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Indecent Exposure

Jennifer Hooks

As you enter your fifth-grade classroom, you notice several kids gathered around Kate, a popular student, in the back of the room. As you approach the group, you hear the following conversation:

"Oh yeah, I'm totally getting one when I turn 12. My mom already said it's okay."

"That's nothing. My older sister got a tongue ring. You should see it!"

"Wow! I wish my dad would let me get one. Maybe when I'm older I can talk him into it."

Your curiosity is piqued. What is it the kids are so wowed by?

You work your way through the small crowd to find Kate proudly displaying her new bellybutton ring, which is particularly noticeable below her skin-hugging midriff T-shirt, which reads "Eye Candy."

Your mouth is agape when Kate says brightly, "Hi! Like my new bellybutton ring?"

It's no secret that today's clothing trends leave little to the imagination. In an attempt to tone down students' wardrobe choices, schools across the nation have instituted bans on buttocks-baring low-rise jeans, exposed thong underwear, explicit T-shirt logos, midriff T-shirts, and diving necklines. And these bans aren't just in high schools -- many have been put into effect in junior high schools and even elementary schools.

"Thongs, navels, and cleavage! I'm tired of immodest dress at church!"

76% of children's ministers say they're fed up with immodesty at church, while 24% call for more tolerance of today's flesh-baring trends -- and the people who wear them.

We recently conducted a poll to find out how readers really feel about immodest dress at church. The poll clearly touched a nerve with over 1,200 readers -- the comments we received were compelling.

Clothes matter. According to one poll respondent, "No matter what we wear, the world is looking. You can't put on trendy, revealing clothing and then tell people to get a life and look somewhere else! Anyone who takes time to coordinate an outfit is saying, 'Good or bad, look at me.' "

Shopping for clothing is an American pastime, and our passion for clothing reflects our fascination with the image we project to others. Children are no exception. Preteen shoppers spent $10.1 billion in 2002 on consumer goods, the majority of which consisted of apparel, according to the University of Kentucky. As children shape their sense of reality -- which is very different from an adult's -- they're deeply influenced by television, media, friends, and the Internet. And that sense of reality leads kids to choose clothing that seems normal to them, but has others pulling out their hair.

OVEREXPOSED

The majority of Children's Ministry Magazine readers say they've had it with kids and parents alike who condone immodest dress. The majority of people surveyed believe it's reasonable to expect modest clothing on children -- and adults -- in church.

"If what you're wearing is causing others to sin or getting their attention off worshiping God and onto worshiping your body, then you've let Satan win that battle," writes one person.

Another comments: "Do I expect non-Christians to be aware of God's call for modesty? No. Do I expect Christians to be aware that what they wear can 'cause a [brother] to stumble'? Definitely!" l Pop Culture to Blame -- Several poll participants say they believe overexposed children are a result of parents' ambivalence.

"We have role models like Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez who think it's okay to flaunt everything they have, and we have 'Christian' parents who allow their daughters to watch and emulate these young women. It's time for Christian parents to take a stand for God and tell their children what's godly and what's not," says one reader.

University Wire reporter Patrice Whitefield says, "Stars such as Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez rose to fame showing modern-day America what once was only seen on men in the plumbing profession."

"It really burns me up when the pastor and his wife allow their daughters to dress immodestly and use the excuse that there are more serious battles to pick," says one poll participant.

And another: "My blood boils when any child is allowed to dress immodestly. Last year at Halloween a preschooler came as Christina Aguilera, hip-huggers and all. I'm saddened when children are oversexualized."

Many children's ministers indicate that outreach to unchurched families is largely responsible for the less-than-desirable clothing in pews and classrooms. Several say that while immodest clothing can be expected from the unchurched during their first few visits, a changing heart should be reflected in exterior changes, as well.

"I understand that as long as a church is doing its job of embracing the unsaved, we'll have people indecently dressed. However, I have seen far too many churched people dressing immodestly. This is completely unacceptable," writes one person.

Overwhelmed by Immodesty -- Other poll participants seem to feel overwhelmed by immodesty in their classrooms and congregations.

"I guarantee if that person knew Jesus himself was going to be at church that morning in the flesh, he or she wouldn't dress like that. So what's the difference? He's in our midst when two or three are gathered together," writes one person.

"I'm tired of immodest dress everywhere, especially in my third-grade classroom," says another.

TOLERANCE

Although in the minority, the people who say it's better to demonstrate tolerance for today's styles have a lot to say on the topic.

Children's minister, author, and Senior Aquisitions Editor at Group Publishing, Inc., Mikal Keefer recalls a moment when he began to question his modesty standards. "I vividly remember pointing out to a female co-worker what I thought were inappropriately short shorts on a girl at an event. I wanted my female friend to pull the offending student aside and encourage her to at least be careful where and how she sat -- and to wear something a bit more concealing the next time she came. My colleague looked at the student, smiled at me, and said, 'Have you been living in a cave? That's not immodest -- that's normal!' "

A Call to Love -- "We are called to love as Christians -- in spite of immodest clothing or judgmental hearts," writes one person. "Love compels us to gently guide our brothers and sisters in Christ toward Jesus and away from sin. I believe that the proper response to immodest dress is not to criticize the style but to develop a relationship and mentor the individual to a point where he or she doesn't want to wear the same clothes any more."

Others question whether adults have forgotten how important the "right" clothing was to them as children. Still others question whether the church is missing the point by being critical of clothing choices. They question whether there are more important things to worry about than what children are wearing, such as whether they're being abused, fed, loved, or introduced to Jesus.

"The need to judge people is why I don't like organized religion," writes one participant. "True Christianity comes from within. If this were a guiding principle in churches, there would be more people attending."

"Let's be accepting, inviting of all who attend the church. At the same time, let the church -- from the pulpit, in Bible classes, and by example from the more mature Christians -- teach and model modesty, purity, and wholesomeness at all times. Christ invites whomever to come, but he does not invite us to stay in the condition in which we came."

Generation Gaps

Some younger poll participants are offended by the poll. "Being an older teen in church, the clothing I have seen is nothing that compares to what's in school," writes one teen participant. "It's the style to show off your new bellybutton ring. And anyway, no female wants to wear a dress to church every Sunday. I would rather wear low-cut jeans and a nice shirt. Get over the fact that you can see a little cleavage. Anyways, the guys at my church don't even look at the girls that way. If you asked your parents what they thought of your clothing, I bet they [felt] offended also."

"I didn't think it mattered what we are on the outside," protests another. "It's the inside that counts. If I show off a little of my cleavage at church with a low-cut shirt, it doesn't matter. Look at most rock stars. The concern at church shouldn't be who's wearing a thong but reaching out to others. We need to spread God's Word, not worry if some girl's breasts are hanging out too much." cm

Jennifer Hooks is managing editor of Children's Ministry Magazine.


MODESTY

Fashion is ever-evolving, and it's natural that people will follow trends and make clothing choices according to what's "hot." Still, the question remains, when is enough enough?

Take a good look at where you're coming from before you decide it's necessary to address the way a child dresses. Ask yourself the following questions if you're considering confronting a child or the child's parents. Any discussion regarding modesty needs to take place in private.

  • What specifically about the child's clothing offends you?
  • Have other adults or children commented on the child's clothing?
  • Is the child's behavior altered by the clothing he or she wears?
  • Do you sense discomfort or inappropriate behavior from other children due to the child's clothing?
  • Does the child have physical difficulty participating in classroom activities due to apparel?
  • Does the child seem to feel uncomfortable?
  • Are private areas exposed?

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