The Immodesty of Pregnancy

By March 17, 201217 Comments

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.


  • Tim says:

    Sharon, my only criticism of this post is that it’s too short. I wish you had continued to “go into the rest of my thoughts about Caryn’s piece and the comments it elicited” because the thoughts you did give us here are so powerful.

    Like you, I read Caryn’s piece and the comments (every single one, including the dozens that were later inadvertently deleted). You have captured the real issue with one of your opening lines here: “I call Caryn’s perspective redemptive because she looked hard for the hope and the redemptive elements of an otherwise complex and broken situation.” Redemption is what this is all about, and it is at the core of the Gospel. What else could Jesus have meant in statements such as those found in Luke 4:18-21 and Mark 10:45?

    Is the world broken? Yes. Does the magazine cover represent that brokenness? Yes. Did Jesus come to redeem the broken and make us whole again? YES!

    Thanks for pointing us back to the Gospel, Sharon.


  • Natasha says:

    Loved this post! Hadn’t seen the original one, so I went back and read that but did not go through all the comments.

    Thank you for the points about shame and conviction being different and that our definitions of modesty might be wrong. This message can’t get hammered home enough. It breaks my heart that women feel ashamed of their own bodies even during birth.

    I also really appreciate how we need to differentiate between the sin of out-of-wedlock sex from the consequence of pregnancy. Pregnancy should be celebrated because it is a miracle. I’m 34 weeks and I can’t imagine having to go through the last 8 months without a husband and with a cloud of shame over my head. That would have been torture – It’s already such a disorienting and sometimes frightening time and we need all the support of family and friends that we can get.

    Thanks for being so thorough and thoughtful – I agree with Tim, I think the blog post could have gone longer! I was still fully engaged right till the end.

  • I feel like paining this above my front door or something: “We should be realistic about our perverted hearts, but we should not accept them as having the last word.” Yes. Indeedy. Thanks for writing this, Sharon.

  • Alex says:

    Agree with Tim, I would not have cared if this went longer. I really appreciate your thoughts on pregnancy out of wedlock. Shame is not something to put on others, especially with a new person coming into the world that will be very sensitive to it. I can not imagine going through life knowing you were the product of such shame…I can see that coloring how you see yourself, God, religion, and I doubt would lead to a good relationship with any of those things.

    Again, great job Sharon!

  • Lori says:

    I agree with Tim – I’d love to hear the rest of your thoughts about this. Thanks so much for your response, as I’ve been thinking a lot about Caryn’s article and all the comments over the past couple of days. I keep thinking about my father, and the shame he’s carried all his life for being the product of an extramarital affair. Having been adopted into a Christian home in a Christian community, he should have been spared any such shame, but I fear that as a child he heard only about the sin of his birth parents and never about the redemptive beauty and gift of his being born. The vitriolic sentiments of many of the commenters does not go unfelt by the innocent children in their midst.

  • PR says:

    I always struggle with how to react when I hear of friends who are pregnant and not married or find out that their first child was conceived before they were married. Your words have provided great clarity that responding in celebration is the Christlike way to go, especially considering any other reaction wreaks of judgement… not our job. I also find it interesting that the very medium that brought up this discussion—magazine covers—are the same ones responsible for so many Christian women’s (and all women) destructive views of their bodies. You always manage to choose to write about things that have been discussions in my head but I never hear specific guidance on elsewhere. Thanks for taking the time, and I agree with the others, I’d love to hear more.

  • Tim says:

    PR, I was wondering if I’d say the right thing to the 16 year old in the church youth group I was helping to lead became pregnant. Right up to the moment I walked up to her I had no idea what to say. Then I opened my mouth, called her by name, and said “You’re going to be a great Mom.”

    It must have come from God because it turned out that was what she needed to hear. I walked with her and her parents for years afterward too, and I don’t think anything I said on that walk was ever as apropos as that first statement.


    P.S. For Caryn, if you are revisiting these comments: I hope you read my comment at her.mi before it got lost in the inadvertent mass deletion. I really appreciate that you spoke so well about the beauty of pregnancy and God’s original intent for us in human reproduction.

  • Hannah says:

    Sharon, I so appreciate your reflections on the power of shame to shape our thinking about the body.

    The only other objection I had to the magazine cover (which Caryn mentioned and I mentioned in my comment on her post) is the airbrushing aspect – I have a such a longing for pregnancy to be a time when women’s bodies can be celebrated and free of such “touch-ups.”

    That being said, I am struggling to embrace the “back-to-Eden” aspect of my own pregnancy and appreciate your & Caryn’s post as encouragements for me to do so. Especially when I’m feeling fat, gross and tired at 27 weeks. 🙂

  • Sharon says:

    Hannah, I’m pregnant too! 19 weeks! And I’m right there with you. Prior to being pregnant I thought it would be this beautiful experience, but most of the time I just feel fat. 🙂 I’ve been working on standing on the theological truth of this season instead of my rotten feelings about it.

  • Steve D says:

    This is a great article! Thank you so much for posting it. I would to echo the others, please finish your thoughts. They are so refreshing!

  • Bethany says:

    Sharon, I really appreciate your thoughts–thank you for sharing them.

    I wanted to share Caryn’s original post on Facebook & Twitter but what made me hesitate was that I didn’t want my friends who aren’t Christians to see all the awful, backward, convoluted accusatory comments that ensued. And I didn’t want my friends who ARE single young mothers to be any further damaged than they already have been by “Christians.”

    The church really needs to separate shame and modesty, and learn to know the difference. I really hope that the discussion surrounding Caryn’s and your posts will prompt some people to do some deeper thinking on these matters!

  • Adam Shields says:

    I do wish there was a “only grown-ups can discuss this post” setting over at CT. I rarely refer people to their articles because of the comments.

  • Louise says:

    Fantastic post! I read Caryn’s article and loved it…and then read the ugly comments. The commentators should be more worried about their condemnatory spirit I feel!

  • Hannah says:

    Sharon, I have to add that you must read Great With Child by Deb Rienstra. It’s the only book that has helped me to connect my pregnant body with my faith in a meaningful way. So wonderful!

  • AnneB says:

    Jessica’s photo on Elle magazine may represent the celebration of life, but it cannot be denied that it also represents many negative things: tolerance of the sin of fornication, obsession over the perfect physical body, the lust of the eyes, among others.

    Although I know God loves Jessica, as he loves all people, although I know God is long-suffering and far more merciful than any of us, I don’t think He would be angry with the believers who are saddened by what her picture symbolizes.

    To feel self-righteous and act as if we are better than Jessica because we aren’t posing nude, or whatever other self-righteous thought crosses our minds is wrong.

    But I also think it’s dangerous to only look at the “positive” symbolism of her picture. I truly don’t believe the Lord is in heaven thinking, Yes! Elle magazine got it right for once! They’re celebrating life!

  • AnneB says:

    One more thing – the “modesty gets tossed out the window” during pregnancy idea may be true but it doesn’t make it right.
    You can be a modest pregnant lady or an immodest pregnant lady. And I’m speaking about dress here, even though there is modesty in thought as well.

    Somehow, though, I think immodest pregnant women (and immodest overweight women) are given a lot more freedom in their immodesty- I’m serious! I may offend a few people here, but it’s the truth.

    If a “hot”, toned, woman walks in with cleavage or showing a lot of leg, she is usually criticized by most church women.On the other hand, if a significantly overweight woman shows up showing the same amount of cleavage and/or leg, she is usually not as harshly criticized. It doesn’t mean she isn’t as immodest as the thin woman. Both are equally immodest, yet one doesn’t get as much judgment.

    Same with Jessica – because she is pregnant, even though she is immodest in the Elle picture, somehow she didn’t get as much criticism from Christians as she would have if she hadn’t been pregnant.

    So I guess it is true – modesty does get tossed out the window with pregnant women.

  • Hope says:

    Thanks very much for this post. I was pretty discouraged by all the negative feedback Caryn’s post received–it was disheartening how many people completely missed its heart and weren’t able to see any redemptive aspects at all. I liked your distinction between shame and conviction. I also appreciate your pointing out that it is a tension we must hold between not condoning the behavior that results in out-of-wedlock babies, and the pregnancy/baby that is a result of that. We Christians don’t always do well holding the tension in general, though it seems like it’s one of our most important jobs.
    Also, I was glad to see someone mention the book “Great With Child” by Deb Rienstra in the comments below. I love that book!
    I love also the idea of a discipline of seeing redemption in difficult situations. My favorite line here, “On the contrary, it is the world that is cynical and slow to hope.” Thank you!

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