You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

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.

    Second, the following recently appeared on the sidebar of a fairly prominent Mormon blog.

    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.

Comments

  1. “If the standard for immodesty and femininity is to attract the male gaze, there is no objective difference between them.”
    Well said. I’m wondering then, what is our goal in teaching our youth, for example, regarding dress standards? I.e. it does seem a little odd to teach my kids, “try not to be too culturally deviant in your dress” … or does it? :)

  2. I use the term in the following way “We live in a modest house, I earn a modest salary, We enjoyed a modest holiday etc” I am not aware I ever use it when addressing my teenage daughters. I might say “You can’t go out in that dress, or those shorts but I don’t use the immodest expression. I just don’t, perhaps it’s an English language thing versus a USA language thing. Actually my use of the term (meaning simple or understated) is culturally fine in England. I would be horrified to say “We had an excessive holiday”, or “I earn a huge salary.”

  3. We have banned the word “immodest” from our house because our two YW-age daughters used it to constantly criticize each other. I find immodesty is being presented as a “valid” way to judge others in out Mormon culture and it’s tiresome and almost revolting.

    I also cannot stand the term “modest is hottest,” because it implies that young women need to focus their attention on trying to dress in a certain way in order to be considered “hot.”

    I’d much rather have my daughters wear the occasional tank top, than become insufferably judgmental of themselves and others.

  4. Hah, typo – *doesn’t it* rather.

  5. @WaMo – I had not thought of the “modest is hottest” slogan in that way… interesting, thanks.

  6. “modest are the hottest”

  7. I like this post. I completely agree with 87.3% of it. However, language is fluid, and “modest” has acquired additional definintions (at least amongst Mormons), and that’s fine. It’s the way language works. But ignoring that flaw in your logic, you make excellent points.

  8. Ha! Sorry about the creative spelling of “definitions” in my comment above :-)

  9. Dang, should of read the comments first. Being a boy, I rather liked that saying back in the day. Mostly because it was true. What’s so wrong about trying to look attractive, ladies?
    God didn’t create women so that they could grow hair out of their noses and smell bad all the time…

  10. But femininity is culturally determined. It isn’t inherent in women, it is learned behavior.

    As an unqualified statement, that is ridiculous. You don’t think biology has something to do with it?

  11. I’m sympathetic with the post in the sense that I think we generally define modesty too narrowly, but I disagree with the idea that modesty has some kind of meaning independent of the way that we use it, and hence, that we’re using it “wrong.” Dictionary.com seems a particularly bad source to back up such a claim.

    For example, the argument about vanity falls apart when a different, authoritative source, such as the OED, defines modesty as “(1) avoiding extremes of behavior” and “(2) Of a woman: decorous in manner and conduct; not forward, impudent, or lewd; demure.” I think by the standard of these definitions, the blogs you cite aren’t necessarily wrong in their use of the word.

    Also, I’m suspicious of the claim that “femininity is always about what men in the culture find attractive in women.” Are you saying that all relations among women and self-perception are driven by male desire? That strikes me as reductive and a little demeaning to women.

  12. So, I recently had a discussion with our Laurels regarding “modesty”. We talked about modesty as intent, meaning it has to do more with what we hope to invite in others than it does with what we look like. Am I dressing/grooming/speaking/behaving/spending,etc. in a way that says “Look at me/I look hot/I’m well off/I’m smarter/I’m better, I dont give a s%*!, etc.”? If so, I am being immodest. If my intent is to draw attention or invite others to consider me as one characteristic (pretty, hot, rich, smart, successful, bad a**, too cool to care) instead of as a whole person as God sees me, I’m probably being immodest.

    We discussed that while our intent is our own responsibility, how others view me is still their responsibility (thus, how I view others is my responsibility). Even when I am modest in thought, deed, appearance, etc., others may choose to reduce me to less (hot, ugly, snob, irrelevant). And even when I am immodest others still have the choice to look beyond it and see me as a whole person (which means I have the choice to do that for others as well.

    We decided that two people can wear the same outfit and one could be immodest and the other modest based on intent. In viewing those people, whether I believe I understand their intent or not (and I probably don’t), it is still my responsibility to view them as a whole person, as God does, instead of reducing them to what is outwardly observable.

  13. I hate the modesty obsession because it is so often the main goal of the YW presidency and the leaders’ measure of how good of a job they are doing. It locates young women’s spirituality in their appearance. It makes them and even their spiritual lives all about their looks. If ANYTHING should be about personal growth and what’s in the heart, it is church. So it not only sends a terrible message, but it takes up the time better spent on scriptures and service and learning to feel the spirit. The opportunity cost is enormous.

  14. As an unqualified statement, that is ridiculous.

    As an unqualified statement, that is ridiculous.

    Great post, John. Thanks.

  15. @10: Remember the quote, “However, femininity is always about what men in the culture find attractive in women”…

  16. I’ve seen ‘modesty’ used the same way among Catholics and anthropologists. You might not like the usage, but it’s not just a Mormon thing.

  17. 9 Josh B.
    Are you trying to say that God made a mistake when he created France?

  18. How did I miss the part in For the Strength of Youth that explained how to know if my footwear is modest?

  19. Sunny, that’s how lessons about modesty should be taught. It’s refreshing to hear that there are still some good lessons being taught in Church.

  20. I think WaMo at #3 hit it on the head: “I find immodesty is being presented as a ‘valid’ way to judge others in our Mormon culture and it’s tiresome and almost revolting.” What should be gentle encouragement supporting modest dress and conduct has become a comprehensive exercise in judging others.

  21. Tanya,
    How would you define “modest” in a mormon culture sense? I was arguing that it had acquired a new meaning.

    Josh B.,
    Thank you for the relevance.

    Mark D.,
    What would biology have to do with it? Are you talking evolutionary psychology?

    John AC,
    Two things: Dictionary.com is a far more relevant source in this context (unfortunately). Secondly, “(2) Of a woman: decorous in manner and conduct; not forward, impudent, or lewd; demure.” This is my third point. I don’t feel terribly refuted (which may not have been your intent).

    “Are you saying that all relations among women and self-perception are driven by male desire?”
    No. But I am saying that femininity is. I’m curious what characteristics of femininity you see as not concerned with attracting male interest (physically or culturally).

    Sarah,
    I’m guessing it was strappy. Strappy on feet is like strappy on shoulders.

  22. John, I think “modesty” and “immodesty” as now used almost uniformly in the (American) Church is actually even more narrow than “finding a person (or thing) personally distasteful”, as you suggest. “Modest” or “immodest” now seem to refer almost exclusively to how women dress, and whether or not the clothing is “revealing” or not. I have seen little evidence that there is any awareness of the dictionary definitions of “modest” that you list in the original post. Saying something is “immodest” in the Church is not saying “I don’t like you”. It’s saying “In my opinion, your clothing is too revealing” or “In my opinion, something you are wearing violates a perceived standard for dressing that has been set forth by a General Authority”.

    As a result, there is some irony in one of your examples from your “second point”: “a friend of mine (a single woman in the church) was recently told in her family ward that her shoes were immodest”. My guess is that the woman who said this to your friend meant this in the narrow sense of the word “modest/immodest” I referred to above, meaning that the woman literally thought that the shoes in question were too “revealing”, i.e. showed too much skin or were somehow or other “sexy” in a way that the speaker thought was against a perceived standard that in the speaker’s opinion was established by a General Authority. The speaker wasn’t saying “I don’t like you” to the wearer of the shoes; she was saying, “I judge you to be in breach of what I perceive to be a General Authority’s opinion about what women should be wearing”. So, yes, it’s embarassing for us as a Church if this type of view is the result of the “modesty” discourse so heavily emphasized at Church. But the irony is that although the speaker surely meant it in this narrow (and sort of incorrect) way, the comment actually would conform to the dictionary definitions you listed because shoes could be “immodest” based on the definitions — not because they are too revealing but if they are ostentatious or recognizably ridiculously expensive.

  23. I don’t like the modest is hottest thing. I’ve thought of modesty in a sense that you dress appropriately for the occaission and in such a way that your personality, your brain, your words, who you are is what makes the impact, not what you wear.

    Is feminity really only to attract the male gaze? blech.

    As far as girls and boy sbeing different… I’m absolutely in the camp that biology has a part there…either that or our female olympic athletes have been holding out on us…or they could just be lazy. hmm.

  24. Maybe the shoes were stilettos….with peep toes! Double whammy.

  25. We should all just go back to using the Queens English (even if she never uses ours)

  26. Maybe the shoes were five-inch clear lucite platforms with a $5 bill in the toe compartment? Or maybe those Alexander McQueen lobster shoes.

  27. Modesty in Mormonism still means “regard for decency of behavior”. The issue is simply that we draw the line for what is “decency of behavior” in a different location than our surrounding culture.

    Perhaps the word we are out of step on here is the definition of “feminine”.

  28. john f.,
    ‘”In my opinion, your clothing is too revealing” or “In my opinion, something you are wearing violates a perceived standard for dressing that has been set forth by a General Authority”’
    Neither of these is even an attempt at an objective standard and, since immodest is one of the worst things you can call a woman in American Mormonism, I’m skeptical that they are usually well intended corrections.

    There is the possibility that you are correct that the shoe-immodesty-finder was simply arguing that they were an extravagance that was inappropriate for church or some such, but since we want women to dress up for church and since that means “dress feminine” my friend has no way of knowing what the standard is that she is violating. All the shoe speculation in the comments is further proof. We place so much emphasis on modesty in the church; it is disheartening to realize that there is no common standard for it. In the meantime, we do seem to use it an awful lot to cast shame on others. I think the sidebar note, in particular, does a good job of demonstrating that.

    Even if the standard is “don’t show too much skin or cleavage,” that doesn’t prove that a. it isn’t just a reaction to the male gaze, instead of some notion of modesty or b. that “too much” is universally understood and processed in the same way. It’s too slim a notion right now for us to hang as much baggage on it as we do.

  29. Matt W.,
    I agree in general with you. However, who was behaving indecently in the shoe thing? My friend or the woman who scolded her for her shoes?

  30. StillConfused says:

    The immodest shoe statement really cracks me up. Total abuse of the word. But it makes me want to see a post on here where people submit their interpretation of an immodest shoe. Perhaps it shows toe cleavage or something.

    I tend to dress conservatively, not because of some modesty crap, but because I get cold easily. While I have retained my right to bare arms, I find the temperature at church to be too unpredictable to do anything but long sleeves.

    Immodesty is not just the flesh that you are showing; it is how you are showing the flesh that is covered too. I have seen some outfits that under Mormon standards would be considered modest, but based on how they fit, should be classified as offensive. (And no, I am not referring to sexy… quite the opposite in fact.)

  31. Sharee Hughes says:

    How on earth can shoes be immodest? Showing a little too much toe?

    I have aways thought of modesty as primarily a state of mind. I have seen sweet young girls in off the solder dresses who seemed very wholesome and modest and other women in neck to floor dresses whose attitude was one of total immodesty. Indeed, both intent and the eye of the beholder determine modesty. Not that I’m advocating bare abdomens and mini skirts, mind you. And I am using the word with the meaning I think is intended in the church–dress and actions that are wholesome, attractive without being blatantly sexual..

  32. Matt W.–I don’t think it does, actually, mean a general “regard for decency of behavior.” If it did, we might occasionally hear the word “immodest” applied to men or boys.

    Having a female body is the necessary (and all-too-often completely sufficient) condition of being deemed “immodest.” The discourse on modesty betrays the misogyny that otherwise gets sublimated in talk of women’s “spirituality” and “purity” and “nurturing”–as soon as you step off the Madonna pedestal, we will make sure you know you are a whore. Or “walking pornography,” if we’re being polite. The most horrifying thing of all is that this hatred of the female body has been so thoroughly internalized by Mormon women, who are now busily passing it on to their daughters (between marathons and appointments with the plastic surgeon).

  33. Kristine,
    I ran a marathon and it did nothing for my body or my modesty.

    I altered the ending of the post slightly just now, in an effort to make it make sense. Hopefully, it worked.

  34. John, I do not think it is possible that the woman making the shoe comment “was simply arguing that they were an extravagance that was inappropriate for church or some such”. I think you have misunderstood my comment almost entirely.

    I meant to say that “modest” and “immodest” don’t mean “I don’t like you” in the Church today; rather, they mean “you’re dressed like a slut”.

    As for the shoe comment, I believe it was made with that intention (i.e. “your shoes are immodest” meant “your shoes are too revealing” i.e. “you’re dressed like a slut”). My assumption is that the speaker had no awareness of the actual much broader meaning of “modest/immodest” (as can be seen from the dictionary) and was using it in this narrow sense that we’ve developed through our modesty discourse in the Church.

    Having said that, it is ironic that although the speaker likely meant it in this narrow (essentially incorrect) way, of all the statements in your examples, this one could actually be interpreted by a neutral third party according to the broader dictionary definition in the sense that shoes could be “immodest” not because they are too revealing/sexy but rather because they cost $5,000 or are in some other way in extremely poor taste. But I highly doubt that the speaker in the shoe example meant “immodest” in any way but the now standard Mormon sense: too revealing/showing too much skin/too sexy’slutty.

    By the way, this whole Hermione “Modest is Hottest” meme that is going around Facebook is actually a perfect example for your “final anecdote”. If you’re trying to be “hot”, i.e. sexually attractive, by being “modest” in the current Mormon sense, i.e. not showing shoulders or belly, then it is an utterly contradictory effort, which you nicely point out in your final paragraphs of the original post. Well done.

  35. John–that’s because you don’t have a female body. QED ;)

  36. john f,
    I think we are mostly in agreement. I guess I’m trying to find the difference between “I don’t like you” and “you’re dressed like a slut.”

  37. Just the one in my basement, K.

  38. By utterly contradictory, I don’t mean that it is impossible to be “hot” while not showing shoulders or belly. What I meant was agreement with your point — that the effort to be “hot” is an effort to please the “male gaze”, as you are calling it, and that effort in itself should be considered immodest according to this current narrow Mormon definition of “modesty”, shouldn’t it?

  39. I wish every YW had Sunny (comment 12) as a leader – spot on!

  40. I find metajudging to be deliciously ironic.

    A term doesn’t have to apply to ALL definitions of a word in order to be valid, only one. Many words have mutually exclusive definitions, at least in part. And the common use of the term “modest” most certainly qualifies as “regarding the decency of dress.” And that is hardly a Mormon-only definition.

    Should we expand the term modest to cover more than this? Sure. Are people who devote their time to judging others being Christlike? Not really. But that doesn’t mean the term “modesty” isn’t being used correctly as-is. Claiming that those who use it that way are ignorant and immodest in a different way serves little function other than pseudo-superiority. Which is really the exact same thing that is being criticized here.

    Embarrassing.

  41. Bet she was wearing thongs.

  42. John, “I don’t like you” is quite general and I don’t see “immodest” as a surrogate for that. “You’re dressed like a slut” is what “immodest” means in the Church today.

    When you hear “immodest” in Church today, it doesn’t mean you live in a McMansion. It doesn’t mean you drive an expensive sports car to Church where any number of families are suffering through a period of unemployment. It doesn’t mean that you take extravagant vacations in exotic locations and then build them into talks where, again, people in the congregation are struggling to make ends meet. Each of those much more clearly encompasses the actual traditional meaning of “immodest” than whether someone’s shoulders are showing. Yet, I have seen no evidence from our recent modesty discourse in the Church that any of the above are even remotely intended to be described by the term “immodest”. It has taken on a very narrow definition.

    And that is what it means when someone says “Your dress/shoes/outfit is immodest” — so it has a narrow, technical definition of “your outfit today does not match my opinion of what is a particular General Authority’s opinion about how women should be dressing to be pretty but not sexy”. I don’t see it as generally meaning “I don’t like you”. That is too general and moves away from the narrow definition the word “immodest” has acquired in Mormon modesty discourse.

  43. The sad thing is, I agree with the general premise, just not the over the top rhetoric.

  44. Miskatonic says:

    “I don’t like you” = I think you are a terrible person.

    “you’re dressed like a slut” = I do want to have sex with you but I’m trying to control the desire and you’re not making it very easy for me.

    Sorry John C. I agree with most of your post but I think your attempt at defining the Mormon usage of the term immodest is WWWAAAYYYYY off. Certainly the subtext “I don’t like you” is most certainly present in many of these unsolicited criticisms but that is far from the main intent, I believe.

    I believe that Mormons are using both of the definitions being discussed here (i.e. showing too much skin and being ostentatious). I think both uses were implied by the brethren and that displays the brilliance in the selection of the term. In other words, the brethren are directing us to dress in a less sexy way than the popular standards of the world AND they are directing us to be more humble in our dress and actions. Wanting a better defined standard is inviting the law of Moses. Ambiguity is our friend!

  45. I can’t quite get on board with modesty being about intent. We can’t ever know someone else’s intent. Sometimes we don’t even know our own intents. Only God knows what you intend. Modesty has to be, to some degree, about how others perceive you. It’s a cultural standard that will vary, but cultural standards aren’t bad in and of themselves. I think what some Mormons fail to recognize is that the church standard is 1) arbitrary (which doesn’t make it invalid, just arbitrary) and 2) more a reaction against the extremes of the current larger (American) culture than an eternal principle. But because it is easier to conform to a dress standard than it is to have charity, we tend to ascribe more importance to the technicalities of that dress standard than the principle behind the standard, which is “you’re a child of God, don’t degrade yourself by dressing like a whore.” Or, you know, something like that.

    (Obviously, you can avoid dressing like a whore and still violate the Mormon dress standards, but that’s because our leadership has set the boundaries so much tighter than mainstream American culture has. That’s why I say an awareness of that fact helps to keep the dress standards in perspective, i.e. reminds us that other people are children of God and we shouldn’t degrade anyone regardless of how they’re dressed.)

    I also don’t agree that femininity is always about what men in the culture find attractive in women. But I guess it depends on how you define “femininity.” I suppose you could define it as “what men in the culture find attractive in women.” In which case you’re absolutely right and I have nothing to say.

  46. Good one, Newly Housewife.

  47. Like almost everything in the gospel, Church-standard dress is a specific application of an eternal principle. But understanding that is, itself, an eternal principle that requires learning.

  48. Also, I don’t think it’s immodest to attempt to attract the male gaze. It’s a perfectly normal and healthy thing for heterosexual women to do. (For that matter, I suppose it’s perfectly normal and healthy for a gay man to do, but we don’t often call our gay men “immodest,” so that’s neither here nor there.)

  49. SilverRain, if it’s an eternal principle, where do you personally draw the line between the full burqini and the bikini, and why do you personally draw it there? What’s eternal about a one-piece bathing suit versus a two piece? Is not a standard “modest” two-piece already much more “modest” than a true bikini? And, in truth, is not a teenage girl in a one-piece as likely to turn on a teenage boy (quite unintentionally) as a teenage girl in a standard two piece (by “standard two piece” I mean to differentiate a run of the mill two piece bathing suit from a bikini).

  50. Matt W.,
    I confess that I’m a bit confused by your links–did you actually mean for those to indicate that the Church is speaking to boys about being modest? Or were you joking? (I’m being completely sincere in my question here.) If you were posting them as a joke, then feel free to stop reading at this point.

    An exhortation from Elder Hales that boys and girls both wear their Sunday Best to church on Sundays notwithstanding, my review of those links shows the exact opposite (all about the girls!), but goes even further: the boys were not only NOT counseled on modesty, but they were encouraged explicitly in one case to TELL the young women how to dress :

    A Panel Discussion
    One possibility for promoting modesty among young women is a panel discussion with the young men. This approach drew together the young people of our ward in serious consideration of this gospel principle.

    Some of the priests we invited to participate were less than enthusiastic at first because they did not want to offend the young women who would be their audience. To help set the young men at ease, we met beforehand to talk about what they could say about modesty and how to present their ideas properly.

    We felt the Spirit during the panel discussion. The young women joined in the discussion and listened closely to what the young men had to say. One of the panel members told them, “Could we start by not seeing any immodesty at Church meetings?” The young women responded very positively to the advice from their friends.(my emphasis added)

    Good gravy, I am not exactly the biggest fan of these sort of discussions on the blogs, but this sort of “advice” is simply appalling. If you scour LDS.org hard enough, YES–you will find some references to young men being told to dress modestly. However, these instances are drowned under the weight of gigabytes and gigabytes of references to modesty for young women. There is nothing to gain by asserting that the Church counsels the sexes equally on this issue, because, well…scoreboard.

  51. Sam Brunson says:

    I know how “modesty” generally gets used in the Church, which is really a shame. I was reading William Irwin’s Superheroes: The Best of Philosophy and Pop Culture (currently free in iTunes!), which dedicates a chapter to Captain America and modesty; what really jumped out at me was Irene McMullin’s definition of modesty as “a particular form of self-awareness coupled with the desire to foster the welfare of other people and a tendency to behave in ways that do this.”

    I like that, both as an expansive definition that encompasses men and women and looks beyond just what we’re wearing, and as an aspirational way to act. Also, it eliminates the problem of immodest clothing, shoes, houses, or other such things: if modesty is self-awareness and a desire to help others’ welfare, then it is a personal attribute that may be reflected in how we dress or what we buy, but how we dress and what we buy is certainly not the sum total of our modesty.

    That said, I don’t know how to cause Mormon culture to make that shift.

  52. I have never figured out why shoulders are immodest or skin above the knees for that matter. I mean I get really short shorts and short skirts and pasties and such things. But why a basic tank top is considered designed to titillate I just don’t understand. That seems more an issue with Mormon men’s lascivious thoughts than women doing anything wrong. I think Kristine has a point about the place of women’s bodies in church culture and thought. The whole modesty rhetoric and practice in the church has become so convoluted and unhelpful we just need to throw it all out and start over again.

    And I definitely support Sunny for all-time YW leader. That seemed instructive, reasonable.

  53. Great comment Sam (#52). Thanks! That definition, to my mind, much more accurately conveys what “modesty” is supposed to mean than the limited and limiting way that we use it in the Church these days.

  54. I know that I occasionally see references to male modesty in the New Era and other church magazines, but I am curious how often in comes up in, say, priesthood quorum. I have no way of knowing, which is why I ask. How often are young men exhorted to be modest in real life? I just have this sneaking suspicion that it isn’t anywhere near as often as young women are exhorted to be modest in real life (i.e. in church meetings, classes, talks, everyday interactions–as opposed to church magazines, where the editors take care to present a more balanced picture of expectations). I suspect this mostly because it’s pretty easy to dress modestly if you’re a dude. Usually, looking “masculine” does not entail showing a lot of skin.

  55. Rebecca, never. (With the exception — and this might make you sick — of the occasional discussion of how to influence daughters to “dress modestly”, which doesn’t mean avoid expensive clothing but rather avoid clothing that reveals skin on the shoulders, belly and anywhere above the knee.) And this is so much the worse because an understanding of the true definition of “modesty” (as put forward by Sam in #52 or discernable in the dictionary definition or the culturally transmitted understanding through literature) would lend the notion to frequent discussion in Elders Quorum and High Priests as they grapple with how to live modestly in a world that places high value on keeping up with the Joneses through acquiring new toys and other status symbols.

  56. Sadly, if Captain America were to show up at one of our church meetings, someone would probably tell him his tights were too tight.

  57. “we don’t often call our gay men “immodest,””

    We don’t? I thought that was one of the biggest complaints against them. ;) “Always so dramatic. It makes me want to set myself on fire!”

    “That said, I don’t know how to cause Mormon culture to make that shift.”

    A great comment, Sam. It seems to me, at first thought, that this is only a single aspect of a larger problem. That larger problem is that we (generalized) look to be instructed in minutia. If we didn’t look for it, I’m not sure we would be given so much of it. We don’t want to understand “eternal principles”, as SilverRain says. We want to be told how long, to the inch, our dresses should be. And so, we are told. These are the things we are able to dedicate our energy to.

    It may be that it is an aspect of the powers-that-be responding more directly to those who have responded most actively towards them. That there is this element of reciprocity in the dialogue. Who responds to us? Well, it is those people who want to be told how many earrings to wear. I’m not sure how far this is right.

    In any case, I basically agree with the OP perspective. That’s why I’m not inclined to use the word “immodest.” I’m more inclined to say, “Sweet fancy Moses, the curly-ques on your shoes make you look like a whore.”

  58. Wouldn’t that only happen if he were a woman? I’ve never heard criticism of men’s clothing at Church except for failure to wear a white shirt.

  59. Scott B. (51):

    I actually found the article from Elder Hales to be right on point. In addition to talking about Sunday dress, he lays out non-gender-specific guidelines for choosing appropriate clothing:

    Men and women—including young men and young women—should wear clothing that covers the shoulder and avoid clothing that is low cut in the front or back or revealing in any other manner. Tight pants, tight shirts, excessively baggy clothing, wrinkled apparel, and unkempt hair are not appropriate. All should avoid extremes in clothing, hairstyle, and other aspects of appearance. We should always be neat and clean, avoiding sloppiness or inappropriate casualness.

    Maybe the exception just proves the rule, but it is there.

  60. (my #59 was in response to Rebecca’s #57)

  61. John, it might depend on the placement of his shield.

  62. I puzzled over this a few months back when the results of our older single adult ward dating survey came back and were presented to us by the bishop at church. He laughed (in implied agreement) after reading an anonymous comment by one of the men of the ward that the women shouldn’t be afraid to dress in a “modestly sexy” way. The commentor no doubt knew what he had in mind when he used that term, but it caused no end of confusion afterward among the women. I’ve come back to the idea more than a few times since then, and my conclusion has been that of the OP: “modest” is the opposite of ostentatious/vain, whether the person’s modest intent is signaled (albeit always imperfectly) through dress or speech or whatever. So “sexy”/”attractive” and “modest” can only exist in the same space if the sexiness is unintentional–that is, you make every effort to not draw special attention from others and accidentally do so anyway. You cannot *consciously* be both modest and sexy/attractive at the same time. Perhaps this is where we should start actually believing our doctrine of goodness making people attractive (and cultivating within ourselves an attraction to real goodness and real modesty) and stop worrying so much about the details of women’s position on the dress/undress spectrum.

    As to the “modest” shoes thing, I have encountered those who have singled out sandals and flipflops as “inappropriate” for church (and especially the temple), though my perception of these criticisms is that they perceived the shoes as being too casual-looking. Whether that casualness was partly signaled by the relative absence of shoe or rather by the poor quality of the shoes or just by the flipping sound when walking, I don’t know. But I’ve not heard foot-baring shoes called “immodest” by a Mormon. I think ostentatious is a fair meaning when describing some shoes as immodest, but would never apply the term to shoes to mean “showing too much sexy foot flesh.” The few Victorian men still running around are just going to have to be strong.

  63. Scott B.-

    Hales said “yadda yadda yadda and other revealing attire are not appropriate. Men and women—including young men and young women—should wear clothing that covers the shoulder and avoid clothing that is yadda yadda yadda”

    Kristine said she’d like to occasionally hear the Young Men included in talk on being immodest. I am merely directly showing they are occasionally included. Score keeping is not needed, just an evaluation that the score is not 0 boys vs some large number girls. There is no need to go insane on rhetoric and say they are never ever included.

    Like I said, I don’t disagree with the premise, just the over the top rhetoric.

  64. 58) Thomas,

    “That larger problem is that we (generalized) look to be instructed in minutia.”

    I think that is true for the Word of Wisdom as well. It is funny, though, that we are receiving the minutia we ask for regarding modesty but for WoW the trend has been to pull back from minutia (is herbal tea okay, is hot chocolate a hot drink, is coke okay, is decaf tea okay, etc).

    Whatever happened to “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves”?

  65. Matt W. (and DTR above),
    Elder Hales said what he said–it was a good sermon, and very fair, I agree. Score keeping, however, is very important, as petty as that may seem in most instances. If the score is 45-55, or even 35-65 (or crud, even 25-75), then I will concede the point.

    However, the score is much closer to 0-100 than any of those other scores. It’s not going “insane on rhetoric” at all to say that “boys never get mentioned” because for practical purposes, they don’t. What is insane is trying in any way to argue that the score is anything even close to even on this issue. Adding “and young men” to a paragraph or two does not make the message sent, or the message received, actually “about boys,” when everyone and their dog knows who and what we’re talking about when “modesty” gets brought up: female bodies.

  66. Steve Evans says:

    #64, I’ll be sure to require my sons to wear evening gowns with shoulders, then, since the advice applies equally to men and women.

  67. “Kristine said she’d like to occasionally hear the Young Men included in talk on being immodest.”

    No, I didn’t, actually. I said nothing about my preference.

    And, what Scott said. Even when we do talk to the boys about dress, it’s about being sloppy, not about being sexy. As far as I can discern, the condemnation of sloppiness carries nothing like the moral weight of chastisement about sluttiness.

  68. SilverRain,
    I concede your point. Certainly some definitions can be self-contradictory. However, I don’t think modesty should be one of them. I also don’t think that the anecdotes given demonstrate “regard for decency in dress,” but perhaps that’s neither here nor there.

    Newly,
    #42 for BCotW

    Miskatonic,
    I don’t think I’m disputing with what the brethren have said. I’m disputing how we apply what they’ve said.

    john f,
    I guess I just think that we only bother to think “your dress doesn’t match my opinion of some General Authority’s opinion of dress standards” when we are looking for reasons to dislike someone. I may be going broad, but I think I’m aiming true.

    RJ,
    How would you define femininity?

    Sam,
    #52 for BCotW

    All the rest of ya’ll,
    Good comments!

  69. Matt W.,
    To clarify my point: When the disparity we’re talking about is itself extreme, telling the affected parties to not use extreme rhetoric makes you look dismissive of their position, whether that is intended or not.

    Not an hour goes by in my life in which I don’t encounter some measure of hyperbole or exaggeration in the name of simplicity or of making a point. Kristine (and anyone else who has argued it here) knows perfectly well–she’s a very smart and studious person, see–that references to young men in modesty discussions are not non-existent. As such, when you encounter “insane” rhetoric, it’s probably reasonable to cut her (or anyone else) some slack and read the words as being ever-so-slightly-less-than-literal instead of penning a response that requires her to be either woefully ignorant of such citations and/or intentionally deceptive.

    I hate these threads. Honestly.

  70. Also, Newly #42 and Sam #42 are seconded for BCotW

  71. John C, it is exquisitely well established that the dominant (average) personality differences between men and women are biologically rather than culturally determined. That doesn’t mean that culture, free will, and personal choice do not have a major effect on top of that, but to first order, biology is destiny.

  72. Sorry, Scott.

  73. Threads, John. I hate the threads. I love the posts (usually).

  74. So, yes, you are suggesting evolutionary psychology?

  75. “Threads, John. I hate the threads.”

    Me, too. I wish they’d wear something a little less groovy. Like we did back in my time.

  76. Steve Evans says:

    I hate the post authors!

  77. If I could hug a post, this post would be so absolutely hugged by me. Lovelovelove it. I’ve been trying to put this very idea into eloquent words for a while. But I suck at eloquency (is that a word?), so I’ve just bothered and offended people in the mean time. Anyway, love it, and will link to it wildly.

  78. Steve Evans says:

    Fran: no, it’s not a word. But hugs back to you anyways.

  79. Mommie Dearest says:

    Great post, excellent logic, and by skimming the comments, it looks like you touched a nerve or two. May I stir the pot too?

    john f. is excused from knowing how some women think. In my personal experience as a former YW and current woman, if a woman criticizes another’s apparel, the subtext is very likely to be “I don’t like you” although “I’m jealous of you” is another common subtext. Which amounts to the same thing.

    There are unintended consequences of having a separate understanding of fashion than the way fashion is viewed in the mainstream culture, which have been covered in lots of bloggernacle slugfests regarding female modesty. The first one that comes to mind is mistakenly labeling perfectly respectable women (such as Huntsman’s daughters) as immodest/slutty. Is it surprising that we are viewed as snobbish prudes by people who’ve been exposed to judgement by the narrow Mormon standard?

    Another consequence is that not only is the standard narrow, but it’s inconsistent and arbitrary. Shoes seem to have escaped the Mormon modesty checklist because in current mainstream fashion, the number one thing that makes a shoe immodest is the height of the heel. Four-plus inches is extreme, as any podiatrist will tell you. For an illustration, see the first link in the OP, and scroll down to the second picture. In worldly circles, where the modesty game is played with harsher rules, there is an unrepeatable term for shoes with extreme heels that marks them as slutty.

    Also, I would like to be on the record supporting the position that t-shirts worn under spaghetti strap sundresses are tacky, ugly, and a bad idea.

  80. As far as modesty goes, it is a gross generalization to suggest the objective is to suppress attractiveness and fashion to the point of non-existence. The idea is to regulate the expression of those attributes (and others) to the point where they do not provoke or cause various forms of social disruption, while still allowing them to live and thrive in a more subtle form.

    The very word derives from a Latin term meaning “keeping in good measure”, i.e. avoiding unusual extremes. Propriety is basically the same idea. The only real controversies about modesty are about what is proper, when, and why.

    The claim that modesty in clothing is nothing more than a matter of preference is a form of relativism equivalent to the claim that under any and all circumstances all forms of dress are equally proper. A milder version of that claim is that all socially constructed norms of dress are equally relative – i.e. there is no right or wrong about them.

    The more conservative claim is for moral realism – meaning that at extremes inclinations for too much clothing or too little is a harmful excess, individually or socially or both. The idea of modesty is that there is a happy medium in there somewhere between prostitution and wearing a tent.

  81. #50 john—“if it’s an eternal principle, where do you personally draw the line between the full burqini and the bikini, and why do you personally draw it there?

    John, asking that question will never get you to the eternal principle. Like most eternal principles, where anyone personally draws the line is not important. It is why there needs to be a line, the purpose of the line, why the GAs set the line, that is eternal.

    #69 John C.—I don’t think any words should be self-contradictory, but they are. Modesty is one of those. Pretty much, you’re just arguing that we should focus more on one definition than another, and I agree.

    But what I don’t see is how trying to “cause Mormon culture to make that shift,” as Sam put it, is modest at all. It is quite ironic to say that we should try to make others change their definition and usage of modesty to one we like better, or find more educated and broad-minded. It is inherently vain (read IMmodest.)

  82. SilverRain,
    Find the point in this post or thread where I make a claim to personal modesty and you’ll win a gold star.

  83. Steve Evans says:

    “The only real controversies about modesty are about what is proper, when, and why”

    Mark D., were it were so! No, the real controversy about modesty is that it’s just another example of control, and especially another example of control over women. Let’s not discuss things in a vacuum here — these are rules that almost entirely burden women, and we tell women to obey these rules to prevent them from becoming pornographic temptresses (or in your case, prostitutes). Etymology won’t save you.

  84. Once again highlighting this recent evidence that Mormon discourse on modesty is just plain awful: http://ce.byu.edu/yp/efy/dressAppear.cfm

  85. SR,

    I agree with you completely that modesty is an eternal principle – or, another way of saying that, a characteristic that defines God as such. The problem is that virtually none of the discussion in the church is around anything eternal. If it were, we would get more universally applicable ends from the beginnings of our conversations. Instead, it is discussed almost entirely in terms of fashion. Fashion, not Time, is the opposite of Eternal.

  86. A thought generated by wondering’s link to EFY:

    I’ve always wondered if we are always to choose friends that improve us, what happens to the people who can’t improve us. I suppose they are improved by having no friends. Or, worse and more likely, ruined by the immodest.

  87. #87TP4BCOTW.

  88. I’ll second #87

  89. This is “score keeping” thing is absurd.
    Why? Because young men are (generally) not encouraged by society to show skin! Young men are (generally) not encouraged by society to wear skin-tight clothing! Even MTV features men who cover their bodies, when there are almost no women who do so. Of COURSE this topic is mostly addressed to the young women of the church rather than the young men!! I’m left dumbfounded at the lengths that people seem to go to find offense in the teachings of the church.

    Young men are told to be clean cut, conservative in trends, etc. etc. etc. Young women are told to cover up, be conservative in trends, etc. etc. etc. The church leaders talk to both groups about how to dress—they just deliver the message in a different way based on what that group needs to hear (i.e., based on that group’s societal pressures). Is it hard for young men to find a prom tux that is not revealing? NO! Is it hard for young women to find a prom dress with the same standard? Holy cow, yes!

    And I can’t believe people are arguing about what ONE goofy person said about sandals. Really? We’re going to discuss and discuss and discuss what ONE person in ONE ward said about sandals, when we all agree that we’ve NEVER heard anything like that from anyone else out of 14 million members?? What a waste of time.

    One last thing: #19 Zo-ma-rah — that is the kind of comment that drives me nuts. (“It’s refreshing to hear that there are still some good lessons being taught in Church.”) I used to think things like this all the time, and even though I will admit that sometimes I still shake my head when I hear about a ridiculous lesson or whatever, I’ve learned that by and large, people in the church are thoughtful, and they’re trying to be good teachers. And they’re trying to understand the doctrine and teach by the spirit. It’s so silly for any of us to think we have a lock on all clever thought and discussion.

  90. Zed,
    It might be silly for you to think that, but I can get away with it.

  91. SilverRain (82),

    But what I don’t see is how trying to “cause Mormon culture to make that shift,” as Sam put it, is modest at all.

    Though I make no claim to modesty, why is such a project immodest? Going back to Captain America: his modesty is not the result of his not aspiring to (and achieving) big things. Instead, his modesty is in recognizing the excellent work that those around him do, acknowledging it, and not acting as if his tremendous accomplishments are morally superior than the accomplishments of those around him.

    That is, modesty doesn’t prevent us from taking on big tasks. If common Mormon usage of “modest” is incomplete and harmful, I don’t see how trying to change Mormon culture is an inherently immodest proposition. It may be immodest, of course, if we’re out to make Mormon culture in our own image. But where we’re trying to make it align more closely to important Gospel principals, well, that seems like just the kind of project we’d want to undertake.

  92. THAT WORD! I had a friend in an old ward return to church after years and years of inactivity. Her second week back, a woman in Relief Society (very rudely) told my friend that she was ‘immodest’. Three months later, that woman lost her home to foreclosure.

  93. Jessie (93),
    I don’t get the punchline. Explain?

  94. John C. ,
    :)

  95. LovelyLauren says:

    I’d like to hear modesty in regard to fake boobs, fake tans, and fake blonde hair. isn’t that “extreme in dress and appearance?”

    Not to mention those ginormous hair flowers and earrings.

    Kidding, mostly.

  96. Well, who was more immodest? The person showing her shoulders, or the one living extravagantly? (also, being judgmental towards new members doesn’t seem like ‘decency in behavior’ to me, either)

  97. Miskatonic says:

    @ Mommie Dearest – I’m 6’7″ and my wife is 5’8″. Is it immodest for her to wear 4″ heels?

  98. Scott B. and Kristine-

    It seems every time we have one of these threads, I get into the same hyper literal mind set, start researching furiously, frustrate myself, get bent out of shape, then notice that for some reason I am always a jerk to Kristine, feel bad, and owe her an apology. Sorry Kristine, we’ve done this too many times now.

    I guess my inclination is that the more we go in guns a blazing, the less likely we are to improve things, rather than further damage them. I am all for improving things.

    By the way, the word modest is used in conference more often for men excluding women than women excluding men, but sadly, for women it’s almost always about appearance and for men it is almost always to do with means. That blows.

    I did find an ensign article from 1971 about modest lingerie though…. weird.

  99. Matt,
    You mean this one?

  100. 99 not that weird. They are using the JCPenney definition of lingerie, not the Fredericks of Hollywood definition.

  101. There is a store on SLC’s east side calle “Modest Sexy Boutique.”

    No joke.

  102. Matt W (99),
    You mean you didn’t read this?!?

  103. Scott,
    You mean you didn’t read my comment #101?!?!?!?!

  104. John, I didn’t say it was hypocritical. I said it was ironic.

    Sam, it’s not immodest or vain because it is a big task. It is immodest and vain because it carries the connotation that everyone who disagrees with you, or has a different standard, is ignorant and/or sinful. Which is precisely what is so immodest about people who go around judging others on their sleevelessness.

    To illustrate, a more modest approach might be one which discussed the problem, how it affects you, and what you, personally, are going to do about it. A crusade or witch hunt might serve to band a group together, but it is usually an illusion that the stated goal will ever be accomplished.

  105. Love this post AND the thread too. :)

  106. Matt. No worries. I think the problem is that I’ve thought about gender in the church a lot for a long time and now in my old age I’m quite impatient. I think the way we talk about modesty is so patently idiotic that i can’t be bothered to mince words and add the qualifiers and caveats I would if I were arguing carefully rather than tossing off extemporaneous blog comments. Also, I think the likelihood of anything I say making a difference is zero, so I feel (too) free to just say baldly what I think. There’s no way you could possibly know any of that, so you can hardly be to blame for taking what I say more seriously than I expected anyone to. Sorry for engendering research and frustration!

  107. SilverRain,
    You’re reading a lot of ill intent into what I wrote: whether or not we should hunt witches, I’m not suggesting that we go after them. (Captain America, on the other hand, at least if they’re Nazi witches . . .)

    John’s OP discussed the problem pretty well, and I don’t have any desire to retread the harms that he (and others) have illustrated. Moreover, I’m saying that I’m not sure what I can do to shift the discourse, which seems to be what you suggest to be the modest approach with your “and what you, personally, are going to do about it.”

    Moreover, I didn’t judge those who disagree with the expansive definition of modesty that I prefer.

    All this to say, I’m pretty sure I know what you’re accusing me of, but I’m entirely sure my comment didn’t implicate those things.

  108. I too am not sure how we got from my post and/or comments to witch hunts. But it is the season of Halloween…

  109. John C.,
    Er, oops. Well, two links is better than one, I guess.

  110. “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.”

    My only quibble with this is that is seems to imply that femininity is exclusively a behavioral issue, whereas modesty discussions are frequently centered on visual issues, how women appear based on their clothing choices. So in addition to the behavioral aspects of femininity, we need to address the visual ones.

    With that in mind, I think we do need to at least acknowledge the role of physiological differences between the sexes. And I’m certainly not talking about evolutionary biology here, just physiology. As with many vertebrate species, humans are sexually dimorphic, and several of these differences are closely linked to mate selection. We are conditioned to select for traits that indicate fitness for mating. In other words, men don’t enjoy the view provided by low-cut tops just because of a cultural imperative. There is some biological hard-wiring going on here.

    Of course, culture can, and definitely does, amplify these predispositions. And whether that is good, bad, or ugly is not something I’m arguing at this point. And I’m only concerned with the obvious points of physical dimorphism, ignoring any behavioral/neurological issues. My point is that there are certain physical traits in females that men, on average, are hard-wired to prefer. And femininity, in the visual sense, generally involves accentuating or highlighting these traits, the points of sexual dimorphism. This aspect of femininity is not culturally determined and is, from our frame of reference, constant. So while we’re discussing femininity, modesty, etc, I think we need to at least keep in mind that there are some biological imperatives working here that may be influencing our thought process.

  111. I think we as mormons have the same problem with the word “immoral”. It seems to be narrowly defined as sexually immoral.

  112. Cf. “virtue.”

  113. Mommie Dearest says:

    @Miskatonic #98: I hope you didn’t take my comment to be setting myself up as the modesty police. I was only pointing out that the Mormon modesty checklist is somewhat arbitrary and inconsistent, including (for example) bare arms while excluding (for example) extreme heels, which are sometimes labeled by mainstream culture as slutty. I hope you and your wife enjoy whatever shoes you both prefer, for whatever reason you desire, and I’ll happily stick to my own business.

  114. I find the LDS obsession with modesty a bit tautological: focusing so much on modesty in dress promotes inordinate attention to personal dress and grooming.

    What I like about the OP: I agree that that modesty ought to be used to refer to cultivating a moderate self-image and avoiding exaggerated behaviors intended to attract attention in ways that have little to do with positive personal or interpersonal growth.

    What I don’t like in the OP: femininity defined as something to attract the male gaze. I mean, I’m no fan of LDS gender essentialism, so maybe we’re actually on the same page, but you risk delegitimizing a lot of things that girls do (or are) by suggesting that “femininity” is wholly contrived to manipulate men. Boobs are boobs, whether you’re wearing a tight shirt or a bulletproof vest.

    On being fashionable: Spending a lot of time thinking about one’s appearance or spending tons of money on designer clothes or beauty products is something I think most people on this forum would agree is not moderate or modest. But I disagree that being (moderately) fashionable and being modest are incompatible. Deliberately flouting cultural expectations of dress implies you may have reached another extreme of obsession with appearance. How modest is it to spend a week sewing your own pioneer dress if you can buy an adequate outfit at H&M for less than $10? I think putting some thought into appropriate (even stylish) clothing often enhances personal performance and eases new relationships. This exercise only becomes immodest only if you focus on personal appearance at the expense of personal substance.

    Ironically, given my own definition of modesty, I think I was more technically modest before I wore temple garments. Back then, I didn’t give much thought to the clothes I put on in the morning, although they always covered most of my skin and were clean and neat. Now I have to devote extra time to getting dressed in order to make sure symbols, creases or awkward hems from my garmets aren’t showing and that the number of layers I’m wearing and type of garment fabric corresponds with the weather and my intended activities for the day. Garments are not simple…

  115. Oh, for the record, some of the most immodest behavior I’ve ever observed was in the BYU weight room. I’d be wearing my giant BYU-issue “size-small” elephant skin, and I’d see guys standing in front of the mirrors and flexing, flexing, flexing for twenty minutes straight.

  116. Stina, is it immodest if you’re only flexing for your own enjoyment? Can you be immodest to yourself, or does it only involve other people?

    So that John doesn’t think I’m threadjacking: If I find myself extremely tasteful, I would submit I am, therefore, modest. If I be a tasteless undesirable by virtue of myself (not my peers), then I become immodest. Virtueless.

    Thus a dangerous way of thinking: connecting feelings of self-worth to an idea of modesty. In some trains of thought, this is exactly how it should be. But it gets the logic backwards. My point: modesty is very much a part of what other’s think of you, even when we like to try its not. As much as we like to say it’s about how you carry yourself etc etc, its not everything. And so in a way, we loose control of our ability to be modest to our peers; we loose it to what a group thinks about us. Try to control your modesty, and you’re trying to control other’s thoughts and perceptions towards you– something, sometimes, that is incredibly difficult to do.

    Sure, one might be a “modest” person whom others see as a good man or woman. Fully clothed. But even carrying yourself well requires an admission to the need for other’s to see you as that good person.

    This debate seems to focus on whether modesty, at its soul, requires the input of another or not. I personally have a hard time with the thought that my modesty is in the hands of a stranger, yet, perhaps that trust is exactly what modesty entails.

  117. i love this post and appreciate your candid approach to the misuse of the word modesty.

    recently i was handed parts for my children’s primary program. my oldest daughter, 9, was given a large paragraph about the importance of modesty, and how we are in a better position to receive inspiration when we are dressed modestly. “my heavenly father is proud of me when i dress appropriately.” now. i was wearing a halter top dress when the part was handed to me, and the primary president’s eyes were GLUED to my bare shoulders. we went home and discussed it openly with my daughter and she didn’t want to read a part for the program that she didn’t believe to be true. so we switched parts. but it got under my skin, is modesty synonymous to temple-endowed? does the greater part of the church believe that those who aren’t wearing the garment– the majority of the human race– are all just heathens with little morality? the issue with modesty comes down to judgment of another person, which is fairly strictly against what jesus taught. the obsession within the church of modesty is quite frankly immodest, ie: indecent. when did we become so concerned with what our neighbors are wearing? weren’t we simply commanded to love one another?

    the only thing i found cringe worthy in this post, and i am echoing #116, is the idea that femininity is defined by what men want. femininity can not be defined by a patriarchy any more than masculinity can be defined by a matriarchy. i’ll be damned before i let a man’s gaze decide what makes me feminine or not. to be feminine is at its core both gentle and fierce, both wildly creative and peacefully content. the feminine form is one of LOVE as made evidence by the fact that a woman’s body can create and sustain life. divine femininity IS inherent in each of us, yes, even the men. the way we VIEW the beauty of a woman is most often cultural. however, in a culture where femininity is supposedly celebrated, why are nursing mothers sent to a stinky lounge to feed their babies? the answer is that even breastfeeding is found to be “immodest.” what message does that send?

    there’s a lot to be said about the oppression that “modesty” can weigh on a young woman’s heart. we’re already prevalently taught within the church that it’s a girls responsibility to keep the boys in line. we’re also taught that we must be meek, mild, and not bring attention to ourselves. so we cover up, hide our bodies, learn the route of shame if we show up in something seen as immodest, and if we happen to attract unwanted attention…well, that’s our fault too. it is damaging to a young woman’s psyche. wouldn’t it be better to teach them the importance of their own soul?

    if we’re talking about dressing to attract a mate, then i can see the term sexy being flung about, rather than immodest. but even with that, if someone wants to attract someone to them… it doesn’t matter one bit what they’re wearing or not wearing. allure isn’t found through clothing.

  118. Yes, both the man and the woman “should dress to attract a mate”. That is exactly what one of the Apostles told us when I was a student at BYU. He said to imagine the perfect man or woman whom you would like to marry. Dress to attract that person. Then you will be attractive to the kind of person whom you want to marry.

  119. #52 coupled with #58 BCsotW.

  120. Steve E (#84), there is no question we are dealing with a transition from personal judgment about what is proper to a relatively conservative consensus that ends up being promoted by leadership and local units of the church. And there are all the problems of politics, administration, and interpretation that go along with that.

    All that notwithstanding, the primary alternative seems to be not to have any but the most abstract promotion of the ideal of modesty at all, which would in a very few years largely eliminate any difference in dress standards between members of the church and the surrounding culture.

    Endless quibbles aside, it is certainly seems to be the consensus that more modest dress standards in the church are a net benefit. What alternative case is there to be made other than the argument that we should not have any?

  121. Drew,
    There are a couple things I don’t understand regarding your comment. First, you draw a line between behavioral choices and clothing choices. Why? Isn’t how a person dresses a form of behavior?

    Second, I’m not sure what you mean by hardwiring? Or even why it is relevant? I think that the sexual dimorphism argument is a bit of a red herring because whether or not men and women have fundamentally different bodies, how we treat those bodies is a social decision. If women have more body parts that are considered sexual in a patriarchal society than men, that’s because it is a patriarchal society. All the gushing over Taylor Lautner’s shirtlessness certainly seems to indicate that the male chest can be understood as sexually arousing; why isn’t there a push to make shirtlessness in general public indecency, rather than just women’s shirtlessness. Of course, in some cultures, shirtlessness isn’t understood as primarily sexual in either sex. We make a mistake when we assert our particular mores as universal.

    Stina and Jenica,
    As I understand it (which admittedly isn’t very far), femininity is commonly defined by two characteristics:
    1. Things that men stereotypically find attractive
    2. Things that men stereotypically don’t care about
    Things that are stereotypically feminine fall into these categories because the most basic definition of femininity is “that which isn’t masculine.” We are a patriarchal society, so I think that is as good a definition as any. It is also why men traditionally feel threatened when women behave in a stereotypically masculine manner or when women argue for a more powerful and expansive femininity. Either one alters the definition of the masculine (and the self-definition of men). I’m not arguing that changing what masculine and feminine mean is bad (I think it could be a net good), but it will be a hard slog. Like Sam above argued, this is something that will require a lot of work and it may never change, but the fight is important.

    Mark D.,
    You seem to think that I am arguing against dress standards in general; I’m not (I’m an active temple-endowed member, after all). What I am arguing against is the following:
    1. Using “modest” the way that we currently use it
    There you go.

  122. Sam, you’re one up on me, because I haven’t the least idea of what I am accusing you of. I just used your phrase to illustrate the connotative problem with the approach most people seem to like.

  123. #119 Jenica
    I was never “sent” to the lounge to nurse.
    I had 4 children in 4 different wards and I never chose to use the mother’s lounge. AND I never felt a bit of push-back or judgment for that.

    Businesses and institutions that provide a nursing room are actually called “progressive.”

    Just another example of the church’s perpetual “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” status on this blog.

  124. (oh, and I nursed my all my kids until they were 14 months, so that’s a lot of nursing in church!)

  125. Steve Evans says:

    #122, just because you use the term “notwithstanding” doesn’t mean “all the problems of politics, administration, and interpretation” have been resolved or are somehow unimportant.

    In fact your entire comment reflects how completely backwards you are on this topic: you dismiss as quibbles the most important questions on modesty, and advance instead that conservative apparel is the most important outcome. I am not sure how you’re able to see the keyboard with your head so far up your own rectum.

  126. Steve Evans says:

    Zed, your last sentence in #125 is more than a little inaccurate.

  127. Zed,
    I’m glad that you’ve never had a problem nursing in church. Unfortunately, many have (see any megathread on nursing at FMH for examples). Their experience doesn’t invalidate yours, of course, but vice versa, too.

    Threadjack: regarding this blog’s approach to the church, you are dead wrong and them’s fightin’ words.

  128. John C, so what word would you prefer to use instead to describe the ideal of decorum in dress and appearance? “Don’t dress in ways that other people don’t like” isn’t going to be very helpful.

  129. There’s a store near me named “SexyModest”. WHAT WHAT WHAT??? It’s all about bling jeans and such. To me, modest means without extravagant decoration or whatever. Not drawing extra attention. I picture the FLDS ladies. Anyway, that just pissed me off. Why? Cause I have too much time on my hands I guess. This whole modest is hottest is revolting. Wear a Modbe or Shade brand skin-tight shirt that covers the shoulders, but shows exactly what cup size you are (and usually 17 year old’s spare tires) and you are modest i guess. How is a shoulder too sexy? blah

    I do agree that this blanket statement “Immodest means I don’t like you” isn’t working for me. I always understood it to mean ‘You’re dressed like a slut’, no matter what degree of “immodesty” it is.

  130. Mark,
    I’d just tell people to dress appropriate for the covenants that they’ve made and leave it at that. It won’t stop judgment (nothing will), but it allows people to make their own decisions based on their intimacy with God and that’s good enough. If the temple recommend interview doesn’t supply sufficient instruction on that score, nothing else will. As to the youth, I’d say the same.

  131. Cara,
    Different people have different notions regarding what morally loose women would wear. I’ve seen the word immodest applied to folks whom I don’t think anyone would confuse with a morally loose woman or prostitute. So I do think my definition works.

    That said, when you like someone, why would you tell them they are dressed like a morally loose woman? Perhaps I should alter it to, “I don’t like you & I think you are dressed like a morally loose woman” How’s about that?

  132. Maybe we just need to learn more English words so we can say what we actually mean every time.

    On a lighter note – (A-Flat)
    “Your shoes are immodest”
    “Ok shoes, we talked about this. Were you hanging out with those loafers again?”
    Feel free to make up other clever retorts.

  133. John, makes much more sense than the simple ‘I don’t like you.’ Makes me giggle now.

  134. Josh, that was my point, actually. I don’t think we’re very good at judging whether other people are modest or not, so modesty ought to refer to how you see and present yourself based on you judgement of what is appropriate, not how others actually see you.

    I mean, no matter what you do, people can (mis)interpret your appearance as making a statement. Short hair on a girl? She’s iconoclastic or potentially a lesbian. Longer hair on a girl? She’s traditional, vain, or seductive. She’s wearing make up? She’s bought into today’s material culture. No make up? She’s a granola girl, or she’s stressed out, or she lacks social decorum.

    In my view, the purpose of modesty is to prevent us from putting too much energy into trying to control how other people see us. Instead, we’re expected to put moderate effort into looking respectable enough not to alienate people or attract the worst types of attention, and then we’re expected to worry a lot more about building substantive relationships with others and God. I’d say modesty should be about letting go of the idea that we can and should micromanage how others see us, not about controlling other’s perceptions of us as good people.

    I’m definitely not trying to condemn people who struggle with self-worth as immodest and bad (that would be most of us!), but I do think that being overly concerned about your image in negative ways is likely to impede one’s relationship with God and everyone else.

    Back to the guys flexing their muscles in the mirror: if the purpose of this exercise is for a guy to bask in his own glory and think about the girls/guys he’s going to impress, that could be considered immodest because it’s an excessive waste of time, i.e. an activity that has little value besides cheap self-affirmation. It does nothing particularly positive for anyone else. Maybe those twenty minutes actually do serve some purpose in terms of pure enjoyment and his future self-confidence in dealing with others, but it’s difficult to see how those benefits of admiring one’s pumped muscular physique are much different than the boost I get from having certain awesome parts of my female body accentuated.

    @ John, 123: What I took away from Drew’s comment is that men are hardwired to like women, so no matter what women act like men are going to find something to fetishize about them.

  135. Actually the best modesty is modesty of mind vis-a-vis another person. Is it not permissible to celebrate another person’s beauty and sexiness without either casting stones at them or loosing all moral grounding? Might the fault be in the eye of the beholder rather than the with the beheld?

    Long ago while dating my wife, we went swimming at a social outing. She had a clothing event which revealed considerably more than she would have liked, briefly seen only by me. I politely looked away to respect her modesty, did not become unduly inflamed, and waited until the knot was tied. She was modest of mind and I was helpful. What would have happened if I had scolded and berated? Or lunged and attacked? Ugh. I cared enough to be modest, myself, and patient.

    As to the missionaries who could not sit next to a beautiful young woman in shorts: who was most immodest, the girl or the missionaries? Were they afraid for their immortal souls because of her radiance? What were they thinking, that they might attack her because of her beauty having been tempted beyond their limit? Sounds like Saudi Arabia.

    The other side of the coin is teaching self-control although I grant you this is difficult with 16 year-olds, even with adults.

  136. I’ve really enjoyed the post and comments, and even though I’m more than a week late to it I thought I’d throw in my POV. One of my favorite books in the world is Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty. Some paraphrased thoughts from her book: Micro-modesty: protects women’s romantic hopes and allows female desire to flower (sorry!). Macro modesty: gives women freedom from harassment and rape. It’s more than what a woman wears, or doesn’t (Hiram Powers’ “Greek Slave,” for example).

    Sunny (#12), I want to sing your name. Such a beautiful thought. That is what modesty is, isn’t it? “I am more than what you see. I am worth something and don’t have to resort to flashiness/lewdness to have my worth validated.”

    Zed – you are great!

    And because the shoe comment hasn’t been discussed much ;)
    I agree with #26 and #80–my guess is that the immodest shoes in question were stripper shoes (huge platform, stiletto heel, etc.). I say this because a couple Sundays ago I was in the ladies’ room and noticed some shoes under one of the stalls fitting the above description that immediately made me think, “Wow, I never thought of shoes as immodest but there’s a pair that is!” Of course when the owner stepped out it was one of my fellow mom friends who’s a really nice person, good mom, etc. So clearly what looked immodest to me didn’t to her, no big deal. (That said, even if an actual stripper stepped out of the stall I wouldn’t have criticized her shoes. Better to be genuinely glad that she’s at church!) I often wonder what my pioneer ancestors would think if they saw me walk into church with a knee-length pencil skirt and fishnets–which is why modesty is more than the arbitrary “cover whatever is covered by garments” (because even those have gotten shorter). Especially at church, it’s in part about not doing a sartorial boogie dance in front of someone trying to focus on Jesus. I’m now rethinking my five-month-old’s peacock-feather headdress…

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