First a disclaimer. As suggested by the title of this post, the only thing that "qualifies" me to be blogging on this topic is the fact that I was once dismissive of the virtue of modesty, but have since examined my former thoughts and attitudes on the subject and found them wanting.
A number of the online comments to my Op-Ed on The Tilted Kilt raised a great point: what is the difference between patronizing the TK, where busty waitresses wear bikini tops, and going to the beach or pool, where lots of women wear bikinis?
Well, I believe there are some differences. Perhaps foremost among them is that businesses like the TK are capitalizing on consumers' sexual appetites and exploiting vulnerable young women who are in need of cash and might not fully recognize the extent to which they debase themselves by putting on the tawdry "costumes." At the pool or beach, ladies are not paid to dress scantily, less material coverage serves an actual, practical purpose for the swimmer or sunbather, and a woman's (or girl's, in some cases) choice of attire is therefore more essentially her own.
And yet, I must in all honesty admit that I AM concerned about our culture's acceptance of a swimming dress code in which females are basically undressed. We can talk about free choice all we want, but we can't ignore the external pressures and internal longings that influence those choices.
There is a battle raging in every woman's heart and mind as she embarks upon the dreaded "swimsuit shopping" trip. As a woman who has endured countless such shopping trips with friends and family members, I can assure you that even the most beautiful women struggle with "body image." We learn from television, movies, songs, magazines, books, friends, and from history, for goodness' sake, that men are drawn to beautiful women. And I have never known a woman who didn't want to be considered beautiful by, well, everyone. But most of all, she wants to be attractive to men.
In my experience, when a girl comes to understand that what most men want is a toned, tanned body in a skimpy bikini, she reacts in one of two ways: she either covers up a body that she feels can never measure up, and carries around the conviction that she is simply not beautiful, or she arms herself in the suit she feels best displays her "assets," and settles in for a poolside race to the bottom.
The sad thing is, this is an arms race that can never be finally won. Male attention won through a physical beauty contest is quickly lost to exciting new competitors. And the inevitable aging process means that our winning attributes are fleeting.
I have only given up my bikinis in the past several years (well, I haven't given them up entirely: I now reserve them for private hot tub use with my husband!). My decision, initially, was a practical one. Believe me, chasing after a toddler at the swimming pool whilst wearing a bikini is not ideal. But once covering up was no longer a practical necessity, I began to reconsider my prior swimwear choices and the fearful, selfish, and impoverished thinking that led to them.
My thinking was fearful because it was, in part, based on my fears that in order to earn male attention and appreciation, I had to compete (as best I could) with the other body displays at the pool. For me, then, wearing the bikini with whatever pride I could muster in my appearance was really a signal of deeper insecurities.
It was selfish because it did not consider the possibility that I may have been a source of temptation for some men, a source of discouragement for a young girl struggling with her own body image, or simply another gear in the machinery that perpetuates this communal undressing.
But finally, my thinking was impoverished because it did not allow for the possibility that this was a competition I didn't need to win; that I am a unique, valuable, significant--and, yes, beautiful--person who is fully loved and understood. It didn't allow for the possibility that poolside admiration by one and all was not something I had to have. In this regard, my thinking was a failure to find my identity in Christ.
Please hear this: I am not advocating a Christian crack-down on bathing suits. I am well aware that modesty in dress is one of those issues that can quickly turn into legalism, and that is a BAD thing for everyone. But I do believe that every Christian, and Christian ladies in particular, should think through the issue of modesty very carefully. When it comes to modesty, my belief is that it should not be about rules but about love.