Zelophehad’s Daughters

Modesty Rhetoric in Church Magazines

Posted by Ziff

Has there been an increase in modesty rhetoric in the Church in the past few years, or are we just imagining things? I wrote a post a few years ago to try to answer this question by counting articles in Church magazines by year that used the word modesty in discussing dress. I found that yes, there had been an increase, particularly in the New Era and the Friend.

The question is one that I’ve seen come up a lot in the Mormon-themed Facebook groups where I participate, so the post still gets linked to now and again. I’ve wanted to update it, though, to make three changes: (1) add 3 more years of data, (2) improve my counting of mentions of modesty, and (3) count separately for modesty discussions aimed at women/YW/girls and men/YM/boys.

I used Google to search the Ensign, New Era, and Friend on lds.org for mentions of modesty. The search string I used was this: modesty or modest or immodest site:lds.org/ensign [This is for the Ensign. For the New Era, the final term is site:lds.org/new-era/; for the Friend, the final term is site:lds.org/friend/]. I initially used a longer set of terms that included words like clothing and dress, but I found that these vastly increased the number of matches I had to look through, and every one I saw that talked about modesty in dress actually used a version of the word modest, so I settled on using the reduced version of the search. Also, an advantage of using Google (versus using the lds.org search tool like I did in my previous post) was that it captured General Conference talks, where lds.org appears to index them separately from Ensign articles in general.

Rather than bore you with more details of how I got the data, I’ll show you the results, and discuss the data details afterward. Here are five-year moving averages for number of articles per year in each of the three magazines since 1971. In case it’s not clear, the different magazines are represented by different colors; the women’s/YW/girls’ line is always solid, and the men’s/YM/boys’ line is always dashed.

modesty refs in church magazines 1971-2014A few observations:

  • The increase in modesty rhetoric appears to have started around the turn of the millennium. (In my previous post, the data were too grossly categorized in time to see this clearly.)
  • Women/YW/girls have definitely had more modesty rhetoric targeted at them. The increase for men/YM/boys is slight in comparison to the increase for women/YW/girls.
  • Looking at results for the New Era, it’s clear that YW have the most modesty rhetoric aimed at them, and its volume still appears to be increasing.
  • The downturn for girls the Friend looks small, but I’m actually very encouraged by it. In my search, I found no modesty references in the Friend since May 2013. This may not sound like a big deal, but there have been several such articles per year for the previous several years, so I wonder if it might not represent a genuine change.

In fact, jumping off from that trend in the Friend, I went back to look at the June 2014 issue, since the last month included in the study (given when I did the searches) was May 2014. (Note that in the analysis above, I scaled the 2014 results by multiplying by 12/5, since I only had five months of observation.) I found an article with a modesty-related title, but it was clearly an error, as the content had nothing to do with modesty. Here’s a link to the article. And, since the error will probably eventually be corrected, here’s a screenshot:

modesty for everyone switch friend june 2014 (article page)In the final version of the issue, you can see that this article is on the “Friends by Mail” page, and its title is “Reading Good Things,” rather than “Modesty for Everyone.”

It’s possible that I’m reading too much into this, but this looks to me like a last-minute decision to drop a modesty-related story for a non-modesty-related story. I wouldn’t think too much of this, but following a year of silence on the topic, I wonder if it might not be evidence of a real trend. My original post on this topic was motivated in part by dismay about how often children are being told they need to be modest. I think it would be great if this rhetoric could be toned down across the board, but it seems particularly inappropriate to harp on children and tell them they need to cover up for modesty’s sake. An end to (or even a decrease in) modesty rhetoric in the Friend would definitely be a positive step.

I’d love to hear about any other trends you noticed in these data, or any related issues, in the comments!

Addendum: A friend of a friend pointed out that I should have divided counts of modesty articles by total counts of articles in Church magazines each year rather than just report the counts. In effect, in that analysis, I was assuming that the total article count per year was constant. Rather than count all articles in every issue every year, I sampled two issues from each year–March and September–and used these to estimate total articles per year. (From 1979 to 1985, the Friend has no September issue listed on lds.org, so I substituted October for September.) For the New Era and the Friend, this means I simply multiplied the count of articles for the two months by six (since I had sampled one sixth of the year). The Ensign was slightly more complicated because it includes  General Conference reports which have more articles than the typical issue. In addition to March and September, then I also counted the number of articles in the first Conference issue of the year (meaning May in recent years, but June or July back in the early 1970s). Then I estimated the total number of articles for the year as 2 x Conference issue count + 5 x (March + September issue count). Finally, I divided the estimated article counts on modesty discussed above by these estimated total article counts per year. The resulting graph is below. Rather than a count of articles, it now shows the percentage of articles in each magazine discussing modesty in dress and aimed at women/YW/girls or men/YM/boys. The pattern of results is largely the same as in the original graph.

modesty refs in church magazines 1971-2014 by pct of articles

 

_________________

Here’s the rest of the discussion on how I got the data. For each result from the Google search, I read the linked article and answered three questions about it:

  • Is the article actually about modesty in dress, or is it about another sense of the word modest? (For example, there are many uses of modest where it is used to describe people’s houses or their wealth/means.)
  • If yes, to whom (female or male) is the article directed? Or whose modesty is it discussing? I counted this in the following categories: women only, mostly women, both women and men, mostly men, or men only. Many articles that discuss modesty do not explicitly mention whether they’re directed to women or men; I scored such articles as “both.”
  • If yes, what proportion of the article is about modesty in dress? I counted this in the following categories: more than 2/3, 1/3 to 2/3, less than 1/3, and nearly zero. I used this fairly gross measure to avoid having to make a lot of fine-grained judgment calls between narrow categories. With these categories, most articles are easy to score. Virtually all articles that are more than 2/3 about modesty are 100% about modesty. At the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of articles that have only a passing reference to modesty in dress, and I scored these as nearly zero. A fair number also fall in the less than 1/3 category; this includes articles that have several subsections, and only one subsection discusses modesty.

Next, I converted these categories into estimated article percentages about modesty in dress addressed to women and men. For the female/male breakdowns, I converted the categories into percentages like this:

  • Women only: 100% F; 0% M
  • Mostly women: 80% F; 20% M
  • Both women and men: 50% F; 50% M
  • Mostly men: 20% F; 80% M
  • Men only: 0% F; 100% M

For the proportion of the article discussing modesty, I converted the categories into estimated percentages like this:

  • More than 2/3: 100%
  • 1/3 – 2/3: 50%
  • Less than 1/3: 25%
  • Nearly zero: 5%

Finally, I scored each article with its percentage discussing modesty addressed to women and to men. I calculated these by just multiplying the applicable percentages. For example, for an article that was less than 1/3 about modest dress, and addressed mostly to women, the calculations would be as follows:

  • For women: 25% [less than 1/3] * 80% [mostly women] = 20% article
  • For men: 25% [less than 1/3] * 20% [mostly women] = 5% article

For each year, then, I summed up the calculated percentages for women/YW/girls and for men/YM/boys in each magazine to find the estimated article counts. For example, if calculated percentages for men for a particular magazine and year were 5%, 15%, and 30%, these would be summed up to yield an estimated 50% of an article.

57 Responses to “Modesty Rhetoric in Church Magazines”

  1. 1.

    I find myself swooning with happy-data-tingles (I do love me a good graph with excellent operationalization of variables). Too bad the frustration of the findings almost counteracts the joy I get from the methodology.

  2. 2.

    This is fascinating. Thanks for putting it together.

  3. 3.

    Awesome analysis Ziff. Useful in so many ways. We can now discount every “when I was a youth I never…” comments. People are right they probably never did see the extremes because they weren’t there in the rhetoric. Now….wow.

    Please Jessica (or PA intern) this post deserves to be circulated for considerations to those repsonsible or primary and youth. I would like to believe that they don’t realize just how extremem it has gotten. As a parent who was in YMs from 1992-1996 before the big run up can I say that the balance then was pretty darn good. Lets go back to that please! This is one of just a handful of reasons that my family is considering holding our daughters out of full activity in YW and we watch their church classes like hawks. It is that important to us not to have our kids internalize such extreme focus on dress and women’s bodies. So it matters. It will take a long while to walk this back culturally. You can’t go full tilt on a message like this and expect the local church cultures to moderate on a dime. It will take years. lets start now and move as fast as we can.

  4. 4.

    There is nothing better in the whole wide world than a feminist data geek. I want to make you a giant cake and smother it in ice cream and love.

  5. 5.

    Ziff, you are a god among men. I love not only that you do this, but that you break it down so non-staisticians (me!) can understand.

  6. 6.

    This is amazing, thank-you! Do you mind if I share this?

  7. 7.

    Looking at your graph, I think there’s a very simple explanation for that uptick in modesty rhetoric: the fashion that started around that time of girls and women wearing low cut pants/shorts/skirts and short shirts and blouses. As a result you could scarcely go anywhere, regardless of the season, without seeing exposed female belly.

    I remember being in the West and attending a large church event and being surprised to see girls’ bellies on display. College students would return from BYU and attend church with midriff showing.

    Despite being talented and financially comfortable, my husband’s family is modest in the truest senses of the word (unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities or achievements; not given to large, elaborate, or expensive displays; etc.) and in their case that also extends to fashion. My brother-in-law drew the line at dating what he called “belly girls,” and that restricted his social life for several years until he finally met a lovely returned missionary and engineer who had more important things in life than following every whim of fashion and exposing her belly in polite gatherings.

    Anyway, I’d propose that some or all of that sudden uptick may be due to that particular fashion which, glory be (having just glanced at the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic websites) seems to have faded into the mists of history and hopefully will remain there for all time.

  8. 8.

    It appears that while others were stockpiling rations, ammunition and cash to prepare for Y2K, General Authorities of the church were stocking up on modesty.

  9. 9.

    Dear Anon For Obvious Reasons,

    I’m afraid your fashion history is simply incorrect as you’re applying it to this data.

    The miniskirts of the late 60s and early 70s (time period once it trickled down to the masses) were extraordinarily short by today’s standards. Babydoll dresses can be included in that period. Plunge styles of the 70s as well. However, the graph represents no such uptick in articles.

    Similar “skimpy” (for lack of a better term) clothing trends before the uptick include off the shoulder dresses in the 70s and 80s, strapless dresses in a similar period, leggings in the 80s, and even more specific fashion trends. Even the belly shirts of the early 90s to mid 90s are not represented in this trend.

    Simply blaming the low rider or belly shirts around the turn of the millennium cannot account for the uptick in articles. It is clearly a shift in the rhetoric outside of fashion trends.

  10. 10.

    Anon for obvious reasons:

    you are wrong about fashion trends. I was a young woman during the sudden uptick in modesty rhetoric. By the early 2000s belly shirts were out of style. None of the kids in my HS wore them.

    And just take a look at old photos (1940s) from the BYU yearbook. Or the famous photo of BY’s daughters. Teenage girls would be shamed in YW if they wore any of those dresses today. And that, to me, is sad.

  11. 11.

    Genius, Ziff! I’m so glad you did an update on this and although I hope your theories on the current trends in the friend are correct, that New Era line for YW is pretty disheartening.

    I had an interesting conversation with my mother this week. She showed me a fb picture of a cousin wearing an off the shoulder dress for prom with the standard judgey language. I couldn’t help but remind her of the strapless gown she wore her junior year in high school, and I think she had honestly forgotten. It was nice to see a staunch TBM stop and think about modesty rhetoric. Gave me hope!

  12. 12.

    The graph wouldn’t show any reaction to miniskirts, Carina; it starts too late, and I don’t recall actually seeing any of the other styles you mention being regularly worn by young women in church settings as I saw this one starting around 2000 and lasting for a good part of the decade.

    Feminist Mom, as I just said, I saw these styles being worn in church settings until around 2005-2007. Utah may be a late or alternate adopter for certain fashions.

  13. 13.

    The graph wouldn’t show any reaction to miniskirts, Carina; it starts too late, and I don’t recall actually seeing any of the other styles you mention being regularly worn by young women in church settings as I saw this one starting around 2000 and lasting for a good part of the decade.

    You couldn’t be more wrong. I can haul out my second grade picture and show you how unbelievable short miniskirts were in 1971.

    Interesting that the absolutely nadir of modesty rhetoric was 1986, a period I remember very well. But what was the pinnacle of fashion then? Madonna in her “Like a Virgin”/”Desperately Seeking Susan” phase.

    In other words: exposed bellies, tops that feel off the shoulders, bustiers, mini skirts, leggings, and black bras under lace tops. Like this: http://i1.ytimg.com/vi/xtu6cLtkML8/hqdefault.jpg

    In other words, “Anon for obvious reasons (yes, I’m being judgmental),” I think the most obvious reason you’re being Anon is not that you’re also being judgmental, but that you’re being completely wrong and clearly don’t know what you’re talking about.

    It would be wise to brush up on your fashion history if you’re going to make pronouncements about it.

    Utah may be a late or alternate adopter for certain fashions.

    Now there’s a massive understatement.

  14. 14.

    Holly, the reaction to miniskirts would show up earlier than the start of the graph, and the changing structure of the church magazines in 1971 might mask some of that cultural reaction anyway.

    Also, thanks for linking to that picture, but unlike the style I mention, you simply did not see styles like that regularly *at church*.

  15. 15.

    BTW, for those who are reacting emotionally to my judgment of teenagers and women showing that strip of belly, I regularly wore sundresses as a child, wore short shorts all throughout my teenage years, nursed my babies in public including at church, and even now wear skirts and dresses of a length that show more knee than other endowed women are used to seeing at church. (In other words, normal female business attire.)

    But if this particular style I mention puzzled me and my modest-but-not-overly-socially-conservative in-laws, how do you imagine church leaders would react to it?

    Do you have other suggestions about specific trends or events that would have caused the uptick in rhetoric?

  16. 16.

    I’d say the results are connected not so much to trends in fashion but to changing social attitudes toward things such as cohabitation, premarital sex, intentionally having children out of wedlock and homosexuality.

    Of course, all those things occurred long before the end of the millennium, but it has been a fairly recent development when they became not only practiced but also socially acceptable. I went to high school in the early 1970s, and at the time it was widely accepted that sex was something you weren’t really supposed to do outside of marriage. Although people did it, it was perfectly acceptable to say you were saving yourself for marriage, and the concept of a major corporation using unmarried couples with children or gay couples in advertising was incomprehensible. It was a time when, if you were single and traveling with an opposite-sex person, you wouldn’t check into a hotel without claiming to be married. Another example is the TV show “Three’s Company” — the premise seems quaint these days (a guy pretended to be gay so a landlord would think it was OK for him to live with two women),

    I’m not sure when the shark was jumped, but at some point society became more open about these things. Within a fairly short time, it became acceptable for a pregnant woman to live with but not marry her boyfriend. Managers of respectable hotels no longer cared if you were married. In short, marriage became an option rather than an expectation.

    If you’re looking for a correlation, I think that’s where you’ll find it. The magazines’ pushback isn’t against fashion per se, but against society’s growing open acceptance of sex outside of marriage.

  17. 17.

    What similar analysis could be made of general non-LDS sources? My impression is that over the last dozen years there has been a fair bit of hand-wringing in newspapers over the clothes marketed to “tweens.” Among youth, low-rise jeans and exposed underwear weren’t a fashion twenty years ago, but there is usually some problematic clothing that is, so that one trend may not mean anything.

  18. 18.

    the reaction to miniskirts would show up earlier than the start of the graph,

    Why? And so what? If girls were still wearing micro-minis in 1971–and they were–why would there be no rhetoric about if modesty were truly important?

    the changing structure of the church magazines in 1971 might mask some of that cultural reaction anyway.

    How? You’ll have to explain your logic more effectively in both cases.

    As for this:

    Also, thanks for linking to that picture, but unlike the style I mention, you simply did not see styles like that regularly *at church*.

    Ahem. Right around that time, I wore a sleeveless crop top that showed several inches of my belly if I did anything but stand absolutely stock still when I accepted my award for being named “Outstanding Senior” at Institute.

    No one batted an eye.

    But if this particular style I mention puzzled me and my modest-but-not-overly-socially-conservative in-laws, how do you imagine church leaders would react to it?

    Given that women (including me) bared their midriffs at church events in the mid 1980sn and church leaders didn’t discuss it, why should we assume they’d care at all about it now?

    But in any event, what does it matter whether particular styles were/are worn at church? You didn’t see anyone showing up to Sunday school in a bikini, but the church still told/tells girls not to wear them. No one showed/shows up to church in a pair of shorts, but girls are still warned not to wear them.

    The talks aren’t about what it’s appropriate to wear during worship services, are they, Anon for obvious reasons (yes, I’m being judgmental)? The talks aren’t telling girls that they’ll kill the spirit if they walk into the chapel in a pair of jeans, are they? Or that an inch of skin above the waistband of their skirts will mean that the sacrament won’t actually be effective that day?

    No. They’re generally about the harm young women do to young men’s delicate sexual sensibilities if girls expose too much skin.

    So the whole thing about what people are wearing to church is simply beside the point.

  19. 19.

    So, if I understand right, the graph shows that in recent years the number of articles per year that address the subject of modesty for young women is 3, vs about half an article directed toward young men.

    And across the board, more articles are written about women’s modesty than men’s.

    And the number of articles about modesty has increased since 1971.

    How about some data on the total number of articles in per year in church magazines? I know in recent years I have noticed more, shorter articles, which might skew the data.

    Also, I would be interested to see how this compares with the number of articles about pornography directed to young men.

    Thanks though for an interesting graph. I think the modesty movement is a good thing, as Latter day saints we ought to be trend setters, with a fashion of our own.

  20. 20.

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Kelly, feel free to share this wherever you like!

    And Markie, Emilie, Lisa, Tracy, Kelly, and Enna, thanks so much for your kind words. I’m really glad you enjoyed the analysis!

    Regarding the timing of this trend (the increase in discussion of modesty starting around 2000), I really have no idea. I agree with those of you who have pointed out that it seems really hard to tie it to clothing trends, which even from my uninformed position, look like they must be far more complicated than the simple trend in these data.

    Considering that it’s really only 15 men running the Church at the top, I almost wonder if one of them just got a bee in his bonnet about the issue around that time, and once the ball was rolling, some of the others went along. It seems like it might not take much to get all the curriculum/correlation people going, where they push modesty because that’s what they hear (at least some) of the Q of 15 pushing.

  21. 21.

    My hypothesis is that the uptick is a direct result of the proliferation of internet (and thus ease of access to pornography). The de facto response of Church leaders and Church members is to try to convince YW/women that they should not dress so as to not allow men’s imaginations to run wild. Women haven’t been singled out though, because there are countless references (starting around the year 2000) to admonish men to avoid pornography and condemn it as a sin.

  22. 22.

    Sorry for offending you, Holly and others.

    Still, I think some of you may be naive about what will cause such a reaction in the duty-fulfilling types who are so concentrated in upper church circles.

  23. 23.

    Watched the Brady Bunch w/my fourth-grader the other week, and she was surprised how short the “fashionable” skirts of the day were. (She thought they were totally groovy, though, and loves to rock a retro style herself.) But the Church (in terms of talks or articles) hardly ever harped on modesty back then, truly. Just ask anyone who was around.

    And nary a mention while people were wearing short shorts during the roller skating craze of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Check out Brooke Shields rocking that look! http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/1e/90/1b/1e901b22507d91631687339d04eab8d5.jpg

    This uptick is undeniable, and there is no data to suggest that more skin is being shown in public than before. As others have mentioned, it is probably is more correlated to a concern over Internet porn. Of course, anyone with half a brain knows that how women dress in public on a day-to-day basis has nothing to do with what is portrayed in pornography. The whole modesty obsession is ridiculous.

  24. 24.

    What Tina said.

  25. 25.

    Is there any correlation with changes in various Presidencies? For example, does a sudden downturn correlate with getting a new YW Presidency?

  26. 26.

    Sorry for offending you, Holly and others.

    Oh good grief.

    Know what’s offensive, Anon, etc? the kmeejerk assumption that if someone disagrees with you, it’s because you offended them somehow.

    Seriously: go read a few books and try to acquire a more sophisticated vocabulary for disagreement.

    You didn’t offend me. You just were wrong in your assumptions and used really bad logic to defend those wrong assumptions.

  27. 27.

    Primary girls still get more articles/year than YM in that rolling 5 year average, but I’m so heartened to hear that they’ve had 0 in the last year.

    A post about modesty that leaves me uplifted and hopeful!

  28. 28.

    Holly, you are very welcome to disagree with Anon For Obvious Reasons–in fact, we encourage you to do so–but your entirely uncharitable reading of her apology and your gratuitous insults (e.g., “go read a few books and try to acquire a more sophisticated vocabulary”) are not welcome on this blog. Further comments in that vein will be summarily deleted.

  29. 29.

    […] the growing trend of female modesty discussions that are happening in LDS church magazines. According to research from friend-of-the-report’s Ziff of ZelophehadsDaughters, the rise of modesty rhetoric seemed to start around the turn of the millennium. Female and […]

  30. 30.

    John, it’s not exactly the same thing, but a Google Books Ngram over the same period (search term: “modest,modesty,immodest”) shows no significant uptick in the use of modest, modesty, and immodest during the same period. (Actually, “modest” starts to fall in 2000, while “modesty” has a small uptick in 2005.) https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=modest%2Cmodesty%2Cimmodest&year_start=1970&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=0&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cmodest%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cmodesty%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cimmodest%3B%2Cc0

  31. 31.

    Hi Bouncer–

    I apologize for the comment violating your policies. Please feel free to delete it.

    But the deployment of the term “offend” can be something of a sore spot among people who are no longer active. That’s often the go-to explanation for why people stop attending church: they took offense at something.

    It’s used as a way of trivializing concerns about real problems, removing any sort of obligation the leadership might have to consider what isn’t working for people, and making it the fault of the person who stops attending: they’re just thin-skinned! They’re too easily offended!

    That’s where I was coming from and what I was addressing. But as I say, if my previous comment expressing that mars the overall conversation, I will totally understand if you choose to delete it.

  32. 32.

    Holly, I was being sincere in my apology. Once again, I’m sorry I offended you or any others. I did not mean to suggest in any way that you were thin-skinned or otherwise sensitive.

    I do, however, still stand by my point, which I evidently communicated poorly. Let me try again.

    Despite all of Ziff’s amazing number crunching, and these fascinating trends he finds, there may be specific things which trigger these changes, and they may well be things which never cross the minds of random blog commenters, and which we would never even consider because the changes were based on private or confidential conversations or personalities or on information that falls within clergy-penitent privilege and cannot legally be shared.

    So my particular example may have been silly, and sure, it may have accounted for perhaps five percent of the change (or fifty percent or zero) — and honestly the increase in internet usage in homes is much more likely to account for all of this — but how would we be able to tell? How are you going to find someone at Church Headquarters to confirm or deny any of these ideas, or otherwise account for the rhetoric change, except in the vaguest of terms?

    Since we don’t and probably can’t know, the next option is to share experiences and brainstorm ideas, and if some of the ideas are partly or entirely fallacious — well, that’s the joy of blogging.

  33. 33.

    Perhaps the uptick is related to the massive uptick in pornography addiction. Regardless, I appreciate the emphasis, as do my kids.

  34. 34.

    […] Teen girls are six times as likely to hear modesty advice in LDS church magazines as teen boys. (Used with permission of Daughters of Zelophehad) […]

  35. 35.

    The pornography explanation is compelling to me just in that it seems like the anti-porn discussion runs on a lot of the same worries about women’s bodies and men’s gaze that the modesty discussion does. So just to throw a tiny bit more of way less-well analyzed data on the heap, I swung by the LDSCG corpus. It shows 185 hits for the string “pornograph*” in the 2000s, up from 78 in the 1990s and 66 in the 1980s (although interestingly, you’ve got 103 in the 1970s — is this when pornographic magazines became widely available?)

    A slightly closer look at just the word pornographic:

    1995: 1 hit
    1996: 1 hit
    1997: 3 hits
    1998: 7
    1999: 11
    2000: 15
    2001: 12
    2002: 6
    2003: 18
    2004: 21
    2005: 36
    2006: 26
    2007: 7
    2008: 8
    2009: 10
    2010: 19

    Clearly (and not surprisingly) there’s a dramatic uptick in the mid-2000s, though I am surprised to see it drop back down a bit after 2005. At the very least, I think the emphasis on mdoesty and on pornography have to be related, whether or not it’s in any tidy causative way. I’d love to see some real data gathered by a real statistician who knows what they’re doing, though, hint hint Ziff Ziff. :)

  36. 36.

    there may be specific things which trigger these changes, and they may well be things which never cross the minds of random blog commenters, and which we would never even consider because the changes were based on private or confidential conversations or personalities or on information that falls within clergy-penitent privilege and cannot legally be shared.

    That’s an extremely opaque statement. What are you actually trying to convey?

    In any event, the hypothetical nature of it all is not especially helpful–or credible. All sorts of things are possible. It doesn’t make them likely.

    How are you going to find someone at Church Headquarters to confirm or deny any of these ideas, or otherwise account for the rhetoric change, except in the vaguest of terms?

    We aren’t going to find someone to confirm or deny any of the ideas, are we? After all, the church is not in the business of explaining or justifying itself. That’s one of the luxuries of claiming that you’re God’s chosen spokesmen: whatever you say is automatically justified by the position you claim, and anyone who questions you is automatically illegitimate.

    Very convenient, that.

    Perhaps the uptick is related to the massive uptick in pornography addiction.

    The massive uptick in pornography addiction is a creation of religion and of businesses devoted to treating the problem they’ve created.

    http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/hollywelker/7599/porn_addiction__a_creation_of_religion/

  37. 37.

    I agree with those who find the pornography explanation the most compelling. I find it far more likely that all this angst about women’s bodies was triggered by the internet (probably in combination with other changing sexual norms) than any actual fashion trend. Looking through my folks’ photo albums from back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, it’s pretty clear that the amount of female skin showing has not increased in any remarkable way. Tube dresses, mini skirts, stomach-baring blouses–you name it, it’s been done before.

    However, I think it is entirely possible that the curriculum developers and the bretheren *think* that women’s fashion has gotten noticeably skimpier. We all know that people tend to remember the past rather selectively. I find it not at all outside the bounds of reason to assume that the bretheren may have perceived fashion trends after 2000 as being unprecedentedly risque, especially fads like the brief belly-shirt craze. That evidence, compared against a selectively remembered past (kids these days!), in conjunction with anxieties about changing sexual mores brought on by social change and the internet–and voila. Modesty in The Friend.

  38. 38.

    Wow. Just imagine how much better off our streets/neighborhoods/cities/world could be if each of you expended the same amount of energy sharing the message of Christ, and building up His kingdom, as you do analyzing and opining on the faults of the Church and those serving therein. What a waste of clearly otherwise intelligent intelligent minds.

  39. 39.

    Frustrated, while the question of how we all might best allocate our limited energies and resources is an excellent one, it’s not under discussion on this thread, or any other. Please confine any future remarks to the topic at hand.

  40. 40.

    Happily, I’m convinced that building up Christ’s kingdom includes taking ethical stock of the way we represent and respond to gender and sexuality, so you don’t need to be frustrated on my account, Frustrated.

  41. 41.

    I agree with Holly that those who have walked away from the church often find their disagreements trivialized through the use of the term “offended.” Thank you Holly for pointing this out.

    As to the topic at hand, my opinion of the church’s stance on modesty is colored by the mistreatment and degradation of women common among religions and cultures preaching female modesty. Having spent time in Afghanistan, where girls as young as six and seven were forced to wear full body coverings (under the pretext of preventing their becoming unbearable temptations to their male counterparts), I have found myself believing more and more that preaching modesty not only teaches women that they are sex objects (in a way males are not), but also teaches men that they are controlled by their sexual impulses and not by their rational minds. I find both of these teachings abhorrent. If we are ever to reach a point where men and women are social equals, it can only be through consistent treatment. Women are not defined by the amount of skin they show, and men are capable of equality if we simply stop teaching them that being a man means viewing women as sex objects. When an authority figure publicly asks women to cover themselves for the sake of modesty, the underlying implication is that men are only capable of viewing women through the lens of sexuality.

    My extremely biased opinion (based on nothing more than my own slant so take it for what it’s worth) is that around the time of this uptick in modesty propaganda we saw a leveling off of women (by percentile) in the workplace, and “traditional” institutions began to realize that feminism was no longer a fringe message. The best way to relegate women to their traditional gender roles is to tell them about why they are different (take this as “less than” in a “separate but equal” sort of way) than men.

    Every woman I spoke to in Afghanistan (I wasn’t allowed to speak to many of them) told me that they liked their head to toe covering. They told me that they were fulfilling their promises to God, and that they needed to protect men from themselves by not allowing women to become sexual temptations. The prevalent culture and religion of the region hit both genders hard and fast and early so that they were literally not capable of asking themselves whether they even should be equal.

    Thank you Ziff for this. Statistics are an amazing tool to help define issues so that we can talk reasonably about them.

  42. 42.

    Ziff, I overheard two conversations about this post — both enthusiastically positive — in casual settings at MHA yesterday. It was clear from their vocabulary that no one in those conversations is a regular reader of the Bloggernacle, so somehow word of your post is getting around .

  43. 43.

    Thanks for letting me know, Ardis! That’s pretty cool!

  44. 44.

    What fMh Lisa said!

  45. 45.

    Holly, it may not be politically correct to say that pornography addiction is real, but there is certainly scientific evidence for it:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3050060/

  46. 46.

    More:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3975913/
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3960020/

  47. 47.

    Hey anon too–

    Thanks for the three articles by Donald L. Hilton, Jr., MD, all saying that he thinks pornography addiction is real.

    Researchers and scientists aren’t objecting to the tendency of clergy to simplistically and immediately label pornography consumption as addiction out of “political correctness.” They’re objecting because it doesn’t actually fit the ways most users of pornography consume it.

    If there is such a thing as pornography addiction, identifying and treating it would be greatly helped if churches would admit that not all pornography use constitutes addiction.

    Lately I have interviewed some neuroscientists who study what religion does to the brain. One of Hilton’s articles discusses compulsive behaviors; religion is an area where people often display compulsive behaviors. I realize this isn’t a politically correct position, but still, the fact remains, perhaps religion can also be a form of addiction, and perhaps we should do our best to help people recover from it. It could relieve a great deal of suffering.

  48. 48.

    Why does it matter whether the trend is caused by belly shirts or the internet or the church’s current obsession with porn “addiction”?

    It’s wrong. It objectifies women, teaches women that they exist only in relation to men and that their autonomy is less important that men’s comfort, teaches women to be ashamed of their bodies, teaches men that they can’t be expected to control their urges or respect other human beings, and it directly contributes to harassment, victim blaming and rape culture.

    So- the church is doing something wrong, and it has been doing MORE of that wrong thing since 2000 (and in a more sexist manner than before). Proving that the trend exists is really helpful in getting people to talk about it, but the goal of talking about it isn’t to figure out why it happened… the goal is to figure out how to end it.

  49. 49.

    Great point, Justine. The point of this post was really just to provide evidence that it’s not just in our heads that modesty rhetoric has been on the upswing recently.

    FWIW, I think the people who have argued that it’s associated with porn rhetoric. After all, if women are porn when they dress “immodestly,” as Elder Oaks said, then it makes sense to tell the YM not to look at porn and the YW not to *be* porn. It’s a depressing thing to see, but there’s a consistency to it.

  50. 50.

    Yeah, I’m inclined to agree that it’s due to the upswing in porn rhetoric (is it too inflammatory to call it the upswing in porn hysteria?).

    It just seems like everybody speculates on why, and for half the people it’s because speculating about why serves to justify and excuse it and distract from talking about how wrong it is… and for the other half it’s because absolutely nothing we can do or say has a ghost of a chance of stopping it, so why not just argue about why it’s happening?

  51. 51.

    If there is an actual link between emphasis on our YW/women’s dress and pornography that itselt would be the most damning evidence of how the male gaze and male experience is driving our policy and doctrine. I am sorry but almost all the modesty policing I have seen in my Mormon life was over things that in no way approached pornography. The idea that tank tops are pornographic is just so….so….wrong. Or 8 year olds in sun dresses. Pornography and sexuality aren’t the same thing and certainly shorts above the knee aren’t pornographic. I would suggest that part of the pornography problem in the church comes from overemphasis on girl’s bodies and the shame for normal sexuality we drive into our culture. We are conditioning are young men to think of girls and women as sexual objects which is much more closer to pornographic than an off the shoulder prom dress. Clearly Elder Oaks and some others have made that link pretty clear but lets hope that is a minority view.

    I am teaching my boys first and foremost to see and treat girls and women as people, daughters of God. If they do that it won’t matter if the girls in their life wear a sundress or short shorts. It should help them understand why pornography is wrong and to be avoided. Because it largely turns people into objects for the desire of others. I will not teach them to modesty police women. It is just another way for them to be treated like objects.

    This leaves room to acknowledge they will find girls attractive. That the will have sexual feelings toward women. Those are not wrong. How you respond and act on them can be, but they are not wrong. They are healthy and normal. And you know what, if they slip up with the law of chastity so be it. That is what the atonement is for. However, I think they will be less likely to slip up if we don’t ingrain them with sexual shame and the treating of women’s bodies as dangerous. Focusing them on treating all women as daughters of God first and foremost is a much more effective and more importantly much more TRUE.

  52. 52.

    […] blog  “Zelophehad’s Daughters” posts the number of “modesty related articles” in church magazines by year.  One can […]

  53. 53.

    Re: the musings that perhaps the uptick in modesty articles was due to fashions showing bare bellies–what the heck is wrong with a bare belly? It’s an abdomen, for pete’s sake, we all have them, belly buttons included.

    (Now, after having four pregnancies, the sight of *my* bare belly would be cause for consternation, but not because of modesty.)

    And the wondering if perhaps the uptick in modesty articles was due to the public being aware of internet porn–if that was true, then why not just have articles on avoiding internet porn? (I know those articles existed, but to the same degree as the modesty articles?)

  54. 54.

    […] Increase in Modesty discussion in Church Magazines, Zelophad’s Daughters […]

  55. 55.

    […] Increase in Modesty discussion in Church Magazines, Zelophad’s Daughters […]

  56. 56.

    […] what exactly is modesty? It’s really interesting, considering the increasing emphasis in the current church, that I wasn’t really able to find anything in the scriptures […]

  57. 57.

    […] a recent Ensign (Ziff at Zelophedad’s Daughters wrote two interesting pieces on modesty found here and here). Now we take a a quick look at modest rhetoric in General Conference from 1850 – […]

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