Monday, March 19, 2012

The Cleavage Gap

By Sue Edwards

I was teaching a class of high-octane Christian women leaders on how to work with men in ministry. When the topic of appropriate attire surfaced, I could hardly keep from breaking out in laughter at the irony. Before me were women bemoaning the provocative way women dress these days, but four, yes, four, of them were showing enough cleavage to distract any man in our midst. I don't get the disconnect - the gap. Please know that I love these women dearly, and my intent is not to cause any sister to slink away in shame, but I love our brothers too.

I know good men are bothered by cleavage because, for our book Mixed Ministry, we interviewed many Christian men who told us how much any cleavage distracted them, that when just a bit of a woman is showing, a man's mind immediately goes to the whole thing. Not one man said, "It's ok, I'm used to it--no big deal." The men we interviewed were the men who will ultimately give women a place at the ministry table, or not. They are godly men who want to be faithful to their wives and to treat women as sisters in the workplace. And their united plea was for us to ask women to stop...and I've tried. But to little avail. About all I've accomplished is that guilty women, in my presence, keep grabbing the fabric of their blouses at the shoulders and pulling up, as if that would alleviate the issue. This tells me, on some level, they know, but not enough to purchase a tee or throw the offensive garment in the trash.

I don't expect immature believers, and certainly non believers, to dress modestly. But these are leaders, the ones who set the standard for others. I'm trying to get into the heads of these leaders who don't get the cleavage gap. What are they thinking? Maybe...

  • · It's impossible to buy stylish clothes today without showing cleavage, so I'm giving in.
  • · I've worked hard and long on this body, and, by golly, I'm going to show it off.
  • · My husband might secretly be drawn to other women if they show theirs, so I better show mine.
  • · I want to be loved and I'll never get a man's attention any other way.
  • · It's hot and I want to wear something cool.
  • · It's not my fault if men can't handle it. Women have been blamed too long for men's lust. I'll flaunt it just to show them, a similar attitude to feminist's bra burning back in the sixties.
  • · I'm too busy to be bothered by this issue. Men need to get over it.

I wonder if these women realize how much their insensitivity hurts our chances of being taken seriously by men. Seems to me when we show cleavage, we back up what men have said and thought about women for centuries. We care more about the power of our sexuality than we do about its effect on our brothers. We aren't thinking about the long term impact of our choices, just about how cute we look today. Or maybe it's too much trouble for busy women to assess the effect of the gap. That's understandable for immature women who don't know better. But not for leaders with far-reaching influence.

I thought about creating a workshop on "the gap", but women who attend would not be gappers. Confrontation embarrasses some offenders but I don't want to resort to storming around as the dress police. Rules are not the answer. Somehow we must find the root cause and help women uncover the reason for the gap in their personal thinking and actions. I'm befuddled when leaders flaunt the gap and then wonder why the glass ceiling hasn't shattered. I want to say, "Get a mirror."

I know most gappers would never cause a man to lust on purpose. I know they love Jesus with all their hearts. I guess they don't know how much they influence others, or maybe they just don't think through these issues. Whatever the reason, I have no solutions. It reminds me of the millions of messages that we taught on materialism through the years, and Christians simply ignored us. Materialism will be the indictment on the Baby-Boomer generation, but you can't blame preachers. They tried. I wonder what indictment will sadden leaders of this generation?

Dr. Sue Edwards specializes in ministry to women as Assistant Professor of Christian Education at Dallas Theological Seminary. Her books include Leading Women Who Wound, Mixed Ministry: Working Together as Brothers and Sisters in a Damaged Society.


  1. I think it's become so acceptable in our society that some women, particularly those who have never been taught differently, really do not see it as an issue. They're blind to it and when it is called to their attention, they're truly incredulous because they have no idea that there's anything wrong with it. A little education is in order for some. I know that I'm struck by women who show cleavage and a lot of it, especially those who would hold to a holiness doctrine, yet you can look right at their cleavage. Something is definitely wrong. I think in many ways we've bought into what's fashionable and have disconnected it from our faith.

  2. Truly excellent post, Sue. I also agree the serious indictment today about many issues is the disconnect between our faith and daily life.

  3. There is a young woman who loves the Lord on staff at our church. She works to help the needy who come for help at the church but she doesn't just give them a handout. She works hard to give them a hand up---and of course, Jesus.

    We go to a church that doesn't dress business for church. No body worries what others wear. At least I don't. But it bothers me that when she speaks in front of the body, she dresses down...wears flip-flops like the ones that you wear in the shower or when you are ten.

    The cleavage thing is a no brainer. I don't believe they don't know how their dress affects men. They just don't care. Like you said, they throw the responsibility on the man.

    I wish it didn't bother me that she stands and asks the body to join her in ministry in those shoes. But I heard a young lady who was leaving a position in a para-church ministry to go find her way in the world say, "I won't work anywhere I can't wear my flip flops." She hasn't found a job that was three or four years ago.

    Look stylish or look like you just got of bed. Which is worse?

    I am beginning to wonder is this more about me when I judge others choices about dressing for ministry?

  4. I think Sue left out one important thing. Most women who are married and over 30 do not dress to impress men. We dress to impress women so cleavage is often not even a part of our thinking.

  5. I have to disagree with the comment about women over 30 and married. I've seen cleavage in these women as well. I think some women think since they're married, they're not trying to attract a mate, but that doesn't mean you can dress any way you want. YOU may not be trying to attract anyone, but that doesn't mean men still won't look or be enticed.

  6. I agree with Pat. It is so acceptable in society. Almost every single TV show, every movie will have women with cleavage showing. It is like it is expected that a woman is going to show off her woo-woos (that's what my kids and I call that). And I do think men and women shouldn't blame women if men lust after them, BUT we shouldn't be a stumbling block either. I don't think there is any excuse for cleavage. I know some women who are very chesty will have to get creative but there are all sorts of cute t-shirts and cammis that can be worn under dresses and fancy blouses. Hey, the layered look is definitely in!

    Also, maybe there are some women who just crave that kind of attention -- they don't feel attractive so when a man looks at them in that way they feel special -- that is an insecurity issue that needs to be addressed.

  7. Thank you for this post! Cleavage is a big deal. Sometimes I've been caught... I look in the mirror, I do the bend-down test in my bathroom and it all seems fine... until I'm sitting across the table from someone and feel a 'breeze'. UGH.... So my test has changed. I check every possible direction and position. I wear it at home first... and if it passes great. If not... I use a modest mock.

    After finding that I just couldn't wear most tops - even T-shirts - and being in my menopause years so wearing two tops is simply out of the question... I came up with making Modest Mocks. I buy tops at the Thrift Shop, cut a triangle-ish shape out of the back, and pin or snap it in place. I wear one almost every day. Even when I'm home alone with my kids. (I have step-by-step instructions on my blog on how to make these:

    And about women over 30... I have to say that it doesn't end. Some friends of mine show cleavage on purpose because their husbands like it. No matter how often I say that mine doesn't or that I prefer they don't wear revealing clothing they honour their husband's wish. I struggle with that. When does one honour that if there are men who could really stumble in this area in the same room?

    The other time I've seen older women dress provocatively is when there seems to be a lack of intimacy and sexual romance within the marriage. It seems that women still want to know... 'Have I got what it takes?' And if the cleavage gives her the answer she wants, she'll keep wearing low tops. This is not a simple issue to find a quick solution for it seems.

    And I thank you for broaching the topic. It's a tough one... but you handled it very, very well. Bless you!

  8. Very well written with very good points. I definitely felt some conviction about my swimsuit...which I pin!!!! I think we should start a clothing company...who is with me???

  9. Thank you for this post! I thought that I was the only person frustrated by this. Wish that your post would go viral and really make women think about this :-)

  10. Thank you for addressing this issue, Sue. Your points were excellent and needed. I think some secular men might not notice a small amount of cleavage as much because of their exposure to worse things, but godly men in our church have protected their eyes and are more susceptible to its effects. Why should they sit in meetings with godly women and not be able to look at the directly because of their attire? I am a tall woman and sometimes I see more cleavage because I look down on women. A shirt might look fine when we look in the mirror and are not bending or sitting below someone. The test of an appropriate top must be rigorous as Carla mentioned but we also need to be bold enough to speak to a Christian sister about this topic...and listen if she speaks to us.

  11. Women show the cleavage because it works. It gets them dates, married and children. They do this because there is a shortage of single men in the church, and it gets them attention and eventually married. Have you not been in a married class recently? Have you been in a singles class lately? The modestly dressed ones are most likely to be in the singles class. Yes, they get passed over, even by the "godly" men who are quite satisfied with women who are godly enough but not so godly that they know better.

    In the last year, I have visited a church in which the associate pastor introduced his wife. She was wearing a nice tube top, tight jeans and high heels. Almost a year later, I visited a new Sunday school class taught by a different associate pastor and his wife. She wore a nice tube top, too, and mini skirt. The Christian women made excuses for her - she just wanted to be attractive for her husband they said. Never mind that all the men were oogling at her. And she enjoyed it.

    Women like these set the example, and the women know it works, that is why they do it. They don't get passed over for marriage, and they get the attention.

    By the way, this occurred at a large bible church. And the men? Dallas Theological Seminary grads.

    1. But you know, Anonymous, it doesn't have to be that way. I just watched a commercial on t.v. for a local window company, and the spokeswoman was wearing a very attractive blue top. It had a scoop neck and showed NO cleavage. It got my attention because I was thinking, "Here we go, another scantily clad woman", but she wasn't! And it was a really attractive top. Of course, I know nothing about this woman, but apparently the company didn't feel the need to sex their product up or dumb down to our culture. Since people seem to follow them, I just wish some celebrity would buck the trends and start wearing flatter, fashionable clothes that didn't show off everything. It really can be done. And if a man isn't interested in me because I'm not showing skin, I'm not interested in him. Because that tells me he's shallow and there's a lot more to relationships than what a person looks like.

  12. Hot topic, thak you for sharing it Sue.Whatever the culture, wherever you live, whatever the age (over 30)... the most important thing about what I am wearing is to get in front of a mirror and to wounder if it gives glory to the Lord. In my mind, at the beginning God killed animal to make Adam and Eve not naked, so it is better to ask myself if what I wear can be an obstale about what I preach.

  13. Great post! I don't have much to show (and I wouldn't show it anyway), but I certainly don't want to come before the Lord one day and have Him judge me for causing a brother to stumble. I even cover up when my teenage son comes in to say goodnight.