Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Bikini Question.

It's something that's been on my mind for well...the entire summer.  Perhaps even longer.

Modesty.  Feminism.  Christianity.  They're all mixed up in my head and sometimes battling and sometimes agreeing profoundly.

Every morning, when I take my children to swimming lessons, I am confronted with The Bikini Question again.

The question isn't all that simple, and also not so complex - just hard to put into a one sentence phrase. 

It's about morality and temptation and flaunting vs. proud display and why those things are necessary at all.

First of all, body image in this country is decidedly messed up.

We've decided that skinny = beautiful.

A friend of mine related that her husband told her:  "You're too old for a bikini, and besides, you have all that cellulite."  ...seriously?  I was shocked that a husband would say such a thing to his wife.  Where did he get this idea?  He didn't just come up with it on his own.  There are nude beaches where cellulite is hanging out all over the place and nobody really minds.  It's about what our society has become.

The battle for women's liberation has resulted in a culture where women feel it is their right and duty to display their bodies for the world to see as much as possible.  If anyone mentions modesty, they become defensive:  "How dare you tell me what to wear?"  "You're sexist!"  etc.

I'm not sure why a request for modesty is sexist.  I haven't been able to wrap my brain around it.

Isn't it more sexist - nay, more exploitative for a woman to wear something that will attract male attention purposefully (or female attention for that matter)?  I'm not sure why members of the feminist movement seem to have this backward. 

There is a certain dignity in confident beauty without so many body parts exposed.  In fact, the most beautiful women I know (and I am speaking in almost a strictly physical sense) wear long skirts on a regular basis or tasteful blouses or ankle length sundresses or "boy shorts".  They look fantastic! 

I'm always a wee bit embarrassed for the girl who shorts are so short they expose her butt cheeks.  It's not that it's immodest, it's uncomfortable. 

I have had several former students ask me, "Why don't boys talk to my face?  They always look at my boobs." To them, I would say, "Honey, I'M looking at your boobs."  Their cleavage became more prominent than their face.

I'm not saying that women shouldn't wear what they want and what makes them feel comfortable.  I am saying that we may to to re-examine our motivations.

As a younger woman, I wore shorter skirts, tighter skirts, and little red dresses not because I honestly felt more comfortable in them.  I wore them because I wanted boys to like me, because I wanted to impress my date, because I wanted to show everyone around me that I was "hot".  I wanted the stares in the mall and the awed face of my boyfriend.  It made me feel valued and beautiful.  Now - I don't mess with that stuff.

The thing about bikinis for me is - I've never worn one (this is an entirely other blog, but being basically flat chested doesn't do a whole lot for a girl's bikini confidence).

They might be comfortable (I've heard many women make the argument that they're more comfortable in a bikini) physically - as it's much closer to being naked than a one piece, but I can't imagine feeling great about the stares now - knowing what they're really about. 

Many feminists will blame men - saying that this is a product of "rape culture".  Men shouldn't be thinking about sex when they see a woman dressed in a provocative way.  They will say that men aren't naturally more visual than women, but that they've been trained to go through the mental motions of fantasy at the sight of a "hot chick".  I disagree.  I think that even the strongest man is excited by the sight of a woman with a "nice body" dressed in a provocative manner, just as the strongest woman is excited by a man who has a "sexy voice" who reads her poetry.  It's not so different. 

My husband calls romance novels "chick porn".  We're not that intereseted in porno magazines, but we'll read about sex all day, and we tell ourselves it's not the same as a man who looks at Playboy or checks out the mom in the bikini at the beach - but it's really no different.  It still plays into our fantasy life.  Women are verbal and emotive - so poetry and strong emotive movies and lavishly written novels are to us as women in bikinis are to men.  They can't help thinking about it.  We can't either - just in a different context.

I feel as a Christ follower that it is part of my duty to help guys in their walk as I would help my brother with his homework.  If I'm dressing in a way that I know will excite men around me, I should think twice - is this what I really want?  Often, the answer is yes.  I've been married eight years and I still like it when a guy looks my way on the train.  I still dress in a way that will attract attention when I go to a fancy dinner and dance - but is it right?  That's what's most important to me.

I applaud my friends who are confident in their own skin.  They wear their bikinis, cellulite and all to the beach and public pool.  I love that they are doing what feels right to them - liberating.  I just don't know where I stand, knowing what I know and reading what I read and living inside this particular brain.

What do you think about modesty?  How should we dress - should it be based on what feels good, what looks good, or what seems morally right?  How do we know?  What does liberated modesty look like?


Deborah said...

This is so funny - that you would post this today. Last night we were planning the service for two weeks from now which is on Amrican Idols - Sex. I think John is going a little more relational with it than I was thinking. Not a bad move since we have been asking him for that sermon for a while. But, Brian and I were discussing it at the pharmacy counter at CVS as we were reading the headlines of the magazines at the back of the store. Man, we are obsessed with sex. Even the men's magazines have cover stories on how to dress sexier. I told Brian that sometimes it makes me want to move to Afghanistan and wear full body covering and surround myself in a culture where certain things are reserved for home life and the bedroom. Then, of course, he reminded me of all the porn found on bin Laden's computers - but I digress.

Personally, I've done the bikini route off and on. In fact the bathing suit I just bought on vacation has two tops - one a bikini top and one more like a tank top. I just thought it was cute and versatile. The bottom is a cute little short skirt thing. I bought a little spaghetti strap t-shirt to go with the whole outfit. The only reason I bought anything was so I wouldn't soak my clothes while kayaking with Brian.

I was actually quite pleased with the latest trend of offering options that provide a little more coverage without being frumpy. I loved the suit Lauren brought on vacation with us which was jsut a black two piece that had a full length top and a little skirt bottom. She had it on when we took the boat to dinner one night and looked like she was just ready for an evening on the town.

I think you've nailed the bottom line, though. A lot of it is in the motivation and the awareness of what we are putting out there. I've had these conversations in the past with people on my worship teams - trying to get them to understand that they do bear some responsibility for looking out for their brothers. The come back is typically one of "well, they shouldn't be thinking that" or "I should be allowed to dress any way I want." But, I think we do need to stop and think about how our actions, including our clothing choices, impact those around us. Of course, how much of that is conditioned or learned response, too, based on all of the media we have been exposed to over our lifetime?

So, to answer your questions:
what do I think of modesty? i think a good word study is in order because in my mind, the way our cultures defines it is a moving and ever more permissive target.
how should we dress and how do we know? I think there are easier answers in some situations than others. Like I know what is pretty inappropriate in the workplace - e.g. Young lady, I don't care how cute your backside is, I shouldn't be seeing skin if you bend over to pick up a piece of paper. And I do think as a young lady, you should fully expect to get "unwanted attention" if your attire and behavior put out an air of advertising yourself.
What does liberated modesty look like? Personally, I like yours and Hanni's "flower child" style :-).

I really wish you had been at the Refinery for the American Idols- Beqauty night. I would have loved your perspectives during large group discussion... especially since at least one person brought up the "judgmental" word.

Missy said...

Sounds like it's been a pretty provocative series - I'm sorry to have missed out!

And thanks for the compliment about style - I think Hanni absolutely trumps me on that a thousand times over :)

Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment! :)

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