Heidi Stevens Tribune News Service
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Columnist Heidi Stevens takes a look at body positivity and "the role of trusted grown-ups to help kids make sense of the swirling, contradictory messages that surround and often shame them."
It started with an apology.
Bryce Brewer, a longtime youth pastor in Spokane Valley, Washington, hopped on Facebook after a shopping trip with his fiance and her 10-year-old daughter.
“I have issued the ridiculous ultimatum to my female students at summer camp, ‘ONE PIECE SWIMSUITS ONLY,’ ” Brewer wrote on July 11. “First of all I am sorry.”
He had just watched his soon-to-be stepdaughter struggle to find a swimsuit that was comfortable, cute and satisfactory to a grown-up’s definition of appropriate.
“It was hard and it sucked,” Brewer wrote.
Depending on your body type, a one-piece can tug and pinch and ride up in all the wrong places — no fun for kids who want to jump and swim and run with abandon.
“I am sorry I laid the weight of purity on a girls swimsuit while she was swimming, and not on the boys responsibility to not be gross,” he wrote. “I am sorry that we have deemed a young woman’s body as something that ‘needs to be covered’ and let young men’s bodies be ok to be seen. I am sorry I ever let this be an item of discussion, usually lead by men, at any youth leader meeting.”
Some 97,000 shares later, Brewer’s been applauded, exalted and called every invective you can conjure — and a few you probably can’t.
“I have pretty thick skin,” Brewer told me by phone. “But this is new stuff for me.”
Some readers took him to task for veering from scripture. Others accused him of failing to celebrate modesty. Still others took issue with “gross” to characterize adolescent attraction. (More on that in a bit.)
But Brewer didn’t set out to write the perfect statement. He set out to write a humble statement.
“People know me now from 500 words,” he said. “If that’s my legacy when I leave this earth, I’m OK with that. If my legacy is apologizing for having missteps, that’s a great legacy.”
I called Brewer because I wanted to ask him about the role of trusted grown-ups to help kids make sense of the swirling, contradictory messages that surround and often shame them.
In the weeks since Brewer’s post, Norway’s beach handball players were fined for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms. Olivia Breen, a Paralympic world champion for Britain, meanwhile, was reprimanded for wearing competition bottoms an official deemed “too revealing.”
If girls and young women are looking for a lesson in that mess, they’ll find a few.
Whatever you put on your body will be wrong. It will be so wrong, in fact, that someone official will punish you. This will be true whether you’re a middle school girl in leggings or an Olympic athlete in the wrong shorts. What you do with your body is infinitely more important than what you put on it. But someone, somewhere will always disagree.
Brewer’s Facebook post struck me as a good faith effort to start a dialogue — informed not by dogma, but by the experience of someone he loves — about some of the factors that got us here.
“A lot of us, and I include myself, we come in thinking we have all the answers,” he said. “How do we walk in a way that’s wise and look at things differently for different situations? Just saying, ‘That’s the way it’s always been’ is the most ridiculous statement.”
Brewer’s mother is a sexual assault survivor.
“I grew up in a home where we were very aware of issues that go along with rape and sexualization,” he said. “I grew up with a strong mother and a very involved dad who supported my mom through all the ups and downs of dealing with that experience.”
His mom’s trauma informs his ministry.
“I want to create a safe space,” he said. “I want to protect people. But sometimes in our attempt to protect people, we unintentionally hurt them. That’s the body shaming piece.”
He worries he fed a narrative that women are responsible for men’s behavior.
“‘The woman made me do it’ is as old as Adam and Eve,” he said. “I can’t believe as Christians we’ve perpetuated that lie. God never says to the man, ‘The woman made you sin.’ Adam comes up with that excuse. ‘The woman you gave me made me sin.’ Adam passed the buck. We have men who should be leading in the Christian church who are still passing the buck instead of saying, ‘I’m responsible for my thoughts and actions.’”
Brewer ended his post with a bang.
“I am sorry if you felt sexualized by us telling you to cover up. I am sorry I didn’t teach boys to be men, and laid that responsibility on young women.
Female students — Wear a swimsuit that lets you have fun. Male students — stop being disgusting and control yourself. Youth pastors (male especially) — stop being chauvinist and making female students feel bad for having breasts. Christians — live like Jesus.”
Many readers took issue with Brewer calling his male students “disgusting.” It bugged me too.
I’d much rather young men hear that attraction is a normal, healthy part of adolescence. That there’s no shame in it. That what you do with that attraction is the important part. That you’re only half of any intimate equation, and respect and enthusiastic consent need to be at the center of every encounter.
But I’m not a youth pastor. I’m also not interested in filtering every perspective through a purity lens to make sure it lines up with what I believe, or what I would tell my kids.
I’m not raising parrots. I’m raising humans who are figuring out how to live with and relate to and lift up other humans. I’m still figuring out that stuff too.
Brewer’s post strikes me as a road map. As we navigate a pandemic that reminds us, among other things, our fates are linked. As some parents agitate to hide America’s history of racism from their children. As cable pundits and politicians urge us to deny uncomfortable truths rather than grapple with them.
I like Brewer’s approach better. Let’s talk about the past. Let’s own the parts we’re not proud of. Let’s forge a better, fairer way forward. Let’s grant ourselves some grace when we fumble along the way.
It started with an apology. We can take it someplace powerful. ____ Heidi Stevens is a Tribune News Service columnist. You can reach her at [email protected], find her on Twitter @heidistevens13 or join her Heidi Stevens' Balancing Act Facebook group. ____ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.