Take a quick look at just about any 8-year-old girl, and you're likely to see a baby face looking back at you. But the "baby" behind that face is hardly the naïve child that a typical pre-teen girl was several decades ago. Today's pre-teen girls have been exposed to more pressure than most of their mothers experienced in their teen years. And a result has been a confused and confusing scenario for Christian girls and their parents-mothers and fathers who are trying to help their daughters navigate their way through some of the most difficult years of their lives.
One of the most common ways girls cope with their body image, according to author and youth worker Dannah Gresh, is dressing provocatively. It's become an area where Christian parents tend to make concessions to their daughters, either because the parents don't want to fight them on every issue or because the parents themselves-especially mothers-fail to recognize the dangers inherent in showing too much flesh.
For girls between the ages of 8 and 12, the number one concern is body image. On the surface, that may seem innocuous compared to more serious issues like teen pregnancy. But mental health professionals and youth workers know better, because they are well aware that poor self-esteem, coupled with misguided attempts to deal with body image, can lead to the kind of behavior that results in other problems, like early sexuality.
"They don't understand how a guy's mind works," says Gresh, author of Secret Keeper: The Delicate Power of Modesty and founder of Pure Freedom, a ministry that helps young people pursue sexual purity. "In a girl's mind, there's nothing wrong with dressing immodestly. You have to explain that for men all it takes is a glance for their [sexual] body system to be enacted." Furthermore, she says, parents need to make sure their daughters understand that guys cannot control the resulting physiological response.
But what's "immodest"? That's a question Gresh hears frequently. Instead of giving girls a set of rules to follow, she points them to a fashion test she developed with her own daughter called "Truth or Bare?" (The test is posted on Gresh's ministry website, www.purefreedom.org.) "We'll ask something like, 'Can you raise your hand to praise the Lord without showing off your belly?" Gresh says, bringing up another important point: The eye is created to complete an incomplete image. So while girls see nothing wrong with revealing their midriff or wearing spaghetti straps, boys see all that skin and complete the image-not by mentally adding clothes but subtracting them.
Gresh's concern for teen girls was fueled in part by her own unwise choices as a teenager, which she wrote about in her best-selling book And the Bride Wore White. Even more significant, though, was the birth of her daughter ten years ago. "I delved into the science of sexuality because I wanted to be able to mentor my own daughter," she says. "A lot of Christian resources lack an explanation of the practical reasons of why we should wait [to have sex]. They don't approach the subject from the standpoint of the benefits they'll experience if they wait, and I wanted to do that."
Several years ago, Gresh began encouraging the girls in her church to live a life of purity. Her message eventually grew into a full-time ministry. Today, she's reaping the rewards of her early efforts. "I've been attending the girls' weddings in the last couple of years and watching them walk down the aisle-and having them whisper things in my ear like, 'You encouraged me to wait, and now I have to go to this stupid reception!' Those have been moments of great reward," she says with a smile.