This is not easy for me to write. As I write, it takes me back to a time that sort of acts like a mirror. I hold it up in gratitude for how far I’ve come, but I also look on it with such desperate sadness for any girl who feels what I felt. I’m going to share some things here that are more personal than I am usually comfortable sharing, but if I’m going to be honest in this, I have to.
I was very new in my faith when I went to college. I chose the college that I did because I wanted to travel with a ministry team. I worked in the preschool at a church. I was surrounded by believers who loved me, but I was very new to “Christian culture.” One feeling I quickly became familiar with was being ashamed.
I was 95 pounds, tanned from a season of track and field, toned from hours of running and weightlifting, and had a large bustline. Being in Christian culture for the first time the message I received most was I needed to be sure that I didn’t make my brother stumble. This was a correct encouragement (in some ways), but looking back on it, I can see where seeds of shame started to be planted. I also see where the way this was presented to me was well-intentioned but poorly handled.
In my life I had worn crop tops and super short shorts, but those things were thrown out before the message of “cover up” was given to me. I knew really quickly after I accepted Christ as my Savior that wasn’t what I wanted to be noticed about me. I wanted to be noticed for who I was for the first time. It was the first time I had really begun to like who I was. I had this conviction that was easy to follow, but the expectations from people were the thing that didn’t feel right.
When I got to college I started wearing two bras. One was for support and the sport’s bra on top was meant to flatten my chest as much as possible so that I was not “making” anyone look at me inappropriately. Yes. I thought if someone was noticing my body, it was my fault. It meant it had done something wrong. I know now that being dressed in a way that made me comfortable that showed respect for myself was all I needed to be worried about because if I was doing that, I was doing what was right.
The truth was that even in jeans and a t-shirt years of being an athlete had given me a trim figure, and I knew my responsibility was to respect myself enough to not have everything hanging out as my own conviction. That’s not why I wore the two bras though.
I wore the two bras because I was ashamed that I got attention. The message I received over and over was that it was wrong on my part in some way if anyone noticed anything about me that was attractive. It made me feel ashamed to look how I looked so I covered up as much as I could so no one would notice I was pretty or attractive.
After I started dating my husband, I felt a little more comfortable in my skin. I guess I felt a little less conscious all the time because he took interest in me for who I was.
That was undone some when we went to a seminar to do some premarital counseling. I had on a t-shirt that had a saying and a verse on it. One of the ladies there told me she liked it, and another said, “It’s still drawing attention ‘there.’ It looks a little tight too. Maybe you should buy larges so your shirt won’t be so tight ‘there.'” I won’t lie, that immediately hurt me. I felt like I couldn’t even get it right in a “Christian t-shirt.” I usually did buy sizes much larger than I needed that were uncomfortable because they were so loose.
“Shame. Be ashamed. Don’t like your body. Cover it up. Hide. Don’t be beautiful. Don’t draw attention. Modest is hottest. Modest IS hottest. Modest IS HOTTEST. MODEST IS HOTTEST!” Was this really the message God wanted me to receive? If modesty was so right, why did it make me feel so bad about things I couldn’t control?
That day I learned something. I learned that no matter what I did, someone was going to have a problem with it. I also remembered this, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” – Psalm 139:14-15
Verse fourteen has graced many coffee mugs and bumper stickers and is used often in women’s ministry, but do we really treat other women this way? Do we acknowledge that God built each of us, and just because someone is built in a way that gets attention, no matter what they are wearing, do we tell them they were also fearfully and wonderfully made or do we simply say “Cover up busty sisters?” God didn’t make a mistake when He made me, and He knew what I would mature into. This was the day I stopped wearing two bras.
It may seem like a ridiculous example, but I remember around this time seeing Jessica Simpson in an interview where she said she really wanted to sing praise and worship music, but she was told (in regular blue jeans and a turtle neck sweater) that she was basically “too sexy” to sing in that genre. I connected with this in the saddest way. Why? I connected with it because that message wasn’t just sent to her. It was sent to a lot of girls I knew. It was sent to me.
Here’s the real problem with this mentality: it has nothing to do with grace and very little to do with what modesty actually means.
I was already convicted about not wanting to wear stuff that I felt was inappropriate. I didn’t need others to pile their opinions about what that meant on top of the legitimate convictions I had. I didn’t wear anything that was inappropriate, but honestly, there’s nothing I could have worn that could have covered up the fact that I had curves besides a garbage bag.
Modesty is more about what’s internal than what you put on. Modesty has more to do with how you present who you are than what you are wearing. You don’t have to be wearing an XL t-shirt, cardigan, scarf, and loose fitting jeans to be modest. Modesty reflects the beauty in a person’s heart.
There was very little to no grace given to anyone I knew with this struggle. The message was clear. “Wear your clothes this way or you are helping the enemy make your brother stumble!” That’s simply not the truth. I was not dressed like a stripper. I could not control how large my bustline was, and if my brother stumbled when I had done what I needed to in order to be respectful of myself and everyone around me, that said something about his walk and not about mine. See, in my constant pursuit of Christ, my eyes were fixed on the right standard- Jesus. I needed to pursue what He had for me, not what people expected of me.
I have a beautiful five year old, and we talk about this already. We talk about the fact that how beautiful her heart is matters more than the beauty of her face because that beauty is not fleeting. Make no mistake, I tell her she’s beautiful all the time because she is. I never want her to be ashamed of her beauty. I just never want her to think that’s the most important thing about her. People tell her she’s pretty all the time, but I always also tell he she’s smart and funny and kind and a wonderful helper and a great friend and many more things. I want her to be modest where it counts!
That isn’t to say that we don’t talk about respecting her body by dressing appropriately. At five, I already have to scour clothing sections for shorts that aren’t so short they are underwear and bathing suits that aren’t string bikinis. She understands more and more why we buy the clothes we do, and I hope that instills in her respect for herself.
I really hope that women can stop being where the buck stops here. The more I consider this, the more I see the weight of responsibility not just in how I raise my daughter, but also in how I raise my sons. I hope they get a real picture of modesty in a way that matters. I hope they do not stumble and fall into looking at women as objects of pleasure. I hope they know that what a woman looks like isn’t the part of her that they will partner with in a marriage or raising a family. Her heart is what will raise any children they may be blessed to have. I hope they own their responsibility for how they walk before the Lord, and I sure hope they never blame any stumbling on the clothing choice another person makes.