This is something that has been on my mind for years, and as I am starting to see the first modesty posts of Spring (so jealous of those who are already getting Spring weather!), I’ve decided it is time for me to share my thoughts on this. (Warning: this is long. And sometimes ranty.)
First, my story about modesty:
I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I was 18 years old. (And much of my talk about modesty teaching centers around teachings in that church, though I know other churches and institutions have many of the same teachings and tactics.) Before I joined the church, I never thought about my clothing, really, beyond does this fit well, does this look nice, and is this appropriate to the occasion?
I wore what was comfortable, what helped me feel confident. This means I wore a lot of tank tops. Shorts that ended mid-thigh, sometimes higher. I’ve never been a fan of super short shorts; I have disproportionately long legs, so I think I look awkward if my shorts are too short. My swimsuits were always two-piece, some bikini but mostly tankini for the same reason – that’s what fit and made me comfortable. Finding a one piece swimsuit that fits both my upper and lower body and isn’t too long for my short torso? Frustrating, at best.
Then I joined the church and got lesson after lesson after lesson after lesson detailing exactly what it means to be modest. Except these lessons focused on exactly how much of your body your clothes covered rather than what modesty really is. I learned that my mid-thigh skirts – the ones I wore to my Presbyterian church to play in the hand bell choir, the ones I felt completely comfortable in, the ones I didn’t obsess over - were suddenly inappropriate and a “stumbling block to others’ salvation.” Tank tops were no longer okay, because somehow shoulders are scandalous. (And I’ve heard the argument about keeping shoulders covered because garments cover shoulders. I think holding non-endowed members to that standard is ridiculous – why should we dress in a way to cover the reminder of covenants we’ve yet to make? But that’s a topic for another post.)
So, here I went from never thinking about how much skin my clothing covered, from living modestly through my thoughts and actions, to suddenly being hyper aware of my clothing. Which, really, is pretty much the opposite of modesty. I became intensely uncomfortable in many church social situations, and I wore clothing that didn’t fit well, didn’t flatter my form, and was uncomfortable…all because it was deemed “modest” so I no longer had church leaders admonishing me to dress more modestly. (Well, they almost stopped that. More below.)
And my modesty from others’ view:
Full disclosure: I am top-heavy. I have narrow hips and very long legs. I used to have an athletic body, with a flat stomach and toned arms. (As I regain my health and exercise more, that is coming back, which has started to illicit the type of comments I used to get.) And I wear a size 34H bra. Yes, that’s an H. Yes, that size exists – I just have to order it from England, because apparently only really large women in America are allowed large breasts. I have never been a fan of my chest – it gets in the way of athletics (in high school drill team, we once wore uniforms that were open back, allowing strapless bras only, so I had to tape my chest down for support), hurts my back, and makes clothes buying difficult. But it wasn’t until I had to sit through the modesty lessons at church and listen to other church members’ comments about my body and my modesty (because apparently that’s anyone’s business but my own?) that I learned to be ashamed of the body I was given. It was something I struggled with for many years, and something that I still have to consciously remind myself is not right. It is my body, and it does amazing things, and it is nothing to be ashamed of, regardless of how others treat it.
Anyway. Outside of the church, I’ve gotten these comments:
There goes my ride!
~Some random dude walking through the mall in Wilmington, NC, directed toward me and my best friend Amy. We were wearing t-shirts – her’s Jem and the Holograms, mine with a picture of James Dean – and mid-thigh swishy skirts.
~Some random dude walking down the street in Waikiki. It was about ten at night and I was walking alone back to my room. Wearing shorts and a tank top over my tankini.
From other members of the church, however, I’ve gotten:
“Well, what were you wearing?”
~My bishop, after I told him I’d been sexually assaulted by a co-worker. (Not that it matters in the least, but I was wearing a knee-length skirt and a fitted t-shirt. And I never went to that ward again.)
“If I’d never watched porn before being baptized it probably wouldn’t matter, but Chad and I were talking the other day, and we decided you have what we call a porno-perfect body. You know, skinny but with curves. Hot. I dunno. It’s just hard.”
~Some guy I was getting to know. I went to his house after a volleyball game. He was, I think, trying to compliment me, while simultaneously trying to tell me that I was a distraction to the men playing volleyball. Because, you know, my baggy, knee-length men’s gym shorts and oversized t-shirt just screamed sexy.
“Could you please put a shirt over your bathing suit? We need to make sure the young men don’t see too much.”
~A middle-aged woman who was chaperoning our trip to the waterside park. My swimsuit was a Speedo one-piece racerback style – the first one-piece I’d found that actually fit – and I was the only girl on the trip asked to cover up more.
“I’m sorry, but you just have to understand that things that are modest for others just won’t be modest on your body.”
~The man standing next to the women who said the last thing, when I asked what, exactly, was wrong with my very utilitarian swimsuit.
“You should probably leave to do that. The young men might see.”
~A middle-aged woman in my ward, as I was nursing my infant son, modestly – he didn’t have a cover over his head because I don’t like to eat under a blanket and neither did he, but I was covered. To which I replied, “See what? That boobs were made for something other than sex? Let them look.”
I have more. OH MAN do I have more. But these illustrate my point. Random people will make lewd comments. That’s just what happens sometimes. And you know what? Those things aren’t nearly as damaging to a young woman’s self-esteem as well-meaning church members criticizing her clothing choices and telling her that her body – which she has very little control over – is a stumbling block in someone else’s eternal progression.
So. Moving on.
What does it actually mean to be modest?
I am actually going to pull this definition directly from LDS.org, the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because it is the modesty teaching of that church that I have a personal problem with. It states:
Modesty is an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If we are modest, we do not draw undue attention to ourselves. Instead, we seek to “glorify God in [our] body, and in [our] spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:20; see also 1 Corinthians 6:19).
(YAY for this definition. Of course, it then devolves into micromanaging of hemlines, but I am thrilled with this definition.)
Modesty is about so much more than clothing. When we make our lessons about the length of skirts, shorts, and sleeves, we are distracting from what modesty really is. It is our actions and our thoughts. It is the way we carry ourselves and the way we present ourselves to the Lord. Modesty is a mindset, and that mindset can be displayed in part by the clothing we wear, but the clothing does not make the mindset.
How modesty is being taught:
Young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.
~Dallin H Oaks
Yup. That’s right. We are teaching our young women that they are, literally, pornographic if they don’t wear the right kinds of clothes. Let’s look real quick at the definition of pornography:
1: the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement
2: material (as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement3: the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction(From Merriam Webster dictionary online)
We tell our young women that they need to cover up so they won’t be stumbling blocks in young men’s path to exaltation. That if a young man has an “impure” thought about a young woman, that is somehow the girl’s fault. Because, you know, girls are totally in charge of boys’ thoughts.
We tell our four-year old primary girls that wearing dresses without sleeves is immodest. Just no. Primary kids are also taught to sign “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” A room full of itty bitties singing this together. So cute, right? Less so when they are taught to sing it to remember, “Head – if you touch your head, does your shirt lift and show any skin? Shoulders – are your shoulders covered? Knees – skirts and shorts go to the knees. Toes – if you bend over and touch your toes, does your back show or can anyone see down your shirt?” Now this very well may be practical advice (say if you know you are going to be doing a lot of activity and you really don’t want any of those things showing). But we’re teaching it to little children, who should be able to have fun and enjoy themselves and learn how amazing their bodies are without obsessing over how much is covered.
We teach our young men and women that modest is hottest. How are people not seeing that this teaching is the exact opposite of modesty? I get that they are trying to make it “hip” to be modest, to let the young women know that they don’t have to dress like grannies to be modest and that young men will still think they’re cute…but hottest. As in: focus on how attractive you are. As in, NOT MODEST. We are teaching them to dress a certain way for the approval and benefit of others, rather for themselves and God. You know, in the same way that the evil world is teaching them to dress like tiny hookers in order to lure men – for the benefit and approval of someone else. (Please, please note the intense sarcasm in the first half of that last sentence. I do not think the clothing industry is evil, nor do I think they are trying to get us to dress like prostitutes.)
In short, we are teaching that modesty is ALL ABOUT CLOTHING. And also that it is only an issue for the lady folk. Men don’t need any of this silly modesty business. (Except, of course, to tell women to be more modest to protect them from their own thoughts and desires.) Modesty is about so much more than clothes, people!
What I would like to see change:
In fact, I would be willing to argue that our clothes are the smallest piece in the modesty pie.
I would like to see our teaching of modesty shift away from what we are wearing. Young Women’s lesson shouldn’t focus on how long skirts and sleeves have to be. And they certainly shouldn’t be about the young men. The great thing about YW is that it is a place for the girls to be together and learn gospel principles and doctrine. Without the young men. So why do we have to bring the boys into this discussion and make it about them? There is a place for young men and modesty, for sure, but that place is not in teaching young women that they have to be modest for the young men. Let’s talk about respecting ourselves and respecting God. And let’s talk about modesty in thought and deed, not just in how we dress.
I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.
~Joseph Smith, after being asked how he could govern so many people so well, as overheard and reported by John Taylor.
Let’s teach the correct principles. Use scriptures to teach about being modest in word and deed, about leading a humble life. Teach about respecting our bodies and our Heavenly Father. But stop measuring skirts. Just stop.
Stop teaching the young women that the young men’s virtue is in their hands.
A thought about men’s thoughts:
We are taught to be pure in thought, and that is a great thing to aspire to. We are children of God, and I believe he wants us to be pure in thought.
But. We are also human, and I believe Heavenly Father understands the reality of what that means. (How could he not?) We have sexual thoughts. It happens. For a young man to see an attractive young woman and get aroused? That is totally normal. Yet we are teaching our young men that it is something to be ashamed of, something he should never be thinking. We are teaching our young women that they have to prevent young men from having sexual thoughts – an impossible task.
This goes the other way, too. If I’m at the beach and an attractive man walks by in his board shorts…guess what? I get aroused. It’s okay, ladies. I know we’ve been trained to pretend we never have those thoughts and urges, but we do. I am turned-on by men, and there is NOTHING wrong with that. Just like there is nothing wrong with a man having a sexual thought. It becomes a problem, perhaps, when we dwell on these thoughts and urges. And definitely when we blame others for our urges.
We are sexual beings, and God intended it that way. He wouldn’t have given the command to multiply and replenish the earth if he intended us to be asexual creatures. The sexual urges we have? They are God-given urges. We need to be teaching our young man that it is okay to have these feelings and urges. They do not make us bad people. And they do not make us sinners. (Yes, I know Jesus said, “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” I do not believe – cannot believe – that he meant we have sinned just by having a sexual thought. But to dwell on those thoughts? To fantasize about the woman? Perhaps.)
If we teach our young men that it is normal and natural to have sexual urges, rather than focusing so heavily on the potential for sin that they are ashamed of their natural reactions, I believe they will grow into a much healthier attitude of sex, modesty, and the women they encounter.
(finally!) a conclusion:
The way we teach modesty in the church is broken. This hyper sensitivity over hemlines and sleeve lengths is detracting from the beauty of true modesty. It is damaging to young women and young men – their self-esteem and self-worth. Please, please, can we approach modesty as a true, beautiful way of living life, rather than just what is on our bodies?
I’ve worked hard to reverse the self-esteem and body-image issues I’ve encountered since joining the church and being taught such a myopic view of modesty. I’ve spent countless hours studying the correct principles behind modest living, and I’m coming to a place where I am comfortable with it again.
I hope others are able to do the same.