I have strong feelings on the subject of Mormons’ misguided love affair with the concept of “modesty” but I thought I’d just keep them to myself. I did a good job of it, too, until something was said in Relief Society that nearly set me seizing with silent rage. The discussion was about how and why to protect our children from the evils of the world, and one woman, a high school teacher, asserted that when her female students aren't dressed "modestly" (ugh, that WORD) it “always reflects the fact that her parents are vulgar and promiscuous.” Her exact words.
I was seething. I should have spoken up, but I was honestly so stunned by what had been said that I just sat there under a black cloud in angry rumination. This touches on almost every single thing that I take issue with in church culture. The harsh, ignorant judgment of people who don’t share our religious ideals. The assumption that others –non-members!- should somehow comply to our standards (and if they don't they aren't good people). The fact that the discussion then lingered on what women should wear in order to reduce the lust they incite in men. Wrong, wrong, wrong. (Did you know that in areas where women wear the burqa, men sexualize their eyes?) And the use of UGH, THAT WORD “modesty.” Look it up in a dictionary – it has a whole lot more meaning than the definition the LDS culture exclusively attaches to it.
I can’t voice my thoughts on this subject as intelligently or eloquently as others have (see here especially, and don’t miss the comments; I love the emphasis on the other meanings of modesty that are so quickly overlooked in our measuring of inseams), but I am better-than-average at making lists and I have feelings – SO MANY FEELINGS – on the topic of the cultural LDS view on bodies, skin, and clothing, so here goes.
I will begin any discussion even remotely referencing bodies with 1) WE ARE MADE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD. Our bodies are not pornography. They are not inherently shameful or evil; they reflect divinity and glorify God. That is what I will teach my children, and if anyone gets in the way of that message I will mow them down.
2) Endowed members of the Church are the only people who have covenanted with God in the holy temple to wear garment-concealing clothing. Everyone else – non-members and unendowed LDS adults, teens and especially children – have not willingly vowed to God to wear the holy garment, and therefore are not constrained by any law in heaven to wear clothing that covers their shoulders to their knees.
My friend in our old Tucson ward had a similar experience to the one Tracy M. describes in the blog post I linked to above: She had been baptized as a child but was never a part of the culture. Her second week back at church after 14 years’ inactivity, multiple women pulled her aside and told her she wasn’t dressed “modestly.” What she’d been wearing was a perfectly respectful and demure sundress – something that wouldn’t have been out of place in any other church. When Chelsea, mortified, confided this to me I told her it was none of their business what she wore and that they had no right to judge her clothing against their personal dress code which was made by covenant. She would have figured out the cultural norm eventually, ladies. There was no need to make her feel even more out of place.
I will certainly encourage my teens to wear age-appropriate clothing that isn’t overtly revealing. But 3) what’s appropriate for a teen to wear and what’s appropriate for an endowed member of the church to wear are miles distant.
4) CHILDREN CANNOT BE “IMMODEST,” period. I distinctly remember playing in an outgrown nightgown as an 8 or 9 year old and my dad admonishing me for being immodest when my underwear inadvertently showed. I’ll never forget the burning embarrassment and that sudden feeling that I had done something shameful, and I will not fetter my own children with those same adult projections.
My sister Corinne, a member of the Primary presidency in her ward, is sort of my hero for refusing to teach the “modesty” lesson. She wasn’t going to stand in front of a room full of children and tell them to cover their shoulders for any reason other than protecting their fair skin from the sun’s rays. I’m not advocating triangle bikinis on little girls (because it’s a mature look, not because it would make them ‘immodest’), but the far extreme – dressing a toddler in garment-appropriate clothing for fear of a man gazing too long at her shoulders – THAT is sexualizing a child, and it’s flat-out wrong.
5) More clothes does not equal less suggestive! Extra fabric does not necessarily make something less revealing! If you don’t believe me, go take a gander at the swimwear that BYU-I mandates for all pool-goers. For the women, threadbare, unsupportive one-pieces that gap wide open in the front if the wearer is doing anything other than standing still and erect. And for the men (oh gosh, I should have taken pictures) - translucent, clingy shorts that suction unrelentingly to penises upon exiting the water and leave absolutely nothing to the invagination-excuse me- imagination. My husband would literally have been showing less if he were wearing a Speedo; me, a sporty tankini. SKIN is not the enemy.
I’ve included side-by-side photographic evidence to further this point. This isn't a statement on whether or not these looks are right or wrong (well, except for the frumpy flesh-colored t-shirt with two inch nipples stabbing through), I'm just reiterating that how suggestive an article of clothing is isn't directly proportionate to the amount of fabric that went into making it.
Frankly, I don’t know the fix. Somehow our culture ran rampant with this idea that we can judge someone else’s works by the length of their sleeves and that a girl’s virtue is tied to her hemline; that the unendowed are obligated to follow the same dress standards others have willingly taken upon themselves by covenant in the holy temple, and that there’s something inappropriate about a child’s bare shoulders.
I unquestionably disagree.