As it is used now in the church, we don’t use the word “modest” to mean “modest” or the word “immodest” to mean its opposite. Rather, we use it as a means to express whether or not we find a person (or thing) personally distasteful.
We’ll start with the Mormon staple. Here is the definition of modesty on dictionary.com
mod·es·ty [mod-uh-stee] 1. the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.
2. regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc.
3. simplicity; moderation.The following is a collection of anecdotes in support of my point:
With that as a basis, here are a few anecdotes to make my point:
- I submit that this blog, and others like it, don’t know what modesty means. Modesty and fashion sense are anathema. Not because fashion sense is bad (it isn’t), but a blog devoted to how you dress and how you think other people should dress just isn’t modest. It may be lovely and of good report (and praiseworthy), but modest it ain’t. This is because it is vain (note the first definition above). While you may argue that these are written out of regard for decency (second definition), they completely contradict that first point.
This isn’t to say that vanity is always bad. All of pop culture (which I obsess over) is vanity. Probably about 98% of what you do is nothing particularly new under the sun and is vanity (at least, that is my case). But we shouldn’t kid ourselves; we know we should be going to the temple/helping the needy/doing our genealogy instead of watching Community or playing WoW. And sometimes we do, but we shouldn’t lay claim to modesty if frivolity and vanity is how the majority of our time is spent. Fashion, by its very nature, is temporal, inconstant, and grounded in the world. It is vain, which is why modest Mormon fashion blogs aren’t modest. I’m not going to call them immodest, however, because, as we’ll shortly discover, that doesn’t mean the opposite of modest; it means “I don’t like you.”
- For the second point, I have two anecdotes:
First, a friend of mine (a single woman in the church) was recently told in her family ward that her shoes were immodest.
Here is a link to the article sidebarred. I admit that I followed it expecting gross immodesty. I found none in the article. Eventually, I realized that it was a reference to the picture with the article, which featured the daughters in shoulderless dresses.
Now, I admit that interpreting “immodest” on both these occasions as “I don’t like you” may be harsh. However, it at least means “You make me uncomfortable.” But instead of saying that, the parties said “You are immodest” which is much more self-justifying and culturally condemning.
- Final anecdote: I was talking to another woman I know, who was commenting on the young women’s leadership in a ward we both used to live in. These YW leaders are big on modest fashion, which they seem to have taken to mean “cover everything as tightly as possible.” She was accusing them of being immodest, because it was still all about how the female body is used to attract men.
This got me thinking. We, as a church, encourage femininity in women. But femininity is culturally determined. It isn’t inherent in women, it is learned behavior. Being feminine in Europe, for instance, means behaving differently than being feminine in the US does. However, femininity is always about what men in the culture find attractive in women. Femininity, like fashion, is fleeting, changeable, and vain (so is masculinity, for that matter, but that’s another topic). However, we encourage our young women (more than we encourage our young men) to be culturally attractive, a standard established by the culture, not the individual young women. As a result, the actual dress of a given good mormon girl is feminine and intended, in that, to attract the male gaze.
If the standard for immodesty and femininity is to attract the male gaze, there is no objective difference between them. One may be culturally appropriate and the other may not be, but both achieve the same design. Modesty, as currently understood in church culture as a standard of dress and abstention, is not modest. Immodesty, as currently understood in church culture as a deviation from church standards of dress, is not immodest. The outfit may or may not be culturally deviant, but that doesn’t seem to be what we are expressing; we seem to just be saying whether or not we like the person wearing it. Strangely, that’s even more superficial than discussing their clothes.