Zelophehad’s Daughters

Modesty and Body Image

Posted by Kiskilili

Modesty, defined increasingly narrowly in the Church as deliberately dressing in ways that are not intended to be sexually provocative, or, even more rigidly, conforming to a dress code dictating the boundaries of acceptable non-provocative attire, is frequently understood in terms of its effects on (male) onlookers.

When modesty is discussed as something individuals might do for themselves, it’s generally framed as a way of signaling respect for one’s body.

But what about when women’s motivation for covering up stems not from an earnest valuation of their bodies, but from just the opposite impulse–out of dislike for their bodies? Is this too a form of modesty, and is it virtuous?

38 Responses to “Modesty and Body Image”

  1. 1.

    I think that was my issue for years and still plays a role. But I still think people should cover up.

  2. 2.

    For years, I have worn long pants and long sleeve shirts year-round.
    It’s because I’m naturally always cold. go figure.
    oh, and naturally so virtuous, of course. :)

  3. 3.

    How can something that is rooted in sin (isn’t feeling bad about yourself just a wharped form of pride? I think I was taught that at some point) be considered virtuous?

  4. 4.

    It is neither modest or virtuous to think your body is unlikeable. It is sad. Were is the wonder at the creation the gratitude for the great things it can and will do?

    I think we need to do a better at framing modesty more about appropriate dress for the situation than as a way to control thoughts and impulses . We tell YW that to wear a mini skirt and tank top is a kin to pornography? and then have pool activities in which no matter how modest a normal swim suit or tankini is it will cover less than the mini skirt and tank top. How do they process that? For that matter How do I process that?

    Modesty is about wearing appropriate clothing and attitude for the occasion. I don’t expect a girl to go on a date dressed the same way she would for work or a sport, unless that is the date. A date is about liking someone and seeing how you like each other. I would expect the dress to be more provocative, but still not showy. I would expect the attitude to be more flirty and touchy, but still not inappropriate. How do they grow up feeling that there bodies are wonderful creations that can do so many wonderful things when they are told they are beautiful, but pornographic in the wrong thing?

  5. 5.

    That posted as my son was asking a question without a final read through. Hope it makes sense.

    I know for our children, my daughter and son will be taught that they control their thoughts and actions. No one else. They are to dress in a way that is appropriate for the situation and that helps them feel good, strong, and comfortable.

  6. 6.

    I never wore a 2-piece swimsuit growing up. I was always horribly self-conscious about how I looked and could never relax at the pool or beach. But after I had my 2nd child in San Diego, I realized that no one at the beach cares what you are wearing or what you look like.
    There are people of all different shapes and ages splashing in the waves and boogie boarding. So I got my first bikini and wore it in public, stretch marks and all. And no one cared!
    I don’t wear it any more. I don’t have to.
    Now when I dress modestly, I do it because I choose to, not because I feel like I have to.
    I generally wear long tankini-top suits. I cover up when I’ve had enough sun and don’t want to get burned. I don’t feel the need to be more modest, neither do I feel the need to show more skin or be particularly fashionable.
    I wear my clothes, even swimsuits, with confidence because I’m no longer cramped by a self-deprecating view of my body (not virtuous). I dress modestly for comfort and practicality (possibly virtuous), not because I feel I’ll get in trouble if someone sees me otherwise in my inadequately clad imperfect body (not virtuous).
    I think modesty is about dignity and dressing appropriately for one’s age and the activity at hand.

  7. 7.

    I think being self-conscious about one’s body goes with the territory as a teen, and our youth standards tend to reinforce that self-consciousness (“what is that guy thinking? is this too much skin for him? am I showing proper respect for my divine self?”) rather than reassure. Which is unfortunate.

    I second what denebug says, that at some point (hopefully) you can feel free to recognize that no one’s watching and no one cares. I just got back from a week in a tropical place and there were ALL body types in ALL suits and it was all okay.

    I also think that once endowed, garments provide an internal standard for how to dress since they aren’t visible on the outside. In that sense alone, sometimes I wish there were “junior garments” or trainers without symbols on them, offered optional for youth. I think both YM and YW might be a ton less hung up on clothing.

  8. 8.

    Being self-conscious about your body does go with being a teen, but also a young adult AND a grown woman. We have all been brainwashed by the media to think that our bodies could never look good enough to wear something cute. I blame Holleywood for digitally enhancing all pics of celebrities.

    I agree with denebug. It is very important to feel free in your own body. We need to love ourselves for us.

    Modesty is important. It’s important to feel confortable, confident and respected in the clothes we wear. Teaching our children is important, but I truely believe that respecting them in their choices just as important. I spent my youth as the ultimate rebel. I wore the tank tops, the short shorts/skirts,and the mid-drifts (when they were in style). I have never been able to wear a ONE piece swimsuit because my torso is really long and it pulls. BUT now, I am happily married in the temple and still enjoy my wardrobe. I don’t feel that I NEED to wear those things anymore, but I don’t feel that I can’t if the activity allows. I had the respect from my parents and the trust that “in the end, it would all be okay.”

    And I am glad that they treated me as an adult.

  9. 9.

    Great comments and post. It seems like everyone is covering the main points (pun intended) that are important to think about with modestly. What I am trying to teach, and will teach my children:
    Modesty means wearing appropriate clothing for the type of activity/occasion. Swimsuits for swimming, leotards for dance lessons, dress/suit type clothes for church, etc. Modesty means dressing appropriately for your age, for your circumstances or environment, and who you will be around. You should be respectful of your body and what is and isn’t covered up and your sexuality and and realize some kinds of male/female interaction should be saved for marriage. You should be aware of what messages your clothing is sending and make sure it is respectful of yourself and others.

  10. 10.

    What is this “dressing appropriately for your age” thing? Could someone explain that to me? Does that mean a 50-year-old must wear wool suits and gabardine slacks? If she has a body that can handle it, are low-waisted jeans a fashion faux pas? Am I now disallowed from ordering my clothes at Delia’s or Alloy because of my age? I don’t get it.

  11. 11.

    When I think of “dressing appropriately for your age” I think more of the opposite direction. Babies should not be wearing thong bikinis. Nor should 5yos be wearing halter tops. (Of course, I don’t think thong bikinis and halter tops are great clothing choices in general, but I can deal with it when college kids choose to dress themselves that way. I don’t think it’s good for parents to dress their small children that way.)

    There are probably a few styles that are more appropriate on teens than on those of us who have past that stage in our life, but I can’t think of any off-hand (of course, I also do not stay on top of fashions at all).

  12. 12.

    I thought it meant that when you get older, you can wear purple.

  13. 13.

    [...] Modesty and Body Image [...]

  14. 14.

    Love that one, Ziff!
    Have you read Janet’s spoof:
    When I am a Goddess I Shall Wear Nothing

  15. 15.

    Kiskilili, thanks for bringing up a point that I think rarely gets mentioned in discussions of female modesty. In the way it so often gets framed, women are in one of two categories: they dress in a manner aimed to tantalize males, or they virtuously dress in a way that won’t lead the men into temptation (already overlooking the many other factors that might play into female choice of clothing). But I would guess that women dressing modestly not out of a desire to protect men, but out of a desire to hide, is a not uncommon phenomenon. And I think it’s unfortunate that this element gets overlooked—because girls who already hate their bodies are getting the message that their bodies are in fact something to keep hidden.

    I personally found the modesty lessons to be horribly depressing when I was a Young Woman. I figured that they were aimed at the attractive girls, the ones who might be tempted to dress immodestly. I was overweight as a teen, and I never would have dared dress “immodestly”—not out of any concern for the welfare of the young men, but because I thought people would gape in horror at the sight of me. And the lessons reminded me both that I was unattractive, and that my appearance (and in particular, its potential effect on males), was something about which I should be extremely conscious. I was left smitten with guilt and shame; I wasn’t being immodest, but I was all too aware that I was committing the sin of not being pleasing to look at.

  16. 16.

    This post reminds me—obliquely—of the earlier post about a woman who undresses alone in the woods. In the secret land of Amazonia, where no men live, how do modest women warriors dress? What constitutes modesty when no man is around?

  17. 17.

    I was YW secretary when my daughter was of that age. We had a prez who was so modesty obsessed that she came up with the idea that we would have big T-shirts that girls who came to YW night would put over any immodest clothing. (I talked her down). It may have come from the actual lesson but I still remember a drawing of a torso showing where sleeves should end. The girls were told that tankini suits were inappropriate because the tank top might accidentally slide up and show some skin. I spent the entire time trying to tart up my daughter as a defense but I could never overcome the influence of that YW Prez.

  18. 18.

    When I said “Dress appropriately for your age” I was thinking of things like my 11 year old not wearing makeup until it is age appropriate. Trying to look older and attract attention by looking older is not what I want her to be doing. She is 11, and while she may look like she is older, she should dress and act like she is 11. However, if she wants to wear makeup for Halloween, no problem. It should be appropriate for the activity.

  19. 19.

    Great comments, all. I’m still trying to sort out what is at issue in the Church’s stance on modesty, but I wonder whether there’s a sense in which the Church expects Young Woman to be innocently sexual? That is, there are certain avenues through which they’re expected to make themselves sexually attractive–such as wearing make-up. And there’s at least one lesson in the manual underscoring the importance of maintaining a slim figure or some such thing. But they’re asked specifically not to display that fabulously slim figure to which they’re supposed to aspire. They’re asked to be sexually attractive partly by not being aware that they’re sexually attractive? Or they’re being asked specifically not to exploit their sexuality in their relationships with men (a common source of female power in patriarchal societies)? I’m not exactly sure.

  20. 20.

    Has anyone every been to an all-women spa with a mandatory no swimsuit policy? (aka, mandatory nude policy)

  21. 21.

    I think what’s so frustrating about the modesty spiel is that it takes away from girls the only power that they think they have, in an institution where they are reminded every single week that boys are in charge.

    It really doesn’t have to be that way. Sexual power is cheap and ephemeral, and there is much greater power to be had by being strong, independent, and goal and action oriented. Sexual power won’t get you into Yale.

    Yet the girls aren’t (or at least in my day, weren’t) pushed or encouraged toward achievement. They’re pushed to self-effacement and marriage.

  22. 22.

    Yeah, it does seem like, among other things, it’s an effort to curb a traditional source of female power (sex). Like you, I’m suspicious of the usefulness of that power to begin with, but probably not for the same reasons the Church is–I think it’s a poor substitute for institutionally acknowledged “real” power. But it sort of fascinates me that the Church confines its discussions of modesty to attractive sylphs. The rest of us don’t seem to be part of the conversation; it’s not entirely clear whether or why we should dress modestly.

  23. 23.

    “But what about when women’s motivation for covering up stems not from an earnest valuation of their bodies, but from just the opposite impulse–out of dislike for their bodies? Is this too a form of modesty, and is it virtuous?”

    When I was at BYU, there was a small protest over the administration turning away Rodin’s sculptures because of nudity or maybe even the words “immodesty” were used. This was a time I truly disliked my own body and would flush at the sight or mention of nudity in general. I think there’s no doubt the emphasis on covering up the body promotes a shaming of the body for both men and women in the church.

    The shaming started to change for me when I visited a spa that mandated nudity.

  24. 24.

    I remember the Rodin scandal well! I was at BYU then too. Cultural modesty is obviously a matter of what we’re accustomed to seeing, and thus what we sexualize–if we all bared our breasts all the time, it would be blase. So I readily believe that if you visited a nude spa or a nude beach you’d quickly take a different attitude toward nudity.

    Having said that . . . I still have no desire to show myself in all my stunning splendor. I don’t necessarily object to it on ideological grounds; I’m just still living in postlapsarian shame, I guess. Kudos to you, though. :)

  25. 25.

    Great discussion.
    During my first few months on the bloggernacle, I was quite taken with the LDS naturists (nudists) arguments. It’s not too far from Kiskilili’s above. But, like K, I am nowhere near ready to act on the naturists ideas. I am, however, doing an experiment with sleeping naked (or garment-less) to test it’s effects on my marriage. I will report the findings of my research in one of my future Exponent posts. (My husband would say that if I quit blogging it would have greater effects on our marriage :)

    I have never thought about how modesty really targets the good-looking and makes those who don’t feel good-looking even more self-conscious. That is really painful.
    My cousin who recently left the church just told me that her beauty is much more appreciated now that she is outside the LDS culture (she’s 6 ft tall, very thin, and blonde). I’ve always thought that women in the church (at least in the highly Mormon part of Az where I live) are all strikingly beautiful. It makes it hard to be average when the bar for beauty is set so high. I think the focus on modesty or maybe the use of sexuality as power in a patriarchal system is part of the problem.

    Thanks for the post.

  26. 26.

    yeah… I covered up because I hated my body. actually, what lynnette said is very very close to my experience.

    When I finally made the step to take off my garments, it’s wasn’t out of some sort of statement against the patriarchy or the temple ceremony etc… it was me trying to learn to love my body. so far so good. I have a much more positive body image now than I can ever remember having. Sometimes I wear tank tops, or shorts… but usually I am dressed in a way where you couldn’t tell if i was wearing garments or not. so it was more of a psychological shift for me.
    (just a thought: perhaps positive body image in females is a statement against the patriarchy. hmm.)

    k, rambling here… sorry.

  27. 27.

    G, you can ramble on my threads anytime you want. :)

  28. 28.

    Not at all, G. We’re a blog of ramblers, so rambling is of course encouraged. Particularly rambling from all y’all of the Exponent. We love you all.

    Reading these comments, I am struck yet again with how much easier it was for me to grow up as a boy. I was a bit of an odd-looking kid (and I’m an odd-looking adult). But I don’t ever remember once being told, in church or out of it, that I needed to dress in this way or that to avoid tempting women. Also, even having a random body, I also never felt ashamed enough to dress up to cover it.

    I’m not long on ideas for solving it, but it’s issues like this that really stoke the fires of my feminist irritation. Really? Girls and women have to put up with all this extra worry and hassle and self-doubt just because they’re women? How can that be fair or right? And why does the Church, rather than dampening this effect, instead try to enhance it with constant talk of modesty directed to young women?

  29. 29.

    Ziff: Amen.

  30. 30.

    Hey everyone, I don’t mean to be a total tool, but I am wondering if anyone could respond to my question in #16. I may have phrased it a bit flippantly, but my question is quite sincere. If modesty is just about how one perceives one’s own body, then it shouldn’t matter who is around. If modesty is about covering some part of oneself from others, then the identity (and probably intentions, motives, etc.) of those others matters.

    I thought maybe JennS, 20, would open up this question when she brought up all-nude spas, but it didn’t really go that way.

  31. 31.

    The thing is Brian. In Mormonism, there is no far away land of Amazonia. You are never aloud to forget that men are there. They preside in Relief Society. There are always one or two at girl’s camp. You can’t get a blessing, take the sacrament, or even do the apparent priesthood “equivalent” (*eye roll*) of bearing children without a man. To go through life without being presided over by a husband is seen as a great and rare tragedy (even if it isn’t explicitly said…and it often IS). They fill our manuals, and are the subjects of all of our scriptures. They even write books about how to be women (See Elder Ballard’s “Daughters of God”…the Deseret News’s review is sub-headed “Elder Ballard’s book offers tips and advice to women in the church.”)

    Now, on the subject of modesty, I was raised with the belief that modesty was a sign of power and respect for the physical body ( both men and women wearing the same length and coverage of garments…the garments showing respect for the body and being clothed with a new identity given to you by Christ.) In the ancient language of symbolism, more clothing meant more power. You can see it today in rap videos. Who has more power: the guy in the three piece suit or the half-naked women dancing around him. Here’s a clue-half naked women. Same thing with the part in the king and I where the hated king of Burma is depicted in nothing but a loin cloth to show “how poor is King of Burma!”

    The reason, I was taught, that I should wear modest clothes was to show, almost ceremonial respect for our physical bodies, and to get used to garment length (garments also being modest in the not-prideful way. The way my parents described it- “It’s like those collars that priests in other faiths wear to show their promises and honor to god…except we wear ours under our clothes since it is a personal covenant and no one’s business but our own. We are not flaunting our righteousness, but using it as a personal reminder.”

    I always thought that was the case, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that, for some reason, all the guys running around without shirts weren’t being punished or reprimanded for their apparent disrespect of their bodies and lack of respect for God’s covenants. After years and years of leaders and teachers and talks about how modesty is meant to prevent our apparently lust-inducing bodies from corrupting young men…who can’t help themselves, poor dears…it begins to sink in.
    Whenever was asked to explain my modesty, I always refer to the first reason though, since it has always been my actual motivator…even in my young years.

    I grew up with all sisters, and never had a problem walking around in various states of undress around them. Come to BYU though, and girls scream and run away at any site of female nudity. Females afraid of females. Ya, our bodies must be pretty scary. lol.

    I found it even weirder to discover that if women were seen with their garments showing at all, they were decried, not for their apparent prideful flaunting of righteousness…but for some sort of sluttishness…even in jest.

    Some things just don’t fit together.

  32. 32.

    It’s a good question, Brian, and I’d love to answer, but I haven’t yet figured out the what or the why of modesty myself. Obviously modesty is something we enact publicly, in a social context–I don’t think the woman stripping naked in the forest is any more immodest than I am when I shower naked. But I’m not sure it even hinges on the identity or intentions of others–I think it’s probably even broader than that.

    One question I asked in the other thread that also went unanswered was: if modesty is just about preventing sexual thoughts in others, why would it be immodest for the RS sisters to hold activities in their birthday suits (assuming none were Lesbians)?

    A related question I have: modesty seems to be about dressing more “conservatively” than the predominant culture (i.e. covering more). But we can’t both say Mormon women should dress more conservatively than other women, and that the purpose for this is to prevent Mormon men from having sexual thoughts. Because what in the name of Jupiter will the Mormon men do when they look at all the non-Mormon women in halter-tops and skorts, who through the Church’s own policy will be sporting more risque outfits than are permissible in Sunday School?

    Or, looking at it another way: the US is not a predominantly Muslim nation, and it’s pretty acceptable for women to show their hair. So what is the purpose behind the headscarves that (some) American Muslim women wear? Surely not just to protect men from having sexually explicit thoughts upon seeing their hair. The sight of hair is everywhere.

    Clearly our clothing choices send multiple messages (I, as someone who has been known to check out library books or grocery shop wearing pajama pants, think it sends an overabundance of messages). Maybe we need to start our discussions of modesty from this premise.

  33. 33.

    Great points, jddaughter. Another interesting facet of modesty is this idea that you shouldn’t allow your garments to be visible, or that it’s offensive if you catch a glimpse of a woman’s garments (!?).

    I also find it problematic that we ordinarily frame modesty as something women do for men, or to protect themselves from men. If the concept is useful it has to be useful in a much broader framework.

  34. 34.

    jddaughter: thank you! I hadn’t thought of “unavoidable presence of men” that permeates Mormon life, but I can definitely see that now. And while I didn’t ask my question in those terms, I still see that you make a good point.

    You seem to view modesty along the lines of the way one dresses as a sign to others—compare it to a uniform, perhaps. It makes no difference (to you) whether the person viewing you is turned on by lust or whatever; you’re sending a clear message about what you think of your body, and that is what matters. Am I reading you right?

    Kiskilili: and thank you! I agree with you: dressing modestly for the sole purpose of preserving the innocence of men is like hosting a “clean” web site so that pervs won’t find p*rn on the intarweb; if they want to see it, they’ll find it no matter what you do. There’s also something very very very silly about telling you to cover up so that the opposite sex won’t lust after you: simply put, a lustful imagination penetrates multiple layers of clothing.

    I’m right with you on trying to figure this out. I’ll confess my motive: my oldest child is now 8. She’ll soon be getting the “modesty talks” at church and as we’ve all seen, some of those are…not helpful. But what do I want her to believe?! Up to this point, “Nobody wants to see your bum” has been a sufficiently good and honest reason for keeping covered, but it has obvious limitations moving forward.

    Still, some of the cultural pressure of modesty has got to bear in mind other people’s expectations. If I showed up for high priest group and all the men had their shirts off I’d vomit, but if we had a pool party and I saw all the guys in only their swim trunks I’d have no problem.

  35. 35.

    Thanks Brian. I dunno, I think that my reason is less about communicating my beliefs about my body to others (I don’t walk around in knee length shorts assuming that everyone who sees me thinks “Oh, she is OBVIOUSLY flouting her Mormon belief in the sacred nature of the body and the ancient tradition of attaining a new identity as symbolized through sacred ceremonial clothing.” I mean, not even the Mormons, for the most part, will get that.) It was more of a personal ceremonial thing. Like private prayer, and other ritualized personal acts of worship ( I even count ordinances like baptism/for the dead), I think that physical actions help me to better understand and internalize the changes I need to make.
    Just as I don’t believe that the act of eating sacrament bread and water is actually cleansing me from sin, but that the change inside of me that does, I do not believe that dressing modestly is actually respect for the body and clothing myself with righteousness( D&C 29:13; 2 Ne 9:14) but the action of putting on clothes might help me remember and internalize my belief.

    So, in other words, yes, I do wear shorts above the knee occasionally, and the slit on my pencil skirt appraoches scandalous (lol), and I think that many people in bikinis have greater respect for their bodies than even I do. I dress modestly as a private act of devotion, and I don’t really mind if my skirt blows above the knee, or my shoulders show…it’s all about the inside.

    So, I don’t dress modestly to send a message to other people any more than I say my morning prayers to send a message to other people.

    Sorry, I often wax verbose. lol

  36. 36.

    Kiskilili-I completely agree with comment #32 I thought that it was weird that at BYU, men would complain about how distracting it was that women wore anything above the knee or a shirt that was too tight. I thought to myself, “You people have to go out and work and live in the real world after you graduate! How are you going to get anything done if you are so easily distracted.”

    I think there is something to the idea of how the way you dress compares to the rest of the culture. If you want to draw attention to yourself, cover-up less then the dominant culture. If you want to show that you care about modesty, cover up a little more. When I first moved to Puerto Rico, I was surprised with how little people covered up. After a while, I didn’t even notice it anymore.

  37. 37.

    This post reminds me—obliquely—of the earlier post about a woman who undresses alone in the woods. In the secret land of Amazonia, where no men live, how do modest women warriors dress? What constitutes modesty when no man is around?

    For me it is what I feel comfortable in when I pray with the thought a Man might actually be paying attention.

  38. 38.

    A couple years ago I read A Return To Modesty, written by a girl in college musing on the effects on our culture from losing modesty as an ideal.

    She recounted the experience of a Middle-Eastern girl, who, out of respect for her body and Islam, began wearing traditional Islamic garb while attending school in the US.

    This Middle-Eastern girl was inundated with make attention, especially from Middle Eastern men who loved her traditional veiled look, but also from American men.

    Finally, the male attention become too much, and this girl abandoned her veils and took to wearing standard body-baring American clothes again, to fit in and not draw undue attention to herself…which she felt was immodest.

    This highlights the problem I have with midesty as taught by the church: is it fitting in, or standing out?

    We’re told to not be afraid to wear the only sleeved and backed prom dress; but also told not to draw undue attention to ourselves.

    In the schools I went to in Northern California, “not standing out” would have required more piercings and fishnet than I wanted to wear.

    Myself, I think it would be great fun to wear a gauzy veil and sari. I love those swirly fabrics and I think they’re more comfortable than non-stretchy jeans. But I’ve been informed it would be very wrong of me to wear that, and all the oppression of women it represents….and then also instructed a Good Mormon Woman always wears nylons, even in the summer when pregnant, and must always have the figure to wear unflattering, figure-revealing fashions.

    I agree with those who say there’s less pressure at church to be modest, and more pressure to be attractive. (I think I’d be quite attractive in veils and saris, but apparently I’m only allowed to be pretty if I’m wearing jeans and trendy tops ;) ).

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