I don’t know where you live in the world, but in the state of North Carolina, we’re experiencing an epidemic. Parents are hysterical. Small children’s eyes widen at the pure horror, pointing fingers and rousing parents from their naps, nestled beneath beach umbrellas. Teens up and down the coast are nervous too, constantly tugging at the edges of their clothing.
Would you believe it, bikini bottoms are shrinking!
For every head turned and eyebrow raised, there’s a spouse ready to smack their partner on the arm for tracking “eye candy” down the shoreline. We love to blame men for noticing, but women can’t help but to double-take at shirtless beachgoers, or to notice muscles beneath form-fitting tees and skinny jeans. No man or woman is completely immune to reacting to the human form.
There’s a lot being said about modesty in the Christian world—from videos advertising “appropriate” bathing suits, professional garb, and church wear—to methods for “bouncing” eye gazes away from questionable scenes on TV or from scantily clad men and women around town. The Bible has this to say, “… everyone who looks at a woman (or man) with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her (or him) in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-29)
It’s a well-known verse, but is it that simple? Is faithfulness to a spouse the only issue that should prevent us from allowing our gazes to linger? I propose that there are a few other issues we should consider.
Activists working to combat sexual assault, harassment, rape culture, and stereotyping based on appearance have used a staple term for years: objectification. It means to reduce a person to an inanimate object, as something to be used rather than someone to be cared for. Researchers have proposed in the past that, when we become enticed by exposed skin, common sense is thrown out the window. We become robotic in our decision-making, viewing people as expendable based on our own desires.
While that’s only part of the story, brain studies related to visual stimuli and pornography addiction have influenced public opinion. Morally, communities still rally against defining men and women as solely sexual objects (at least in public). Even churches, grabbing hold of these discoveries, have become more comfortable using science to reiterate biblical principles such as, “Your eye is like a lamp, providing light for the whole body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light.” (Matthew 6:22)
In response to concerns, religious leaders created rules. For example:
- How long a man should be able to talk to a woman without “supervision”
- Leaving doors open while working
- Keeping account of website visits
- Whether or not staff should travel or stay in hotels alone
- Hiring guidelines, based on gender considerations for travel, isolated office environments, etc.
The accompanying Matthew Henry commentary to Matthew 4:27-19 says this about lust and desire:
“Lust is conscience baffled or biased: biased if it says nothing against the sin; baffled, if it prevails not in what it says… feeding the eye with the sight of the forbidden fruit… but looking till I do lust, or looking to gratify the lust, where further satisfaction cannot be obtained.”
A baffled and biased conscience, we’ve all experienced it at some point. But if we can all agree that eye candy leads to some form of lust or need for gratification, then we can also ask the question, “Why?” The easy answers are biology, natural attraction, sin, and fallen nature—the typical Christian response. Another reason is culture. We might consider the ways we’re raising kids to view one another as possible romantic partners.
From the beginnings of our elementary school experience, pressure is put on children in relationships. “Is he your boyfriend?” we ask. “Do you think she’s pretty? Are you going to get married?” we prod. Children naturally notice likeness, difference, and beauty in others, but perhaps we’re ascribing and encouraging attraction in their relationships before they’re ready. Innocent and edifying friendships are marred by expectation or repulsion by the opposite sex all too soon for our young people.
In monogamy and Christianity there’s a reality: Every man or woman who accepts salvation is a brother or sister in Christ, which deems all other people as un-romantic companions. And yet, we’re conditioned to consider practically everyone as an amorous possibility. We can’t help but to have to an opinion about another person’s appearance, and yet doing so biases our relational worldview, often at a detriment. Is it any wonder that flesh seems to be fair game in the casual nature by which we talk about it?
A University of Maryland and Yale study (2011) cited that the naked or partially covered body doesn’t cause our minds to objectify the person being looked at. Instead, Kurt Gray and colleagues argued that we simply stereotype them. This means that we categorize people by the way their appearance makes us feel.
Participants of the study looked at pictures of people covered by various degrees of clothing. Then they answered questions about the character of each person. While both men and women wearing revealing clothing were seen as less capable, less intelligent, and open to new experiences (more feeling), they were also seen as being vulnerable—in need of protection.
In addition, those assuming sexually suggestive poses were even more likely to be seen as such. It wasn’t so much the skin exposure of these participants, but the willingness to be seen as “sexy” which drastically reduced their ability to be taken seriously. On the flip side, people who were modestly clothed were described by poll-takers as achievement-oriented, calculating, capable, and able to exert self-control.
It’s true, fully clothed people have the capability to carry themselves in ways that seem “sexy,” “available,” and ultimately, unreliable. Possibly more important than just our clothing choices, could be the behaviors we exhibit to the world. Flirting, using nonverbal communication that suggests availability, and physical closeness can be just as effective at pigeonholing a person than solely their appearance.
So are we unfaithful for indulging in a little “eye candy?” According to the Word, it seems pretty straightforward. But we’re missing the big picture if we don’t ask ourselves these questions:
- Are we willing to mindfully stereotype and sacrifice the honor of men and women for the sake of our temporary gratification?
- Will we ascribe characteristics to people before we even know who they are?
- Will we see people for the uniquely beautiful and capable humans God created them to be?
- How do we want to present ourselves to the world as believers? Capable? Impulsive? Emotion-driven?
The choice is ours, every single day.
Please pray with me:
Thank you God for creating us to connect and to have compassion for one another. Your creation is a marvel. We submit our hearts and minds to you so that we can honor one another, as each of us are made in Your image and for Your purpose. Help us to see our brothers and sisters as family, and magnify the attraction and love for the one you’ve set aside for us in marriage. We trust You to give us discipline and self-control in all circumstances, as no temptation can rival Your faithful provision. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
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