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Modesty Culture's Hidden Victims

In that moment, my impressionable mind latched onto an idea that took over a decade to dismantle. My worth was in my body. More specifically, my worth only existed in relation to how boys saw my body.
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"Girls! Ladies! Let's quiet down please!"

The counselor's pleas did little to quell the uproar of chatter, giggles, and squeals that filled the chapel. This was the first day of camp. And this was the first time I'd been separated from the boys, who were being given their own "special talk."

The woman with the microphone seemed ancient to my 11-year-old eyes, even though she was probably no older than 25. Her face was scrunched up in a tight-lipped smile, and she waited until the uproar settled.

"OK! Are we excited for camp?"

A chorus of shrieks rang out, and her smile faltered, just for a minute, into a wince. She
recovered quickly.

"Good! But before we begin all our activities, we have some rules to go over. Rules that will help all of us have an incredible time at camp." She paused. "Now, who knows what the four "B's" are?"

A smatter of hands went up in the back, and I turned around to look. The counselor called on an older girl with shiny red hair.

"Boobs, butt, bra straps, and belly!" she sang out.

I let out an involuntary giggle, as did some other younger girls around me.

"Yes, thank you! Now who knows that they mean?"

Another girl, sitting crossed legged a few yards from me, called out, "They're the things we have to hide from the boys."

"Very good," the counselor said, nodding into the microphone, "These are the things we want to hide, so we don't cause the boys to stumble. We know what stumble means?"

Most of the heads in the room nodded.

"Stumble means we don't want to cause the boys impure thoughts, because of our bodies. While you're at Camp Kulaqua, I want each and every one of you to always be thinking about the four B's. Boobs, butt, bra straps, and belly. When you think of them I want you to check and make sure they're covered. OK?"

I subconsciously moved my hand to my stomach, which poked out a few inches over the band of my shorts. My stomach would never cause a boy to stumble.

That's the first time I ever remember being ashamed of my body.

The first time I ever made the connection that what set me apart from the other girls was not my sense of humor, or my personality, or my horrible purple glasses, but my body. The body that, I was sure, would never cause a boy to "stumble."

In that moment, my impressionable mind latched onto an idea that took over a decade to dismantle. My worth was in my body.

More specifically, my worth only existed in relation to how boys saw my body.

It was a lot for an 11-year-old to handle. The sinking realization that, at best, if I lost weight, my body would cause boys to think bad things and I'd be forced to cover it up. And at worst, that my lack of need to cover up meant that I was worthless. Not really a "woman."

Years of low-self esteem, disordered eating, and unhealthy sexual encounters followed that revelation I had at camp. While it's not fair to blame a decade of problems on one camp experience, it is fair to bring up the question -- what damage are we causing little girls, like me, who (repeatedly) hear this message?

Lots of talk has been made recently about how modesty culture is damaging to women and men. What hasn't been brought up much though, is how this effects the "hidden" victims of the church's modesty message -- the little girls who internalize the message of their worth being tied up in their body, and find their chubby, or too short, or too dark bodies to be "not good enough."

Modesty's hidden message is that you're damned if you do (cause boys to stumble), and you're damned if you don't.

The infuriating irony is that this message often comes from the very last group it should -- Christians. Of all people, Christians should know that our worth is not in our bodies; it's in our hearts and souls. But many Christians somehow miss this Biblical truth when it comes to women. They misinterpret the (very few) verses of the Bible that speak of "physical" modesty. Instead of seeing the issue being one of humility, and not drawing attention to one's wealth, they see "sexual desire." Seeing sex where it's not is the real problem, and it won't be solved by telling little girls to cover up.

When Jesus came to the Earth to rescue us from sin, He made it clear what He, and His father valued -- loving God, and loving our neighbors. Lust is not loving, and we as Christians should do all we can to help teach young boys and men how to value and respect women -- regardless of what they're wearing.

What is equally unloving is lying to young girls and telling them that the most important thing they can focus on is their bodies. By doing this, we send the very un-Christian message that "physical beauty is what matters most." Even if this is not the message intended for the young girls, it's the one they pick up on. It's what shouted at them everywhere they look. What's sad is that the church hasn't offered a safe haven from this lie. It's spread it.

It's time to start telling little girls the truth.

The truth that the only man we should be teaching young girls to seek the approval of is the one man who doesn't care what they wear.