More On Modesty

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.

 

 

26 thoughts on “More On Modesty

  1. 1

    The scriptural understanding of modesty is about pride, costly apparel and jewellery, and looking down on the less fortunate.

    The conservative worlds interpretation is about length of dress etc.

    In the world and of the world. We have adopted the culture just like with racism.

    How would women dress if they didn’t have old men to tell them? Would that be more or less of a problem?

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    I love every word of this and could have written it myself, were I a better writer. 🙂

  4. 4

    I second your entire post, and would like to add to what you said here:

    “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”

    This inverted form of sexually oriented objectification has some intense byproducts that, ironically, can often thwart the role the church tries to mold YW into taking, namely the sex-requisite roles of wife and mother. You cannot teach a woman to use her (suppressed) sexuality to control male goodness (and define her own) during her peak years of sexual-identity development, and then expect her to functionally reverse that at a time YM/RM’s are promised ‘you can have lots of sex now after all those years of wanting it!’ without negative side effects.

    YW are taught a sense of passivity in a lot of senses, for example, YW Manual 3’s lesson is titled ‘preparing to be an eternal companion’ whereas the YM corollary is titled ‘choosing an eternal companion’ (perhaps of note: one of the top suggestions of things YM should look for in a mate is, apparently, unselfishness). Not only did I feel like I was something YM were simply looking at (and hopefully my calf length skirts stopped them from ‘self-abuse’), but I was something YM were going to choose. My job was to be ready to be plucked, like the rare flower atop some weird mountain or virtue that David O McKay well-intentionedly encouraged me to be.

    I think that, due to the bisect of physiology and our culture, it’s easier for YW to learn to subvert their sexual development; I’d argue it takes less self-learning for a boy to discover his sexuality than a girl, and a patriarchal curriculum solidifies this, making pariah’s of girls who feel sexual at all. I’ve wondered before if the church had switched tactics and taught YM (who are often characterized in church as the less passive of the gender) to prepare to be chosen, and encourage YW to be more proactive in getting what they want, the modesty onus would feel less burdensome. Anyway, the point I was getting at here was that conversation and instruction about the fact you are, as a human, sexual, and that you need to manage this part of yourself appropriately, is indeed For Young men Only.

    Anyway. Point is that I agree that modesty should not be linked to sexuality, let alone used to manage it. This approach, coupled with Mormonism’s asymmetrical view of genders, subsequently leaves women objectified culturally and desexualised personally. No matter how hard patriarchy might claim this is socially beneficial, it is neither effective

    In a church that sees gender asymmetrically, the natural consequence is for women to be objectified culturally, and desexualised personally, often estranged from their own bodies. It’s unhealthy for women to be encouraged to sanctify their ignorance regarding their sexuality and corporal self-assurance as a virtue.

    Apologies for the essay.

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    As someone who tried to say this to you when you were in your teens I agree with this: “maybe it’s too much for the average teenage girl to understand”.

  7. 7

    Petra – Of all the amazing and insightful posts about modesty, this is my favorite. If I were a choir, I would sing the hallelujah chorus. You have rounded out the collection of modesty essays to embrace the swath of “plain sarcastic nerds” that comprises at least a third of my all-girl youth Sunday school class. I love you for this.

    Like you, I swim. Being on the swim team in childhood and in high school did amazing things for my self image. Not just “feeling weightless and free in a pool’ but, exactly what you describe in the locker room: we were just a bunch of women of different shapes and sizes who loved to swim. Our bodies were fabulous because they were vehicles that moved us through the water. I still love swimming to this day for the same reasons. It feels like flying to me. And dancing.

    Thank you so much for this brilliant work of heart and soul. And body. God bless and Merry Christmas!

  8. 8

    Hear, hear – all of this! Thanks, Petra, I completely relate. YW don’t grow up in a cultural vacuum. We are all, teenager and adult woman alike, constantly bombarded with messages of our own embodied inadequacies. When I look back, the idea that modesty as sexual deterrent – a weird concept – could possibly apply to a normal teenage girl like me was, well, beyond my realm of comprehension. It literally never crossed my mind that any of my guy friends would look at me that way, let alone the handful of YM in my ward.

    I would love it if we stopped teaching a body and appearance-centric modesty and focused instead on broader concepts like kindness and Christian discipleship. More than anyone, YW need a Sabbath break from the barrage of constant critiques and cultural obsessing over their bodies.

  9. 9

    This is, in my view, a very important aspect of the modesty issue — the disparate impact of modesty rules and enforcement practices as experienced by different (physically) kinds of women, and what that disparate impact says about how we as a church/culture value those different kinds of women.

    I would like to know and hear much more about this and hope this discussion continues.

    Specifically, for example, I have wondered whether modesty rules require clothing which looks good on rail thin women but not is not complimentary or readily utilized by curvey or average weight or heavier girls; for example a longer skirt may look good on a skinny woman but not on a curvey woman, or a buttoned up-to-the neck blouse may work for a rail thin woman but not a woman with larger breasts.

    And when it comes to enforcement of modesty standards (a very problematic area) the question arises whether women who are curvey etc. are targeted disproportionately; for example skirts may be perceived as shorter if they are on a curvey woman than if they are falling down flat on a non-curvey woman; similar issues may arise for blouses and breast size.

    This is important because what it translates into all sorts of bad implications, including (1) marginalization of certain women; or (2) straight-up misogyny — punishment and suppression of womanliness (and its physical manifestations eg curviness, etc.).

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    I liked your article 🙂 what I don’t understand though is why people believe it’s the church’s duty to teach young women about their bodies? Parents need to take an active role in this as well. The church teaches about modest dress and keeping our bodies sacred and covered. It’s up to the parents to teach about sexuality, confidence, exercising as well as modesty and purity. It’s sad when people blame school or church for things that parents should be teaching.

  12. 12

    Is there a modern day culture or church in the world that is ‘doing it right” with respect to modesty? I see a lot of finger pointing towards the church and the YW/YM organizations. I don’t think it’s so much the organizations as it is the individuals who teach in those organizations, very often are the parents of the teenagers themselves. I keep waiting for someone to hold up another church’s approach, or some government or state, where a poster says modesty is handled well. However, I haven’t seen an example of “good” used as a reference, yet. It’s hard to compare LDS women perspectives on sex to the world at large because, for the most part, chastity is not emphasized by the world. By and large, I would say LDS men and women have the same kinds of body image problems and sexual dysfunction as other people. In other words, whenever someone complains “the church” made them this way, I think I could find someone outside the church with the same issues who would say their church, parents, family or school “made them” the same way.

  13. 13

    ^ I’ve found a difference between myself and my non-LDS peers, despite us experiencing similar sexual dysfunctions; they feel like they’re making their own mistakes on their own journey, and I feel like I was told to internalize someone else’s agenda that didn’t feel right, and so I’m dealing with fallout from someone else’s mistake that was inflicted on me as God’s Will. And I do mean ‘mistake’, because if the church thought their original teachings were still bang-on, they wouldn’t be changing their curriculum approach so much.

  14. 14

    Great post, Petra! I think this is such a good point you make about the Church and much of the media working from the same assumption about what female bodies are for (to tempt men), and just disagreeing about what should be done about it. And you raise such a great point that from this perspective, does modesty even mean anything if you’re not a stunning beauty who’s prone to tempt men in the first place?

    Rach: “what I don’t understand though is why people believe it’s the church’s duty to teach young women about their bodies?”

    I think it’s pretty clear the Church is determined to be in the business of teaching YW about their bodies, what with lessons on modesty and directives on how many times you can pierce your ears. It’s not something people are agitating for, for them to start. It’s already being done. The question is whether the teaching could be improved.

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    One of my granddaughters wants to go to EFY (a BYU organised programme for youth for a week in school holidays, do you have it in US) because her church friends are going. She is one of 4 LDS students in her high school of 1200. She swims weekly, and plays soccer, and referees soccer. She is 14.

    When the info came home for the EFY it contained a section on dress. For swimming she must wear a one piece suit covered by a T shirt and board shorts which must come to the ground when she kneels.

    Her parents would pull her out because of this, but she is willing to conform to be with her friends.

    Rach 11 We do not believe it is the church’s responsibility but EFY is a church sponsored activity and they have taken it upon themselves. You either conform or don’t go.

    Janie 12. As you can see it is not individuals, but a church sponsored activity that is setting these ridiculous rules.

    Where members are a small minority most of the people we see are non members, and most of them are modest. Women are capable of dressing themselves without the help of old men. So Janie the system that works is where women are allowed to dress themselves.

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    Janie (12), here is one woman in from texas at her husband’s church of christ who is doing a great job of teaching modesty:

    http://jlgerhardt.tumblr.com/post/61400368299/why-i-hate-talking-about-modesty-and-why-i-do-it

    I always see these defenses of the church: “quit blaming the church, it’s all these imperfect people doing it. the church is perfect.”

    yeah, well guess what, if the people in your system are continually bad and wrong and doing certain things wrong over and over, the system needs to be changed and adjusted; didn’t we just have worldwide training meetings and new handbooks because we weren’t doing things as well as we could be and we needed to improve. We could totally do that with modesty and the youth programs. In fact, we wouldn’t even need to do that, just issue a one page, mandatory modesty lesson with sound principles (no shame, blame, etc.) and tell everyone these are the new guidelines.

    Bam. See how easy it would be; but we’re too worried about pointing fingers away from the church that we continue to be content with mediocrity and at times, worse.

  17. 17

    Fantastic article. One of the best I’ve read on the topic. Thank you for sharing, Petra. I was a girl not so different from you and I feel a lot of the same things as an adult.

    And now as a YW leader when I talk about these topics I talk about never letting anyone make you or treat you like an object and caution the girls not to do that to anyone else. We are created from after our heavenly parents- living breathing, glorious people, not things. Our bodies are not ourselves, but a component of them. don’t reduce anyone to only that or see you body only for its present limitations. See yourself: body and spirit or soul for its possibilities which are more than we know now.

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    When I was in my yoga training, my teacher said he would spend about 5 minutes teaching nutrition. He said you can say “I ate this, I should NOT have eaten this, I am bad.” and the other side is, “I didn’t eat this, but I WANTED to eat this, I was good.” He said it is all the same problem. It is on the inhibition scale. He said it is not about good/bad eating but about a change of heart. We need to desire to eat healthy because we WANT to eat healthy.
    I propose the same thinking with modesty. Get rid of good/bad scale thinking. We much each see the beauty and sexuality we all possess as women or men. No SHAME needed on either side of the scale. Not good/bad but just a change of heart to see the beauty of the human body.
    As my husband struggled for years with a sexual addiction, he attributes the teaching, “Don’t look or you might not be able to handle it” as part of his shaming narrative. So he looked and of course he couldn’t handle it- called a self-fulfilling prophesy. It is pervasive on both sides. The narrative NEEDS to change.

  19. 19

    Janie,

    I think you make a good point that there do not seem to be that many cultures or churches that are doing things right with respect to modesty or helping individuals have healthy relationships with their bodies. I also think the Church has some teachings (e.g., gaining bodies is a wonderful part of the Plan) that can be body positive.

    That being said, I think it is appropriate to point out that if our church is going to teach about bodies, modesty, and sexuality, then it ought to do a better job. I think many of our teachings related to sexuality can lead to marital problems, and that this is not a rare occurrence (read or listen to anything Jennifer Finlayson-Fife has said). For a church that has such a focus on marriage and families, this seems to be a real tragedy.

    But I think that as long as men (the ones who write the manuals and give the GC talks) are teaching women about modesty and sexuality, we are always going to have problems caused by the (I think) unintentional bias of the male gaze and male perspective. Until we also have prophets, seers, and revelators who are women, we are going to be missing a key perspective and our teachings will remain problematic in important ways.

  20. 20

    Out of the park. As a mom of two young 20 year olds, I see even more how modesty lessons are affecting people. Our churches obsession goes so overboard with t-shirts over swim suits, short lengths, etc – we might as well do the Burka thing. Heck my shorts during my teen years were shorter than my daughters are allowed to be.

    One daughter was sent home from mutual because her boys basketball shorts were too short. She was only 12. My oldest daughter loves temple work, but doesn’t want to be endowed because she has struggled with her body perception for so long, she doesn’t want to add another layer to her fear.

    So yes, we have a massive problem. The worst part is Darn it our womanly bodies came from Heavenly Father – I guess he’s to blame.

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  22. 22

    A sincere set of questions is below, but first a little context.

    I’m the father of 3: an 18-year-old boy, a 14-year-old girl, and an 11-year-old boy. I’m also the Priests Quorum advisor in my ward. I want to make sure that both my daughter and my boys (both my sons and my Priests) are getting the right set of messages. I tell my boys that they are responsible for managing themselves, and that it is not the YW’s job to make them chaste in thought, etc. I tell them that sex is a great thing in the appropriate setting. I try to teach them to be healthy in all respects. I really try to make clear to them that they alone are responsible for their actions, and that the Lord can and will and wants to help them manage themselves and their impulses.

    My wife and I are trying to deliver substantially the same set of messages to our daughter: sex is great in the right setting, she’s responsible for her own self-management, and the Lord wants to help, and that she should strive to be healthy physically, emotionally, spiritually, and in terms of her own self-image. Naturally she is barraged by all the things that have been described very well here, and we find it is a struggle to keep our message at the top of her mental news feed, perhaps like some of you.

    Here’s the rub, and what makes it all kind of tricky for me: as a former YM myself, it actually does make it a little easier to avoid sexually objectifying women when they are dressed according to something akin to the church’s standards. Again, let me be clear–I know it’s not “her” job to make me chaste–but, it does make it a little easier.

    Then, in reading this thread, I thought of how I teach the Word of Wisdom to my Priests, my kids and to my friends outside the church. Rather than focusing on what we do and don’t consume, and rather than talking about the vagaries of “medical evidence,” I focus on the words, “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints.” In essence, as a community, we have all agreed to avoid certain things in order to protect those who would truly be harmed by them. Many people can drink a glass of wine from time to time and be unharmed by it. But every so often there’s a person who drinks a glass of wine, and then can’t stop. To protect that person, we all agree not to drink at all. I think it is a profound act of charity, and a typically missed opportunity when teaching this principle.

    So here are the questions:

    1. Is there a way in which our mutual agreement to “dress modestly” is akin to our mutual agreement to follow the Word of Wisdom? If we all–men and women–agree that we will dress in a way that is designed not to arouse unnecessarily or overtly, and not to over-sexualize ourselves–are we not in some way trying to help one another? Is it not possible that it is a help to the weakest of all? Would teaching it this way to both our YM and YW be of any help?

    2. I have read in various places that women are, on average, (not uniformly, but on average) less aroused by visual stimuli than men. A) Is there anything to that? B) If there is, does it come into play in this conversation? C) If there is something to A, and we are ok with incorporating it into the conversation, and in the spirit of 1., then is it possible that there’s a seed of truth in what we teach our YW about how they dress–that they actually are being helpful to their male counterparts’ efforts to manage themselves? And, finally, what would be a complementary action men could take to be of assistance to women in their personal efforts to manage themselves?

  23. 23

    A) No, there is not. The science demonstrating men’s supposedly greater capacity for visual arousal is seriously flawed, because most of it for decades was entirely male-centered. Here’s a decent summary: http://brainblogger.com/2014/05/20/brain-sex-in-men-and-women-from-arousal-to-orgasm/

    So, no, we don’t need to tell the girls to cover up to help the boys out. We just need to teach all of them to treat each other as human beings first. Honestly, I think we’d be better off saying absolutely nothing about appearance to our girls–let church be the one place where their spirits and their minds are more important than their bodies. I strongly suspect that being treated that way would solve more modesty problems than a hundred lectures on hemlines.

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    Kristine, thank you for the references. They were interesting reading. And I share the belief that the way our YW are taught to think about themselves and their bodies is extremely problematic, sending mixed messages which are often all bad. And I think we have frequently, perhaps typically failed our YM in the way they have been taught.

    At the same time, I think we need to say something to our membership, make and female, about appropriate dress. I am happy, even relieved, to jettison the notion men respond in significantly different ways to arousing stimuli. But one response to that is to say nothing, and another is to continue to look for a positive way to say something helpful. Is there really nothing that we can say that isn’t harmful?

  26. 26

    I managed to post without finishing my thought…

    One of the key messages of the articles you suggested, though they didn’t use these words, is that essentially we do tempt one another, in largely the same ways, including visually. If we are a community who want both to relish the gifts god has given us, including our bodies, in every shape and form, and we want to employ those gifts as he has asked us to, it seems to me we owe it to each other to find a message that includes both celebration of our physicality and mutual support for following the commandments. At least that’s what I’m trying to find a way to do for the youth in my home and my ward.

    Am I aiming at the wrong target, do you think?

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