We unpacked the van, each of us kids grabbing a bag or cooler. Grandma and Grandpa were already down by the water, staking out a spot on the sand. I had my polka-dot one-piece bathing suit already on, under my clothes.
It was a modest bathing suit, as my mom said. Even though I hadn’t yet hit puberty, I wasn’t allowed to wear two-piece suits. As far as I could tell, the no-bikini rule existed because bikinis showed off our bodies and tempted guys to lust. It was never right to wear one.
It seemed that my body was meant to be hidden, and I took that assignment seriously.
I was excited for this beach day on Lake Michigan, celebrating summer with my aunts and uncles and hundreds of other beach-goers. Plus, I loved my new suit. As I lugged one of the mini coolers down toward the surf, I saw one of my aunts walking toward us and waving, and I stopped in my tracks.
She was in a bikini.
A black bikini! A two-piece swimsuit! I darted a look at my mom, wondering what she would say.
Only she said nothing. Which seemed strange, because she’d shared so much with me about why I shouldn’t wear a bikini. And there stood my aunt—comfortable in her two-piece suit, without a care in the world.
As the years went by, I became thankful for our family rule of no bikinis. I really didn’t like my body once I hit puberty. I became aware of all my “flaws,” particularly that my stomach was never flat enough. I desperately wanted to be attractive to guys, and I didn’t think I would look good enough in a bikini.
Modesty was no longer my reason for wearing a one-piece suit; it was just an excuse.
Eventually I added some very conservative tankinis to the mix, but never a bikini. I’d say all the right things about why I avoided two-piece suits. They caused guys to lust. They flaunted what was meant for the bedroom. But those weren’t really my reasons.
The real reason? I just didn’t like my body, and I wanted to hide it.
But then college hit. I began struggling with an eating disorder, obsessing over the numbers on the scale, determined to be thin enough. As I wrestled through the disorder, I decided to take a year abroad in Australia. When my group of friends ventured to the beach, I decided not to be the only girl in a one-piece.
I decided to wear a bikini, for the first time in my life.
I came out of the changing room with my arms wrapped around my stomach. Was this wrong? Did I care? All I could focus on was my stomach. I didn’t want anyone to see it! I wanted to go back into hiding.
But I was sick of hiding. Sick of seeing my body as something that deserved to be covered up.
And I was surprised to discover that, as the hours wore on, I felt okay about myself. In fact, I felt better about my body afterward than I had before. I felt like I was beautiful, even with the extra curves in my tummy. Wearing a bikini that day was a way for me to embrace the body I’d been given, instead of feeling ashamed of it. It was actually a step toward recovery from my eating disorder.
Later, as I wondered what eight-year-old me would have thought, I had to ask myself some tough questions about modesty and what it really meant.
In secular culture, we are told to dress however we want, because it doesn’t matter what other people think. Our bodies are often perceived as objects—something men want to see, and we should want to show off.
In church culture, I often felt that modesty was about hiding my body, because it shouldn’t be seen. I still felt like my body was perceived as an object—as a stumbling block for men, tempting them toward lustful thoughts.
Personally, I don’t think either approach to modesty honors God. Modesty is not about hiding our bodies, or about flaunting them. And it’s definitely not about objectifying the beautiful, wonderfully made bodies we’ve been given. I think there has to be a middle ground.
Answering the following five questions has helped me personally find the middle ground. It’s a ground that will look different for different people; a ground that continues to evolve throughout our lives, and that will be expressed differently in different situations.
1. Is what I’m wearing empowering to me as a daughter of the King?
And I don’t mean “empowering” the way our culture means “empowering.” I don’t mean “Flaunt what you’ve got and wear whatever you want!” I don’t mean that you should be a sex object.
Here’s what I mean: Does this outfit send the message that you are a daughter of the King? That you have class? That you are worthy of respect? That your body is beautiful and wonderfully made, but that you are also worth more than just your body?
2. Is this outfit appropriate for the setting where I’ll be?
I think a big part of modesty is wearing an appropriate outfit for the social context. For example, if you’re hanging out with friends at the beach, even if you wear a one-piece suit, you’re still going to need to change before going to youth group that night. That doesn’t mean your one-piece suit is immodest; it’s just inappropriate for youth group.
I think a lot of this is cultural as well. That’s why in some churches you can wear spaghetti straps and in other churches sleeveless tops would be shocking. It’s all about the context, and what’s appropriate for where you are.
When I’m on a beach in Miami, the swimsuit I wear is different from when I’m at a backyard pool party with my guy friends.
And then there are some outfits that are simply not appropriate for being in public at all; in my opinion, some things are only appropriate when you’re alone with your husband. I might try on a thong bikini, and the culture might say it’s okay to wear. But does wearing that in public say “This is a classy lady? This is a King’s daughter?” Not in my opinion. So I save those outfits for my husband’s eyes alone.
3. Is this outfit in line with my convictions?
Some of you will never wear a bikini because it would go against your conscience. And that’s okay! I love that you are being aware of your conscience, of what God has laid on your heart. I applaud you for following those convictions, even when it’s countercultural.
On the other hand, some of you will wear bikinis because it’s appropriate in your social context and doesn’t go against your convictions. Once again, as long as you are staying true to the convictions in your heart, I applaud you. Stay classy!
Whichever route you choose, just be sure to look deep inside and search your heart before making your decision.
- Are you making this decision because you’ve always felt ashamed of your body, like it needed to be hidden?
- Are you making this decision because you want guys to notice you at any cost?
- Or are you staying classy, as a daughter of the King clothed with dignity?
4. How will this impact the guys around me?
Now here’s the thing: A guy can look at you in any outfit and lust after you. Lust is his choice, and his alone, no matter what you’re wearing.
However, if we really understood how difficult it can be for guys to live with pure thoughts, I think that would impact the way we dressed. Guys are extremely visual and are surrounded with constant temptation to lust, from billboards to porn pop-up ads online to the girls around them. I decided years ago that I wanted to be a safe place for a guy to look, so he could see that I was beautiful without experiencing a constant temptation to lust.
That doesn’t mean we should hide our bodies, but it does mean we should consider how our outfits will affect the guys around us, the guys who are trying to live with a God-honoring thought life.
This is an important part of valuing modesty. It’s not the whole “modesty” picture or story (even though sometimes it’s all we hear in church), but it is an important piece to consider.
5. What is my reason for wearing this outfit?
Lastly, but most importantly, what’s in your heart? When you’re choosing an outfit or a bathing suit, what are your motives?
- Do you love it and feel beautiful and classy in it?
- Do you want to hide the body you’ve been given?
- Or do you want to flaunt your body and get guys to notice you?
It’s true that when you wear less clothing, many guys will give you a second glance and that can give you a momentary high. But is that momentary high really going to get you what you want in the long run? Are those really the kind of guys you want to be with? Are they going to treat you with respect and dignity?
Finding Our Own Middle Ground
I’ve come to believe that on the outside, modesty will look a little different for each person. But on the inside, it looks very much the same, stemming from convictions, appropriate contexts and a pure heart.
The most ironic part of my story is that in the past couple of years, my mom has started wearing a bikini.
I’m so serious! She started doing triathlon races and found that wearing a sports bikini was the best way for her to complete in the swimming portion of those races. And then she found the sports bikini to be so comfortable that she now wears it to the beach as well!
My siblings and I like to tease her about it to no end. We never thought we’d live to see the day when she would wear a bikini! But here we are. Her motives are pure; she’s appropriate for the social context; and the kind of bikini she wears is empowering, commanding respect rather than offering up her body as a sex object. And even at 55, she looks great in it, too!
So I like to think she’s wearing a bikini for the right reasons.
What are your thoughts on dressing modestly? Share them in the comments below!