Growing up in a family of California hippies, I saw a lot of barely-clad bodies. It was not at all unusual to see my parents fresh from the shower, or even their friends swimming naked in the lake where we would vacation in the summer. I recall many a bath in the galvanized apple tub at the family farm- the only order was the dirtiest kids went last- with our moms waiting to wrap our slippery naked bodies in terry towels and sit by the fire before being tucked off to bed.
We were taught about inappropriate touching and respecting others, but those lessons were never tied to our clothes or our nakedness. It was perfectly normal to see a friend’s mother breastfeeding out in the open- there were no blankets draped over babies heads or removing oneself to another room- or, unimaginable, a bathroom- the mothers simply fed their babies.
This upbringing might not be for everyone, but I think partly because of it, I am comfortable in my own skin, and have a fairly healthy body image. Because skin was not something to hide or be ashamed of, it became something of a non-issue. I cannot ever recall looking at the way someone was dressed- or not dressed- and thinking anything value-based about that person.
I share this to illustrate the difference in what I experience now.
It’s been almost nine years since I joined the Church. It’s been a very good thing for me and my children, and I’ve written about it extensively. I value many things about the Church, and I hold the Gospel dear and close. But because I have, as an adult, a very clean line of Before and After, there are issues that have become clearer over time. One of those is the discourse on modesty.
Before I joined the church, I considered myself modest. I lived a simple life, devoted to my small child, in a home my husband and I could afford. We were not flamboyant or ostentatious and we lived within our means, on one income, even before joining the Church. I tried to carry myself with dignity and deal with my fellow man with kindness and fairness. I did not strive to make situations or circumstances about me- all of these things I considered living a modest life. Modesty was simply a part of who I was- and had nothing whatsoever to do with the length of my shorts or the cover of my shoulders.
When I first started attending church with my baby, and I remember this clearly, I wore a sage-green linen dress in which I felt very pretty. It was comfortable enough to make chasing a crawling baby practical, yet still nice enough that it felt special. It was also sleeveless. On my second Sunday at church, it was quietly whispered to me by a sister that I might want to wear a t-shirt under my dress. Sitting in the folding chairs in the back of the stake center holding my squirmy infant, I looked around and realized, suddenly slightly embarrassed, that I was in fact the only woman with shoulders showing.
That whisper– meant, I suppose, as a favor– was the beginning of a shifting change that I have felt powerless to stop. The following Sunday, I switched to a blouse and skirt, and never wore that dress again. But something had changed besides my clothes. I was now aware that there was a “standard” to what I wore, and that others were watching me. It wasn’t about what I felt good in anymore- there were rules and even if I didn’t understand them, I was expected to follow them. And despite myself, I was watching suddenly, too.
Where I never noticed skirt length other than how comfortable it was, “helpful” friends were now pointing out clothing that was inappropriate. Dresses, shirts, tank tops and shorts all were culled from my closet- despite my having not been to the temple. With this attempt to dress me by this new definition of modestly, my genuine modesty of person was replaced with a fixation on a superficial modesty of shoulders and knees being covered.
My consciousness was brought down to a more base level- where once I would not notice a girl’s shorts, or think twice about putting my infant daughter in a sundress- suddenly I knew others would be watching. I believe it is impossible for a child to be immodest- and yet, I was told over and over that I should dress my daughter as she would need to dress later in life, lest she have to unlearn bad habits.
Now, nine years into my church journey, I find myself resentful of the change wrought in me by this messed-up idea of modesty. I find it absolutely immodest that sleeve length on a prom dress is considered the marker of a girl’s virtue, rather than the sparkle of her eyes and quality of her character. I find it absolutely immodest that the lines of my underwear can be seen by other church members and that I can be judged or questioned based on knowledge and presence of those lines. I find it absolutely immodest that little girls are told to be modest, and not left to be innocent children finding joy in the movement and glory of a body unencumbered by the projections of others.
I wish I could erase this twisted idea of modesty from my experience. This modesty fetish has perverted the idea of true humbleness into a niche clothing market. I wish that I could go back to never noticing the clothing options of my friends, or worrying that mine might again be wrong. There are a lot of things this Church does right, and tremendous value and good that come even from the culture- but the broken idea and definition of modesty is simply wrong.