The Immodesty of Pregnancy

On Thursday, my friend and colleague Caryn Rivadeneira wrote a provocative and controversial post for Her.meneutics in which she addressed Jessica Simpson’s latest cover photo for Elle Magazine. In case you haven’t seen the photo, Simpson posed au naturale in all her pregnant glory, and Caryn responded with a–what I could call–redemptive perspective.

I call Caryn’s perspective redemptive because she looked hard for the hope and the redemptive elements of an otherwise complex and broken situation. Of course she acknowledges this brokenness, noting the manner in which Simpson will surely be objectified by this photo, the market driven motives that serve to exploit her pregnancy, and the fact that Simpson is not married.

This photo is an easy target for Christians. Simpson might as well have hung a bull’s eye on her forehead. And that is why I appreciated Caryn’s willingness to also look for the hope. It is easy to be cynical and it is easy to criticize sin, but it takes Christ-shaped imagination to see redemption in difficult situations, and this is a discipline I wish more Christians would foster.

This discipline is very different from compromising or “giving into the world,” as many have accused Caryn of doing. On the contrary, it is the world that is cynical and slow to hope. While Christ takes sin seriously, he took it seriously enough to redeem it, and we should do the same. This is not accomplished by merely casting accusations.

With all of that said, I understand if you find it hard to “celebrate” Simpson’s photo the way that Caryn’s subtitle directs us. The layers of the issue are such that thoughtful, Jesus-shaped reflection, repentance, and hope seem more appropriate categories to me. However, her piece ignited the ire of numerous commenters who raised various objections, and I want to respond to some of them here. I think they signify why Caryn needed to write this piece.

Objection #1: Pregnancy outside marriage is shameful

One of the most common objections expressed a fear that Caryn was somehow whitewashing an otherwise disgraceful situation. Because Simpson is unmarried, numerous commenters believed her pregnancy to be “shameful” and embarrassing. Unlike pregnancy in marriage, which Christians should celebrate, pregnancy out of wedlock is outside of God’s will and we should not hesitate to feel shame about it.

While there is an element of truth to those sentiments–namely, that God intended children to be born into married families–we need to look closer at this logic and where it takes us. First and foremost, pregnancy itself is not a sin. Sex outside of marriage is the sin, and pregnancy is one consequence of that sin. Although the consequence that is pregnancy can pose difficulty and obstacles to couples who engage in sex outside of marriage, the pregnancy itself is not a punishment or an ugly smear on creation. In fact, that pregnancy signifies the potential for God to bring good out of bad, to bring life out of death.

Scripture is pretty clear about human life. We are to honor it and celebrate it. And while we may not celebrate the circumstances that led to that new life, this distinction is critical. If we do not distinguish the shame of premarital sex from pregnancy, we will continue to see Christian women get abortions in large numbers.

When pregnancy is treated like a scarlet letter of shame that must be borne for 9 months, an already difficult situation is made much worse. As much as we must decry the rising level of out-of-wedlock pregnancies in this country, we must simultaneously celebrate the lives that were spared in a culture that not only exterminates new life in less than ideal circumstances, but shames the women who courageously choose to keep their children. This is a tension we must hold onto.

Objection #2: Modesty should never get “tossed out the window”

One of Caryn’s points involved the immodesty of pregnancy, meaning that it is one time in our lives when women cannot hide their physicality and their sexuality. It’s out there. Everyone knows you had sex, and your growing body is now imposing itself on everyone’s gaze. Caryn therefore described pregnancy as a time when modesty gets “tossed out the window.”

A lot of people didn’t like this phrase, but I honestly believe they misunderstood it. I don’t think Caryn was referring to modesty as a Biblical virtue, but rather cultural constructions of modesty. Any understanding of modesty that seeks to completely obscure a woman’s sexuality and hide her femininity is undone in pregnancy.

However, this objection had a number of versions to it. Many women confessed that they hate the immodesty of pregnancy. They disliked it when strangers touched their bellies, and they were traumatized by the nakedness and vulnerability of the delivery room. While Caryn celebrated this back-to-Eden aspect of pregnancy in which we must embrace our bodies and accept the fact that doctors will see us naked and vulnerable, many women detested this aspect of pregnancy most of all. For them, it triggered their modesty radars and seemed to go against what is right and godly.

Others mentioned their more general dislike of being naked in the locker room, or even in the privacy of their own rooms. For these women, the goodness of nakedness belongs in the Garden of Eden and that is where it should stay as long as we live in a fallen world.

I have two responses to these concerns. The first is that these comments reveal the importance of a Biblical understanding of Sin and the Fall. Although the curse of sin is a reality with which we must grapple, we are by no means called to embrace it. Jesus would not have died on the cross if that was the case. On the contrary, we are to work toward the restoration of creation, and the shame we associate with nakedness is one aspect of creation that needs to be restored.

Notice that, after sin entered the world, Adam and Eve felt shame about their nakedness before God, the very One who created their bodies and knew it inside out. Of course their shame also represented a deeper spiritual shame about their sin, but that shame is removed in Christ. As Christians, we don’t have to stand before God ashamed of our souls or our bodies. We are blameless and pure in his eyes and God calls us good, so we can take that confidence with us as we stand naked before our husbands, and even our doctors.

In environments that are given to us by God for our goodness and well-being, where we are at no risk of being objectified or exploited, the shame we feel about our bodies does not belong. It is an intruder.

Which leads me to my second response to this objection. Many women felt ashamed at their nakedness in the delivery room and called that feeling “modesty.” They took their feelings about their bodies and then imposed that feeling on their interpretation of Scripture.

This is an incredibly dangerous way to interpret the Bible, though we do it all the time. We assume that our inclinations can help us to read Scripture, when it is the other way around. Our inclinations and instincts are broken, and while they do tell us something about God and creation, we will misinterpret that message if we start with our hearts instead of starting with truth.

Shame and conviction are two different things, which means that the shame you feel about your body might very well come from the Enemy. But we need Scripture and doctrine to decipher that difference, and I’m afraid that many women do not begin there, as much as they believe that they do.

Closing Thoughts

This post is getting long so I won’t go into the rest of my thoughts about Caryn’s piece and the comments it elicited. Again, I don’t expect everyone to feel comfortable with what Caryn wrote; I don’t even expect everyone to accept it. But I would summarize my concerns about the responses as follows: Many of the comments weren’t Biblical. Many of them were defined by shame, accusation, and condemnation, which are the fingerprints of one spiritual being alone.

Simpson’s cover photo is a sign of the broken world we live in, but in two very different ways. Her decision to appear on that magazine cover and flaunt her lifestyle for profit is a sign of the Fall. However, any response that can ONLY see a naked pregnant woman as “soft porn,” that ONLY sees nakedness as shameful and ugly, and concludes that out-of-wedlock pregnancy is itself sinful and disgusting, that kind of response is also a sign of the Fall. We should be realistic about our perverted hearts, but we should not accept them as having the last word.