.

3. Teach girls a biblical view of modesty.

One of the things that is missing in our conversations about “poolside purity” is that we often overlook or brush over a biblical view of beauty. Our teaching shouldn’t stop at, “Barney the dinosaur Jesus loves you just the way you are,” but rather we should be teaching what Godly beauty really is. Turns out the Bible talks a lot about that.

God designed women to be beautiful in a specific way. Men who are real men (not sitcom men) will be attracted to this.

1 Peter 3:3-5—”Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves,”

1 Timothy 2:9-10—”Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.”

These passages teach that women shouldn’t seek to be called beautiful because of their outward “adornments.” Proverbs talks a lot about how great it is to find a wife or woman of noble character. Never does it say, “A hot wife who can find?!” Just like we should be teaching boys to look at girls with dignity and respect, we should be teaching girls to be modest and gentle, and to view themselves with dignity and respect. That’s why I love this video:

Dressing immodestly objectifies the woman. It makes her an object to be ogled rather than a treasure to cherish. A young woman who is developing Godly character and a Godly view of beauty will have no desire to objectify herself, but to make people see her true beauty, the kind of Beauty God delights in seeing in her.

Ladies: the point of modesty is not to “protect those drooling, heathen, teen boys,” but to draw them in, to make them seek your true beauty that lies in the person God created you to be.

If you want to change our poolside-purity culture, spend more time teaching women what Godly femininity looks like. 

Those are three thoughts on the dreaded one-piece talk. Here’s a parting thought: the church should be the safest place in the world for a girl to wear a bikini.

I’m not advocating bikinis, and I think modesty is a far more godly way to go. To say it as clear as I possibly can, I don’t think girls should want to wear bikinis, but if they so desire the safest place to do so should be the church. So let me say it another way: the church should be the one place where women don’t need to fear being objectified and made into sexual objects.

In our over-sexualized, boobs-on-every-channel-and-in-every-SINGLE-movie, sexual-humor-everywhere, “That’s-What-She-Said,” Hugh-Heffner-is-the-image-of-a-real-man, “every-guy”-has-a-hidden-magazine-and-movie-stash, “I-just-go-there-because-I-like-the-wings” culture, the church should be the one place where we can give women respite from the constant inner monologue that tells them all about how their non-airbrushed bodies aren’t good enough.

It should be the one place where sex—every single aspect of it—is between a man and a woman inside the confines of a marriage.

It should be the one place in our ever-losing-its-mind world where we can separate sexuality and personhood.

So consider this an invitation to join me in changing the culture.


UPDATE: This post has gone WAY beyond where I thought it would go, so if you have read it, or shared it, or commented on it, THANK YOU! It’s been fun to see something I wrote circle the globe. I’d like to take a second and briefly cover some of the common comments I’ve seen. I do read every comment, even if I cannot reply to every one. Here are my responses to the most common of them:

First, there is a common line of thought that quotes Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul says not to put a “stumbling block” in front of your brother or “make him sin.” On the surface this is a very valid concern, and—and I can’t emphasize this enough—I am confident and grateful that such a position comes from peoples’ genuine concern for seeing God’s kingdom lived out in this world. But I don’t know that this is a proper parallel to the situation Paul is describing. I’ll post more about this soon. It seems Paul is condemning behavior that flirts with idolatry, and Christians who try to pressure other Christians to go against their conscience to participate. It would be like a girl saying she really wants to be modest and another Christian sister pressuring her to not be. This is a poorly-refined response right now, but I wholeheartedly believe Paul’s intent was not to say, “Don’t ever do anything that anyone could ever see and where that person could struggle in that area, thus forcing them to sin.”

Second, to those skeptics who feel this was classic Christian “double-speak,” I am aware that I both seem to encourage a more open view and also come down somewhat anti-bikini. Modesty is a tough issue, but I believe it is a virtue taught in the Bible, nonetheless. The difficult aspect of it (as with most areas of Christian living) is that it is a delicate balance somewhere on the spectrum between “no-holds-barred freedom in Christ” and “legalistic rule following.” My contention is that striking that balance must come out of a positive affirmation of living in God’s will (teaching girls the joys of modesty, teaching boys the joys of honoring women, hoping they choose well), not a negative condemnation of behavior, especially when that is shaming girls to just cover up because otherwise it will be their fault if boys sin. I attempt to strike that balance here. Perhaps my efforts satisfy you, and perhaps you fall further to one side of the spectrum or the other from myself.

Third, the concluding comments were strong, and intentionally so. I understand there are sinners in the church. I understand that pornography and lust and sexual sin are real struggles for men. I have struggled with these myself. And yet my intention was to cast a vision for a church that does a better job teaching men so that the men in the church are different from the men elsewhere in society. Of course it would be distracting if all the women in the church showed up in bikinis on Sunday. But hopefully because it breaks social norms for bikini wear, and not because the men would be ogling. Realistic and idealistic are at war. I chose an idealist’s vision.

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226 thoughts on “Poolside Purity & Bikini Battles

  1. Of all the articles I have read on modesty, this one is my favorite. In fact, each time I have read it I have ended up in tears of compassion and of appreciation for a truly Christian attitude. Thank you.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. I’m a high school girl and this summer I really struggled with the whole bikini thing. All the pictures you see are of supper skinny girls in very revealing bikinis. I didn’t feel comfortable with wearing anything close to that revealing. I bought a couple of tankinis and started wearing those, but it seemed like every other girl was wearing a bikini and I wasn’t comfortable with wearing even a more modest on. When I read your post you helped me not to give in to the pressure of the world that says “you must look sexy”. You have helped me with my self image and my spiritual image. Thank you so much.

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