Even beauty queens are more than just their looks

Not Ms. Virginia–just a simple girl in a modest bathing suit.

Yesterday a friend drew my attention to this Deseret News article about Bekah Pence, the newly-crowned Ms. Virginia United States. A good portion of the article is devoted to Bekah’s efforts to remain modest while competing in the pageant. For example, she was the only contestant to wear a one-piece suit during the swimsuit competition. (And she still won! #GuardiansOfVirtue) She describes how important it was to her to stay true to the church’s standards of dress.

“I’m a firm believer in not just being modest, but you can also be absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, not just beautiful,” she said. “I feel like girls don’t feel that way. They think that it’s a step down if you’re modest. They don’t think you can be absolutely gorgeous, but I felt that way. I felt like, ‘You know what? This dress is amazing, and I feel gorgeous in it — and I’m modest.”

Pence not only learned this for herself, but she was also able to explain her choices to the other contestants.

“I was the only one with a one-piece,” she said about the swimming suit portion of the pageant. “They would make a comment like, ‘That’s cute,’ and I would just say simply, ‘Yeah, I really wanted to wear a one-piece. I like to be modest,’ and it was cool that they thought it was cool.”

It’s great that Bekah did not compromise her standards. In fact, I think it’s especially awesome that she won a swimsuit competition in a one-piece swimsuit. Represent! (A cynic might say she had an unfair advantage by covering up what is often a problem area for women, even before they’ve had kids. But her thighs were still showing, so I say that cynic is just jealous. #HatersGonnaHate) However, I believe examples of modesty are most effective when modesty is allowed to speak for itself, rather than having attention drawn to it. After all, it seems kind of odd that there would be a modest way to participate in a beauty contest (or any event where the purpose is to draw attention to how attractive you are). It’s the sort of thing I was tempted to blog about, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it because I was afraid that using this particular story as an example of How Not To Be Modest couldn’t help looking like a personal attack on a young woman who seems perfectly lovely and obviously wants to be a positive influence on others. It seemed mean. (Not to mention hater-ish.)

So I was interested to see Jana Riess’s blog take up the very theme my own black heart had hit on: Isn’t there more to modesty than covering your shoulders, belly, and thighs (and back—sometimes it’s easy to forget the back)? Jana Riess is a good writer (that’s an understatement, in case you were wondering), and she doesn’t seem at all mean. If I had written such a post, I would have come off like a bitter feminist hag whose hottest modest days were obviously behind her. (It’s true, but I don’t have to advertise it.) I know what you’re thinking. “If Jana Riess did such a good job, why are you here?” Well, I’ll tell you.

It’s because today I saw this article in the Deseret News about Gisele Bethea, a ballerina who also dresses modestly, even when she’s performing or practicing her dancing. You know what I think about that? Good for her. And also, WHO CARES.

This has nothing to do with either Bekah or Gisele. I admire their commitment to their personal standards and wish them the best in their respective careers. This is not about Bekah or Gisele. This is about a culture—our culture, i.e. Mormon culture—that insists on treating modest dress as the end-all, be-all of female virtue. Bekah and Gisele didn’t write these articles about themselves. Reporters wrote these articles—I’m assuming they’re Mormon reporters, but if not, they certainly know their Mormon audience, because it seems like we Mormons just can’t get enough of Girls Going Modest. I can’t begin to count the articles and videos I’ve seen in print and on the internet and on social media over the last ten years about Mormon young women having modesty fashion shows, making their own modest prom dresses, starting businesses selling modest clothing for other women, saying no to immodest clothing in all times and in all things and in all places. And after this many years and this many modesty stories, there comes a time when you just have to say ENOUGH.

Enough already.

Remember: You don’t have to show a lot of skin to be drop-dead gorgeous. You just have to be drop-dead gorgeous.

I agree that modesty in dress is important—more important than your average young women are inclined to think when they’re teenaged and discovering their own sexual power. But certainly not more important than your average young Mormon woman thinks it is because holy crap, is there any other principle that is more consistently taught to young Mormon women again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again than the importance of dressing modestly?

Several years ago I had to explain to my oldest daughter that it was more important for her to be kind to her little brother than it was to make sure her belly wasn’t showing. Don’t ask me how these two topics happened to show up in the same conversation. I don’t remember. All I remember is that this was a genuine revelation to her, and I was shocked and dismayed to realize that it was. Granted, my daughter was and is autistic and perhaps is less capable of grasping the nuances of certain moral discussions, but she wasn’t (and isn’t) stupid. If she thought dressing modestly was more important than being nice to people, it’s because the church— Mormon culture generally—keeps sending the message (again and again and again and again) that the bravest, most consequential thing a young woman can do is cover her body more than other women (in Western democracies) cover theirs.

In case you were wondering, that’s insane. And these two articles—with all due respect to the fine young women who are the subjects thereof—are not helping matters.

As I said above, this is not the fault of the young female subjects. I don’t care if they each gave long-winded speeches during their interviews on the importance of being modest. I used to be a reporter. I wrote fluffy lifestyle articles just like these. The reporter tells the story; the reporter decides which facts and details are important and most interesting to potential readers. Well, the reporter and the reporter’s editor. Editors are by no means off the hook! I want to ask these reporters and editors, were there really no other facts or details that better illustrated these young women’s integrity and accomplishments? More to the point, were there really no other facts or details that were more interesting than the perpetual War against Bare Shoulders? (Tangential point: Did you really mean to make them sound self-righteous and full of their own modesty?)

Just for clarity’s sake: I did notice that the articles are not just about modesty. But each makes a special point to discuss modesty–something that would be weird if it were not an article about a young Mormon woman. They spent precious inches and pixels on the modesty issue. I’m saying that they wouldn’t do this if not for the fact that we as a people have perverted the whole concept of modesty: we simply must draw attention to it, all the freaking time.

I had mixed feelings about the recent #AskHerMore campaign. On the one hand, it’s feminist and good to show interest in an actress beyond what she is wearing. On the other hand, I would find it difficult to care less what an actress thinks about anything—not because she’s a woman, but because I find most actors insipid and self-absorbed. My apologies to anyone who finds them interesting, but I personally would rather know more about that stunning gown and those cunning accessories (and I’m sure the people who spent all the time and effort designing and making the gown and let her wear it for free would appreciate the advertising). However, I would love to start an #AskHerMore campaign for young Mormon women who achieve some level of newsworthiness. Unless she’s a modest stripper, let the modesty speak for itself. (There’s such a thing as pictures, after all.) In the case of someone like Bekah, I would like to know more about her mission experience—how did it change her, enhance her life, help her grow? What exactly does Ms. Virginia do, and to what advantage does she want to use this position? What are her future goals? Who are her role models? (Ten to one they won’t include anyone famous for dressing modestly.)

I understand the church probably ramped up its modesty discourse as a response to troubling trends—girls showing off their goodies in public and/or getting pregnant out of wedlock and/or whatnot—but girls dress provocatively for a variety of reasons. The world is constantly bombarding them with the message that their bodies are the most consequential thing about them—how they look and how they appear to others. And by “the world,” I mean society, media, and church. But throughout life, young women will face moral dilemmas of much greater consequence than what they’re wearing. Dress standards are all well and good—I’m not an anarchist, after all—but we really can afford to place less emphasis on them. Reporting really is a zero-sum game. People’s attention spans are only so long and so wide. While you have their attention, talk about what’s most important. What makes a young Mormon woman newsworthy? What makes her worth admiring? What makes her worth emulating? Think before you answer. These stories add up. (Again and again and again.)


  1. Great post! These are important discussions that I hope to be able to successfully navigate as my daughter gets older.

    I noticed that, for all the time the DN article spent discussing modesty and the swimwear, there was no photo of her in the swimsuit. And the advertisement next to the photos (when I viewed the article) was for a line of women’s clothing that many Mormons would likely consider too revealing.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    “You don’t have to show a lot of skin to be drop-dead gorgeous. You just have to be drop-dead gorgeous.” FTW.

  3. MDearest says:

    I went shopping last night, and I bought a bathing suit. Because I haven’t had a new one in years, I can’t even find the old one, and I must have one for an upcoming trip. I’m still on the fence whether I’ll actually wear the thing in front of other people. I hate our culture of appearance worship, but not as much as I hate my body aging. You think your hottest modest days are long gone? Wait ten or fifteen years. I feel that there’s some lesson I’m intended to learn from the aging thing, but I’m not finished learning it yet, so I won’t be dispensing any further wisdom about that.

    However, I feel confident saying that a beauty pageant is, by definition, not modest. I read another woman’s opinion about this pointing out that our pageant winner was exhibiting integrity by sticking to her standards (which was fine,) but one couldn’t label it modest. All the sequins and bejeweling, the hair product, the make-up sessions, and even the one-piece swimsuit– are a form of socially sanctioned exhibitionism, and one may preserve one’s integrity, if done according to specific dress and grooming criteria, but it just is not modest.

    I felt impressed when you pointed out the message overload (that all of us are bombarded with, both men and women) that our female bodies are “the most consequential thing about us.” Not just how we look and appear to others, but how gravid those bodies are in the service of perpetuating the species/family. Amen to saying that there is more that is significant about us than our appearance and our bodies, and we need to see it, and talk about it, and give it some press. If we want to cultivate and develop that, we should give it at least as much attention as we do modesty and grooming standards.

  4. And yet, the Deseret News celebrates a young man/athlete getting a hideous tattoo.

    Ahhhh, irony….

  5. Oops, blew the html on the link…can someone fix that?

  6. Done.

  7. Anon for this one says:

    I’m still trying to figure out who defines the “modesty” standards and on what basis. The first picture in the Deseret News article on Gisele may not show her belly, but she’s leaping in a leotard and you can see more of her than just her scripture quad and modestly coiffed eyebrows. So apparently someone has a thing for the female belly/shoulder regions and worries about immodesty there, but legs, thighs, and crotch are A-OK? I’m not saying they’re not–she’s a ballerina for crying out loud–I just thought it was kind of funny that they picked that particular image to headline the article.

    (For my part, I’m waiting for a nylon fetishist to rise in the leadership ranks and then someday decree that women who don’t wear pants that cover their pantyhose are walking niche pornography.)

  8. I have no interest in beauty pageants, whether to watch or for my sons and daughters to compete. And the “modesty” discussion in Mormonism and elsewhere is tired (scare quotes because it’s not about modesty as I understand the word). But in response to the OP, it seems to me that there’s an easy story to tell:
    Winning within the rules, but by a somewhat different play than others have chosen.
    It’s an easy story to tell, not uncommon in sport and business, and a good one for men and women to hear. If “modesty” weren’t there to draw all the attention, it’s essentially the story that’s being told,

  9. I think it’s good to have stories about women holding to modesty standards in these instances. They are good examples of holding to faith and standards in circumstances having a lot of pressure to do otherwise. It’s similar to the story of Adam Van Houten, the high school golfer who gave up the state championship when he noticed, after signing his scorecard, that his playing partner wrote down the wrong score for one hole on Van Houten’s scorecard. The error wasn’t even Van Houten’s fault, but he reported it knowing that the error (not the score) would cost him the title. Or J.P. Hayes, who disqualified himself from a PGA Tour qualifying tournament after finding he’d used an unpermitted ball for one hole. The difference is that the honesty required in these circumstances, although extreme, is to some degree expected in the golf profession. These young ladies are sticking to their values and still finding success even though their fields would not reward them for those values. (I am not persuaded that the pageant winner had an advantage in going with the one-piece suit. Otherwise, all contestants would be seeking that same advantage to win. I’m happy to be wrong though and hope for a modesty revolution in beauty pageants…)

    It may be repetitious for Young Women to hear about modesty. It’s also repetitious for Young Men to hear about staying away from pornography. These are not the only morals our youth need reinforced, but they are important to be reinforced repetitiously. Immodesty and pornography are the gateway to bigger problems–usually more so then hitting one’s brother in my view, but we don’t have to choose one over the other. Even with all the repetition, young people who come from solid LDS families continue to struggle with these issues, sometimes in very distressing ways.

  10. Bro. Jones says:

    I’ve never understood the swimsuit competition. If you want to have physical fitness be a part of a pageant, fine: have a separate fitness event like a race determine each contestant’s level of conditioning. A girl I once dated took part in a beauty pageant that did just this, and she may not have had the textbook “swimsuit” body but she dusted all the other girls in the fitness competition because she ran and lifted weights on a regular basis.

  11. Kristine says:

    “It may be repetitious for Young Women to hear about modesty. It’s also repetitious for Young Men to hear about staying away from pornography.”

    All the more reason to quit obsessing about women’s shoulders. If we quit telling girls (and boys) that the primary characteristic of girls is their visual surface, then we wouldn’t have so much trouble with boys paying excessive attention to women as visual objects.

  12. ^THAT^

  13. No more Guys in Levi’s. My new campaign.

  14. Bring on the Burka!

  15. I think we would have problems with 12-18 year old boys obsessing about women as visual objects regardless of the modesty teachings in young women.

    But I agree that we focus on modesty too much. Probably because it is easier to judge and supervise in young people as opposed to faith or repentance.

  16. “I think we would have problems with 12-18 year old boys obsessing about women as visual objects regardless of the modesty teachings in young women.”

    Of course we would. But at least they wouldn’t get so aroused by shoulders and clavicles…

  17. Well that probably depends on the boy and the shoulder :)

    But I take your point.

  18. “modest stripper” :(

  19. Nit Grit says:

    i thought the Miss Virginia was the tallest one standing in the middle because her dress looked modest to me. I didn’t learn who the real one was until I started reading the article.

  20. Dr_Doctorstein says:

    Thank you, MDearest, for pointing out what should be obvious — namely “that a beauty pageant is, by definition, not modest.” Isn’t the contestant’s goal to prove that she is more beautiful and more talented than everyone else? Modest people do not strive to prove that they’re #1. Just as the Church tends to reduce virtue to sexual virtue, it seems to have reduced modesty to modesty in dress.

  21. The Mormon #askhermore should #teachhermore . Focus more on doctrine and who she is and can become as a woman and less on modesty. There is so much more to Mormon women than modesty.

  22. Angela C says:

    Actually, teen pregnancy has been greatly on the decline since the 1980s, so that can’t be the culprit. I blame the alliance with evangelicals to fight the culture wars. Somewhere in the trenches, we started swapping doctrines and trying to one-up each other in outwardly demonstrated righteous points.

    As I read what you said about too much of one topic means not enough of another and misunderstanding the importance of the gospel because the rules take over, it reminded me of something a friend of mine shared with me back in the 90s. His stake had done an anonymous survey among the teens in seminary in their stake to find out how they ranked various sins in terms of importance (a weird idea, I know). They were shocked to find that the majority of kids in their stake thought using profanity was worse than premarital sex! But they knew the answer was simply because it was something that was so consistently emphasized in the youth teaching that kids lost all sense of proportion. Yes, we are most definitely in that boat with modesty in the church.

  23. Clark Goble says:

    Out of curiosity, do all those who dislike beauty contests also dislike athletic contests as being immodest? I can think of many reasons to dislike beauty contests – primarily dealing with objectification of women. But the immodesty of trying to be most beautiful seems an odd one to make unless any contest of skill is likewise condemned.

    After all most athletic skills are just as genetic as natural beauty, doing the odd makeup, walks and so forth of beauty contests seem a skill about as useful as hitting a ball with a bat or throwing a ball in a hoop. Arguably the skills of a beauty contest are more useful overall compared to many athletic skills. But if someone enjoys doing it, what’s wrong with it? I don’t condemn those who enjoy baseball or basketball. I might find society’s overvaluing of those good at it misplaced much as I might find the value of Miss America overvalued. (Although let’s be honest – most people these days roll their eyes at beauty contests. It’s a contest who’ve value was much more in the past.)

    Anyway, just trying to understand the whole immodesty bit. I don’t see a beauty contest much worse than a bodybuilding contest (which frankly is nearly the same thing for men). I might worry about people who focus on it too much but not the inherent contest.

  24. Dr_Doctorstein says:

    I can’t speak for others, Clark, but I didn’t say “Beauty pageants are immodest, and because they are immodest they are bad and I dislike them.” I merely said they’re immodest. The objection is not to pageants, but to the idea of the contestant as modest, and to the reduction of the whole complex idea of modesty to the fact of covering up a bit more skin than usual.

    And yes, I think that sports — big-time sports anyway — are immodest as well. I notice that the dictionary lists “bold” as an antonym of “modest.” The young woman’s decision to enter a beauty pageant is a bold one, no? Ditto for trying out for the team.

    Also in the dictionary we find the sense of “modest” as “free from ostentation or showy extravagance,” and, well, forget about bikinis — can we really say that those evening gowns are “modest”? Only if we reduce modesty to skin coverage.

  25. MDearest says:

    For the record, I don’t dislike pageants either, or body-building/athletic competitions. I enjoy a good spectacle. I object to the notion that modesty is how much female skin is covered. (And it’s about female skin much more than male skin.) Being modest is a lot more complex, and we very rarely examine that complexity. There are times and places where modesty is more appropriate, and times/places where it’s better to be bold and show yourself off. Such as a beauty pageant.

  26. I think this is a good conversation to have every so often. Maybe this is too radical, but I think that being exposed to nudity (in appropriate situations) is pretty healthy for developing a true sense of modesty. Because LDS culture focuses so much on covering skin, people tend to develop their ideas about what bodies look like based on airbrushed media images, and we end up feeling kind of uncomfortable when we see bodies (ours, or others’) that don’t match up with what we’re used to seeing in the media. In the past few years I’ve been exposed to a lot of female bodies that were round, saggy, asymmetric, wrinkly, and so on, and I’ve started to realize that most female bodies are actually perfectly nice and attractive. My initial discomfort with seeing women’s unclothed bodies was more about unfamiliarity than about morality or attractiveness. Now that I have a better appreciation for the diversity of bodies in general, I obsess way less about my own looks.

  27. More journalists should be like Nardwuar, is what I think you’re saying.

  28. Clark Goble says:

    Just for the record I agree modesty is more complex and I think it has to be tied in with humility. The old puritan style of modesty, while vastly too extreme, at least got that it was about more than just beauty. (I’ve no love for the puritans, but modest in appearance and means used to be tied to a kind of lower common denominator so as to not appear better than others) The Book of Mormon seems to get at that sense too with its condemnation of dress. The issue wasn’t sex but equality.

    I do wish our manuals focused on that more, even if I think some people perhaps focus too much there. (Honestly I don’t mind people saving up and buying some nice clothes – while most of my clothing money now goes to my kids, I don’t feel guilty about a nice Italian suit back in my single days) I also think that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. That is if we’re going to condemn mini skirts and halter tops maybe shirtless guys ought be considered too? I think losing the covering aspect of modesty might be going too far, but surely we do focus *far* too much on it and not in a way that treats men as objects of the female glance in an equal way.

    I just worry that we fall prey to a form of Christianity (that sometimes beset the Puritans) where we devalue our body too much. Bodies are good but undue focus (as admittedly happens frequently in beauty contestants and body builders) is bad.

  29. The issue wasn’t sex but equality.

    Very important observation.

  30. RJ, did you have to put those pictures in? Now I can’t remember what I was going to say.

  31. Heathermommy says:

    This whole modesty thing drives me crazy. Now with a daughter going into young womens I am tempted to keep her home from any activity with this theme. The whole modesty rhetoric only serves to further objectify women. It just makes me want to scream “there are a lot more important things about us than our bodies – and specifically what men think about our bodies.”

  32. Amen Heathermommy. I WILL keep my daughters home from any activity with this theme. And take them to do something fun and productive.

  33. I prefer to focus on what a body can do instead of what it looks like. In some ways that leans towards the athletic competition, but I also feel our world is a little too appreciative of grown people who can kick a ball well, or throw a ball into a hoop. People who invent new medicines, teach a child, serve others, or something worth while scarcely make the news, but millions are spent preparing to watch a group of grown ups play a game. I love sports, I just think it’s completely out of balance.

    As far as the modesty porn thing….It’s not whether men can see shoulders, it’s whether or not they have lost the ability to connect with another person’s mind and heart and soul. Is the physical body ALL they can see? Are our young men able to recognize the beauty of learning from and with another person? Are they able to truly empathize? Do they understand the role of patience, forgiveness and love in a relationship?

    Teach out youth how to relate to each other and how to seek what God wants them to do with their lives and help them prepare for it and start to live it.

  34. I vastly prefer modesty get a rare mention and the focus being, dress appropriately in such a way that YOU shine…your thoughts, opinions, works and deeds. It’s not about how many inches of skin, it’s about not distracting from your brilliance.

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