By all appearances, I was a modesty success story as a teenager. For whatever reason, I was naturally inclined to cover up, squeamish even about changing in front of friends, and by 16 I was, without much prodding, essentially dressing for BYU and, later, garments. I owned no skirts above the knee, nothing too tight, nothing sleeveless, and, through the throes of the 90s midriff craze I layered colorful tank tops under my shirts to ensure no one saw a flash of my stomach.
And yet, any time someone at church started in on modesty, I tuned it out; I had no reason to listen. This wasn’t because I was perfect at modesty—I listened to Word of Wisdom lectures with teenage smugness, confident in my mastery of that commandment—but because, to my mind, modesty was for the hot girls. Modesty lectures, after all, always focused on how we needed to dress modestly to help the young men from unwanted lust, or how we needed to protect ourselves from unwanted male attention, and, therefore, as someone who never got much male attention, wanted or not, it was hard to see how modesty should matter to me. Modesty lectures, like makeover nights, craft activities, and fashion shows, were just another aspect of the YW program aimed at the pretty, popular, feminine girls, not the plain sarcastic nerds like me.
There are lots of critiques of the Mormon modesty rhetoric out there, with many in the Bloggernacle doing it more justice than I can; Julie Smith at T&S outlines some flaws, as does Amelia at The Exponent, as does as does Tracy M at BCC. Yet I can’t resist chiming in: as a teenage girl in America, I grew up bombarded by messages about my body and how it looked–too fat, too thin, too short, too tall, too sexy, not sexy enough. This shouldn’t be news to anyone; sex sells, after all, and I and people like me were as much the product as the advertised goods. The standard in movies and TV was high: if I got it, I should flaunt it. Any power I had was in my body and what men wanted from it, and the media told me I should use that power through sexy clothes and come-hither looks. Pretty was the rent and the world wanted to be sure I paid.
Let me be clear: I don’t agree with these messages. They turn women into objects and men into animals. They hurt the pretty girls by centering their self-worth on their physical beauty, and they hurt the plain girls by focusing their self-worth on their lack thereof. The Church, if it wants to be in the world but not of the world, if it wants to really be Christ’s, can do so much better, and the Young Women’s program, to the extent it gathers the girls most vulnerable to these messages in a safe female environment, is the perfect place to do so.
But that didn’t happen for me. The messages I got in YW seemed like the opposite of the media’s: cover up. Don’t flaunt it. Don’t tempt the boys. Modesty, modesty, modesty will get you the temple wedding of your dreams. The problem is that these messages aren’t really very different; in both, women’s bodies are fundamentally a visual stimulus for men, and only that. The world says you should enjoy that, use it, and indulge in it, and the Church says you should dread that and avoid it, but they start at the same place: the female body is sexual. Women are taught to think of their body primarily in terms of who or what it can attract, not what it can do or feel. And, for an awkward teenage girl who wasn’t having much luck using her body to attract, the modesty rhetoric, and the vision of the physical it assumes, only taught me to tune out. Those years of compliance, those endless lectures and repeated drilling of head, shoulders, knees, and toes just left me disconnected, taught to see my own body only through the lens of the men around me, or, at best, through the lens of the women around me worrying about how those men might see it. Modesty rhetoric was just another place that I didn’t fit—with the prevailing mores of media, with the YW program, with my own body.
I’m in my 30s now, and, thankfully, have shed much of my teenage awkwardness. I’m comfortable with who I am and how I look and even, dare I say it, love my body. I took up sports in my mid-20s and have discovered the addicting rush of endorphins. I swim now, and bike, and run, and wish that someone in my teen years had talked to me about the pleasures of movement, of feeling weightless and free in a pool, or fast and lean on a bike. I walk around naked in the locker room at the pool along with the women on my master’s swim team, and wish that someone in YW had talked about this, about the glorious diversity in body sizes and types, about the casual freedom of nudity without an evaluating gaze, without lines drawn and skirts tucked and knees together and shirts tugged up to make sure boys don’t look. I wish that someone had talked about women’s bodies without focusing only on sex and attraction, about what women’s bodies can do and how they can feel the sensual pleasures of delicious food and warm fires and a good long run in the rain.
Maybe that’s too much to ask from the Church, and maybe it’s too much for the average teenage girl to understand, her head still stuck in fashion magazines and music videos and the relentless stream of women on offer in advertisements. If we can’t talk about these things, though, if we can’t treat women’s bodies as anything other than visual fodder for men, if we insist on treating our YW as Barbie dolls with appropriate lines Sharpie’d on, at the very least we should know what this paradigm’s success story looks like: tuned out, alienated, and reminded, yet again, of how she just doesn’t fit.