The Cleavage Gap

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 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 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 feminists' 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 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 and I hate to nag. But this issue 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?

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 leader's flaunt the gap and then wonder why the glass ceiling hasn't shattered. I want to say, "Get a mirror."  Any answers? Help!

Dr. Edwards is Assistant Professor of Christian Education (Specialization: Women's Studies) at Dallas Theological Seminary and holds degrees from Trinity University, DTS, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She is the author of New Doors in Ministry to Women, A Fresh Model for Transforming Your Church, Campus, or Mission Field and Women's Retreats, A Creative Planning Guide. She has 30 years experience in Bible teaching, directing women's ministry, retreat and conference speaking, training teams and teachers, and writing curriculum. Married to David for 34 years, she especially enjoys extended family gatherings and romping with her four grandchildren.


  • Meagan D Boone

    cleavage article !

    Dear Ms. Edwards-


    Thank you for writing this article.  I am the mother of 4 boys.  My oldest is 21, I didn't go thru issues like I have gone through with my 3 youngest, 12, 11, and 8.  They are very visual, and I had no idea, what or how it affected them to see girls/women hanging out all over the place at a summer theme park a few years ago.  They were asking me to to do something about it…imagine that.  They knew in their heart it wasn't right.  

    It's really shameful that woman of God, don't understand what goes on in men's mind on purpose or not, when they dress to be "seen."  I am a woman and it offends me to see cleavage!  you know.  My husband and I are in ministry, and I am very conscious of how I dress, I think it is a matter or prayer-and women taking to heart what and how men are.

    Magazines:  My kids are very conscious of all the skin that is showing, and will not look, we have trained them to Bounce their eyes…and I usually get to the register and turn them around before they get a glimpse…I have gone to store manager's and politely told them about inappropriate magaiznes at the registers for children to see or read…and the most of them have been obliging…We are wanting to put together a "campaign" of sorts to write/call our local grocery stores to get the inappropriate magazines removed…even our men's prayer group wants to get on board.  I need to get the phone numbers, and make a petition that we can pass out to our local churches.  It's time the church stand up.  America at large is desensitizing our children bit by bit, and taking their innocence right before our very eyes.  It took 1 woman to remove prayer out of school.  What could we do to make a difference?

    I am thankful I am not the only one, who feels like I do…Thank you for the guts-the courage to write this article…God Bless you…

    Sincerely-Meagan Boone

    • Anne K.

      the cleavage gap

      Thank you, Meagan, for your honest sharing. God is so good to lead me to this blog and to read your posting.

      I am so ashamed of my own discomfort with cleavage. I wish I could be neutral about it, like other women are. While I choose to dress modestly, I feel a compulsion to look at other women who are showing their cleavage. It is like I am trying to get them to cover up. I need to trust that God will convict them, in His time. I just feel violated when I see cleavage and I feel safer around women who dress modestly. I feel they are more trustworthy.

      Today, at work, a colleague was exposing her cleavage and I am deeply ashamed to confess that I looked. She responed by pulling her blouse together and concealing her cleavage. I asked God to forgive me and to let me know if I should apologize to her.

      Oh my heart goes out to the males who have to deal with this on a daily basis.


      • Nailah T.

        As a women I feel ashamed

        Oh my gosh! I could not have expressed it better. I feel so ashamed when I look at another womens cleavage, and its the same feeling of compulsion to look at  her. I've been to the Lord over and over with this matter because this problem started out of the blue. I am a 34 year old women, and recently married. I've been dealing with this for the last 6 years its off and on. I initially thought it was lesbianism – Its defineatly not the case. I've been to counseling for this because it was ruining my relationships with church sisters. And though I would like to change churches because of the transgressions I can't. But the worst is feeling fear when talking to the ones I have violated, regardless of what they have on and not breaking eye contact.

        My question is how do you recover? I've been to the Lord with this and what came out was your judgeing them.


  • SonShine

    Thanks Dr. Sue for this great article…and Megan’s comments. I totally agree. I find I am embarrassed for these women. I really am shocked at some who are in ministry yet dress as if they have forgotten to be modest. And on the other side of the coin are the Muslim women who dress in public so modestly. Although I don’t agree with their “theology” I do agree in part by their modesty. We should be so careful.

  • Dee Ann


    Thanks so much for this article.  I just met with a group of Sisters and had this same discussion.  I love the suggested points of thought some women may be pondering.  Maybe we just need to keep the discussion alive among our church meetings, discussion groups, bible studies etc…  I don't know the answer either but I do see another challenge and that's the gap in the back.  What used to be the description of your average plumber's …., it is so obviously the look many young women share.  Pants that either don't fit well or are just too low with at shirt that is too short, causes another type of gap.  I'm sure our brothers are stumbling seeing us coming and going.  The saddest statement of this discussion is that these are Godly women who don't SEE themselves correctly.  They really dress and see themselves as the average woman on the magazine stands, on TV or in the Victoria Secret ads…(I could go on…).

    Let's keep the discussion alive and do our very best to pass on to our daughters/Sisters who might have a willing ear and open heart to begin seeing themselves in a way that won't distract their Brothers.


    Thanks for the article!

  • Laura J. Hunt

    Yes and No

    I agree that this is a problem. Sarah Sumner, in Men and Women in the Church, has a chapter that addresses why women dress this way sometimes, from her own experience and perspective. I would tell you more, or cite the exact chapter, but I've loaned out my copy.

    On the other hand, I have a hard time seeing this as the reason for the glass ceiling, especially when I think of some of the inappropriate and/or unpleasant habits of some male church leaders.

    It is a problem that needs to be addressed, but I'm not sure that the gap can take the blame for the Gap. 🙂

  • lisadeneil

    In the public schools

    I just wanted to add that this is also a HUGE problem in the public schools.  I am a substitute teacher in 2 large school districts in North Dakota (which I'm sure is a more conservative area than other parts of the country) and I see teenage girls dress with low-cut tank tops every day in the 6+ high schools and even in the middle schools.  Don't even get me started on the short skirts that barely cover their bottoms!  It makes me very sad to see that these girls feel they need to show cleavage at school and that our young boys are forced to be exposed in classes all day long.  I imagine it must be very difficult for these teenage boys to keep control of their thoughts.  Sure, the schools have dress codes that clearly state that cleavage is forbidden, but none of them are enforced.  Probably because the problem is so rampant and out of control.  Take a look in any average high school class in any of the schools I work in and you will find half the girls wearing a cleavage-baring shirt.

    • amanda j

      We had surprise dress code

      We had surprise dress code checks in my high school, and my male English teacher would not turn in girls for short skirts or cleavage, because of the threat of being accused of harrassment. I think there are likely a lot of men who are unwilling to enforce this aspect of the dress code for that very reason, which is why women educators and administrators need to enforce it.

      • Sue Edwards

        Great point

        So true, Amanda, Many men don't want to admit they notice and are silent out of fear of judgment from others. So it is up to us women. I think women need to consider your insight as they determine how to respond.

  • Kelley Basatneh

    Thank you for the article,

    Thank you for the article, Dr. Sue. How timely!         

    I see a couple of reasons for the immodesty of women today:

    1. Our culture and our media tell us that if a woman is not pleasing in the eyes of males, she is worthless. Consequently women do what they can to please (read “attract”) men…especially teenagers and single women, but also married women. In some minds, the need to feel attractive outweighs the need to do what is right.
    2. There are increasing numbers of girls and women coming into the church from an unchurched family background who have never been taught modesty or purity at home.  

    Since America is, largely, a society priding itself on individualism, we don’t typically “get into another person’s business.” Within the church family, however, we do need to look after each other. Without addressing this issue face-to-face, no change is likely to occur. In my mind, the church (body, not merely a congregation) has the ability to solve this problem:

    • Develop a women-to-women mentoring program in which these concepts—along with Biblical study—are taught;
    • Pass down these concepts informally from older women to younger women and from more mature women to other women;
    • Discuss, formally or informally, within single ministry communities, the differences in the way each gender views modesty and purity;
    • Teach married couples and parents how to convey purity and modesty to their children;
    • Help fathers speak candidly with their wives and daughters; and
    • Preach these topics from the pulpit.

    Promoting dialogue will increase awareness. Praying will soften hearts.

  • JeremyJ


    Is it possible to, at some point in polite conversation just bring up the subject one-on-one with the person?  Be careful not to come off as judgemental but just ask them about it.  My guess is, they just thought the outfit(s) were cute and didn't think too much about how the men around them would view it…they aren't guys and don't know how guys think. 

    I had a friend who was a Christian female body builder.  She posted some photos on facebook that really looked like she might have been nude in an attempt to chronicle her progress.  I emailed her a quick note just letting her know how the photos appeared and that it might cause some her Christian brothers to stumble.  She was quite apologetic and removed the photos immedately.  I know it wasn't her intention to play games or see what she would get away with.  It just hadn't crossed her mind because she didn't think like guys do.

    My 2 cents?  Just be up front and talk to them.

  • ReneeB

    Getting to the root of the

    Getting to the root of the problem is an excellent idea.  It may be different for each particular women though.  You might find some simularities if you had a room full of gap extender offenders.  Childhood issues are a good place to start.  How did Daddy and Mommy treat her, how did they treat each other and themselves.  Sometimes bad things happen in childhood that create reasons for a belief and action in adulthood.  Sometimes women are insecure and feel ugly, and society teaches us in so many ways that if we show skin and wear cloths tight, that we are accepted and beautiful.  The Lord says beauty starts from within.  So does healing!!  Change of heart, change of mind, change of action.

  • Janie Hernandez

    I agree

    I agree that Christian women should be more mindful of the amount of skin that they are showing. However, many times it is next to impossible to get a nice shirt that does not show cleavage. Other times you are not aware that the shirt shows cleavage everytime you bend over. Therefore, I have come up with two simple solutions that works for me. 

    1. stand in front of a mirrow and lean forward. Ask yourself, do you see any cleavage. If yes, go to step #2

    2. Some stores sell cute under shirts. Many of them have spagitee straps. Have about 3 on hand in the basic colors. Example white, black, and biege. Anytime, a shirt fails the cleavage test that #1 decribes, use an under shirt. Then recheck.

    Many times I have bought shirts that I thought were good only to discover that I needed an under shirt.  

  • Melanie Newton

    My husband agrees, too.


    I have been working with Christian women in small groups for years. These women long for their men to become mature leaders of their families and within the church community. That should mean doing whatever is necessary to help them concentrate on the preached word, worship and other spiritual nurturing in a church setting, to help them get connected to other believers and mentors and stay connected so they have opportunity to grow spiritually. My husband has long felt women showing cleavage at church are showing disrespect to the men by drawing their attention (because of how God made the male mind to work) away from focusing on Christ. Thank you for your words, Sue. 

  • Visitor

    Sadly, it’s such women who

    Sadly, it's such women who get the attention in the church by the Christian men.  Among singles, it's the sure way to marriage; among marrieds, it is a way to feel beautiful.  Perhaps the men ought to be taught not to value women who show cleavage. Seems the only ones complaining are the married ones. Too bad they didn't complain when they were single.

  • Marianne Kenney

    The Gap

    I was talking about this with my older brother who was stating that his church was going to have to have a "modesty" sessoin again. We came to a conclusion that this is seen as we are "judging". Everything seems to go into that word. They forget about the verses that talk about admonish, rebuke, correct, etc …

  • brett fish anderson

    Christian Cleavage
    Thank you for this – seems like most people are at one extreme or the other [which i wrote a little bit about here – https://brettfish.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/the-breast-of-intentions-a-response-to-the-christiancleavage-tag%5D with the focus tending to be on the other person sorting themselves out rather than asking what can i do to love them well?

    like you say it’s hard to figure out the answer because you hold a workshop and the choir will arrive and policing it isn’t hugely helpful – we need heart change..

    thankx again
    love brett fish