I had my annual girls’ weekend this past month. It always seems like an indulgence for me to go (it is) and a bit of a hardship on my little family (it is) but every time I come home so refreshed, so renewed, so full, that we now think of it almost as a necessity. Few of us live near each other so we rely on social media and the phone for our daily connections but once a year, we gather at a lake to reconnect, tell stories, laugh until we weep and cry until we laugh. Female friendships are so dear to me – I can’t fathom going through my life without women alongside of me and ahead of me.
I was pretty worn out this year, I don’t mind admitting. I had a red-eye flight heading into the weekend, I was four months pregnant at the time, our life is still a bit too full for my liking, and so hello uninterrupted nap time, you’re a priority. When I woke up late on the Saturday, I wandered outside to sit on the porch overlooking the lake with my cuppa tea and I saw one of the most beautiful sights: women in bikinis.
We range in age from late twenties to late forties. We just look like regular women you’d see working at the bank or in the pews at church or handling school pick up. We have our own hang-ups about our bodies: one might complain about her size, another about her boobs, another about her thighs, another about how things have changed as she got older. A lot of us are mothers and that marks a body, you know.
But here they were out in public in bikinis, unashamed and having a great time.
I said it out loud, “I’m so thankful that I have friends who wear bikinis.”
There wasn’t any hiding behind oversized t-shirts or cover-ups. No posing on the dock or the sand with a perfectly bent arm on our hip to reduce arm-fat with an elevated smart phone for a filtered selfie. Just a group of women in the water, wearing bikinis like their bodies were nothing to be ashamed of. Imagine that.
I know that for some segments of the Church the thought of good-Christian-women-in-bikinis jumps your fence because of a lifetime spent labouring under strict modesty rules. Young women were often subjected to horrendous and humiliating practices about their clothing, even being told that their bodies are wrong or evil. Heaven help the young lady who dared to bring a two-piece bathing suit to youth group camp. Strict rules complete with diagrams and assumptions of motives, what started as likely a well-meaning experience to encourage modesty turned into a witch hunt and a theological confusion about responsibility.
Instead of treating women and girls as persons with full minds, hearts, souls AND bodies, they were treated as essentially physical stumbling blocks to men. And I think that dehumanizes women – in the minds of men and in their own souls. In a way, these modesty rules are a version of the tired and terrible questions asked about victims of rape: “What was she wearing?” meaning “Was she asking for it?” Answer: never.
(My other issue with the modesty rules stuff is that it paints men as unable to control their urges or bear responsibility for their own attractions and thought life – and that’s crap.)
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a pretty modest person by natural style and inclination. I hope I’m teaching my tinies how to choose clothing well AND how to bear responsibility for their own thoughts and choices. But I don’t think you can determine some else’s motives or spiritual life simply by how tight her yoga pants are on a given day. A woman’s spiritual depth or intelligence – let alone her value – isn’t indicated by how high her neckline or low her hemline.
Regardless, growing up in a shame-based culture around one’s body is crippling and hard to release. It leaves one feeling disjointed and separated, unconnected and even ashamed about one’s body. It can take a lifetime to unlearn those lies.
But for me, it’s not the modesty culture stuff that makes me rejoice over the sight of normal women in bikinis.
No, as I wrote for Glennon Melton at Momastery a few months ago for her Sacred Scared series, my battle is much more mainstream: my weight.
As I wrote for Glennon’s site, “I battle with resenting my own body and the way it has changed over the years. I feel so achingly and painfully average, a stereotype, like the chubby misfit mama. And it’s so much worse when I am around other Christian women leaders because they are so well put together, so beautiful, so seemingly effortlessly thin, so motivated, and I want to hide. I know better – I do! But apparently sometimes I don’t. I know I’m overweight – trust me – but for me, it’s not really about the weight, it’s about how I am often awash in shame and self-loathing about it. Our culture tells me that I am only loveable or sexy if I look like a thin movie star, there is no room for my softness, and sometimes, God forgive me, I believe them. I elevate popular culture’s opinion of me over what I know about being fearfully and wonderfully made, over my husband’s love and desire for me, over my logic, over my own convictions, over my beliefs about who I am in Christ. I’m still overcoming the lies and some days, let me be honest, some days I am not an overcomer.”
Like a lot of women, I think my battle started when I hit puberty. It turned out that my grown-up body was much more curvy and full – even at my thinnest – than what was in fashion or even what was considered “normal” within my family. I have been battling the feeling of “not enough” ever since then. I was very easily wounded by comments about my weight or size, carrying them and never forgetting the words.
I think that’s part of the reason why I write so often about body image – half the time, I’m preaching to myself. I need to hear the truth still. I need to have good boundaries about what I say about myself.
Overall, I consider myself remarkably healthy at this point in my life – both physically and emotionally – as it pertains to my relationship with my body. And I’m proud of this.
I have made my peace with my body and I even write love letters to my own body as a radical act of faith. I rebel against my own social conditioning about my body by choosing to not only accept myself, but celebrate my body.
But make no mistake: it’s been a hard-won freedom with occasional stumbles.
So I never thought I deserved a bikini. I thought those sorts of things were for thin women, for women without my breasts and my hips and my little pooch-y belly. I was meant for full-piece miracle suits and oversized cover-ups and quick dashes to the change rooms.
I thought bikinis had to earned. I never wore bikinis. Even in my teens and my twenties when I still had a belly unmarked by bearing children, I thought I wasn’t in the bikini class. The thought of wearing a bikini now was unthought by me. It never would have even entered my brain to choose a bikini.
Seeing my group of friends having a great time out on the lake – paddle boarding, laying out on floating rafts, swimming, jumping off the dock with abandon, unashamed – changed me.
Their hair was wet, there was no make-up, no self-consciousness. They were without shame about their bodies. It was stunning. I mean, yes, they were beautiful, absolutely. But it was stunning more because in our culture that constantly tells us that we aren’t enough or we’re too much, these women simply didn’t care and went out for a swim in a bikini. Each body was different from the other and yet each one was beautiful. Turns out you don’t earn a bikini by having a “bikini ready body” – you “earn” a bikini by putting one on your body as it is. Done.
I’m so thankful that I have friends who wear bikinis.
These women set me a bit more free with the glorious sight of their own freedom.
There is something about seeing women who walk in a freedom that we don’t yet enjoy that ignites us. I’ve had the same feeling when I saw women doing something I longed to do myself and hadn’t yet gathered the courage or conviction to step into.
When I see women enjoying a freedom that I can’t yet imagine, I think: I’m going to get there. I have a vision now for a new area of freedom and wholeness in my life. Whether it’s in my vocation and calling, my opinions and daily life, my priorities or whatever, I want to get there.
This is what I love about my friends. They challenge me simply by living their lives. I could tell you the dozens of ways I came home from our weekend together challenged.
And this seems like a silly one perhaps – women in bikinis, good gracious – but it was really a challenge about my body and how I view my body, about shame and freedom, about the goodness of our bodies before God, pushing back against my own prejudices and cultural conditionings.
It wasn’t really about the bikinis. Not really. (And we’re heading into the fall and winter so we’re past bikini season anyway. But wouldn’t it be awesome if more normal women in the middle of their years wore bikinis? I think so.) Really, my thankfulness was more about the presence of women in my life who extend to me a glimpse of wholeness and freedom.
There were other moments of challenge regarding calling and vocation, mothering and marriage, sex and Scripture, hospitality and theology, you name it over the course of our couple days together. All of those conversations arose in the context and safety of long friendship.
Far-away women on stage or writers from the pages of a book teaching me or preaching at me are great and I love that. I receive a lot of life from women of influence, I do. But I also need women in my real walking-around life teaching me with their own lives, living as testimonies to freedom and wholeness, as invitations for my own life.
Next year, I’ll be bringing a brand new little nursing baby with me – and hopefully a bikini.