Nineteen-year-old phenom Billie Eilish has taken the music industry by storm. A quirky personality and captivating life story have endeared her to the public, and her signature green hair and baggy clothes set her apart in the hyper-sexualized music industry. But her image seemingly changed with her recent appearance on the cover of Vogue. Gone is her oversized clothing. Instead, she is sporting various provocative outfits. For some, the transformation is a victory for female empowerment and liberation; for others, it’s yet another example of sexual objectification by the entertainment industry machine.
As a male, I do not presume to understand a woman’s experience navigating the pressures of today’s beauty standards. Plenty of godly women are speaking out on the issue, and I will happily defer to their wisdom. I wade tentatively into this minefield of a topic only because there is one aspect of the discussion that I believe is being largely overlooked amid the noise of the backlash. I’m not concerned with what Eilish chooses to wear (or not wear). To expect any non-Christian pop star to serve as a role model for Christian values is unwise. I am more troubled by some of the responses to her decision and how they might be contributing to the problem rather than offering a meaningful solution to it. As Christians, we can exert great energy criticizing the harmful influence of secular philosophies on important topics such as sexuality, but it is also profitable to evaluate our own influence and approach to the issue.
Standards and Double Standards
Christians tend to have double standards regarding pop culture. Christians who use their celebrity platform to share a Christian worldview are courageous and praiseworthy, while unbelievers espousing secular worldviews are condemned. Preachy faith-based films are celebrated, while preachy secular films are scorned. If we are not prudent, Christians can become a reflection of the very thing we despise and resist.
I believe this same tendency is on display to a certain degree in the current Eilish conversation. While Eilish’s personal choices are largely inconsequential to the Church, I think the conversation surrounding them shines a light on a wider issue relevant to the faith community. The reason some people are disappointed in Eilish is not simply because they think she is conforming to the sexualized entertainment industry but because she is no longer conforming to conservative modesty ideals (that she never truly shared).
Non-conformity becomes a flavor of conformity. A rigorous purity culture becomes an inverted reflection of the reckless sexual revolution. Each side operates by a different guidebook, but both demand unwavering orthodoxy to their prescribed standards and demonstrate a ruthless willingness to resort to bully tactics to enforce their code. In both cases, the subject becomes an object.
To be clear, it is not the Christian values of sexual purity and modesty at fault. But the extra-biblical regulations and codes often used to enforce these values can be harmful. Christians are quick to condemn secular culture for using shame and pressure to coerce women to buy into its sexual liberation agenda, but we should be equally vigilant to ensure that the Church is not inadvertently relying on similar tactics to impose our own version of sexual conformity.
Purity Culture and Female Objectification
Legalistic purity culture rightfully seeks to oppose a secular culture that turns women into sexual objects, but it often ends up validating that very message. Women are considered sexual objects, and thus must be policed and shamed into concealing their bodies lest they become a temptation for male eyes. This tendency was amplified during the #MeToo movement when many males were quick to blame the rampant sexual abuses toward women on a lack of female modesty. “Are we really surprised?” they’d ask, like Adam holding an apple core and pointing the finger of blame to Eve.
Growing up in church youth groups, I recall only one example (a 30-minute seminar at summer camp) where pornography was discussed, whereas the issue of female modesty was a frequent conversation. Likewise, despite attending several great churches, I don’t remember anyone ever confronting me and asking if I’d felt tempted by pornographic content, whereas my wife (who embraced modesty even prior to her teenage conversion) and her female friends were routinely policed for their dress, right down to a matter of hair-splitting inches. My experience may not be the same as everyone’s, but I’ve witnessed it in enough settings and heard enough testimonies to know that it is not an uncommon one.
The disproportionate emphasis on a woman’s responsibility regarding sexual purity and a magnified focus on the female body, despite being well-meaning, can be an equally harmful form of female objectification. The unbelieving world says, “Women are sexual objects, so embrace and flaunt it!” Legalistic purity culture can seem to say, “Women are sexual objects, so hide and repress it!”
Of course, I’m not suggesting that there shouldn’t be any clothing regulations in certain circumstances or that the way a person dresses is inconsequential. Modesty and sexual purity are extremely important—for both males and females—and should be taught and affirmed regularly in the Church. My point is simply that the way we teach, affirm, and instill these values also matters.
Consider Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery (John 8). Both the Pharisees and Jesus spoke against sexual sin that day. The religious leaders relied on stones and condemnations; Jesus showed grace and mercy. The religious leaders offered only guilt and shame, but Jesus declared to the woman, “Go and sin no more.” He had something better and more liberating to offer: a sexual ethic that would set her free from a lifetime of bondage and disappointment.
Honest Conversations > Haughty Condemnations
The Church should absolutely resist the doctrine that hyper-sexuality is the path toward female empowerment. But a legalistic culture of shame and guilt is not a healthy solution. Jesus came to bring freedom, but we often dip back into the Pharisees’ playbook and hold people accountable to a “law” rather than to Christ.
Browse the comments section on any article or internet post about Eilish’s Vogue photoshoot and vile words like “slut,” “whore,” “harlot,” and “tramp” appear in abundance. These comments were obviously not all posted by Christians, but I’ve known many Christian females who routinely agonized over the width of their tank top straps out of fear of receiving similar judgments and being branded as “worldly” (a reality that, as a male, I have never experienced).
Rather than rushing to place a scarlet letter on every female who steps out of line of stringent purity ideals, Christians do well to examine why eschewing modesty is considered by many to be liberating, and why the version of sexuality Christians are trying to enforce appears so oppressive. Whenever the Church is forced to use the unbelieving world’s shame and bully tactics to impose conformity, it is likely a sign that there is something wrong with the message. There is beauty in a Christian understanding of sexuality that goes deeper than merely opposing the degrading secular alternative.
Sexuality is arguably the defining cultural conversation of our day. Celebrities in the spotlight, such as Eilish, are more of a symptom than a cause. Society is asking a lot of important questions and wrestling with the meaning of sexuality. The Church must be an active participant in these conversations. But if we want anyone to pay attention to what we have to say about these important topics, we must start by listening and then having real and honest conversations that go beyond haughty condemnations. We cannot shame and guilt people into a godly character.