“Don’t Think of Pink Elephants”–The Void in Our Modesty Talks

What happens when I tell you NOT to think of pink elephants?You remember that terrible dream sequence in Dumbo when our big-eared hero accidentally imbibes? With all the creepy, morphing pink elephants that sashay about and play oboe on their trunks? Every now and then I still catch myself humming “Pink Elephants on Parade” in the dead spaces of my day. Seriously. It’s like my own special purgatory.

No, pink elephants are really quite weird and psychedelic, and I don’t want to lead you down a path that makes pink elephants sound fun. So stop thinking about pink elephants. Just stop, right now, okay? Good.

Now that we’re done with that subject, what’s on your mind? Go ahead, say it out loud.

Seriously? But I told you NOT to think about pink elephants!

What you just experienced can be explained/described by ironic process theory and thought suppression psychology. The idea is simple–the more I tell you to just stop it, the more you can’t help but wander back to that forbidden idea of the freaking pink elephant. Our concentration is sometimes even greater on the subjects we’re NOT supposed to think about than the subjects we’re trying to focus on. Weird, isn’t it? The human mind is a strange and wonderful place.

I bring up this bit of pop psychology after reading this blog post by a curvy lady recounting her experience in and with the church, and recently enjoying Dorothy Sayers’ excellent wit in Are Woman Human? (by the way, it’s a wonderfully entertaining piece that focuses on our identity as people and children of God first). Because, you see, it’s all part of the same thing: how we communicate and determine the value of our fellow human beings.

The church has tried so hard to help us avoid the pitfalls of sex misappropriated in advertising and relationships. And I want to affirm that that’s a worthy goal. But the outworking I grew up with was a strange inversion of the cultural obsession; we weren’t exactly encouraged to become ascetics. Rather, we assumed the world was hypersexual, and that “boys and teenagers only think about one thing” was a valid premise for those both inside and outside the church. We didn’t think there was any changing that. And so we fashioned a response–a “purity culture”–that made us hyperaware of sexuality as something to be restrained. Well, restrained “until the right season.”

Remember, don’t think about pink elephants.

Do you see where this is going? Culturally, we perceived sexuality as liberally embraced on all sides as the paragon of pleasure and happiness. As a church, we responded by talking about why our sexuality should be tamed and controlled at all costs. But the conversation was always, always about sex as the foundation. We called the world’s ways “immodest.” We called this response “modesty.”

For instance, take the response to the highschool friendships with any guy friend I had. I was often defending the platonic nature of the friendship, or hearing that I shouldn’t go to “deep” in subject matter or time invested with such-and-such a friend lest we become emotionally compromised. In short, guy friends were a Big Deal. Not deliberately, perhaps, but they were.

I was actively encouraged to observe each guy friend to learn the qualities I would or wouldn’t want in a husband. My mentors thought this methodology encouraged me not to get too attached to any one boy… but ironically, observing every guy for his husband-or-not qualities only reinforced my tendencies as a boy-crazy, hopeless romantic. I often couldn’t get past the male/female puzzle to focus on the actual conversation. Because, after all, we were both teenagers, which meant we were both controlling that “one thing” in the back of our minds, right? Maybe it was a chicken-or-egg scenario, but in retrospect, purity culture certainly didn’t help elevate my thoughts.

Pink elephants. Don’t think about them.

Parents, you know your kids and I don’t. But may I suggest that teaching your kids to “guard their hearts” immediately puts them on the defensive, focused on every potentially flirty move with a heightened awareness of the other party’s genitals. Focused on warding off a potential attack, perhaps–but focused on a person’s sexuality before anything else. Your daughter will have trouble being “just friends” with the opposite gender when you teach her to evaluate every boy for his boyness and not his personhood, the imago dei imprinted on living soul.

In the Facebook conversation following the Double D posting, a friend who grew up in a similar church culture made this observation:

It seems that the biggest problem [in evangelical churches] has been the negative emphasis on “avoiding the sin”–rather than a positive way of viewing sexuality and an emphasis on respecting a woman as a unique person made in God’s image. What if we completely abandoned the language that is now pounded into guys, “don’t lust!” and into girls, “don’t dress immodestly, don’t cause men to stumble,” and instead focused on teaching boys the positive thing that modesty teaching fails to get across? I.e. for boys, how to respect women, how to build healthy friendships with girls. And for girls, how to value their bodies and how to dress in ways that enhance their beauty. Christians tend to fall into the same trap in other areas of morality–emphasizing the negative instead of trying to set out the positive thing in all its beauty.

I couldn’t agree more.

In these conversations, we’ve made ourselves hyperaware of a perceived cultural immodesty, and have striven to negate that. But we’ve gone so much further than we meant to. We’ve zeroed in on the very thing we tell our kids to ignore. How in the world can we expect the church NOT to think about pink elephants when the whole conversation is framed around their persistent existence?

I think we’ve gotten it backwards. Instead of teaching people to treat each other with respect, and to interact with each other humbly and harmoniously as children of God, we’ve taught our children to be afraid of themselves and afraid of the opposite gender because we spend so much time talking about the beast within. We’ve focused on what not to do, and left the application for the tail end of the modesty talks. Is it any wonder our kids get it backwards too?

Evangelicals are largely missing a comprehensive theology of the body, and we’re paying for it now. But we can do better. We know that God redeems the whole person–and the whole modesty/sexuality/responsibility question is included. I say all this hopefully, because I think the evangelical church is waking up to a deficiency, and realizing that we do have better answers to communicate. We see the voids left by purity culture. And we’re remembering that the Incarnation gives hope for this too.

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One thought on ““Don’t Think of Pink Elephants”–The Void in Our Modesty Talks

  1. Your post wasn’t nearly as controversial as you made it out to be 😉
    I completely agree. It’s a Romans 7 issue: Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (7:7b-10).
    So many “evangelical” churches only teach their children the law without the gospel, focusing only on good behavior versus redeemed hearts. We need the gospel every day because every day we can’t stop thinking about pink elephants 🙂 Praise God that we have a Savior who has already fulfilled the law for us!

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