Guest Post — Words Mean Something: Modesty and Lust

Posted by on March 19, 2014 in Body, women | 13 comments

Oleaby Olea

There’s been a lot of talk recently about The Lord’s Standard of Morality, as defined by Elder Tad R. Callister. I’d like to focus on just two words: modesty and lust.

Modesty in this talk is used rather narrowly to refer to clothing choices – particularly of women.

The scripture quoted to justify women’s modesty is 1 Timothy 2:9, which speaks against braided hair, gold, pearls and costly apparel. It mentions nothing about covering shoulders or knees. It mentions nothing about how men might be sexually titillated by their lack of covering. Elder Callister also missed the verses 11 and 12, which teach that women should be silent and should not be suffered to teach or have authority over men. Words mean things. Selectively using only a small section of a verse, without honoring the context, or even acknowledging that it exists, eviscerates the scriptures and pretends that revelation exists independently of culture – particularly unhelpful when talking about dress standards.

“But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; [...] for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7

The Lord teaches that we should not judge other people by their appearance. He teaches that we are responsible for our own thoughts and actions, to put off the “natural man”, to be aware of the poor among us rather than focusing on material things. Elder Callister is narrowing the rhetoric about modesty to the superficial message that “if it is too low or too high or too tight it may prompt improper thoughts”, and then quoting scripture inappropriately to support it.

“In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.” – Elder Tad R. Callister 

Unlike Callister’s narrow use of the term, modesty is actually a much broader concept. According to the Oxford American College Dictionary, it encompasses “the quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities”. Modesty is about what goes on inside us, not what covers our bodies. If we are dressing with the intent to make others feel bad about their looks or belongings, if we are trying to show off our wit at the expense of others, if we flaunt our wealth as a measure of our personal value, we are being immodest. And because it concerns our intent, the only person’s modesty we can judge is our own.

When clothing is chosen because of its effect on others, it objectifies us, and rejects principles of agency and accountability. By constantly tying judgement of others into our rhetoric about modesty, it is impossible to treat our bodies as temples.

“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” – Matthew 5:28

The sin pinpointed in this scripture occurs in the man’s heart, not in the woman’s body. Trying to locate blame elsewhere prevents true repentance, and encourages judging others. We have no control over other people’s emotions or actions. It took me a long time to learn that my father’s anger was not my responsibility. His agency is his own. I’m not about to start taking on the agency of others now.

“We do have the power within us to take control of our lives and our thoughts.” – Elder Tad R. Callister

The sin of lust is partly in encouraging thoughts of a sexual nature which occur out of the bounds of a committed, healthy relationship, and partly because it is using another’s body for our own gratification. We are not treating them as children of God. I think Elder Callister did a great job of outlining that sexual sin comes when we use others for our self-gratification, rather than treating them with unselfishness, though this got lost among his other, somewhat conflicting, messages.

Of course, lust – just as with modesty – does not exclusively have a sexual component. Lusting after inanimate objects is also possible, because lust – just as with modesty – is more about attitudes than actions.

Please, bridle your own passions, by all means. Just don’t try to rein in someone else.

(Olea loves the smell of spring mornings, the sound of an aeroplane readying for takeoff, the feel of the sun shining on her neck, the sight of cookies fresh out of the oven, and the taste of sweet victory over yet another tricky Gospel Doctrine lesson.)

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13 Comments

  1. If it were just about covering skin, certain other things wouldn’t get pushback. But then that’s coming from someone who chooses to dye her hair “unnatural” colors (pink and purple) and likes the goth look.

    And I guess Callister is right- I got a husband who digs that.

    But it would be nicer if I could feel comfortable dressing modestly without having to feel like a Stepford Wife clone of “this is how a Mormon woman looks and there is no other way she is allowed to look.”

    • Yeah, I worry about the “avoiding extremes in appearance” part in FSOY. It encourages dressing how we imagine other people dress. If we all dress how we feel like dressing, we might reduce the whole “extreme” part, by showing more variety. (The “wear pants/purple” thing worries me for the same reason – asking us to/implying we can judge attitudes by appearances). There’s a really big, fascinating conversation to be had about what we wear and what it means and why we choose it.

  2. Thank you Olea! It is so important to not confuse the scriptural meaning of modesty with the current Mormon culture meaning. The scriptures are not about sleeves.

  3. Thanks for this post, Olea!

    I love the additional context you give for the Timothy quote. And this is great. “Words mean things. Selectively using only a small section of a verse, without honoring the context, or even acknowledging that it exists, eviscerates the scriptures and pretends that revelation exists independently of culture – particularly unhelpful when talking about dress standards.”

    This just occurred to me. If our leaders cherry pick small phrases and hold those up as inspired, while totally ignoring problematic scriptural injunctions that are surrounding those cherry picked phrases — does that give us leave to do the same? Can I hold up statements like, “there is no male or female in Christ Jesus” and totally ignore the verses about women’s submission to male authority? I like that thought…. Maybe Callister has done us a favor after all, in providing this kind of picking and choosing model?

  4. Words mean something, but they don’t have to exercise all of their meanings with each usage. (Otherwise, for example, the word “set”, with 100+ meanings, would become useless.) Elder Callister is clearly using the word “lust” in accordance with the OED’s definition 4: “Sexual appetite or desire. Chiefly and now exclusively implying intense moral reprobation: Libidinous desire, degrading animal passion. (The chief current use.)” He appears to be using “modesty” in accordance with the OED’s definition 2: “Decorum, propriety; scrupulous sobriety of thought, speech, conduct, etc.; natural avoidance of coarseness and lewdness.”

    “Please, bridle your own passions, by all means. Just don’t try to reign in someone else.”

    I’m pretty sure that the LDS Church has considered the reining (no “g”) in of the people’s passions to be an appropriate activity of the Lord’s chosen authorities since way before the days of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Lehi.

    • I read this rather differently. For one thing, I do not see him as using modesty in the OED approved way. Sobriety, decorum, avoidance of lewdness — those to me are all actions that a person makes by avoiding making rude remarks, inappropriate comments or cultivating coarse behavior. All of those things are more about what you say and what you laugh at than what you’re wearing. The way I read the talk the discussion of modesty was NOT about members avoiding coarse behavior, but rather about what kind of clothing they wear.

      I also read what she wrote rather differently, about “bridle your own passions, just don’t try to rein in someone else.” As I read it, she isn’t saying that the church authorities have no right to tell us not to act lustfully. Rather, she’s saying that we should be taking responsibility for our own lust, not blaming our lust on someone else.

      • Exactly, EM, thanks! I welcome prophetic counsel. I do not welcome people sliding an Ensign article across to another person, with a meaningful glance at their sleeves.

        And if we’re going to have Ensign articles about modesty, I would appreciate a more expansive view of the topic, and of humanity.

      • Well said!

  5. This is excellent, Olea! I love how you have appropriately positioned Callister’s opinions with the actual verse, revealing the disconnect. I’d love to hear more from you, especially about the gospel doctrine wins!

    • Thanks Spunky! My most recent victory included Genesis 38, a chapter I would usually skip right over (Judah mistaking Tamar for a harlot), but thanks to some awesome resources through feast upon the word, covered – and thoroughly enjoyed. I love the scriptures, in all their weirdness and glory.

  6. Olea, I love all of the things you love, and am also thankful for your words, and their meaning. Context really is a beautiful thing.

  7. Thank you for using 1 Samuel 16:7, and your post in general. This gives fresh perspective to my ever-changing understanding of modesty.

  8. Nice job Olea. You really nailed Elder Callister for misconstruing scripture! You also made him look pretty naive and uneducated in the process. Boom.

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