dear hilary: honor is not in a tan line
Beach season is a self-conscious time for most girls, but sometimes as a Christian I find it especially stressful. On the one hand, I have society and the media telling me that my body is hideous and that I’ll never be considered attractive unless I can live up to an unreachable standard. On the other hand, I have church culture telling me that as a girl, my body is TOO attractive, to the point where I need to be ashamed of it and keep it covered up at all costs to “protect” the men folk, and I get raised eyebrows from church friends when I say that I’m thinking about buying a bikini for the first time this summer. As a Christian, how can I learn to be comfortable in my own skin without being improper? And how can I shut out the noise long enough to just relax and enjoy a summer day by the ocean?
Dear Modestly Perplexed,
I love you in the midst of this question. I love how you grapple with it, the wonder about the line that doesn’t really exist in the ways we want it to – the line between feeling not attractive enough about ourselves and feeling too attractive towards other people. I want to tell you loud and bright in the midst of this, if I can put my two cents in, since you’ve asked?
buy the bikini.
don’t forget sunscreen (my upper back will testify to the pain that comes with sunburn…), and take a book from the library with its crinkling plastic protector that creaks slightly as you turn the pages.
I don’t tell you because buying or wearing a bikini is the only stamp of approval or a self who sees her self well. I don’t tell you because I think everyone should, or because I think that by putting it on you will answer the question about modesty and attraction and the whole mess of expectations and cultural norms that come with them. Modesty is about honor, not tan lines. Modesty is about an attitude towards your body and others, not about a mystery ledger of rules that say, hemlines of this length or longer or shirts of this material but not that, or dresses that swivel with your hips slightly, but not extremely…
So truthfully, I think our choices about what to wear follow from our other choices about how we want to walk through the day, how we want to approach one another, how we want to see one another. We can’t buy a bikini and hope that it will make us brave or fearless on its own – we have to choose the brave and fearless when we’re wearing two sweaters and a pair of jeans. And we can’t hope those two sweaters and a pair of jeans will make us magically modest – we have to choose the attitude of modesty and honor when we’re wearing the bikini.
Maybe it’s a wild hope of mine that we can gather back from the stray corners of this or that book or blog post or church conversation or pinup calendar a better sense of what it means to live inside these beautiful bones. Maybe it’s wishful thinking that you and I can take the questions tumbling from you about being free and beautiful and alive, and lay them next to questions about being thoughtful and attentive and sensitive – and do that free of the chaos of voices with loud opinions and tape measures.
But I’m going to hope for that. I’m going to go ahead and say you won’t come up with the same answers that I will, or that your next-door neighbor will, because we live and move with different communities and so our choices, in seeking to honor others and ourselves, will be different. We needn’t fear that. We need to listen to each other. If the girl in the pew next to you makes different choices about modesty and her body, listen first. Why does she choose that? And listen without feeling that her choice is a secret expectation on you to choose the same – honor is in listening and upholding one another in how we learn to live out these questions in our own skin.
I can see you wanting to run along the ocean at the turn of the tide, build a sandcastle in the middle of the afternoon for hours, turrets and a moat and a driftwood drawbridge, chase after the joy of summer and let the sun warm your shoulders.
Buy the bikini. I know it’s beautiful.