Sidebar: Boisterous Opposition, Then Theological Calm - by Kate Ott
Gathered in the youth room with all eyes on me, I open the envelope from the nonprofit mission trip organization. It contains work assignments and other info we’ve been waiting for. The older teens will work at a construction site, while the younger teens lead a children’s camp.
After the excitement of these first details passes, I flip to the last page to read the dress code rules. The list gets specific: no tank tops, no exposed undergarments, shorts must be longer than fingertip length.
Most of the group erupts in boisterous opposition. What do you mean no tank tops, it’s going to be 90 degrees there! You can’t always control whether your bra strap shows or not. They don’t even make shorts for girls our age that are fingertip length.
And, finally, the sharpest critique: All those rules are about policing what girls wear and look like.
I respond with a bit of levity both to prove their point and to re-establish a manageable noise level in the room. “Well, I’m pretty sure that the boys are not allowed to wear spaghetti strap tank tops or short shorts either.” (Pause to let them all groan.) “But I completely understand your point. These specific clothing rules are gender-based and specific to girls.”
Instead of telling the kids to accept the embedded gender hypocrisy, I invited a discussion: Why do the rules seem unfair? How do we negotiate between different social contexts based on clothing and religious beliefs? If our bodies are part of God’s good creation, how does the clothing we choose communicate that we honor our bodies, are grateful for them, and respect others’ different bodies? After a fascinating conversation about these gendered negotiations, we came up with a few rules: 1. Clothing should be chosen based on safety and comfort.
2. It should reflect an understanding of and respect for the cultural and religious customs of the host region.
3. Most importantly, it should always reflect an appreciation for the gift of our bodies as created by God. That doesn’t mean we have to cover them up – or flaunt them as objects.
For those working in the Bible camp (not doing construction), these rules meant thicker strap tank tops for boys or girls and a minimum length for girls’ shorts (3-inch inseam). These adjustments were attentive to the weather, the activities of Bible camp, their own comfort level, and a thoughtful negotiation of who they are as embodied people created in God’s image.