Marcel Proust said: “People wish to learn to swim and at the same time to keep one foot on the ground.” That seems an apt description of the Girls Camp and Youth Conference modesty guidelines for Young Women that have emerged in some wards and stakes.
I have heard a few stories on the internet over the last few years about wards and stakes who have created increasingly onerous dress requirements for the YW, including at girls-only events like Girls Camp as well as Youth Conferences. I naturally assumed this was a handful of crackpots in isolated areas trying to out-righteous each other for scraps of praise until last week when my sister-in-law shared with me that her stake is now requiring all girls to wear both a tee shirt and knee length shorts over their one-piece swimsuit to swim–at Girls Camp!*
I remember Girls Camp as a fun week in the woods at Camp Bayshore that always involved many non-LDS friends joining in the fun which was one reason our stake didn’t care if two piece swimsuits were worn; it wasn’t practical to tell the non-LDS girls they had to buy new swimsuits to participate. We were told to be sure not to judge others based on what they were wearing, and that Girls Camp was about fun and sisterhood. I can’t even imagine inviting a non-LDS friend to a Girls Camp that required them to wear a tee shirt and knee length shorts over a swimsuit. While my own views about modesty guidelines are more relaxed than the average member, even the very orthodox members I know feel this is going too far. Even endowed adults wear swimsuits for swimming. Adding heavy layers of jersey knit fabric while swimming is hazardous. Early swim costumes were woolen and “swimmers” didn’t so much swim as wade heavily around the shoreline with oversized beach balls (see picture). Swimming should be athletic and joyful, a time to feel weightless and free. It should be a playful activity, not one weighed down with inappropriate heavy fabrics that don’t shed water.
I suppose it goes without saying that the boys usually do not have such restrictions for scout camp. A couple years ago, my son was heading to Youth Conference at a resort in Malaysia. The stake guidelines said that tee shirts had to be worn over swimsuits and suits could not be form fitting (they had to be at least “boy short” length). My son was pretty unhappy to hear this because we were buying most of our clothes in our infrequent trips to the US, and he knew that wearing a tee shirt to swim would likely ruin it from the pool chemicals. He carefully selected his least favorite shirt, fully expecting it to be ruined. When he got to the resort, he found that the stake had only intended that the rule be applied to the girls. However, when the Mormon kids showed up in their tee shirt-covered swimwear, the resort would not allow non-swimwear in the pool. In a Muslim country, birthplace of the Obedient Wives Club, we Mormons had out-Muslim’d them. The tee shirts were removed, and no teen orgy ensued, just good Mormon kids having fun in the sun dressed appropriately for the occasion.
I wanted to see how widespread these stricter guidelines were, so I conducted an informal poll. There were 53 respondents:
General guidelines. Only 17% said that they were told to just follow the guidelines in For the Strength of Youth. 22.6% required girls to wear full length pajamas with sleeves, prohibiting short & tank top sets commonly worn by teen girls in summer.
Tops. A full 86.8% stated that tank tops or sleeveless tops were not allowed. This restriction was definitely not in place when I was a teen, but we’ve already discussed in other posts that even small children are being policed for shoulder coverage in many wards.
Bottoms. 84.9% prohibited shorts that weren’t at least knee length. Of those, 35.8% allowed only capris or longer, which is even more restrictive than garments. 7.5% were in wards or stakes that fully outlawed anything shorter than pants for girls at Youth Conference or Girls Camp.
Swimwear. Perhaps it is not surprising that 100% stated that bikinis were not allowed (which are also outlawed at BYU, although as I pointed out was not prohibited when I was a teen attending Girls Camp). 13.2% required that girls cover their swimsuit with a tee shirt while swimming. 5.7% also required that they wear shorts over their swimsuit, and 1.9% stipulated that their shorts be at least knee length while swimming.
A few of the participants also wrote in comments:
- “In our stake it was no shorts. In August.”
- “Our stake said no shorts on girls, but the boys can wear them.” (11.3% of respondents specifically stated that the requirements for the YM were less restrictive).
- “My girls were told knee length shorts for camp. We ignored that rule. Someone tried to hassle my youngest about it, but she told them to go talk to her dad about it (who just happened to be at camp). They chose not to.”
- “In one ward where I was in the YW presidency the girls were harassed by someone in the stake YW presidency for not wearing a modest coverup when walking to and from the pool at camp. She made them go back to their cabins and put on baggy t-shirts and knee length shorts over top of their swimsuits. In that same ward, the YM posted pictures on the bulletin board in our building of several of the boys wearing nothing but hot pink booty shorts with one of the YW’s name on the butt. Apparently this was the attire of choice for most of scout camp. Everyone thought it was hilarious.”
- “Our girls were told their shorts had to touch the ground if they were kneeling. I found this absurd I mean I get shorts should be long and people break the rules and this is one way to make sure everyone has long shorts BUT I don’t ever see YM having this test done.”
- “This came from our Youth Conference Pioneer Trek this year. “Clothing must be modest at all times. No bare backs, midriffs or shoulders and no low cut fronts or backs. No shorts.”"
- “I attended a family reunion at the church-owned Heber Valley Camp last year. Prior to arriving, all attendees received fliers from the Heber Valley Camp instructing us that shorts and swimwear of any kind would not be allowed. The temperature reached the mid nineties every day we were there. There were no exceptions for the lakeside sand volleyball court also provided by the camp.”
- “In San Francisco, no shorts allowed. No swimsuits. But my husband who is the stake YM councilor reported the boys [wore] shorts and [even participated in] skinny dipping fun. I’m livid.”
- “I can handle having rules. But not having the rules the same is what makes me mad. No shorts at girls camp. Fine. Great. Then no shorts at a scout camp. No shirtless hikes.”
What is the message we are sending to our young women? What is the message we are sending to our boys? I have been a teenage girl, and the truth of the matter is that most teenage girls don’t view themselves as sex objects until someone tells them they are. Often the person who tells them this is a parent or leader concerned about modesty. Eventually they will also get this message from society at large. The problem is that clothing modesty and immodesty are two sides of the same coin: sexual objectification. Giving girls more onerous modesty guidelines than boys is one way of giving them the message they are sex objects; a covered object is still an object. What do girls do with this information?
- Feel guilty. Girls who never dressed with any sexual intention before being told they are sex objects may feel scrupulous and shamed by this information, worried that they are bad Christians for unintentionally causing temptation. In particular, if a boy is sexually aggressive with her, she may blame herself for his actions, creating shame and depression. This kind of shame can also lead to body dysmorphia. When girls feel that their appearance is constantly on display and subject to judgment, they may develop eating disorders to cope with the lack of control they feel.
- Use it as a form of power. Girls who are sexually desirable can use their physical attributes to attract the best mates and gain soft power by manipulating men.
- Shame other girls. Girls who feel self-conscious can shame their rivals while hiding their own perceived flaws behind extra layers. People who live under weighty restrictions want to see others similarly restricted; it’s human nature. It’s why female genital mutilation is perpetuated by women.
- Internalize the double standard. It’s almost impossible for our girls to not get the message that boys are more special and valued when double standards go unchecked. It’s heartbreaking to hear my ten-year old daughter already noticing these differences.
Of course, modesty is really about context. It’s all about what is appropriate to the activity. Wearing a swimsuit in a pool shouldn’t raise eyebrows. Wearing one to a parent teacher conference should. The rank and file members I’ve talked with, and I’ve talked with many, agree these extra restrictions are going too far. Some of them object to forcing children to wear garment-ready clothes, but even those who feel that’s a good idea believe that going farther than garment-ready clothes is going too far. They are also alarmed about the double standard and the objectification of our girls, even before they hit puberty. These rules are currently at the discretion of our local wards and stakes. What can we do about it?
As W.C. Fields said “A dead fish can float downstream, but it takes a live fish to swim upstream.” Let’s be live fish!
- Refuse to play. We can choose not to support dress codes that are unequal, unfair and unsafe for our YW. We can refuse to play by not sending our daughters at all or by sending them with common sense clothing that is appropriate to the activity. If leaders want to go so far as to send them home, let them.
- Bring these issues to light. Until high level leaders address these issues in an official capacity, there are far too many zealous local leaders who get extra righteousness points for creating hedges about the law. Zealots frequently go unopposed because of their high levels of investment in the church. Sometimes they are individuals who have special pull in a geographic area due to familial relationships. But allowing them to go unchecked comes at a cost to the overall church: attrition, inactivity and lack of converts.
What do you think?
- How do we welcome those of other faiths to join our youth for fun activities? How do we combat attitudes that alienate those not of our community (and those within our community)?
- How do we balance trust and respect for our youth with a desire to help them avoid sin?
- What, in your opinion, is motivating the individuals who promote increasingly strict dress guidelines for the YW? Why does this issue seem to be more prevalent among YW leaders than among YM leaders? Have you experienced double standards between YW and YM?
- Have you encountered these stricter-than-FSOY guidelines in your ward or stake?
*Expect them to pee in the lake and/or pool. I don’t see how they are getting out of all those wet layers to use the toilet.