About a year after I graduated from college–nearly 10 years ago–I overheard a conversation between several young men that I have never forgotten. Back then the show Newlyweds was popular, a reality series following the marriage between Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. The young men were discussing the show, and they landed on the topic of Jessica Simpson’s “hotness.” The men went on and on about how ridiculously hot she was–unbelievably, mind-blowingly hot.
The conversation never became explicit, so it wasn’t the content of their words that stood out to me. Instead, I remember the conversation because of who the men were, and where they were standing.
They were college students in the church ministry where I volunteered. We were standing in the lobby of the church, just after we had been dismissed from Sunday School.
And countless female college students were within earshot.
I think back to this experience often, because it symbolizes the conflicting voices that young Christian women hear every day. On the one hand, Christians exhort women to be modest, and criticize women who are immodest.
On the other hand, women are inundated with cultural messages that equate value and worth with sexuality. And this message is very much present inside the church. As a college student myself, I remember going on a church beach retreat where the male leaders were dating the most scantily clad women. And then there’s the pastors who praise their “smokin’ hot wives” from the pulpit.
On top of it all is the crazy process of growing into a woman. A young woman’s body is constantly changing and she is learning to adjust. Her new body might invite attention that it never invited before, and she is figuring out how to respond. Young women are also shaped by the images they see on t.v. and the internet, which is a powerful influence on their emerging self-expression.
The reason all of this matters is that a young woman’s sexuality does not evolve in a vacuum. There are countless experiences, messages, and influences that inform the way a young woman expresses herself.
And yet, there is a tendency to treat young women as if their sexuality is one thing alone–a personal, isolated responsibility. Self-objectification, therefore, must be a calculated, unprovoked ploy to seduce young men.
In a now viral blog post written by a mother of sons, the writer seems to assume this very mentality of the teenage girls she sees on Facebook. While I am sympathetic to her desire to protect her boys, it’s also important to name the reality that women don’t self-objectify out of thin air. Sometimes, women dress immodestly in response to what they see on t.v. and the men in their lives.
For instance, when Christian men say one thing but do another, the message is loud and clear–young Christian women know what young Christian men really want. So rather than view a woman’s behavior or dress as an individual problem, we might consider the possibility that she is merely reacting to the Christian men in her life.
We might also consider the possibility that this is a community problem.
What does this mean for parents, teachers, and church leaders? It means that we can’t help women to honor their bodies without engaging the larger environment in which their bodies exist. There are countless toxic influences, both inside and outside the church, that teach young women their value comes from their bodies. We need to acknowledge and engage the complexity of that influence.
The problem is not simple, so we cannot act as if it is.
However, it’s also important that we teach women to honor their bodies in a manner that promotes self-love, rather than self-loathing. Between the unrealistic standards of beauty promoted by the media, and strategies that shame women into dressing modestly, it’s no wonder that women struggle with low self-esteem, eating disorders, and more.
Thankfully, Scripture offers a paradigm for shaping women in a way that builds up rather than tears down. In Luke 7, Jesus is invited to dine at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. While there, a “sinful woman” comes to Jesus and anoints his feet with oil and loving tears.
Simon is aghast. As he watches the scene transpire he thinks to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (v. 39)
But Jesus responds differently. He sees the woman’s heart, and her heart is what matters.
Too often, our responses to young women echoe that of Simon. We condemn rather than draw nearer. We look at the actions, instead of the heart. Or we presume to know a young woman’s heart based solely on her actions.
But Jesus’ response upends that logic. Sometimes there is more going on than meets the eye. Perhaps, deep down, beneath the self-objectification, is a heart crying out for unconditional love, for true freedom, for guidance, or for grace.
That is why, as we think about raising girls in a sexualized culture like ours, we must tend first to their hearts–hearts that are being wounded and mangled by unhealthy messages about the female self.
Don’t get me wrong–behavior matters. But Christianity is not a behavior modification program. It is first about gospel transformation. It’s about a heart surrendered to God.
If we want women to honor their Savior AND love themselves, let’s stop with the shaming. We’re not Simon-followers, after all. We’re Christ followers.
The Simons of the world might cast judgments based on outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7) Although shepherding a young woman’s heart requires more patience and understanding than simply ordering her to cover up, it is the way of Christ, and we must follow him.