Critical Thinking and the Modesty Meme; or, Why We Need More English Majors

Likely everyone has come across the following internet/facebook meme, but just in case you’ve been backpacking in the Andes for the last two weeks with no wifi, or don’t have well-meaning conservative facebook friends, or have blocked all the well-meaning conservative facebook friends, or just aren’t on facebook precisely so you can avoid things like this, here you go:

While I find this meme pretty immediately offensive, I nonetheless recognize that on the surface of it, it is trying to communicate something I would willingly call, in a nascent way, feminist: Girls should not feel like they need to put their bodies on display in order to be romantically interesting to the opposite sex, and the guys whom they should be interested in romantically are not the ones who expect them to be falling out of their clothes to get their attention. On that level, this meme does recognize that men’s sexual expectations shouldn’t dictate what women put – or don’t – on their bodies.

This is what the meme is saying explicitly. And I’m pretty well on board with its explicit meaning. The men I want to date  are not the men who care if they’ve seen me in a cocktail dress, and the men who might take notice of me in a cocktail dress (would that I had one), but not otherwise, are not men whose attention I want or need.

The problems I have with the meme are in what it argues implicitly, where  it pretty well pulverizes its kernel of feminist sensibility: Men do still get to dictate the value of women’s dress, just it’s the “real men” instead of the “pigs,” who may (ostensibly, anyway) want the opposite of what the “pigs” want (i.e., modestly-dressed rather than scantily-dressed women), but are nonetheless angling to tell women what to do with their bodies, and on the authority of their masculinity (they’re REAL MEN! after all) no less. Of course, this has all been thoroughly discussed/deconstructed/defended (/parodied/re-memed/etc.) all over facebook (or at least, the parts of facebook I frequent), and I’m not aiming to start arguing about it here.

What I find interesting — and worrisome — about the life of an internet meme like this is the way it exposes the various, and often dissonant, reading practices of those who respond to it. Those who appreciate and are satisfied with its explicit argument are often resistant to a reading of the argument it makes implicitly, especially where that argument complicates or undermines it explicit value. Because there are positive things about a text’s explicit meaning, the thinking seems to go, it doesn’t matter what else is there; any attempt to uncover and examine the implicit meaning or symptomatic assumptions of a text is heard as an attack on and denial of the explicit meaning; those who are close-reading the text and finding other ideas in it are clearly only doing so because they have misunderstood what it explicitly says; and, the inevitable trump card: Any problems you have with it, you are just reading into it yourself — the problems are with the reader, not the text. (Because you, you feminist man-hating nazi-wench, are just always on the prowl for things to be offended by! And probably also for an excuse to dress like a slut!)

On the other hand, those who are disturbed by an implicit reading of the meme are perhaps too hasty in brushing by its explicit meaning, failing to acknowledge that there is any positive value at all to the sentiment the meme intends to communicate — after all, we who read closely know what the text really means, right? And so we find ourselves at an impasse, where the explicit-readers resent the excess of unfavorable meaning the implicit-readers find, and the implicit-readers are irritated by the boorishness of the explicit-readers who refuse to see what’s under the surface, but not all that hard to get to.

I appreciate the frustration of those who want to simply enjoy a text and not have it always under attack by closer readers than they. I’ve been in that position myself. I love Tolkien, and am terribly impatient with readings that seem to reduce him to his racism and sexism and elitism; I just want to enjoy The Lord of the Rings in peace, and not always have to worry about the colonialist implications of the oliphaunts. I’ve seen a seminar on the lyric take a series of medieval Arma Christi poems and gloss past all their strangeness, beauty, and pathos to find that they are only oppressive agents of Catholic hegemony, like everything else medieval and religious. Aggressive agenda-driven readings can be infuriating. But I also know that, while examining Tolkien’s less-than-savory identity politics might not exactly be my cup of lembas, I can’t feel like a responsible reader if I pretend they aren’t there at all. And while there is a great deal more to say about medieval religious lyric than just its role in the power structures of the day, one also can’t just pretend that there is no Catholic hegemony or that the lyrics entirely transcend it.

There are a lot of ways to read a text critically; some of them are better than others, some some are shortsighted, and some just stupid, but I think the worst way is to simply refuse to do it at all — to only ever take a text at face value. Yet I’ve found that when gender is on the table in any church context, this posture of resistance to critical reading seems to be the norm. I’ve been told by home teachers that I don’t like Twilight because I’m just reading my own issues into the text (it’s true, I’ve probably let my bad history with dating vampires interfere with my enjoyment of the story); I’ve been told by Relief Society sisters that if I find C. S. Lewis to be condescending towards his female characters, it’s because I’m just finding what I’m looking for in his books (yes, I went to Narnia hoping to dig up some good old-fashioned misogynistic paternalism); and of course, Johnny Lingo always gets a pass as “cute” or “funny” or merely “dated” (and it hits not just gender but also race, class, and empire, a veritable cacophony of  white male colonialist privilege).  None of these are canonical LDS texts  or authors, any more than the facebook meme above is, and there is no reason for Mormons in particular to defend them, but I’ve found that Mormons in particular do, when the criticism is rooted in gender.

It’s constantly disappointing to me that reading a text’s implicit argument is taken as such a negative move rather than an ethical one, by the very people who claim to care so much about the morality of the texts they consume. Shouldn’t careful reading of a text’s ethic and values, whether explicit or implicit, be an essential practice for Mormons, with our 13th Article of Faith, and our For the Strength of Youth pamphlets and our cultural caution against R-rated movies? We’re so very invested in discriminating in the kinds of media we allow into our lives; why the resistance to the kind of critical thought that would allow us to really know what that media is? I’d think Mormon parents would want to consider whether they want their daughters to see the kind of romantic comedy that reduces women to categories of sexually available party girls or frigid, repressed career bitches; whether they want their sons to see the kind of action movie that has exactly one female character who’s a love interest and an excuse for the male protagonist to show his gentler and sexier side in between slaughtering Nazis/terrorists/mafia kidnappers/Treadstone agents. I’d think we, with our Young Women’s values, wouldn’t want to perpetuate the notion that a woman’s value can be reduced to her physical beauty, which can in turn be manufactured by adequate capital, e.g., being purchased for the generous price of eight cows.

I’d even think, though I’d evidently be largely wrong, that they’d want to think seriously about the kind of facebook meme that puts “men” in the position of telling “girls” how things are and what they should do about it.



  1. It’s constantly disappointing to me that reading a text’s implicit argument is taken as such a negative move rather than an ethical one, by the very people who claim to care so much about the morality of the texts they consume. … We’re so very invested in discriminating in the kinds of media we allow into our lives; why the resistance to the kind of critical thought that would allow us to really know what that media is?

    Brava, Melyngoch! Perfectly stated.

  2. Fabulous, Melyngoch!

    “We’re so very invested in discriminating in the kinds of media we allow into our lives; why the resistance to the kind of critical thought that would allow us to really know what that media is?”

    YES. Oh my gosh YES!

  3. I’m always a little confused by this subject. I’m not sure everyone is being realistic about how sexual attractiveness works.

    For example, when you say “the men who might take notice of me in a cocktail dress, but not otherwise, are not men whose attention I want or need,” It sounds a little like you are saying:

    “I want a man to be sexually attracted to me, but I reject the idea that I should do anything to make myself sexually attractive.”

    Or maybe you’re saying:

    “I reject the whole idea of sexual attractiveness. I want my relationships to transcend sexuality.”

    Or maybe you mean something more like:

    “It is fine for us to make ourselves sexually attractive, but not in a slutty way (defined by Justice Stewart’s standard of ‘I know it when I see it.’), because ???”

    But I’ve probably just missed your meaning. Can you clarify?

  4. ed, I think I’m actually quite realistic about how sexual attraction works. All I’m doing in the paragraph you’ve focused on is reiterating the point of the facebook meme. I’m not in any way suggesting that romantic relationships should transcend sexuality or that sexual attraction isn’t a part of them; I simply find that relationships are more meaningful and interesting with a man who is attracted to my personality and not just my cleavage. (Which certainly doesn’t mean he can’t be attracted to both.)

    But that’s not really the point of the post, at all . . .

  5. Bravo, thank you for saying what I have often seen and been so fervently ”corrected” about.

    ed- I think the key to that passage is the ”but not otherwise” part. The author is saying she is not interested in a man who would only acknowledge her existence based on sexual attraction (or sexual attraction that is so narrow and limited as to occur only when dressed in a cocktail dress). If you can’t be sexually attracted to say, her eyes or the way she looks in a pair of Jeans you aren’t her type. Or perhaps if you have worked together for years and never said hello and the one day she is dressed that way you are suddenly drooling maybe she isn’t into you because you’ve effectively rejected the person she is 99% of the time.

  6. So wonderfully done, Melyngoch. This has long been one of my biggest pet peeves–that if I see implicit messages that are harmful, then the real problem is in me. Not in what was said. If only I would get my own house in order, i couldn’t possibly see anything harmful in the words of the Lord’s appointed leaders. Yeah. Color me skeptical.

    This should be mandatory reading. For pretty much everyone. I don’t care how much someone likes their favorite text or their tradition or practices. It’s simply irresponsible to ignore the implications of those texts, traditions, and practices. Especially when they’re as close to the surface as they are in the meme you cite at the outset of this post.

  7. Would the meme change if it had been signed off by “Real Mothers?”. How would you change the wording so as to retain the explicit message and get rid of the implicit message?

  8. As a follow up question, does the idea that so few people read an implicit meaning into the meme weaken the argument that in fact, the meme has an implicit meaning? Or is the meaning so vague as to lie in the subconscious? Are there any writings that don’t have double meaning or symbolism?

  9. I heart this post. I can’t BELIEVE someone said that to you about Twilight. A rousing hear, hear for critical reading of everything!

  10. Melyngoch ~ Wonderful analysis. I think part of the hesitation people have about looking at the implicit messages in the three non-cannonized texts you cite, is the fear that if the message is less than perfect, then people will have to question everything, including the truthfulness of the gospel. Drawing from Melissa Inouye’s piece, the fear is that if one of the Christmas tree light bulbs is out, one would have to throw away the entire string.

    Non English Major ~ I wouldn’t use “Real Mothers” either. It smacks too much of “Mothers Who Know.” Maybe a reasonable alternative would be “Concerned Women.” But that alternative would probably not have vaulted this cartoon to viral status.

    I also find it amusing that the little boy is learning down in order to whisper into the girl’s ear. Stooping down to impart wisdom. Or am I reading too much into it? This reminds me of one of my all-time favorite ZD posts: a dialogue between Socrates and PigglyWiggly!

  11. Excellent delineation! In my post-English major existence I sometimes forget how to craft my reasoning, but you totally hit the nail on the head. Bravo

  12. #12, I think you really are on to something about the paternalistic nature of this message. Do you think this message is from adult “men” to young, under-age “girls” who they just happen to see in public (as in the girl picutred)? Children who society as determined are minors and incapable of consenting to sexual behavior with adults (“real men”) or messages and therefore need the protection of parents? Honestly, if read the message that way (as if from a random adult man to a young female child), it sounds pretty gross. No adult should be allowed to sexualize children or tell children they are responsible if they are harmed by molesters, rapists, etc (“pigs”). In plenty of cultures in the world, children wear much less than in the USA, and yet pedophelia is still not excusable.

    Or do you see the “girls” addressed in the meme as adult women who are legally capable of giving their consent in sexual situations (as the OP supposes “girls” is meant) and the “real men” are their peers? If so, why make women diminuative? And in that case, you’re wondering if “real mothers” would make a different in addressing the behavior of these adult “girls” aged 18-80? I am thinking that during the adult years, it’s best if parents respond to their adult children in adult-adult relationships, rather than the way a parent would interact with a small child, so no, I don’t think it would make the meme much better in that case.

  13. “… think seriously about the kind of facebook meme that puts “men” in the position of telling “girls” how things are and what they should do about it.”

    This seems like an extremely sexist comment. Are men so far below women that “how dare they tell women what to do?”

    The meme is directed towards girls who are looking to attract men, so a man who considers himself to be what they are looking for, ie a ‘real man,’ offers his advice on how to do so.

    Not that I agree with his advice, I don’t like the analogy, but I’m not outraged that:

    – he offered advice
    -he was a male offering advice to a female.

  14. #19, yes, an adult man giving unsolicited advice to a young girl. Would you really be OK with any man doing this to your child?

  15. #20, Adult male advises young girl not to play in the street. He does this unsolicited.

    Outrageous! How dare he!

  16. Thank you. This OP expresses a frustration I have been feeling with internet memes and literary pop-culture that I have not found it easy to concisely say what you said here. I’m bookmarking it and linking to it when needed!

  17. #21 – He is not advising young children not to play in the street.

    He is advising women (I will give him enough credit to assume he is speaking to women and not children) advice on how to properly attract him.

    Furthermore, he is calling the women “girls” and himself a man either because:

    A. He is actually a grown man interested in teaching underage girls how to please men.

    B. He is presuming that women who do not follow his advice as a man ore the mental equivalent of children.

    Or do you have another explanations for the juxtaposition he used of the words “girls” and “Men”?

  18. Very well written, fair, and well thought out. I agree with a lot of the points you make, but simultaneously I think that sometimes “a cigar is just a cigar,” as the Freudian-critical saying goes. Though, I think I agree with the way you interpret this; at the same time, because I’m also a male, I kind of agree with “A Male”. Women offer lots of advice to men, it seems to me, on how to date them or what women usually like; why shouldn’t men do the same? Of course, I realize you’re not arguing against advice in general, but that it’s focused more on men telling women how to dress; all the same, what’s the implicit meaning behind what you’re actually saying?

    “I’d even think, though I’d evidently be largely wrong, that they’d want to think seriously about the kind of facebook meme that puts “men” in the position of telling “girls” how things are and what they should do about it.”

    To me it seems that you’re saying men should not offer women advice on hardly anything, including how they should dress. What puts women in the position to tell men how they should dress? How’s that any better?

    On a slightly different note, how can one gender tell the opposite what the former gender actually likes? There is only so much you can be honest to members of the opposite gender; and so whether it be women telling men what women like, or vice versa, it’s never going to be completely accurate– because everyone is different and also because there are so many aspects of attraction that we don’t understand about ourselves. No one has all the information.

    Thanks for the post! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

  19. Alisa #18 – Would it be okay if we removed the picture altogether and the words were “Dear Sisters” and signed off by “Your Brothers”? I’m trying to see if there’s a way to maintain the explicit message and not offend implicitly. Or, as suggested by other comments, it is a case where women feel men have no business offering advice or counsel with respect to modesty?

  20. AMEN! What a delightfully nuanced and insightful commentary on the meme.

    Also, the issue raised in the comments about the acceptability men offering advice to women is a fair one. I don’t think it’s wrong for men to give suggestion to women or vice versa. Personally, I think it comes down to *how* the advice is offered and by *whom*.

  21. I think an important point is being missed. The “Real Men” is in contrast to the “pigs” and is not intended to be a comment on the “girls” addressed.

    Furthermore, when criticism of the meme is phrased the way it is in the OP (men telling women how to dress) I can see what someone would object to. However, I think that criticism is perhaps focusing on the negative a bit much. It reads to me more like “If you are looking to attract a man of substance and quality, and I consider myself one such, then this is what to do (or not do).” Everyone wants to be attractive. The corollary to this is that people also want to be attractED. Giving people helpful hints in this manner shouldn’t get them an earful.

  22. Great stuff, Melyngoch! This line stuck out to me:

    We’re so very invested in discriminating in the kinds of media we allow into our lives; why the resistance to the kind of critical thought that would allow us to really know what that media is?

    You would think so, but my experience is that we Mormons tend to focus entirely on explicit content in media, while completely ignoring the implicit messages. I wonder if it’s because the explicit messages are easy to read and the implicit messages are a bit fuzzier. We like nice, tight rules, not this “figure it out for yourself” stuff.

  23. I agree (quite enthusiastically) with what you said, except your interpretation of the implicit message. The text, to me at least, seems descriptive, or at most instructive, not prescriptive: it doesn’t tell you what to wear, it just asserts that dressing modestly/immodestly will result in different kinds/sources of attention. It could imply that one option is preferable to the others, but still, it’s not *telling you what to do*. According to it, dressing immodestly will get you attention from “pigs” (definite value judgment there, of course); dressing modestly, attention from “Real Men” (the other side of that value judgment coin, apparently), etc. If you don’t care one way or the other about attention from men, then it doesn’t apply.

    It might be argued that what’s really insulting about this is the implication that women do, or should, care about attention from men. Is that insulting? Is it false? Is it insulting and nonetheless true? I care about the kind of attention I receive from women, and I don’t see any shame in that, but that’s a question we answer for ourselves.

    Oh, and regarding Tolkien – I was blissfully unaware of the racist/colonialist/etc. undertones. I don’t *think* that they influenced me in any degree toward racism or empirialism. What if no one knew they were there? Would they pose a threat? If not, is it important to recognize and remember the flaws of past generations, groups, or individuals, even where they’re not teaching those errors? Are we looking at critical thought as a means to an end, or as a virtue in itself? The truth is, I want to know everything, even if it means that I find out unpleasant things about some of the favorite authors of my childhood, but I do wonder what good the knowledge does me. Perhaps to recognize that good things can come from flawed people, and while otherwise good, may carry the imprints of their flaws… Now I’m rambling. Thanks for the post!

  24. Chris (#29), I think the meme has to be read in context, not just in abstraction. If we read it only in abstraction, your critique is essentially accurate since the explicit meaning of the meme did not spell out what constitutes “dressing immodestly.” As soon as we embed the meme in context, however, then “dressing immodestly” is immediately fleshed out by the culturally accepted definitions of that context. For Mormon culture, it means no showing shoulders, cleavage, or anything above the knee, as well as nothing that’s too form-fitting. The meme does not have to spell that out in order for it to be part of its message, not when the cultural norms re: “dressing immodestly” are as strong as they are in Mormon culture.

    Your “if you don’t care one way or the other about attention from men” also is accurate in the abstract, but not when culturally embedded. Mormon culture sends the message loud and clear that women exist *to* care about attention from men. Are there some Mormon women who don’t? I suppose so, but that doesn’t change the fact that the meme relies on the cultural understanding that being a woman who fulfills her god-given destiny *requires* caring about attention from men.

    Re: the implication that women should care about attention from men–that’s not in itself insulting. And there’s nothing shameful about caring about attention from men. I do. I have no problem admitting that. I’ve spent nearly 20 years dating and I’ve used pretty much everything at my disposal to attract the interest of men whose attention I want, from my intellect to my humor to my body. What’s insulting is this idea that if I use my body to attract that attention, at least in ways not sanctioned by the “real men” (and the church they stand in for), then I’m worth nothing more than pigs interested in wallowing in shit. What’s insulting is that these “real men” assume the cultural authority to dictate which mechanisms of attracting male interest are appropriate and which are not, when in reality there’s likely nothing at all wrong with many of the mechanisms they deem worthy only of the pigs.

    What’s also insulting is that by creating this framework, they’re equating my partner (who finds my body sexy and beautiful, in addition to finding my intellect challenging and sexy) with a pig because he honestly responds to the attractiveness of my body. This is actually what I object to most about the implicit messages of this meme–that it creates this black and white dichotomy in which “female body covered” means “of value” while “female body uncovered” means “absent value,” both for the women whose bodies are being seen as little more than objects of male interest and for the men who respond naturally to those bodies. That doesn’t allow for anything like the complicated reality of attraction and bodies and life.

  25. This is excellent! I wish I could have read it a month ago; I got into an interesting yelling match, as it were, with a non-LDS feminist friend on Facebook regarding this issue, since I didn’t at first properly grok the concept of ‘Men do still get to dictate the value of women’s dress, just it’s the “real men” instead of the “pigs.”’

    I shared this with said friend (with the note that it was somewhat Mormon-specific) and she loved it! She also said “I almost wish it were not Mormon-specific, because it’s the kind of essay I kind of want to link all over,” to which I responded “I’m tempted to take your comment and send it to her, suggesting she make a “generic” version of it for broader distribution….” So, herewith, my suggestion.

    Thanks for writing such a wonderful post!

  26. I don’t agree with the “rolling around in the manure” analogy. I think it’s inaccurate.

    Personally, I find women to be attractive, and I appreciate the female form. The more a women is immodest, the more I’m attracted to her physically, or sexually.

    But not socially.

    Socially it’s distracting.

    I’m visually attracted to the female form, in a very strong way, the last thing I want is a women recklessly triggering my instincts, whether she intends to or not.

    I’ve heard some women criticize men for these instincts. Saying men should learn to control themselves, as if it were something we could just turn off.

    To this I cordially invite these woman to not crave things during their periods.

    It’s true that you don’t have to eat what you crave, and for this reason many men are composed around immodest women.

    Immodesty affects men. It attracts men who have less control of their instincts.

    You can try and blame men for this, but there are billions of us, and we were born this way after years of evolution and/or God’s creative purposes.

    To conclude, no I don’t think immodesty is like manure, on the contrary, men are attracted to women, it’s attractive but socially distracting, and it attracts men who have less control of their instincts.

  27. A Male (#32), let’s be clear. There is nothing wrong with attracting men. There is nothing wrong with men instinctively finding women attractive. There is nothing wrong with women expecting men to control their actions, no matter what their instinctive urges (and no, expecting them to do so is not equivalent to criticizing men for their instincts). Expecting anyone to control any urge or instinct is not being critical; it’s expecting them to be mature, responsible human beings.

    It’s problematic to say that the onus is on women to be “modest” in order not to distract men when the behavior that could be deemed “modest” or could be deemed “socially distracting” is so radically variable depending on context. And I’m not just talking about the difference between the cultural context in the US vs. the cultural context in Saudi Arabia, etc. In the space of a city block in Salt Lake City, I could walk through multiple radically different cultural contexts. So no. the obligation is not on me to prevent men from being socially distracted because I could not possibly hope to understand what each individual man, or even large groups of similar men, might actually find socially distracting. The onus is on *you* to learn how to function in spite of the attraction and distraction you might feel in response to the women around you. Just as the onus is on *me* to function in spite of the attraction and distraction I might feel in response to the men around me (which I do. On a regular basis). This is not blaming you. It is expecting you to be a normal, functioning, adult human being in control of your own actions no matter what stimuli you encounter.

    No one expects men to feel nothing in response to the female body. No one expects them to turn off their natural instincts or cravings. What we expect is that they understand how to properly respond to those instincts and how to properly behave based on them. That does not seem like much to expect frankly. Nor does it seem anything like asking men to “turn off” their instincts. Men who cannot properly monitor their own behavior do not get to blame their instincts or women’s dress/behavior for their failure. It is theirs and theirs alone. Just as if I assault a man because I am sexually attracted to him (and yes, there are women who sexually assault men), then I am responsible–not my instincts, not the man who was wearing nothing but his jogging shorts–just me.

    This seems a very simple concept. I have hard time understanding how it gets convoluted into thinking all us terrible women are blaming men for their instincts or believing men should turn those instincts off.

  28. You know, I just want to point out that when I first read this I had no problem, partially because I remember growing up being told the be a “real man.” “We want real men, not boys,” said every girl and every message given at youth conference, EFY and freshman year of BYU. When I first saw this, it literally felt like the second half of the conversation to me. “Alright, if you want real men, then here’s what real men want.” Maybe other people missed the “be a real man” lessons, but to me this doesn’t feel offensive- it’s simply a response to the earlier church-sponsored messaged addressed to “boys” and signed “real women.”

  29. This article actually had very little substance, at least to those of us who practice textual criticism. But the actual analysis of the “implicit” reading is faulty. This interpretation puts women as always pawns of men or men never being capable of entering the gender dialog. While this is a common feminist fallacy it is completely false. If you want equality and not just feminine dominance over men you must get past this fallacy. You must be willing to have a dialog with men and understand their perspective. There is a huge debate to be had over what manhood is as well as women’s place in the world. You might not like the male perspective and it might not always be very well phrased (but feminists fall on their faces too), but if your view of a male perspective is that is it always manipulative to women you can never progress in the gender dialog.

  30. A Male-
    I assume you’re referring to cases of rape or molestation in regards to “men who have less control of their instincts.” Rape doesn’t usually happen to a woman because she is dressed sexy-it usually happens to a woman who a man thinks he can overpower no matter how she is dressed.

    I do think it’s important to dress appropriately for the occasion because if an outfit is inappropriate because it’s too sexy/casual/formal/bright for a specific occasion, it can be a distraction to EVERYONE. I also agree that straight men do (and should) respond to the female form, but in the cultural context of Mormon culture, it reads as “showing shoulders/anything above the knee/any cleavage/your form is like rolling in manure.” When men at BYU write to the newspaper to complain of one-shoulder backpacks being too distracting for them (because the strap goes between the breasts),you know things have gone too far. I mean, seriously, if a man can’t handle himself around shoulders or a bit of cleavage, he should not be allowed to walk in any major city anywhere in the world.

    Also, modesty and what parts of the body we respond to are also culturally ingrained. I lived in Africa for a few months and stayed with a tribe where everyone (men and women) were topless. Breasts weren’t sexual. Other parts of the body were, but I just bring that up because while we are all sexual beings, what arouses us is not quite as instinctive as we think. Breasts are not universally arousing, but in America (especially in the LDS church) we’ve been taught they are, so we respond that way.

  31. Thanks for all your comments, everyone! Sorry I’ve been slow getting back into the conversation; I’m supposed to be writing a conference paper and get all my stuff together for a wedding and a move (but am, as always, eager to procrastinate all the stuff I should be doing.)

    Non-English Major (#13), you raise an interesting question — is there ever a text without multiple potential meanings? I think the answer is probably no, though some texts may be more contestable and/or polysemous in their meaning than others. I realize that describing this in terms of “implicit” and “explicit” meaning, while a useful heuristic for the interpretive problems I’m trying to get at it, is probably a little misleading — I’m not suggesting that texts have “double” meanings per se, just that they have a lot of meaning, often beyond what’s explicit or even intended.

    I think a few people on fb have tried redesigning this meme to retain the positive, helpful parts of what the meme communicates, while compensating for some of the things that seem problematic. But I think X2 Dora (#16) makes an interesting point — would the redesigned one have ever gone viral? I really don’t know, but it’s a fascinating (and maybe alarming) idea: that it is, in part, the perpetuation of problematic gender relationships that makes a meme like this go viral? Interesting.

  32. #19, A Male:

    “… think seriously about the kind of facebook meme that puts “men” in the position of telling “girls” how things are and what they should do about it.”

    This seems like an extremely sexist comment. Are men so far below women that “how dare they tell women what to do?”

    It’s interesting that you find this sexist, and that you see it as some sort of reverse-hierarchy move. I don’t think one needs to imagine men as below women to want to resist them telling women what to do.

    There are (unsurprisingly, given the topic of this post!) a number of ways to read this meme. You might read it as actual “real men” offering advice on sexuality and their bodies to actual (i.e., young) “girls,” which I, like Alisa, find creepy.

    This reading hadn’t even occurred to me, however. I was reading it as men wanting to (as you put it) give women some advice, and thus designating themselves as “real men” and “girls” in order to establish an implicit difference of status and maturity that makes advice-giving seem natural. If you think the choice of those words makes no difference, imagine this were written “Dear Women” and signed “boys.” Just wouldn’t work, right?

    #27, PDE, I agree that the meme is explicitly contrasting “real men” with “pigs.” But that doesn’t mean the binary of “girls” and “real men” isn’t there, or doesn’t matter.

  33. Adam (34), that’s a fascinating context to read this in! Of course I haven’t been privy to any “be real men” church-sponsored lessons, as being a real man isn’t much of a concern for me. Still, I wonder at the way these messages are being constructed differently for men and women — men should be “real men” (whatever that entails — there’s a contested term for you!), and women should . . . dress so as to attract a real men? What should women be? What should men do to attract a “real woman”? Why isn’t “real woman” even a meaningful cultural trope the way that “real man” is?

    Rachel (35), I’m sorry you don’t find much substance in this post, though it seems like if you addressed its actual argument, you might make a more in interesting case for its being substance-free. As for the meme itself, I certainly don’t disagree that I’ve done a sort of quick and dirty reading of it on my way to the actual point about critical reading practices. Nonetheless, your characterization of my reading seems perhaps a little of a strawman, to be generous. Where do you find I “put women as the pawns of men” or suggest men are “never . . . capable of entering the gender dialogue” or that the “male perspective . . . is always manipulative to women”? All I’ve said is that this text sets up a certain relationship between men and women which I find unsavory. I welcome the contributions of men to a conversation about gender; however, I’d prefer not to be addressed as a “girl” from the authoritative stance of “real men.” By all means, as someone who “actually practices textual criticism,” do offer an alternative close-reading the text at hand — you can even close-read my own close-reading! — but making broad, bland statements about how men need to be allowed to participate in the gender dialogue (is there anyone who really disagrees with that?) doesn’t really seem relevant.

  34. A valuable breakdown.

    And hey, while we’re at it, can we talk about presuppositions, too? Because that meme presupposes that a “girl” who is dressed “immodestly” is necessarily doing so in order to attract attention.

    As if there were never another reason to want to forego sleeves, long shorts, or multiple layers of Shade tees.

    Seriously, with the current heat index where it is, we might want to avoid planting the idea that a lady in a tank top is deliberately signalling for male attention.

  35. Rune, that’s crazy-talk! You mean girls might not do every single thing they do with attracting male attention consciously in mind?!

  36. @33:

    “No one expects men to feel nothing in response to the female body. No one expects them to turn off their natural instincts or cravings. What we expect is that they understand how to properly respond to those instincts and how to properly behave based on them.”

    I partially agree, but consider the other angle, that women who dress provocatively are taking advantage of men’s hormonal instincts and distracting them. It’s kind of like salivating when you smell popcorn. Sure, you can resist the urge to go and eat someone else’s popcorn. But it’s also rude to make popcorn all the time and never share it.

    Both sides need to consider civility.

  37. A woman just -having- a body, and not going out of her way to hide the fact, is not the same as someone constantly presenting a treat they won’t share. While I would agree that it would be inconsiderate for a woman to insist on directing unwanted sexual behavior towards others, I would advise a great deal of caution in likening her body to a consumable. A woman’s uncovered body is not a thing to be consumed by men, whether you mean arms and legs, cleavage and stomach, or all of it. It’s a part of her, and is not exactly something she can just leave at home for other’s convenience.

  38. melyngoch #39, if you haven’t been privy to any instructions to males in the church to “be men” I suggest you start with 2 Nephi 1:21, “…arise from the dust, my sons, and be men…” and follow that with a talk in the April 1988 GC by President Benson called “To The Single Brethren of The Church”. I can assure you the instruction to be a real man is not something that only Adam has experienced in church, it is quite common and usually linked to doing our duty, whether that is getting married or doing our home teaching or treating women with respect or any number of other things someone tries to shame us into doing.

  39. KLC — perhaps I should have phrased that differently; what I meant was, I don’t think I’m in a position to talk too much about how the church addresses men and real manhood, because I’m only in a position to catch the periphery of that discourse (the occasional GC or SM talk, but not Elder’s Quorum or YM every week of my life). I don’t doubt that it’s there and extensive; I just have very little personal experience of it (and what I do have is from the sidelines — there’s a huge difference between overhearing something intended for someone else, and being the direct recipient.)

    Another Male (42), I find that enormously problematic, for reasons I think Rune has articulated beautifully. Comparing your attraction to women to your hunger for food is never going to play well: food exists to satisfy you (and people generally) and doesn’t have any thoughts or feelings of its own, while women of course don’t exist just for male satisfaction, and have their own agency and reasons for doing things. So the question of what you’ll do with food, socially, is a vastly different one from what women should do socially, and what social meaning their bodies carry.

  40. Well, it appears there are many who support the “If you’re a male how dare you tell me what to do” female attitude,

    That is definitely not my type of female.

    Maybe there are males out there who agree with that attitude, but not this Male!

    I prefer the mutual respect type of relationships. Where the man respects the woman’s emotions and feelings, and the woman respects the man’s.

    That means I like modest women.

  41. I love that in women!

    They actually have the decency to consider how their actions affect me.

    That is high class, I’d take that any day!

  42. A Male,

    “I prefer the mutual respect type of relationships. Where the man respects the woman’s emotions and feelings, and the woman respects the man’s.”

    I don’t think anyone on this post would disagree with this statement. However, I think it is really important to consider the broader cultural context when discussing the reactions to this meme.

    First of all, in general, men have more political, social, and religious power than women and thus women are more pressured to comply with what men say than the reverse. Thus, when women speak out against unsolicited advice (such as this meme), I don’t think they are saying that they never, ever want to listen to the advice or opinions of men. I think they are speaking out against the overabundance of men dictating women’s lives (often with the power to enforce those dictates). Furthermore, they are speaking out against the hierarchy implied in these statements in that men are talking down to women (with the choice of the words “girls” and “men”). It is one thing to offer advice as a an equal, it is another to offer advice and talk down to the person you are addressing.

    Secondly, there is a long history both in the U.S. and other countries of men exerting control over women’s bodies and their sexuality. Memes, such as this one, reflect that and do not reflect a relationship of mutual respect and advice giving. I agree that we should all consider how our actions affect other people. Thus, I think it is important for men to recognize how these types of statements impact women. On the more mild end, even good women who choose appropriate clothing can become very self-conscious about modesty. If their mental energy is used to focus on how not to incite male passions, they have less time to focus on how to be a better person, or learning and growing in the personal and professional lives. On the more extreme end, women who are raped can feel that they are personally and solely responsible for the horrible thing that happened to them.

  43. I love the smell of privilege in the morning. Like napalm for the soul!

  44. [what a post to leap in on with a first-time comment!]

    @48 A Male,

    I think you’ve missed out on an important point made above – the variability in human sexuality, desires and attractions. [Amelia #33 said it beautifully]

    I’m going to give some examples from among my own friends.

    Male friend 1 really likes bums. So for him, a woman in jeans or trousers, or skirts that skim the hips, is a woman accentuating her sexuality. These women can be covered from neck to toe – down to the wrists, but he’ll still notice a nice bum. What he does about it is admire her beauty and then move on. However, to avoid ‘recklessly triggering [his] instincts’ as you put it, a woman would need to be wearing something so loose or so structured that it obscured the curve of her bum.

    Male friend 2 likes legs and particularly thinks the curve of a woman’s calves into her knees and to her ankles is lovely. The woman from above who is wearing a full skirt (with petticoats) would now have to extend that down to mid calf or ankle in order to be what you consider polite and thoughtful of this particular man.

    Male friend 3 is a breast man. Now it gets complicated, because there is a LOT of variety in breast size and how it shows under clothing. For him, it’s not about major cleavage or even super tight clothing – a woman in movement with a top that shows she has breasts is attractive to him, he will find that woman beautiful. In order to avoid causing undue distress to this man, the full-skirted woman from above now needs to add a top that is structured in such a way it totally obscures her breasts.

    Now, if you add in men who might like shoulders, or the curve of a neck, or whatever guess what you have women in? Yup, a burqa.

    Because if a woman is to dress modestly for every last possible man in order to be what you are suggesting is ‘respectful’ she is going to have to eliminate the physical reminders of her sexuality – all of them.

    Is this extreme – well YES, of course it is, and absurd. But all I’m doing is trying to point out the problem with what you are saying when you say that a woman is disrespectful if she doesn’t dress in a way that avoids inflaming your own natural urges.

    Since I encounter dozens, often hundreds of men in my daily life (mostly casually in passing, but many in work etc) I cannot possibly know how all of them will react to what I am wearing.

    So what do I do? I respect myself. I dress attractively (in my eyes), appropriately for the activity, and in a way that will make me comfortable and able to interact reasonably with anyone I will meet. Would you consider me modest? I have no idea and, quite honestly, it doesn’t matter – because your definition is your own and only one of thousands in the world I live in. I live by MY definition, which includes far far more than how much acreage my top covers, whether my jeans flatter my bum or not or if my dress skims the top of my breasts.

    My definition includes modesty of thought – not how I respond automatically to fellow humans, but how I choose to think of them. I think THAT’S where respect really belongs.

  45. Well, it appears there are many who support the “If you’re a male how dare you tell me what to do” female attitude,

    If by this you mean there are women on this thread who make decisions based on something other than an overriding concern for the needs of the men around them, including strangers who are desperate to repress their sexuality, then yes, I would agree with your statement. I dress modestly by the church’s standards, but not because I’m preoccupied with the needs of strange men with sexual hangups. I maintain that men who believe in mutual concern will not expect me to curtail my lifestyle choices to accommodate their demands for a sexually free public space. To paraphrase Rune, my body is me; it’s not a tub of popcorn.

    And just from the angle of efficacy, I’m sorry if there are men who are experiencing unwanted feelings of sexual attraction, but I really doubt there’s a sartorial solution to this. Your options are chemical and surgical; explore them.

  46. Here’s a bit of advice to the boys of the world: If you’re having trouble with unwanted sexual thoughts provoked by the clothing choices of the women around you, consider wearing a veil while in public. There are plenty of fabrics that will enable you to see just well enough to go about your daily lives without having to make out the details of the female form. It’s high class and it shows mutual respect. Males in veils are the males for us!

  47. I was having a hard time explaining why this facebook post pissed me off to my husband, especially since I’m a YW leader, RM, who has always been very modest myself.

    Thank you for putting what I was feeling into words.

  48. Megan that was a damn fine first comment (#51). I always do love how men calling for women to dress so as to not distract men object to being categorized with men who want women in burqas, but that’s just where they belong.

    And Kiskilili, you totally made me laugh.

    As did Real Women. Who should really work up a meme about males in veils…

    Non English Major, I just read an article today about how nudism is actually very healthy. I imagine it would nip many of these problems right in the bud.

  49. Amid all the great comments, I’m surprised no one has yet cited this Patheos blog post written this week by a Christian woman:

    There were a lot of new (to me) perspectives in it that I had never considered in my concern to try to balance the the apparent conflict between what women should expect vs. what men should expect in the modesty wars.

    Also, A Male really inspired a rash of wonderfully lucid points. #53 needs to be illustrated, except I’m really burnt out with AI right now.

  50. I offer my anecdotal experience as a text to complement Starfoxy’s picture. I served my mission in southern Italy, where daily street hassling was a fact of life, as were gropes on the bus, gropes out the windows of passing vehicles, and swipe-gropes by passing bicyclists.

    However, as sister missionaries we covered significantly more of our bodies than other women on the street, particularly in summer. We were targets neither because we were exposing culturally sexualized parts of our bodies, nor because of our ravishing beauty (by the ends of our missions, most of us looked pretty frumpy–I certainly did), but quite simply because we were conspicuous as proselytizing foreigners. We were easy targets. We were fish in the barrel. It’s as simple as that.

    Managing men’s sexual response to women by covering more of the women up is ineffective at best and ludicrously draconian at worst. Think of the men with nun fetishes. Doubtless there are now men in the West with burqa fetishes. The end point is Iran’s contemplated legislation against women touching bananas in public, lest a man be provoked to lust.

  51. I would never deny that women often dress to elicit male attention. But a man’s on very slippery ground if he assumes that any particular woman is dressing for him, either to provoke or to curtail his sexual desire. In my (again, admittedly anecdotal) experience women dress to establish their status among other women at least as often as they dress to provoke men. Young marrieds wards’ Relief Societies are chock-full of attractive young women decked out like peacocks. They’re not hoping to attract second husbands; they’re competing with each other.

    I’m a firm believer in modesty. I prefer what we currently define as modest clothing, but not because I harbor any scruples about the poor hapless men, young and old, helplessly riveted by my, ahem, voluptuous form. I dress for my own comfort, and I prefer clothes I don’t have to babysit.

    The trouble with most Mormon and Christian discourse about modesty is that it uncritically replicates the gender logic of Girls Gone Wild, which is: women are sexual objects for men. We exist either to satisfy or to manage male desire. The Church ends up simply herding girls into the virgin half of this virgin-whore dichotomy with warnings that if we stray over the line, we become whores (or in more recent parlance, “walking pornography”).

    Modesty. It isn’t all about you, boys.

  52. I have read sixty comments and agree with all of them. The reason I found this meme offensive was the part about rolling in manure. Pigs do not roll in manure they produce it. They roll in mud because mud is cool and they don’t have any sweat glands. So to say “girls” who dress immodestly are rolling in manure is about as insulting as anything I can think of. It is an image that is disgusting and filthy.

    I thought the graphic was cute. It was not as offensive to me as the words.

  53. Quick related interesting note – in Islam, the veil (which morphed into the burqua) was not originally an attempt to keep men safe from women, but as a marking that the woman was “taken” (aka, married). Granted, that’s also working into the whole women as possestions thing, but it can be comparable to a wedding ring today. Even now our interactions with someone wearing a wedding ring is different than without. A burqua is an example of a good intention gone horribly wrong.

  54. Kiskilili, # 52,

    “Your options are chemical and surgical; explore them.”

    A bit late to the discussion, but I wanted to register my appreciation for this succinct solution. If there is ever a bloggernacle comment hall of fame, this will surely be in it.

  55. Feminism is the radical notion that women are people too. Not pigs rolling around in manure. Not tubs of popcorn that we’re too mean to share with you. Actual living, breathing, human beings with thoughts, feelings, emotions or our own. Facebook memes like this are offensive because they dehumanize half of the population of people on this planet.

  56. “But it’s also rude to make popcorn all the time and never share it.”

    Definitely! This is precisely why I love to dress immodestly: I’m far too fabulous not to be shared, and I would feel terribly, terribly rude if I kept my popcorn blossoms popping right before my eyes and not yours.

  57. And I dress immodestly because I take such pleasure in tantalizing all the men around me with my luscious “popcorn” and then denying them. It’s just so fun to see them slobbering with lust (since, you know, they’re such animals who can’t control themselves) and then walk away….


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