Why do so many of us not only permit our teenage daughters to dress like this—like prostitutes, if we’re being honest with ourselves—but pay for them to do it with our AmEx cards?
This provocative question comes from Jennifer Moses in her essay in The Wall Street Journal Online entitled, “Why Do We Let Girls Dress Like That?”. Moses develops an equally provocative answer: moms who belong to the “post-feminist, post-pill generation” feel conflicted about teaching their daughters to treat their bodies and sexuality as sacred because they do not want to come off as hypocrites.
Moses suggests, tongue in cheek, that the only women who know how to teach their daughters not to give their bodies away are Mormons, evangelicals, and Orthodox Jews. Mark Regnerus would disagree. According to his study on sex and religion in the lives of American teenagers, evangelical teens are just as sexually active as non-Christian teens. The truth is that evangelicals have not done a better job of teaching their daughters (and sons) to respect and honor their sexuality.
You didn’t really need a statistic to tell you that Christians have just as hard a time as non-Christians when it comes to teaching their children about human sexuality did you? Sexuality is personal, powerful, and unfortunately it has the ability to conjure up strong feelings of shame in us all. We can be made to feel ashamed about having sex. We can also be made to feel ashamed about not having sex. Sexual brokenness does not come from sex; it comes from a larger matrix of human brokenness that the Bible identifies as sin.
Against Meaningless Beauty
Jennifer Moses offers three common responses that daughters give when their parents question their fashion choices:
- “What’s the big deal?”
- “But it’s the style.”
- “Could you be any more out of it?”
The typical parental response might sound something like this:
- “If everyone else was wearing garbage bags, would you do it too?”
The question really driving this debate between parents and their daughters is whether beauty is meaningful (“you can’t wear that!”) or meaningless (“it’s just the style!”).
Our daughters have a point; it’s hard to argue that style is objective. But parents have a point too; it’s hard to argue that what we wear is completely meaningless. If beauty were completely meaningless, we would never ask anyone, “how do I look?” When we are trying on new fashion we want someone to give us an objective affirmation of our beauty. The truth is that beauty is neither completely subjective nor completely objective. Beauty has meaning because it is relational.
Beauty is in the Eyes of the Lover
According to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, there is nothing wrong with wanting to look beautiful. Beauty only becomes a problem when we are dressing for the wrong kind of people.
And you, O desolate one, what do you mean that you dress in scarlet, that you adorn yourself with ornaments of gold, that you enlarge your eyes with paint? In vain you beautify yourself. Your lovers despise you; they seek your life. (Jeremiah 4:30)
When Israel turned away from God to worship false gods, it was like they were turning away from their husband who unconditionally loved them to an abusive lover who used and destroyed her for his own benefit. The beauty of Israel’s religion and good works was meaningless because their false gods would ultimately destroy them.
There is an empty sorrow when we share our beauty with someone who doesn’t really care for us, regularly sacrifices us on the altar of their own good, and leaves us when we are neither feeling nor looking beautiful. There is a fullness of joy when we share our beauty with someone who is willing to make personal sacrifices for our good and commits to stick with us when we are neither feeling nor looking beautiful.
Beauty matters because of the people we share it with. There is a kind of beauty that is meant to be shared with strangers and casual friends. There is another kind of beauty that is meant to be shared within the boundary of a covenant relationship, namely marriage.
It is significant that the Bible does not give us a dress code (unless you are an Old Testament priest, in which case you must wear the appropriate priestly robes while leading worship). Christian modesty does not require wearing a burka or unfashionable and tacky clothing. Christian modesty is the ability to discern the difference between dressing for a lover and someone who is a stranger, casual friend, or even a family member.
An important question to ask our daughters (and ourselves) is, “for whom are we dressing?”
Love makes us Beautiful
Our daughters are going to be tempted to wear revealing clothes to make themselves more desirable, to get attention, to feel wanted and beautiful. They have bought into the idea that they have to “make” guys fall in love with them. The Bible turns fashion upside down. We do not need to be beautiful to be loved; love makes us beautiful even when we are not.
Later in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet speaks a word of great mercy to the people of Israel who had turned away from God.
I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. (Jeremiah 31:3-4)
Although Israel had committed spiritual adultery by turning to worship false gods and idols, God calls her a “virgin” and promises that he will adorn her with joyful music and dance. This is the picture of a wedding banquet. Even as Israel lay in ruin God’s free grace and loving kindness made her beautiful. At the end of the day whether we are evangelical, Mormon, Orthodox Jew, Buddhist, agnostic, or atheist, we all are just people caught in that matrix of human brokenness called sin. But God desires to clothe us in the righteousness of Christ, take away all our shame, regret, guilt, and sin, and make us more beautiful than we ever imagined we could be as he ravishes us with his love.
Our daughters need to know how God has and is making them beautiful in Christ. They don’t need to make God “fall for them” and they shouldn’t feel like they need to make any guy “fall for them” either. This frees our daughters to express their sense of style with modesty. It also frees parents who are inevitably reduced into hypocrites when we try to take the moral high ground with our kids come alongside them as common world weary travelers and point them to the comfort we have found in Christ.