High-heeled shoes for 10-year-olds. String bikinis for children who’ve not yet hit puberty. Shirts with slogans that promote “sexiness” to young children.
Dannah Gresh and Suzy Weibel, founders of Secret Keeper Girl, point to these as signs of our culture’s modesty and sexualization crisis, and they believe a mother’s relationship with her daughter is of utmost importance in fixing it.
Secret Keeper Girl (SKG), an evangelical Christian ministry aimed at girls ages 8 to 12, publishes and hosts books, devotions, trips, and tours. The group believes in Christian purity and modesty—women need to save their “secrets” (their bodies) for their husbands at marriage. To accomplish this, they promote loving Jesus, being close to one’s mothers, and dressing modestly.
SKG’s recent Crazy Hair Tour came to my town on November 7. It was being hosted at my old church, and was sponsored by the local Christian music station. I decided to go.
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The night kicked off as one would expect, with fun, energetic games and songs, before diving into the kid-oriented lessons and memorized Bible verses. The Virginia-based all-woman group One Girl Nation sang and helped out with the event throughout the night.
The first thing I noticed was the pink. It was everywhere—absolutely everywhere. The stage was covered by a large set featuring the SKG logo in bright shades of pink, and many of the girls in attendance, most of them skewing younger than 10, were wearing the color.
The second thing I noticed was the ableism. The theme of the evening was “choosing to be crazy for God,” based on a verse from 2 Corinthians (translation from The Message):
If I acted crazy, I did it for God; if I acted overly serious, I did it for you. Christ’s love has moved me to such extremes. His love has the first and last word in everything we do.
The idea is a common one in Christianity—separating yourself from people in the rest of the world by not going along with their sinful ways and being willing to be called a “freak” or “crazy.” However, the entire evening was based around the idea that being “crazy” was a choice that religious people made. Such an ethic contributes to the erasure of people who struggle with mental illness and the idea that they are genuinely “crazy.” This use of “crazy” erases people like me, who has found much solace and normality in finally treating an ongoing anxiety and depressive disorder and who took a Xanax shortly before attending the event.
Beauty is a hot topic in evangelicalism, and the Secret Keeper Girl show was no exception. The one bright spot within their discussion of beauty was an affirmation of non-feminine gender presentation. Suzy Weibel told a story of how she was a softball player and an athlete for many years; she loved it and was good at it. But she gave it up in her mid-teens because she was told that it wasn’t attractive to boys. She didn’t play again until she was in her 20s. Weibel has short curly brown hair and wears clothing that, while modest, doesn’t align with traditionally feminine clothes—no skirts, very little makeup, and almost no jewelry. It is helpful and good for little girls in the church to see a model of feminine expression that is not all dresses and pink. However, as the evening ended, there was a “fashion show” that undercut any good that may have come from Weibel’s speech in the first half. In seeking to be “not of this world,” in Christian-speak, the speakers discussed 1 Timothy 2:9-10 (NIV):
I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
There’s a certain irony in this verse being used at an event where young girls were encouraged to show up with elaborate hairstyles.
What’s more, many Biblical scholars have read these verses to be about inordinate displays of class and wealth—fine jewelry and hair being ways to say “I have money!” in Biblical times. As such, “modesty” in that context isn’t so much about not showing skin, but rather preventing division because of classism.
This isn’t how Secret Keeper Girl read it, though. Jordan Smith, one of the evening’s hosts, suggested that these verses mean that we need to be beautiful from the inside out, that chasing after Jesus and working on the “fruits of the Spirit” will make us more beautiful and attractive. The verse, Smith said, was meant to “push us into goodness, not into making a bunch of rules. But, the verse does mention clothing.”
What followed was a rapidfire round of “Truth or Bare” tests for whether or not one’s clothing is showing too much skin. “God wants nothing of how we dress to distract from the good things we are doing for Him,” Smith said.
Instead of wearing short skirts like the “mean girls” at school, the Christian girl puts on leggings or wears pants. In the “raise and praise” test, the young girl’s belly should not show when she raises her hands above her head to praise God; if it does, she needs to go to the boys’ clothing section and get a long tank top to layer. And if you put your hand palm down on your chest under your collarbone, you should only have shirt showing below your pinky finger.
When Smith asked the crowd, “Is it ever OK for a Secret Keeper Girl to wear a low-cut top?” the crowd said “NO!”
The organizers then trotted out girls ranging in age from 6 to 12 for a “modesty fashion show,” meant to demonstrate that you can look good while being modest.
For all its affirmation of little girls’ intelligence and humor, it’s hard to get past the cognitive dissonance inherent in Secret Keeper Girl’s modesty doctrine: We shouldn’t care about how the world perceives us, unless we’re talking about our clothing, in which case that’s the only thing that matters.
At 6 years old, children don’t need to be worrying about whether or not their shirt shows “cleavage.” And they shouldn’t be taught that wearing a short skirt is a sign of being “ungodly.” This marriage of spirituality and misogynistic social mores is a dangerous cocktail that teaches women to fear their own bodies and fear each other. It teaches these young girls that the clothing they wear is just as important as who they are as a person. In spite of the earlier messages about “accepting who you are,” the resounding lesson of the evening is that how you present yourself physically matters much more than your attitude or beliefs.
Much of the problem with these modesty rules is not only the mixed messages it gives Christian women, but how it sets up white, thin, able-bodied women as the ideal. The physical tests of clothing challenges—raising your arms, bending over, sitting down cross-legged—are dependent upon the girl being able-bodied. Other tests—the palm on chest, for example—are dependent on the person being thin and flat-chested. God help the girls who grow up to have 36DDs.
Such teaching is also based on classism. The sold-out event, which cost $15 per person, contained advice to “just go buy some leggings or pants or a new tank top.” It seems to have not occurred to these leaders that their modesty teachings can only be put in practice by those who can afford to go shopping frequently.
The group also does Christian charity, and one of its charitable acts is taking the Secret Keeper Girl tour into “inner-city New York”—the Bronx and Brooklyn—for free. It’s hard to see a campaign led by suburban white women to teach “inner-city” kids not to wear short skirts as anything but condescending.
The Secret Keeper Girl campaign has some good intentions—the organizers want young girls to realize their worth and to affirm girls as they are. But they fall into a trap that plagues many gendered evangelical charities; trying not to sexualize while emphasizing a modesty perspective ends up promoting superficial rules at the cost of a Godly perspective. And by targeting women, the group itself feeds into the legacy of patriarchal rules and oppression.