Perverting Modesty

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.

Comments

  1. Brad Hawkins says:

    Wow, you really nailed it. Modesty has so many more definitions and I’m glad you reminded me of that. Can we tackle “immorality” too? Somehow that word also has only a sexual connotation within moronism.

  2. Amen. “Modesty” has become a strange abstraction, a clumsy marker by which people measure each other’s cosmetic morality, a star for sneech bellies.

  3. I experienced a similar shift. The area in which I’m most bothered is the cultural expectation to wear skirts rather than pants to church. It took me 10 years to find actual church policy on the issue (given back in 1971 and buried until a Wheat and Tares post shared it). I was rather upset to find out how strong the cultural expectation was as, ultimately, the emphasis is on outward appearance as an indication of worthiness.

  4. Thomas Parkin says:

    Amen. Next time, turn back around and say, ‘Sister, I couldn’t help but notice that you’re swallowing a camel.”

  5. KerbearRN says:

    Thank you for this. I agree completely. I am sad about your green dress! But many in the church place value on the clothes over the character (reference here the many frustrated discussions on the “requirement” of white shirts/ties to pass the sacrament (there is none). ). I love the joy of a naked child playing, unfettered by shame. Had this discussion with a “friend” who was shocked when she discovered my 5 and 8 year olds jumping naked on the trampoline. I thought it was innocent, sweet, and quite funny. Her scandalized reaction scared my kids and they’ve never done it again. How very sad.

  6. I really liked this post. I’ve never really thought of how one dresses as an outward sign of worthiness but I guess there are some that feel this way. I have always lived in the mission field other than 6 yrs at BYU. I’ve never cared as much about what people wear especially to church as long as the person had an attitude of respect. If someone’s best is a pair of jeans then so what? If my elderly disabled mom has difficulty with skirts then pants are all right. If someone is visitIng or a new member we welcome them. If someone is an “old” member and exudes respect in what they wear then who cares. However if someone purposely dresses a certain way to provoke a response I’m much less sympathetic.

    Societies have norms. The church has norms. Some people take it more seriously than others. Some will speak to you if you are out of the norm but I think most people don’t worry about it too much. But if there is a norm I would think it would be compassionate of someone to kindly let you in on the fact that there is a standard. When I’ve had nonmember friends attend church I explain in advance that most if not all women wear dresses or skirts/blouses wiith sleeves so they do not feel uncomfortable.

    And I dressed my toddler in sleeveless sundresses and found most moms did too. But as she got old enough to dress herself I did quit purchasing sleeveless outfits. It just made sense to me to teach her when she is young to be comfortable in clothes she can wear garments with so its not such an adjustment when she goes through the temple. But I haven’t touched pantyhose in years!

  7. It is obviously wrong to sit and judge someone else, but I don’t think that means that you have to stop teaching kids to pay attention to how they dress.

    No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  8. mondo cool says:

    This post brings back memories of a process I’ve had to work through on several occasions. Whenever I have encountered rules, standards, values of a group that were not intrinsically my own there has been some degree of discomfort; sometimes because they were wrong; sometimes because they were “foolish;” and many times just because they were being “imposed” on me by the group. I’m not a big fan of being controlled by others, collective or otherwise. But, what I had to learn to do was examine the merit of the idea in itself, and if it didn’t violate my personal integrity and/or if, in terms of religious requirements, it was what I felt God wanted then I had the responsibility to make those values intrinsically my own. Repent a little bit; practice them; study them; do it.
    Too often it is easy to think we are right because everybody else thinks we are right and even though it may be right we don’t know it for ourselves individually, we believe it because everybody else does. As far as I am capable & God permits, I want to know for myself. Ultimately, I have myself and One Judge.

  9. Andrea R. says:

    Amen and amen. Beautifully written.

  10. Sam Brunson says:

    I think one problem we have is that we believe that garments equate with modesty, and we reverse-engineer that into what we think kids should wear. In fact, garments represent a covenant that our kids haven’t made yet. Modesty is important, but dressing as if we were wearing garments is not the same as dressing modestly. That is, it’s neither necessary nor sufficient–a person could be perfectly modest wearing something that wouldn’t cover garments, and a person could be entirely immodest while wearing something that wouldn’t show a hint of his or her garments.

  11. Beautifully said. Thank you. Now, how do we get back to our earlier understanding and practice of modesty (as long as the garments are covered)?

  12. a person could be perfectly modest wearing something that wouldn’t cover garments, and a person could be entirely immodest while wearing something that wouldn’t show a hint of his or her garments.

    This was part of my point. There have been times I have seen a nude person with more dignity and modesty than a clothed one. Modestly is not about garments or a niche clothing market, and treating it as such it perverts the definition of the word. My mind and perception has been altered by the constant attention to bodies and how they are clothed in ways that being around naked hippies never did. I’m not suggesting that everyone adopt nudity, but I am saying that the unmitigated focus on fetishly covering bodies has actually made me less sincerely modest than I was before.

  13. Kristine says:

    “teaching kids to pay attention to how they dress”

    That _is_ the bathwater, Silver Rain. Kids should be paying attention to how they feel, how other people feel, to the wide world around them, to almost anything but how they dress!

  14. Kristine says:

    Lest there be any doubt that we have gone collectively insane about this issue: http://lds.org/friend/2011/06/hannahs-new-dress?lang=eng

    When you’re teaching 4-year-olds to be worried about their shoulders showing, you can be pretty @#$! sure that something has gone horribly awry in the culture.

  15. So then how would you define modesty? And at what age do you draw the line? (This was recently discussed during VT and I feel the sisters completely ignored my statement that because children have not taken the covenants, it’s completely irrelevant to them. Thus I’m asking for advice on this)

  16. The part of this that kills me is when women feel like they even need to be modest when they’re in labor. I have actually heard discussions of whether one should wear garments or not while birthing a baby. Aside from the obvious technical difficulties, I think it’s sad that even during such a celebration of the power of a woman’s body, some women feel that unless they’re covered up for the people around them, they are immodest.

  17. So then how would you define modesty?

    Are you kidding? I think I was pretty clear in my OP. It’s about how one carries oneself, lives one’s life. It’s about dignity and self-respect- and myopically focusing on clothing, (relegated almost entirely to females, which is another aggrivating discussion entirely) is actually the opposite of true modesty. We’ve lost the very definition of the word.

  18. StillConfused says:

    Mormon Women are supposed to give up the “right to bare arms”. I, on the other hand, hold true to my second amendment rights. my cute husband who is as Mo as they come, even bought me the cutest sleeveless shirt that I am wearing to our family reunion. (I did agree to wear the tankini rather than the bikini in the spirit of compromise)

  19. StillConfused says:

    #17… amen sister!

  20. Sam Brunson says:

    Kids should be paying attention to . . . almost anything but how they dress

    I guess it depends on what you consider “kids” but, at some point, they need to learn something about paying attention to how they dress. I agree that 4 may be too young, but we all need to learn the code-switching of clothes at some point. That is, not all young professionals realize that you dress for work differently than you dress for church than you dress for clubs than you dress for movies, etc. Potentially, they can hurt their careers by being oblivious to this.

    And I’m not talking about wearing too little at the office, or talking only about women. Men and women need to be able to figure out what business casual, business formal, etc., are, and when each is appropriate. It’s probably not a discussion that our pre-teens need, but it may well be worth it when our sons and daughters are applying for their first job, or going to college, or somethings.

    That is, while the way we dress is not of principal importance, its secondary status doesn’t mean that we need to entirely avoid talking about it. Just when we do, maybe we should talk about its relative importance (i.e., it’s not the defining part of our identity or worthiness, but it is, nonetheless, at least on the level of lots of other quotidian stuff that we talk about).

  21. Bravo, Tracy!
    For the record, the obsession with covering shoulders and wearing skirts over the knee is a fairly recent one in the Church. When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s in Salt Lake City, all the un-endowed women and girls I knew wore sleeveless dresses in the summer. My senior prom dress was sleeveless (my sister’s, nine years earlier, had spaghetti straps) and I am wearing a sleeveless sweater in my BYU id picture (taken in 1969). The skirt I had on that day was also about an inch above my knees. I don’t know when covering the shoulders became part of the BYU dress code, but it was after 1975, which is when I moved away from Utah.

  22. Sam, the thing is, I think this naturally happens as a child grows into an adult. I was 29 when I joined the church, and even without all the rules on “modesty” being hammered into me as a young woman, and with hippie parents, I had somehow managed to figure out how to clothe myself appropriately for most situations.

    Talking about appropriate spheres for different expressions of professional dress is not even in the same ballpark as what we currently experience.

  23. My wife and I have talked about this too. I grew up in Florida, and we often go on trips to other beach areas. In other places, people wander the beach in bikinis or anything, fat or thin, tall or short, seemingly careless about how they look. It’s much like you describe at the beginning of your post. Our obsession with “modesty” that you describe is carried over into a near obsession with “image”. This even caries over into plastic surgery. To quote:

    Plastic surgery in Utah is so common that Salt Lake City was voted the “vainest” city by Forbes magazine. Don’t believe it? The study looked at the number of plastic surgeons per capita and compared the top 50 cities in the U.S. Salt Lake City has six plastic surgeons for every 100,000 people. New York City has four plastic surgeons per 100,000 residents and Los Angeles has 4.1 per 100,000 people. Miami claims 5.2 plastic surgeons per every 100,000.

    And regarding your dress, the sad thing is that shoulders have nothing to do with modesty at all. It is just the current iteration of what “garments cover” which some people translate into what is “modest” for everyone – little kids included. I understand the idea of keeping our garments covered, but my solution would actually be to change garments. The sleeves on the original garment went down to the wrists, for example. They have already removed 14-18″ from the sleeve of the garment to the silly little cap sleeve that have now. It would be a very simple thing to remove 2-3″ more and make a camisole top that would let you wear your green dress. It would be removing much less than has ALREADY been removed from the arms of garments. And it would NOT affect the marks at all (which are the only essential part anyway).

    I explored this change, as well as a number of others, in a post a couple of months ago. If you’re interested, here’s a link: http://www.wheatandtares.org/2011/05/01/if-i-were-in-charge-change-womens-garments-and-mens/

  24. Sam Brunson says:

    Tracy, while that’s true, not everybody manages to figure it out. It makes me think of a David Foster Wallace piece on code-switching (I think it was in Harpers, but it was years ago), where he comes to the conclusion that the fact that he spoke the same to other kids as he did to adults as a kid meant that he hadn’t figured out the idea of different levels of appropriateness in different situations. I do think that most kids figure it out on their own, but not all do. We shouldn’t see talking about dress as verboten, because it absolutely has its place, but when we talk about it, we should place it into the context of its importance. And, for the most part, I would argue, a modesty talk should be about the same level as an appropriate-for-work talk: it is relevant, has its place, but is neither black-and-white nor of the importance that our current Church discourse seems to hold for it.

  25. “Men and women need to be able to figure out what business casual, business formal, etc., are, and when each is appropriate.” Sure, but that pragmatism and social/business savvy, not modesty.

    I’d be thrilled if we could reclaim both “modest” and “moral” from reductive sexual connotations. They are much more spiritually, theologically, and intellectually demanding concepts than we often allow them to be.

    Beautiful post, Tracy.

  26. I’d be thrilled if we could reclaim both “modest” and “moral” from reductive sexual connotations. They are much more spiritually, theologically, and intellectually demanding concepts than we often allow them to be.

    YES.

  27. Sam Brunson says:

    (To burnish my cred, I should point out that we just got back from a trip to Italy, and, because we dragged my daughters to all sorts of art museums, they have seen more representations of naked men and women than, well, they’ve seen a lot. And I struggle to figure out how to let them know that, no, I don’t really care what their eventual YW’s leader or bishop or whomever says about how they dress, but, in spite of the poor imagined future discourse, the Church is true. But I figure I’ve got a good 7 or 8 years and, given the places I tend to live, it may never come up.)

  28. On a family trip last year, we took our kids to a European beach where people were obviously topless – both men and women. It seemed “different” to them at first (having lived their whole lives in Utah), but within 10-15 minutes they were just as completely natural and open about it as on any other beach. I was good for them to see how other people have more acceptance of their bodies than they regularly encounter here along the Wasatch Front.

  29. Very thought-provoking post, Tracy.

    All other issues aside, we really need to have a deeper understanding of what modesty means at the most basic level and quit using it exclusively to focus on the immoral thoughts running through other people’s minds. That simply changes us from things that act to things that are acted upon.

  30. Great Discussion!
    I tend to disagree wth the idea that modest clothing is not necessary. I personally have always had a strong witness that I should dress modestly even though I am just now preparing to enter the temple. It’s how I feel best in all ways. Sadly, we live in such a sexual world that even a bit of skin will evoke a sexual response in others. Even Adam and Eve were clothed! I do agree that wearing a simple sundress should not be considered immodest if you are, in fact thinking and acting modestly.
    With children, I see my tweenage neice going through a rough time. She is beautiful, tall and has legs for miles. She is used to wearing short shorts and she often comments on the boys and the situations she is put in. If only they could grasp the fact that she is not trying to entice them! But, such are teenage boys and thus, the necessity of modesty in childhood.
    I have many family members who wear “immodest” clothing (although I don’t disagree as they are not members). The number of inappropriate situations I witness between them and even married men seem to be linked to the amount of skin showing! I believe that some feel very different and evoke immodest behavior when they wear clothing that exposes more skin.Like the time my sister-in-law (an active member) bought the shortest shorts she could find and cheated on her husband the same weekend…although that was immodest all around… *sigh*

  31. Ashley, I’m not even sure where to start….

  32. One more quick point:

    Please, let’s quit the silly argument about plastic surgery in SLC.

    When there is a major, **regional** medical facility located in a relatively small city that serves a large geographic area and performs reconstsructive plastic surgery, the number of plastic surgeons per 100,000 people is going to be higher than a huge city like NYC. If everyone served by that facility was counted, the numbers would be very different.

  33. Tracy M said:

    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.

    I feel very much the same way, although I came from a different branch of Christianity rather than hippiedom. I love this church, I really do, but there are things that would drive me batty if I let them (and sometimes I do). And one of them is related to this modesty issue — we place way, way too much emphasis, both in instructional material and in the culture, as to how people look. If I start listing example after example I’ll get upset, so I’ll leave it at that (except to say that I find that Friend article disturbing).

    Tracy M also said:

    [Modesty is] about how one carries oneself, lives one’s life. … We’ve lost the very definition of the word.

    I agree; by conflating several concepts into the word we’ve made it not very useful. “Modesty” in its original sense (and I’m going back to the mid-16th century, so this definitional drift isn’t just a Mormon issue) had more to do with moderation and self-control, which are good things, than with prudery, which is a distortion of something God has given us. Much better would be to teach the principle of modesty (as Tracy M has defined it) than to pharisaically codify it.

  34. I do think what we wear is important. I do think children need to be taught what to wear in different situations. To think all children learn this as they grow up is to assume all children are atune to the social cues that would teach it. They aren’t. This could be also because quite a few adults aren’t clued in , and they have children.

    “I’d be thrilled if we could reclaim both “modest” and “moral” from reductive sexual connotations. They are much more spiritually, theologically, and intellectually demanding concepts than we often allow them to be.”

    Great quote.

    It is much easier to point at the person over there with the tatoo and short skirt than to examine our own hearts. I think it’s human nature to reduce a commandment to a obvious physical marker. It makes it easier, more doable and allows for an us/them thing. It also interestingly slips Jesus out of the equation. If modesty is what you wear, is there a need for a savior to change your heart in this case, or do you just need superior shopping skills?

    I also have noticed that overemphasis on covering up leaves one ill prepared for the bare all that is pregnancy and motherhood.

    That all said..teaching principles is critical..but the world is shouting, over and over what it deems normal. It involves underwear for 8yos with cute sayings written on their bums. Sometimes some specific teaching on other options is necessary. It’s just that our specific teaching has become our only teaching about modesty.

  35. Tracy, it’s simple. The woman saw the shorts; she succumbed to temptation and bought them; she thought, “What can I do in these shorts?” The answer was obvious – have an affair – that very weekend.

    And thus we see that buying immodest shorts leadeth a soul quickly down to Hell.

  36. I agree with so much of what you said. We should be less focused on what we are wearing….that is modesty.
    The only thing I have to add is that when I saw a recent movie where the woman was obviously dressed to turn men on, and she was the only woman in the movie, I saw what the church is trying to do (but failing). Tell women that they are not here on earth to be sexual objects for men’s pleasure. We are people with our own worth as individuals.
    So, as a mother of a 13 year old, as I try to not let the modesty rheteric take over my child’s life view, I think one of the things I will tell her is that when we look at society we see that many girls try to dress sexy to please men and that it is sad when women/girls view themselves as just eye candy, but besides that we shouldn’t be so focused on our clothes.

  37. Kevin Barney says:

    CatherineWO no. 21, President Kimball was the one who initiated the move against spaghetti straps at BYU. Such had been common there and not an issue, as you well describe from your own history, but then he gave an address denouncing them. So women at BYU began to “kimballize” (an actual neologism they came up with) their wardrobes, buying various wraps to put over their shoulders so they wouldn’t show. At some point leaders asked that the word “kimbalize” be deep sixed, which is why it hasn’t persisted in the lexicon.

    Our fetishism over bare shoulders and knees has ironically had the perverse effect of unnatrually eroticizing them. The law of unintended consequences at work.

    (Great post, Trace.)

  38. Ashley…teach your niece to be intimidating. It does wonders for driving away a whole class of men. I sugest tae kwon do and scholarship.

  39. Kevin Barney says:

    Good point about the linguistic drift in the word “modesty” (similar to the drift we’ve experienced with the word “virtue”). English “modesty” originally meant something like freedom from exaggeration, self-control, from Latin modestia “moderation,” from modus “measure, manner.”

  40. I agree so completely, I too grew up with a very healthy body image and my children are being raised that way as well. We have very little concern about nudity over here, my husband is an artist and we all celebrate the body as a gift of beauty. I am teaching them to respect themselves and others, to dress nicely and appropriately for different situations… never caring about who has their shoulders covered. I grew up in the church, right smack in the middle of Utah, and I’m endlessly thankful I had a wise mother who refused to make a fuss about anything body related, and also made sure we learned not to harshly judge others. In my own little family now we are modest and committed temple going mormons filled with faith and testimony… and we love activities like skinny dipping!

  41. I thought that our manner of dress, like the Word of Wisdom, was partly to set us apart as ” a peculiar people”?

    The other day, after a family dinner, my 20 month old daughter was running around in just her diaper, as she often does. I didn’t think twice about it. My husband pulled out some clothes for her from the diaper bag, and it happened to be a little sundress with no sleeves. As soon as it went on, I was thinking, “She needs a t-shirt under that.” Which goes to show that in my mind, it’s fine to be mostly naked, but if you’re wearing clothes, nothing sleeveless, please!

  42. The Panopticon Gaze is male…

  43. Kevin Barney’s observation–that this new puritanism fetishizes those recently-covered body parts–reminded me of this creepy letter that appeared in the Daily Universe:

    http://universe2.byu.edu/node/10467

    I can think of nothing more lecherous, socially dysfunctional, and immodest than some male student getting a (pervy fix masked as a) righteous rush from counting the bare female knees leaving a classroom.

  44. Generally, I agree with Tracy and other commenters. But this:

    I love the joy of a naked child playing, unfettered by shame.

    stuck out at me.

    Once you go this far into redefining modesty for yourself and your family, the neighbors make it their business. Then the school district. And Child Protective Services.

    I would go so far as to say perhaps the church’s totalitarianism on this issue is far weaker than the state’s, because the state can take away your kids–and their bar is very, very low. And if you have a nasty, hateful neighbor who takes every possible shot at you, you’re screwed.

    There’s more at work here than just the church. Society has sexualized everything. There are no more words or phrases that (if you are aware) don’t have some sexual connotation. Example: Tea Party. It wasn’t long before people began calling them tea baggers, and not the kind where you dip the little bag of herbs into a cup of hot water. Another example: Baby/Toddler/Little Girl Beauty Pageants.

    So I agree with @KevinBarney #37 that

    Our fetishism over bare shoulders and knees has ironically had the perverse effect of unnaturally eroticizing them. The law of unintended consequences at work.

    but we are not alone in this; we just draw the line more tightly.

  45. MJ, we are indeed very good at taking some salient element from the culture around us, making it even more salient and potent (over salting it, if you will), and then turning it into a fundamental principle of the Everlasting Gospel.

  46. Before I get to the comments…

    Tracy, thank you, thank you, thank you for taking my rant the other day and running with it. You expressed my thoughts 2000 times better than I ever could. This post is amazing.

    What defines modesty? I’m thinking a McMansion with a 100K car in the driveway is not modest. High priced items like that tell the world “Look! I’m successful”. And in LDS culture, *I believe* success is seen as righteousness. I know that’s going to rub a lot of people the wrong way but it’s absolutely true.

    Wearing a low cut dress that highlights my ample and beautiful busom is not necessarily immodest. Context is important. If I’m headed out to pick up my husband for dinner, I don’t think its immodest to reveal a little skin because I know he likes it. If I’m headed out to a bar/nightclub to get noticed by every man and woman in sight because I desperately need the attention-that *might be* immodest.

    Teaching small children to hide and be ashamed of their body is not healthy. If you don’t believe me, there’s plenty of evidence in the bloggernacle. Young girls will have enough hangups about their body and looks and we (Mormons) add to it with nonsense about shoulders and clavicles being something that needs to be hidden. It’s good to teach your children about clothing, and it’s true that some clothing will generate unwanted that they will be uncomfortable with. Teaching your daughters that some types of sleeveless shirts will generate less attention than a low cut spaghetti strap top is a good place to start.

    In short, modesty doesn’t have a lot to do with clothing and everything to do with how we present ourselves to the world.

  47. Mark Brown says:

    It is worth remembering that in our scriptures, the stratification that results from being overly concerned about clothing and outward appearance is always a reliable marker of wickedness and apostasy.

    I understand that there is a felt need to push back against that big bad wicked World, what with all these filthy hippies running around loose, but srsly. We would do ourselves and others a favor if we could somehow manage to take a deep breath and a step back. This particular obsession is unbecoming.

  48. Awhile back, I had finished a run on my treadmill, and came to sit at the table. My oldest child (he’s 9) told me I wasn’t modest. (I was wearing my running shorts and a sports bra)

    It was a great opportunity to talk to them about modesty- and I’ve since heard my 9-year-old repeat what I said to him… Modesty means dressing appropriately for the activity you are participating in. Obviously this definition leaves out a lot and only focuses on the dressing part, but I think it’s a good start in teaching kids to focus on function rather than what is covered and what is not.

  49. “In short, modesty doesn’t have a lot to do with clothing and everything to do with how we present ourselves to the world.”

    Nailed it.

  50. Cultural norms in the Church, as in society at large, ebb and flow with the times. Sometimes those LDS norms transform into boundary markers, as the word of wisdom did almost 100 years ago. Others become virtual boundary markers like saying thee and thou in prayers or using the archaic King James bible. Not because those norms are inherently good, but because they are distinctive. Boundary markers signal to insiders and knowledgeable outsiders that a person is part of the group (e.g., male yamulkes in Judaism).

    When I was young sleeves on nonendowed women or girls were a nonissue. Given the Friend story to which Kristine linked, it looks like wearing sleeves may be in the process of becoming a Mormon boundary marker.

    I don’t have a problem with boundary markers, but I personally question the appropriateness of sleeves as a boundary marker.

  51. “The number of inappropriate situations I witness between them and even married men seem to be linked to the amount of skin showing! I believe that some feel very different and evoke immodest behavior when they wear clothing that exposes more skin.Like the time my sister-in-law (an active member) bought the shortest shorts she could find and cheated on her husband the same weekend…although that was immodest all around… *sigh*”

    Ashley,

    How did you make that connection?

  52. Kristine says:

    David, I don’t have a problem with boundary markers, either, UNTIL THEY START SEXUALIZING 4-YEAR-OLD GIRLS. It may be that society sexualizes women, even very young women, but with some exceptions on the margins (little tyke beauty pageants, Abercrombie (spit) & Fitch (spit)), American culture generally waits at least until menarche to start making girls fearfully aware of men’s gaze. This is an area where Mormons have inexplicably outdone the world in wickedness.

  53. Brilliant Tracy. I’m going to have my daughter read this. Thank you for opening this discussion.

  54. The April O'Doom says:

    I love this post. Thank You!

  55. #30
    “Sadly, we live in such a sexual world that even a bit of skin will evoke a sexual response in others”

    The Taliban are way ahead of us on this one. Burka time!

  56. Applause. Excellent post. Thank you for reminding me of what I have forgotten from my youth and sharing this well worded perspective with those who never knew it. It is authentic and compelling evidence that something is wrong elsewhere.

  57. Let me tell you what our stake does, because it is truly insane. I live in Lake Havasu AZ. Hottest spot on the nation. Summer is well over 110. girls camp which is often held in AZ temps might be 10 or 15 degrees cooler. Dress code is PANTS. No shorts, no cropped. Pants to the ground. One piece swimsuit board shorts(to the knee) dark colored loose t-shirt. This is girls camp, no boys anywhere. This issues has pissed me off for 11 years we have been in the stake. This is the number one reason we are moving away. I am sure my stake would embrace the bourkha. Girls were even told putting their hair up was bad, because the nape of the neck was too sexy!

  58. Lauren B says:

    Tracy, thank you so much for writing this post! You are one of my favorite authors to read and this is a perfect example of why that is.

  59. Valuable post! I hope many people read it.

    When I was in 6th grade my mom bought me a nice blouse to wear because my class was going to the ballet. It had sheer sleeves, which I didn’t know would be a problem until I got dressed to go. The thought of leaving the house in see-through sleeves started making me sick to my stomach. My “modesty” training was having a physical effect… a psychosomatic effect on my little 11 year-old self. Over shoulders that were under sleeves… that could be seen. That is just all sorts of wrong and damaging to a child. It’s unnatural. I agree that children (adults too, but especially children) should be worrying over what clothing they might wear, and the cut of it, in a way that is attached to their self-worth and that makes them hyper-aware of sexuality long before it is time for that. It is probably just as bad as putting them IN sexualized clothing. This obsession with sexuality and its repression is really unhealthy for all of us.

  60. D’oh, typo.

    “I agree that children (adults too, but especially children) *** SHOULD NOT *** be worrying over what clothing they might wear”

  61. I don’t think there is anything wrong with teaching my child to prepare for temple covenants. My mom taught me, and I was grateful not to have to deal with the angst.

    How is judging a parent for setting that standard any different than them judging you for setting a different one?

  62. And you’re wrong about the sexualization of little girls. Teaching them to cover up doesn’t sexualize them nearly as much as other external factors do.

  63. SilverRain,
    It depends on why you are doing it. If you are telling your children to cover up because they have fair skin or some such, that is fundamentally differently from telling them to cover up because of potential “male gaze.”

  64. I was raised by nudist hippies too, but I was introduced to the church so much younger than you were, Tracy. I was about 12 when I was introduced to the LDS principle of modesty and that was about the time I began requesting that my stepfather wear clothes. I don’t know if it was puberty or gospel principles that inspired the request.

    Then again our family’s nudity was not a sexually-neutral thing. There was no molestation going on, but the kind of noble nude you describe was not something I saw a lot of. I was actively taught that sex is an important part of life and that only emotionally unhealthy people limit themselves. Porn was available for reading at will, in public. I think in many ways my enthusiastic acceptance of the gospel and all of the cultural aspects of the church was half teenage rebellion and half an attempt to balance something that I instinctively knew was way off-base.

    Now that I’ve got kids of my own I strive to respect for and acceptance of the body in the same breath. So far I have a couple of prudes and a few nudists on my hands. Ironically, modesty doesn’t seem to be an easy thing to be moderate about.

  65. For that matter, this hyper-awareness of sex / sexuality / sexiness can really damage relationships. How many married people can’t have friends of the opposite sex because *gasp* it’s dangerous!

    How many girls are actually afraid of their own fathers and other male relatives, not because they’re predators, but because the girls are told “men only want one thing”? (And how is that a healthy underlying assumption for dating?)

    Around 11 or 12, after being trained in this wariness, I wrapped my arms around my dad’s neck affectionately while talking to him, and he gave me an innocent peck… on the lips… and suddenly I was afraid of him, because that was how lovers embrace and kiss. I started kind of avoiding him and closed off to him. For years. He must have been hurting and wondering why his little princess was suddenly shutting him out. And then he became ill, and I started warming up to him again, but he died before I could heal that rift (I was 19). We had been close, before all this. It makes me so angry that this cultural sickness did that to me and my dad. It robbed us of each other.

  66. Mark Brown says:

    We don’t prepare our young people for missions by making them wear white shirts and ties with name tags 24/7 when they are in 2nd grade. We recognize that there is a lot of other preparation that has to take place before they are ready, and the dress code can wait. It puzzles me that we use temple prep as an excuse to tell kindergarten girls they are immodest if they are wearing sundresses.

  67. SilverRain: How is judging a parent for setting that standard any different than them judging you for setting a different one?

    There is an asymmetry involved. If someone in the Church doesn’t see the big deal whether someone’s shoulders are covered or not, I’ve never heard them “judge” someone whose shoulders ARE covered. The flip side, however, is common. All sorts of people judge others and make rules (like for girl’s camp) that shoulders MUST be covered. And that is the big difference.

    If someone has a different standard (ie. covering their shoulders) no one is judging them for that standard – only for attempting to impose that standard on the world around them.

  68. Also–anyone who puts a potty-training girl in a one-piece swimsuit is just asking for trouble. This I believe.

  69. #4, Thomas: “Amen. Next time, turn back around and say, ‘Sister, I couldn’t help but notice that you’re swallowing a camel.””

    Best comment.

  70. Why do we teach modesty (in terms of clothes) at all? I don’t understand why this would be an important to address. If the answer is so that we avoid extreme cases (i.e. halter tops at church), it seems that the culture can take care of that. No lessons required.

  71. I want to stand up an applaud this post. Very well done, very well done!

  72. Tracy, you are so right, and such a better communicator than I. So, thanks for doing this.

  73. I wore bikinis and sundresses as a child, but I’ve raised my children to not wear them. Why? Because of the personalities of my children. My oldest daughter is Asperger’s (we found out later) and change is really really hard for her. For her, it made sense to look forward and establish the habits I wanted in her future even at age 4. Changing the rules at puberty would have been unnecessary stress at a stressful time.

    In addition, the cultural expectation changed, and I’m not the only mom that is teaching my kids to wear clothes that one could wear garments under. That helps.

  74. Kristine says:

    Mike S, Silver Rain,

    Actually, I _am_ judging people for putting sleeves on their children, IF they are doing it because they believe that is the standard of modesty. I think that is a mistaken and damaging belief. And if they are teaching their children that it is “immodest” or “inappropriate” to do otherwise, then they are imposing that shame on my children, even if only obliquely. My daughter came home at age 8 or so having been told by a friend that her sundress was “immodest,” and there is no way I can undo her sneaking suspicion that she is doing something wrong if she dresses in clothes that are comfortable and attractive in the summer. I HATE that she was forced into such self-consciousness–that she lost a bit of her childhood innocence–because of some other parent’s self-righteous hangups.

  75. The young women in my ward are going beyond modest — to dumpy.

    They wear drab colors, long dresses, sleeves down to the wrist, straight hair and no make-up. Lots and lots of layering, even in Summer. They look like Mennonites.

    My daughter (who is 20) indicates that the modesty teaching get received as don’t do anything to entice the young men. It fair to say that they aren’t.

  76. Amen and Brava, Tracy! This is the weirdest thing about Mormonism that I encountered as a convert. It’s not more moral, it’s less moral, and seriously messed up.

  77. observer (fka eric s) says:

    I can honestly say that I’ve never used garment visibility to judge others–other than using them as a way to identify Mormons at Disneyland.

  78. Having your kindergartner dress in garment-covering clothing in no way prepares them to honor temple covenants. It simply imposes an adult dress standard, undertaken willingly and of personal choice and conviction, on a child who is neither willing nor able to make those promises.

    Temple covenants =/= modesty as currently practiced and imposed in our church culture.

    observer, it’s messed-up to me that someone could check out my underwear lines at Disneyland and know my religion. It’s not the same thing as wearing an outward marker, purposely showing your faith, like a yarmulke or hijab. It’s my underwear! It’s not for public consumption. Yet there it is. But that’s another discussion altogether.

  79. In reply to comment #51. My point, which I did not make clear at all…is that clothes can and do affect how we act and what we do (again, not for all, but for MANY!). My sister-in-law I am sure had the idea planted long before that trip to the mall…but…short shorts for a weekend away couldn’t have helped her feel close to her husband or spiritually minded. Certain clothes, not just lingerie, are used to show our bodies and for many women, to purposefully entice the opposite sex. Do I wear them for my husband- YES! In public, no. It’s not just that I don’t want to show others, I never ever want to be put into a situation where I am seen as sexually attractive or heaven-forbid available! by anyone other than my husband.
    Some people, probably most who have commented, would feel fine in any clothing, even no clothing. Sadly, most people do not have the same respect for the human body and sexualize everything. Society is filled with the idea that beauty and your body are to be used as a tool to entice others and I think that is the main reason for the need to dress modestly.
    Also, in reply to comment #38- I think I’ll give her some mace for her birthday!
    PS- I am not in support of burkahs, too hot! ;) nor do I dress like a Mennonite- shorts to the knee and a v-neck T and a cute camisole underneath today!

  80. Wonderful post! My daughter enters YW in 2 years and I’m frightened to death at the messages she’ll get there. I don’t want her to grow up ashamed of her body and being taught that she is in charge of someone else’s chastity.

    Couldn’t agree more mfranti (#46) about how modesty is how you present yourself to the world, not about what you wear. I also totally agree about the conspicuous consumption done by some members that is anything but modest. A modest person does not need to show off their worldly possessions. My great-Aunt and Uncle were millionaires, but I didn’t even know that until after they died because they lived in a very modest home and were not ostentatious in any capacity.

  81. “I never ever want to be put into a situation where I am seen as sexually attractive or heaven-forbid available! by anyone other than my husband.”

    I hope SO badly that this is a tiny minority opinion, but, alas I know it’s not. I truly do respect that as an individual opinion reached by an adult, but as a standard for others . . . wow!

  82. and as a standard for girls and young women? Abso-stinking-lutely not!!

  83. As a college professor who teaches about the messages clothing communicates as part of curriculum (part of Com 100 and 110 – very basic stuff), I so wish more parents were teaching their children to think about what they put on their bodies and what it communicates to other people. I have students who come to class in little more than swimwear and have had to avert my eyes from those who were showing way too much in an embarrassing manner. And then when they are asked to give a presentation to the rest of the class in business casual they whine and complain that they don’t own any shoes besides flip flops and don’t have any long pants. Waiting until high school or college to teach some basic dressing principles is too late IMO. BYU students have a leg up when it comes to this.

  84. My sister-in-law I am sure had the idea planted long before that trip to the mall…but…short shorts for a weekend away couldn’t have helped her feel close to her husband or spiritually minded.

    By the time she was ready to flee, she’d not only had the idea planted, but she’d been making plans. It wasn’t about the shorts and she had no intention of feeling close to her husband or being spiritually minded.

    never ever want to be put into a situation where I am seen as sexually attractive or heaven-forbid available! by anyone other than my husband.

    Why do you think you’re responsible for someone else’s (possible) lustful thoughts about you?

    What’s missing in our culture is the sense that a woman can be attractive without a) being responsible for causing lust in others and b) fear that the woman and/or the unrelated lust-filled person will, perforce, be compelled to fall into bed in a rush of mad humpitude.

  85. Yes. But back to Tracy’s point — to equate “basic dressing principles” with *modesty* seriously dumbs down the richness of the idea. I teach my fourth graders basic public speaking skills — just like how we dress, making eye contact without fidgeting can influence how people view you in the public arena. I don’t conflate these skills with “morality.” Good skills. Good things to think about. Good conversations. Not good vs. evil.

  86. Ashley,
    “I never ever want to be put into a situation where I am seen as sexually attractive or heaven-forbid available! by anyone other than my husband.”
    There is no amount of clothing that you (or your daughter) could wear that will universally prevent this from happening. People fantasize about nuns. In Burqa-land, there is lusty verse about women’s eyes. There is no way to avoid this. Clothing can communicate things, but people are generally aware of that (I’m incredibly surprised that Rebecca is dealing with bathing suits in her classes, but maybe her students are particularly stupid). In any case, clothing doesn’t prevent sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual come-ons, or sexual thoughts in the men around you. Being a woman is sufficient to induce those thoughts in the sort of guy you are looking to avoid.

  87. Mommie Dearest says:

    I grew up in the opposite way than Tracy described in the OP—fairly well trained in Mormon Female Modesty (and modesty is always about females…) which didn’t seem that restrictive when I was a little child, but has become worse over the years, probably a reactionary thing against the enthusiastic dive taken by society at large into the sewer. Growing up in Mormon culture developed in me some garden-variety squeamishness about the exposed human body. What gave me balance is the time I spent in figure drawing class and in museums and art galleries, where it was necessary to discard my attitudes post-haste and relearn a more productive way to see the body.

    Perversion exists, in art and elsewhere, but when you are fearful of things that are truly not perverse, that are completely innocent of anything sexual, or even if you are fearful of appropriate sexual things, you can create perversion where there otherwise was none. I really appreciate this conversation for differentiating between the false modesty of the superficial rules and attitudes and what true modesty really is—guided not by a list of restrictions, but by principles.

    Thanks again, Tracy and BCC commenters.

  88. Kevin Barney says:

    87 Mommie Dearest, speaking of figure drawing class, you might enjoy this old post of mine:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2008/05/18/taking-my-clothes-off-at-byu/

  89. observer (fka eric s) says:

    Tracy, (78), I have not personally decided whether it is or is not messed up that it is visible. So I can’t agree or disagree really. It’s not really my fault that its visible and that I notice, is it? I mean, it’s like any undergarment (e.g. g-string, boxers butt from saggy pants): it’s visible because people (1) wear it and then (2) allow it to be visible (as opposed to covering it up more). If it is any consulation, the guy’s underwear is usually more visible than the womens’ underwear at D land. And the blatantly obvious BYU clothing practically advertise it. Honestly, though, the fact that any underwear (garments or otherwise) are visible doesn’t lead to some sort of judgment. It’s just freaking underwear!

    I think your OP is great, and my wife and I had a long conversation about it this afternoon in connection with a bikini row that is happening in our ward right now. Very timely, thank you.

  90. observer, my rhetoric was general, not specifically directed at you, looking at my undies- just in case I wasn’t clear. It does bother me that people can see my undies, but that’s no one in particular’s fault. The circumstance that engendered that comment was being in temple square before I was endowed, and having people actually, noticeably LOOK at me for lines when I said I was a member of the church. It jaded me.

    Kev, I totally forgot about that post! Awesome.

  91. This might be a threadjack so I’ve waited for hours to ask —

    Tracy, I understand why you would remember the woman who whispered her fashion advice to you, but other than that, where as an adult convert have you been hearing about modesty?

    I remember any number of MIA lessons about hemlines and one- vs two-piece bathing suits when I was a teen, but in the past 30 or so years I cannot recall lessons or parts of lessons or ward pulpit talks with any specific “rules” for modesty, with two exceptions (a bishop spoke briefly — 4 or 5 sentences — about the inappropriateness of flipflops at church, saying they were two casual; and a RS president said — again briefly — that she was uncomfortable with seeing garment marks — the marks, not the lines you and observer have discussed — visibly embossed through bra and blouse). If you were working in YW or if Abby were older, I’d assume you were picking up an overdose of modesty talk through that route. But as an adult? Where are you (and anybody else reading this who is tired of being told that shoulders or knees or whatever should be covered) hearing it so often? I hear it only in the bloggernacle, and often in what I consider to be grossly exaggerated terms. Where am I missing it?

  92. I echo the sentiments of many of the other comments. This is absolutely true. I was having a conversation about something quite similar today with friends. One of them has an 8 year old daughter and they she has already had “the talk” with her. We are so ingrained in culture, in the church, that sex and pornography and immodesty are wrong, that we have a hard time accepting the good and accepted. I’ve heard stories of women who don’t want their husbands to ever see them undressed, or those that feel that sex is *only* for reproduction. Yet, human bodies are amazing things. We should be comfortable in our own skin and comfortable around those with whom we can be intimate. It’s not what we are wearing or how we are groomed, but how we carry ourselves.

    The context, as others have mentioned, is important. When a good friend of mine was in young women’s, her leader took her aside and chided her because she was showing a little bit of cleavage. Yet my friend’s intent wasn’t to show off or to be a temptation. She wanted to dress nicely and not frumpy, and just happened to be a little more ample than some of the girls in young women’s. Her mother was upset — rightly so — because it wasn’t really the leader’s position to question how my friend dressed, when she had parents involved in her life. And a good point: of the girls in the ward my friend grew up in, I believe she was the only one married in the temple. She really did live a worthy, modest life in her manners and action, despite how worried her leader was about some supposed “standard”.

    I remember watching a TV show about Jessica Simpson and how she first started trying to sing in a Christian market as a teenager. She ran into similar problems them. Just because she had a larger chest, they automatically treated her like she was trying to be overtly sexual. Later in her career, she certainly has done so. But at that time, she was just an innocent teenager, and she was punished for the body that she was born with.

    No wonder so many young women have issues with their bodies!

    And I think of modesty now in terms of the standards set for men. By the definitions set at BYU and by many members, I do not fit this definition. I currently have a full beard. As long as I keep it neatly trimmed (which, admittedly, it is due for), I personally don’t feel as if I am immodest. I dress neatly, particularly when attending church. I keep my clothes clean. I may not have the most expensive or most stylish brands, but I try to be modest in this. I am modest in what I drive: I chose the car I just bought because it works well for me, the model and brand have a reputation for quality, and it was something I could afford. It does look nice, but I didn’t buy it to show off.

  93. Tracy, like others on this post I want to thank you for your post. When I was younger I used to help in church activities in lacrosse shorts and didn’t think anything of it (thanks mom and dad!!).
    I hear what you’re saying and agree, but I found myself putting sleeves on my two girls so that we wouldn’t add anymore scrutiny to our family (we are an interracial family and get “the stare” in our new little ward in Orem). Did I want to? No, they looked kind of cute, but “norms” forced me to do it.
    After reading, I want to do something about it rather than appreciate the issue. Kind of tough to do. It will just keep me thinking.Thanks again.

  94. Ardis, I’m going to email you. It’s a genuine question that deserves a genuine answer.

  95. Tracy, that was just beautiful and a great way to define true “modesty”. Thank you for the insights.

  96. Its a good question. Not sure why you are refusing to address it openly.

  97. Because it has to do with specific interactions with individuals whose privacy I won’t abuse.

  98. This is a great post. I’m the YW President in our ward, where we maybe have 6-10 YW show up for Sunday meetings or activities. These girls are all converts, mainly from poorer immigrant families and have a lot of very difficult things going on in their lives. While I love the other women in the ward who I work with and know they have the best of intentions, sometimes I chafe a little when they whisper about how they can’t believe how so-and-so was wearing something with her shoulder showing and how we really need to have a YW lesson about dressing more modestly. It’s one of those “pick your battles” kind of things and generally there are other lessons and values I want to impart to the girls more than shoulder shame.

  99. Many of my friends who married around the same time as my wife and I did are having kids. There are lots of little girls around us, especially at church. Many of them are in sleeveless dresses or tops, and I have as of yet to hear of anyone complain about this. Just thought I’d share this as a small bit of evidence that not everybody in the church believes that infants, toddlers, and Primary-age girls should be taught that modesty is simply a matter of being covered up.

    A non-Mormon friend of mine in nearby community is a member of a roller derby team. The other day she and I were chatting online and she asked me about LDS dress standards, particularly for women. She was curious because there is a member of her team who is LDS and always wears cap-sleeve shirts under her uniform (a fairly standard tank top). I explained that the “general rule would be to dress modestly for circumstances (like, modest swimwear would be inappropriate to wear to church) – keep undergarments covered, nothing revealing or form-fitting.” I also explained that these dress standards are applicable to men, as well.

    It seems that this particular LDS woman is also very outspoken about her being somehow better than others because of her dress standards, which my friend and I both agreed was ridiculous. Modesty, as I have been taught, is all about not drawing undue attention to yourself–being moderate in your actions, not just your dress and grooming. It saddens me when I see men and women in the church who equate modesty with being covered, because you can be totally immodest in a full-body suit. (Anyone else remember Britney Spears’ red jumpsuit?) Rather than telling little girls that they are immodest if their shoulders are covered, we should just teach respect for our bodies; proper dress and grooming will follow when the greater principle is properly taught.

    I am definitely going to add this post to the collection with the four-part series that was posted at fMh back in November.

  100. Mark Brown says:

    Ardis (91), I can give you a partial answer.

    When I’ve had a calling in the ward mission and been involved in the meetings where we make plans to fellowship new members, this topic of their clothing almost always comes up. It is completely bizarre, based on the amount of time we spend on the issue, a neutral observer could conclude that the most important part of fellowshipping a new convert is delegating somebody to make sure the new sister understands that we think she dresses funny, and to tell her to get a new wardrobe. There is lots of gossip about shoulders, pantsuits, and other appalling forms of clothing. I’ve tried to suggest that we have greater things to worry about, but often sisters in the wards where I have lived take this as a personal crusade. Very disappointing.

  101. Thanks, Mark. I believe you, and Tracy, too; I’ve just never — thank goodness — been directly exposed to this kind of private, um, enforcement? transmission? of folk culture? the unwritten order of things? Sometimes our do-gooder busybodies should just be taken out behind the woodshed and smacked.

  102. ErinAnn says:

    Ardis, offhand I can think of two instances in my own life: reading The Friend to my kids, and a recent talk in church (visiting another ward, I think. I have a baby who still wakes me at night so everything gets foggy fast and we’re on vacation.) where the older man spoke in either Sacrament or GD about women wearing dresses that just barely meet the knee and some other drivel.

  103. …this kind of private, um, enforcement? transmission? of folk culture? the unwritten order of things?…

    …that becomes quasi-codified over time and repetition. See: caffeine.

  104. Thank you for a beautiful and poignant post.

  105. Publius says:

    Sorry for not reading all 100+ posts thoroughly before posting, but . . .

    Has it been pointed out that many of the allegedly wrongheaded dress standards advocated by your (admittedly less than tactful) ward members and local youth leaders are to be found in the First Presidency’s “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet? Does that make any difference?

  106. Modesty – referring to clothing strictly and not other aspects of the word – comes down to an understanding of Adam and Eve. (A big chunk of my graduate thesis is about this, so I’ll try to be brief.) When in the garden and innocent – i.e. before baptism and making covenants, being completely naked before each other and before God was perfectly fine. Not only fine, but expected and not corrected by God, nor seen as either sin nor transgression. However, once they entered into covenants with God, the symbol or sign of that covenant was that God Himself specifically dressed them. To be dressed in this manner (the sacred garment as Mormons understand it) is a sign that we know right from wrong and we have covenanted to chose right. So until these covenants are made whether the shoulders are showing or the skirt comes above the knee is totally irrelevant.

    I agree that people judging one another based upon clothing is dreadful and superficial. But you know, it probably happened to you and your family by those on the outskirts of your community. It’s not just Mormons who do that. The judgment of someone’s worthiness based upon clothing is not only wrong in a fundamental way, but stupid and makes no sense. So I’m sorry that’s the culture, but doctrinally until you’ve made the covenants you can wear what you want. (It’s up to each person to decide whether covenant with the accompanying sign of clothing is when one becomes a Child of the Baptism, or when one is endowed.)

  107. Wonderful post, Tracy.

    FWIW, I’ve worn plenty of shoulder-baring attire (and pants) to my husband’s wards when visiting and have yet to have anyone say a word to me about it. Maybe they’re holding back because I’m not LDS, maybe they’re not, but my own experience has been that I’ve only encountered the hyper-modesty police on the Internet.

    I also often send my daughter to church in sleeveless dresses (she’s 5 now). Again, no one has said anything to us about it. Though I do agree with Kristine that the June 2011 article in Friend is pretty awful and would never read it to my daughter.

  108. I’m on a theater committee for a community organization, and while most who participate are Mormon, many are not, especially now that we’ve brought in new blood. Modesty is a big thing and it’s even in the contract that an actor needs to dress modestly with longer shorts and no spaghetti straps for rehearsal. While they tried to enforce this, it didn’t always work with the high school students, especially since leggings are in, so while they’re long, they’re still skin tight and not really modest…..

    Anyhow, I help with costuming, and since the previous year we had an actress wear a sleeveless dress, and because she was comfortable with it, I went with the”If they’re comfortable with it, then they can wear it,” motto. We had many sleeveless, one strapless, and a few one shoulder outfits. Now mind you, a nonmember was over costumes, and if I knew someone wouldn’t feel comfortable with sleeveless, we made sure they had sleeves. All the costumes we picked had a reason why we picked them, and none were overly sexual or scandalous. As the committee member over costumes, on one of our dress rehearsal nights I was asked, “How in the world did So’n So get away with so many immodest costumes?” in a very confrontational and upset tone. I was taken back by it. I muttered something about the actress last year wearing sleeveless, and making sure someone was comfortable with what they were wearing. He replied and later there was a meeting, which I was somehow did not hear about, discussing the costumes and possibly needing to change them, just one day before we performed in front of an audience. I remember hearing that they asked about if the person was uncomfortable seeing the shoulders, or was is the comfort of the person wearing it what they were concerned about, and of course it was more about seeing the shoulders. It was decided that if the person was comfortable, then it was fine.

    I let my daughters wear sleeveless, and admit, there are some family members and friends whom I make sure to have them dress with sleeves for, because they frown upon sleeveless. This year some of my shorts show a little more thigh, and while I still wear garments, I worry that I might be judged for showing more than one inch of skin above my knees, even if I’m still dressed in a modest manner. It’s what others think that makes me worry, not how I feel in my clothes. Oddly it was my husband who first pointed this out years ago, and now doesn’t care.

    I find that I’m having to change my years of being trained that skin=immorality/ unworthiness. Like others have noted, in some ways worrying so much about modesty, or how one dresses, we’ve sexualized our bodies so much that we’re not able to enjoy the true beauty of our body. It’s also easy to judge and place oneself on a pedestal because, “They dress immodestly, and I do not.”

    Also, I love dressing nice and taking pride that I look good. I don’t do it in some sexual manner, but I know men find me attractive, and honestly, my husband doesn’t care one bit and I like not being the frumpy house wife, though I have plenty of frumpy days.

  109. As regards the blog post, I very much agree with comment #8. That can be more difficult for a convert not having as much grounds for comparison. The funny thing is, if the most prudish Mormon among us were to have shown up at Brother Joseph’s house in what we modestly wear today, neither he nor Emma would have been very impressed.

    As regards the Friends story, many years ago–a couple of decades even–when I took a creative writing class at Ricks (now BYU-Idaho) my teacher there mentioned that most of the articles published in the Friend were not written by LDS people. I don’t make that point to say that the articles are therefore bad, instead I would suggest, if you don’t like the articles that the Friend is publishing…if you think the nuances are off or whatever…write your own and start submitting them. Things may very well have changed since my teacher made that comment to me, but as I understood it, they published the best articles that were submitted to them, and at that time, most of said good articles were written by non-members. Modesty is a great topic. So how would you like it to be addressed in an article in the Friend magazine?

  110. Glass Ceiling says:

    Good point, Publius.

  111. Kristine N says:

    Tracy, thank you for this post and this conversation.

  112. Tracy, I love the photo you used. It’s apropos IMO, and its message harmonizes well with your wonderful post.

    And I had to smile a bit because I had just taken a somewhat similar photo last week at a local beach, although there is an age difference and more exposed skin.

    Carefree at Avila Beach

  113. anonymous for this one says:

    Ardis (91), earlier this year in my ward in a combined RS/Priesthood lesson on the 5th Sunday we were treated to a lesson on dressing modestly to set an example to our youth. It was implied that we had a problem with it in our ward, which would be amusing if it wasn’t so ridiculous. The best part was when questions were being asked and one brother asked what the protocol was when he felt a woman was dressed immodestly. Should he tell the Bishop and let him handle it? Blew.My.Mind.

  114. Ugh, this is one subject I just get so sick of.
    How about taking all this energy and heartburn over “immodesty” and use it toward teaching service?
    My youngest daughter is turning 12 this month. The primary girls her age were taught about modesty and setting a good example at a recent stake event while the boys collected food for the food bank. I almost threw a fit! Why not set a good example through service, rather than through clothes? It’s ridiculous.
    And my oldest daughter was giving a two-page document about what she could wear at GIRLS CAMP! How silly and stupid.
    My 14 year old son was told nothing about what to wear at Scout camp other than bring a coat and swim trunks (no mention of the length.)

  115. Churches thrive on peer pressure and neglect the teachings of Jesus, who probably wouldn’t pass the dress code either.

  116. Natalie B. says:

    91:
    I think that as an adult, one picks up on it primarily through observing how others dress. But, there are some places where I’ve heard a direct conversation:

    I was given a lecture about modesty when I went through the temple for the first time. The temple matron was explaining the garments to me, and rather than focusing on any other purpose they might have, explained about how they were all about modesty and a protection from temptation.

    I also hear about it in RS, because people will discuss the challenges of trying to help their children or YW dress modestly.

    I recently heard a talk in which the newly wed expressed how her husband was attracted to her because she wore a one-piece swimsuit. I tend to hear little things like this a lot. Then again, I pick up on them because they bug me.

  117. Kevin Barney says:

    My ward is very missionary oriented, which means that we don’t obsess over these things. I remember one Sunday a woman came in an outfit with not only shoulders but very deep and full cleavage busting out all over the place. And so far as I could tell, no a soul said a word to her about it. If such a person comes back, they eventually will figure out for themselves what typical dress for church is and simply self-adjust. There’s no need for us to publicly embarrass people over what they’re wearing. And there’s no good way to do it. I know if I were that woman and someone told me, however kindly, that I had dressed immodestly, I would be embarrassed and never set foot in that building again. If we want to really be a missionary oriented church this is a little pharisaism that we need to do away with. It shouldn’t be that hard; just put yourself in the position of the visitor and imagine how you would react to being told you’re dress is immodest. A little empathy will help us navigate these shoals.

  118. gleewatcha says:

    Sorry, but it’s simply not true that “most of the articles published in the Friend were not written by LDS people.”–20 years ago or now.

  119. Mike, are you kidding? This thread is rife with judgmentalism!

    Tracy, that’s not necessarily true. Teaching children to cover up for temple covenants CAN be damaging, but it doesn’t have to be. It depends on how it is taught.

    I teach my 5-year-old daughter to cover herself for a multitude of reasons, among them some of the ones being judged so harshly here. Sexualization of children is a fact of society, and I prefer to teach her to be aware of how she is viewed by some. I make sure to accompany that with other principles she can use to make her own decisions.

    To pretend that children of any age are free of exposure to immoral and abhorrent behavior (such as being seen as sex objects) is hopelessly naive. I would rather prepare her as it becomes necessary than shield her from the realities of life.

  120. SilverRain, the last thing I want to do is teach my daughter, at five, to think of how she is viewed by the the abstract idea of others. I will protect her, as an adult, by not bringing those adult issues crashing into her innocence. I will allow her to be a child, unencumbered by adult projections, as long as I can. And at five, I still can.

    I am not naive. I am protecting her by NOT letting the immoral and abhorrent behavior of others be a part of her world until she is old enough to understand it. There is nothing you can say to convince me that five years old is that time.

  121. Brian Duffin says:

    I have always appreciated what is taught in “True to the Faith” about modesty:

    Dress and Grooming

    Prophets have always counseled us to dress modestly. This counsel is founded on the truth that the human body is God’s sacred creation. Respect your body as a gift from God. Through your dress and appearance, you can show the Lord that you know how precious your body is.
    Your clothing expresses who you are. It sends messages about you, and it influences the way you and others act. When you are well groomed and modestly dressed, you can invite the companionship of the Spirit and exercise a good influence on those around you.

    Central to the command to be modest is an understanding of the sacred power of procreation, the ability to bring children into the world. This power is to be used only between husband and wife. Revealing and sexually suggestive clothing, which includes short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, and shirts that do not cover the stomach, can stimulate desires and actions that violate the Lord’s law of chastity.

    In addition to avoiding clothing that is revealing, you should avoid extremes in clothing, appearance, and hairstyle. In dress, grooming, and manners, always be neat and clean, never sloppy or inappropriately casual. Do not disfigure yourself with tattoos or body piercings. If you are a woman and you desire to have your ears pierced, wear only one pair of modest earrings.

    Maintain high standards of modesty for all occasions. Do not lower your standards to draw attention to your body or to seek approval from others. True disciples of Jesus Christ maintain the Lord’s standard regardless of current fashions or pressure from others.

  122. Mark Brown says:

    Teaching children to cover up for temple covenants CAN be damaging, but it doesn’t have to be.

    That is the critical point, SilverRain. It CAN be damaging. And given that we cannot always depend on the teaching being done skillfully or under optimal circumstances, we pretty much need to conclude that it IS often damaging.

  123. Modesty is about so much more than what you wear. That was my whole point of the OP.

    Closing comments now. Even if we disagree, we are still all Saints together.
    Thanks everyone, for your participation.

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