The problem with legislating modesty

‘Tis the season for summer camps and mission trips, which means that this time of year, youth ministry discussion boards explode with questions about swimwear dress codes. Typically, questions go something like this:

What do you require girls to wear when swimming? Are tankinis OK? Bikinis? Should girls always wear a dark-colored t-shirt over their swimsuit?

Often, the underlying concern of such questions is modesty, something many youth workers cite as a value because of 1 Timothy 2:9, which commands women to dress modestly.

As a female youth pastor, I have a lot of concerns regarding these conversations, especially in a #MeToo world.

If modesty is something a high school student values, that’s great. But it’s problematic when an (often) male youth pastor imposes this value on the females in his ministry.

Why have we placed a higher value on teaching girls to dress modestly than on teaching ALL students to respect one another? Why have we placed a higher value on telling teens what is and isn’t acceptable to wear than on teaching them to discern for themselves how their faith might impact their choices, including their dress?

In the Gospels, Jesus says the second greatest commandment is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is, I think, pertinent to this conversation. So often, we truncate this verse to “Love your neighbor” when it reality it says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Teens can’t love themselves if the message they’re constantly hearing from us is “Cover your body.” When we obsess over how clothed the girls in our ministries are at the pool, what we’re telling them is “Your body is bad” or “Your body might be good, but people are so bad that you can’t even trust your youth group friends to control their actions” or perhaps worse still, “You are responsible for someone else’s actions.”

What a distorted, twisted, harmful message. At creation, God creates humankind in God’s image and calls them very good. If we are very good, then our bodies are also good.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s not a doubt in my mind that some people are immediately going to jump from what I’m actually saying to, “So if your youth group kids wanted to go skinny dipping you’d say okay?”

Of course not.

Which brings me back to the first part of the second greatest commandment. Love your neighbor.

We love our neighbors by treating every part of them – including their bodies – with respect; Not by simply legislating what someone can and cannot wear to the pool.

So maybe, just maybe, our ministries, the church, and our teenagers would be better off if we spent a little less time trying to regulate what kids wear to the pool and a little more time teaching teens to respect and love one another and helping them to develop an ethic that allows them to do both of these things. We can do this in so many ways, among them:

· Wrestling with what it means that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

· Talking about how we treat things we value – including our bodies.

· Telling kids what we’re doing at the beach and the pool and then trusting them to choose appropriate swimwear that will allow them to be active without exposing themselves.

And maybe, just maybe, we could also teach love and respect for our neighbor by talking to teens about agency and the fact that they are responsible for their bodies and their choices and that lust or inappropriate behavior isn’t ever excusable – regardless of whether someone’s wearing a tankini, bikini, or a one-piece swimsuit.

It's by engaging teens in nuanced conversations like these that we'll help show them what it actually means to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and the forthcoming A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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