My reflections and musings on the struggle to leave a Christ-shaped impression on the world of law and public policy.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

An Issue of Modesty (Confessions of a Reformed Bikini Wearer Who Still Aspires to Be Fashionable)

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.


  1. Can I suggest an alternative?

    You may have given up bikinis because of false perceptions.

    You perceived fear out of lack of peace in your mind, your self-image and personal insecurity.

    You perceived selfishness because you were comfortable with what you were wearing and thought that because other people weren't wearing the same thing, you might be insulting them.

    You perceived competition, so instead of freeing your mind of it you withdrew from an imaginary race.

    You say you still wear a bikini around your husband, privately. Why not be completely unclothed? You might then perceive temptation from your husband?

    What could also be happening now is that you are advocating for perception of fear, selfishness and competition in others. You pass along yours in hoping to instill it in others with good intentions. You're concerns for yourself are valid because they are your concerns.

    We allow ourselves to draw imaginary lines of acceptable behavior for many reasons. I don't follow Amish perceptions of sin, nor do I force my wife to dress in a burqa. I drink beer and eat pork. I have gay friends that I would like to see married and like shooting guns.

    What makes my ideals of living better than others? What makes yours better than mine?

    Those are the questions I ask myself in social situations and at work and at home teaching my son about life. They are my tools for living a good life. If you "guide" your decisions based on the Bible, let me guide mine with my own. We may not see eye to eye on things, but that's okay.

  2. Justin, thank you for your thoughtful analysis.

    Many of the conclusions I have reached (as to the impact of my actions on others)have come from the benefit of being engaged in deep, meaningful, relationships with close friends. Many such friends have shared with me, at various times, their own feelings of insecurity, their struggles with lust or addiction to pornography, and the devastation those things have brought to their marriages.

    As long as this whole issue remains simply an intellectual or philosophical exercise, I might just assume that I am projecting my own concerns onto others and that I need to "free my mind," to "live and let live." But once I am confronted with real friends and neighbors who are hurting, and once I have gained awareness of the rottenness of my own motives, loving others means changing my behavior.

    Also, as I hoped to convey in my blog post, I don't think ANYONE can categorically say that wearing a bikini (or doing so in public places) is SIN. Because it is not anyone's PERCEPTION of behavior that makes it sin. God, alone, defines what is sin, and He hasn't said anything about bikini wearing. He has, on the other hand, said plenty about loving our neighbors.

  3. Well said.

    In this case, you're putting in a lot of effort to address a situation that you might only be touching the surface of. Mimicking someone else's perception in order to attain peace, love and understanding could just cover up problems or create more problems instead of actually helping the people you care about the most.