Modesty is in the Eye of the Beholder

two women

by mraynes

Before I left my job two weeks ago, one of my colleagues came into my office and asked to speak with me.  She immediately started apologizing for the behavior of her adult son who had been volunteering at the shelter for the day.  I stopped her and asked why she needed to apologize for his behavior; she looked at me with some bemusement and said, “Because he’s been checking you out.”

I was surprised because I hadn’t noticed her son looking at me but my co-worker assured me that he had been looking at me in a way that she deemed inappropriate.  We laughed about the situation, my co-worker told me that her son loved redheads and I jokingly said, “well who doesn’t?” and then promised her that I wasn’t offended.  But I left that conversation feeling a little bit uncomfortable. 

Uncomfortable because  the first thing I thought upon being told that I had been an object of lust was, “what am I wearing that would make him look at me in that way?”  I was shocked by my reaction, I am an adult woman who was wearing perfectly appropriate and professional clothing and still my first inclination was to blame myself for another’s behavior. 

It probably comes as no surprise that I have major problems with the rhetoric of modesty in the church and its implications for both sexes.  I will not focus on those reasons in this post because they have already been endlessly discussed on the bloggernacle.  Rather, I want to offer this experience up as a case study of the long-term ramifications of our focus on modesty in adult, Mormon women.

As a life-long member of the church, I have been indoctrinated to be modest like all good, Mormon girls are.  My mother refused to let me wear sleeveless dresses after the age of 8, I sat through modesty lessons at least once a month from the time I was 12 to 18.  At BYU, I signed the honor code, lived through the one-shoulder backpack fiasco, received the modesty talk once a semester from the bishop and listened to the concept reiterated in CES firesides and General Conference.  Even now, as a married woman with two children, I am still told that it is my modesty that determines the kind of disciple I am.  All of this is to say that I thoroughly understand and live modestly in my life.

Up to this point, while acknowledging the problematic aspects of our modesty rhetoric, I had not experienced anything negative from being modest.  Sometimes I think in acknowledging the problems of an over-focus on modesty, we forget the empowerment that comes from controlling how we present our bodies to the world.  By living modestly, both in dress and in deed, I have felt more confident that it is the quality of my thoughts and actions that garner the respect of those I interact with. 

That being said, the modesty indoctrination is insidious and the ugliness which has been discussed in the past undoubtedly rears its head in many Mormon women.  Perhaps the mildest form are experiences like mine where I had to do a mental check of what I was wearing despite being completely faultless.  The more serious cases range from women who blame themselves for a sexual assault to those who are unable to appreciate the beauty of their bodies and let it affect the intimacy they can find with a partner. 

In the end, I go back to the conversation I had with my colleague.  Despite being a zealous evangelical christian, she placed the blame for her son’s actions squarely on his shoulders.  Nowhere was there condemnation for my behavior or the way that I was dressed.  She did not stomp into my office and accuse me of being walking pornography.  She realized that her son was an independent actor and was therefore responsible for treating another human being with dignity and respect. 

If we are to believe as a church that we are only accountable for our own sins, then it is the paradigm of my co-worker that must be adopted by our highest leadership and the members in general.  If, indeed, it is the opinion that women are accountable for the lustful thoughts of men, might I suggest supplying young girls with a set of scriptures that omits the second Article of Faith…it would cut down on the confusion later on.

Have your experiences with modesty as an adult, Mormon women been positive, negative or both? 

Have you experienced any long-lasting ramifications of the modesty doctrine?

Mraynes

Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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56 Responses

  1. Angie says:

    I was raised in the LDS church, although my dad is agnostic. I heard all the modesty/chastity lessons, all the admonitions to not tempt the boys, and even got sent home from school my first day of graduate school at BYU for not wearing long enough shorts. But for some reason, none of that sunk in or influenced my opinions of what modesty is or affected my sense of my own body. I am teaching my son and daughter that our bodies are God’s first gift to us, and that are beautiful and amazing. We wear clothes that fit the situation (tank tops and bathing suits at the pool, leotards at dance recitals, sleeved shirts and finger-tip length bottoms to church and school). The reason that we cover our bodies is that they are our own private business. A woman’s body is beautiful, but it’s not everybody’s right to look at it naked. Anyway, that’s how I’ve been explaining it to my six and seven year olds.

    I have never felt any guilt about what I wear and its affect on others. However, I am not so naive to think that I can wear whatever I want whenever I want without certain things happening. Correlation does not imply causation, but certain clothing choices are correlated with certain phenomena: e.g., if I wear jeans to a job interview, I may not be hired; if I wear a low-cut shirt to the youth dance, the young men may not notice my brilliant intellect; if I wear a business suit to an Enrichment night pool party, I may be seen as unapproachable. There are all kinds of examples of cases where we are judged and treated a certain way because of what we wear. It’s not necessarily right or fair, the judgement is OF COURSE the choice of the judger, but it’s the way the world works. We might as well be savvy enough to consider the possible reactions to how we dress.

  2. Angie says:

    I have a question about the original post: why do you think that your first reaction to the son’s admiration was to assume you were to blame because of what you wore? You’ve mentioned the influence of things you heard at church; do you think that’s the sole or major reason?

  3. Javelin says:

    We had this problem at BYU-Hawaii for a long time. Our shorts were to be worn at the middle of the knee. Many students would pull their shorts down two inches every time they entered the library or food court.

    To have your shorts rest at the middle of the knee is silly since no one can see that exact location.

  4. chelseaw says:

    I mostly find discussions of modesty at church silly, especially among adult women. Aren’t there more important things to talk about? I’m reminded of an experience I had at BYU. I went on a date with a nice guy I had known in my home stake. We were both post-mission and endowed. On the date I wore a short black skirt that came to just the tops of my knees. It was a little bit snug, but I thought it was fairly modest, if maybe a bit on the sexy side. He took one look at me and said “Are you wearing garments with that?” I just laughed it off, but I was absolutely appalled that he would have the audacity to ask me that. The fact that church leaders harp on and on about modesty gives some people the idea that it is OK to scrutinize what everyone else is wearing to determine their worthiness or lack thereof. And in my opinion that idea is 100% wrong and the exact opposite of the way Christ wants us to view each other. As a teen I often brought non-Mormon friends to stake dances with me. A few times they were turned away for not being dressed appropriately (we’re talking skirts that weren’t quite to the knee, or a sleeveless, high-necked shirt.) Guess how many of them were too embarrassed to ever attend an LDS activity again?

  5. D'Arcy says:

    Great post M! I have often been in that situation in my life and because I felt so guilt if any man looked at me in ways he shouldn’t, I feel that I have been overly modest in most of my standard dress.

    However, what I am coming to realize is that as women, it’s more important to trust ourselves and our motives and knowing ourselves instead of subscribing to a standard set to meet everyone when I don’t think it can because we are all so different.

  6. Azucar says:

    Ha! I’d forgotten the backpack episode! That was truly hilarious and was the cause of much eye-rolling.

    Modesty has never affected my self-esteem or how I view my body. My body is awesome (and not because it’s hard and size 0, but because it is mine and useful.)

    I’ve never really struggled with the modesty suggestions, in fact, I’ve found that they can be a framework for selecting clothing, almost like a puzzle, that are both beautiful and appropriate.

    I’m very into fashion and style (ahh, vanity!) The truth is that many clothes that we wouldn’t consider modest are just downright tacky. Sure, there are pieces that I think are lovely that are too short, or strapless, but generally, the idea of wearing a spaghetti strap tank with short-shorts is absolutely appalling to me on an aesthetic level.

    My gray area is tight/revealing vs. fitted; what a fine line. I hate to see women wear baggy, over-sized clothing for fear of revealing too much. Our bodies are beautiful and our clothing should be fitted properly.

    And I’ve NEVER felt like my clothing was responsible for being looked upon as an object of lust. I am not responsible for the thoughts of another person.

    Shoot, I always look good.

  7. Kelly Ann says:

    This is a great post. I’ll respond more to it later. However, I am curious what is the “one shoulder backpack fiasco”?

  8. MJK says:

    The fiasco (I was at BYU for it as well) was some people saying that women should not be allowed to wear one strap backpacks. The reasoning was that since the one strap goes inbetween the woman’s breasts it calls attention to them and is therefore not modest. Since we can see that she has breasts we think impure thoughts! Women why must you tempt us by having breasts???

    As far as I know the debacle mostly played out in letters to the Daily Universe; bonus points for including the phrase “shocked and appalled” in your letter!

  9. mraynes says:

    Thanks for all the comments! And I’m glad that so many of you have not been negatively affected by our modesty rhetoric.

    Angie, I think you have a healthy approach to the modesty issue. I agree that dressing in a certain way often results in forseeable outcomes. I don’t think, however, that this contradicts my point…the outcomes are determined by an individual’s reaction to the clothing choices. Your question is a complex one, I would never say that the church is the sole reason behind anything (for example, I think that society’s fascination with women’s appearance also contributed to my reaction). That being said, I think the repeated focus on how my clothing choices negatively affect members of the opposite sex, cannot be overlooked. Thanks for your comments.

    Javelin, your comment goes to show the subjectivity of the church’s modesty rhetoric and rules. Thank you for commenting.

    Thank you so much for your comment, chelseaw. I also had the same experience with bringing friends to church activities and having them be turned away…the ridiculousness of this is just amazing to me. I agree that the focus on modesty has provides a perfect opportunity for church members to judge both church members and non-members and I couldn’t agree more that this is not the way Christ wants it.

    D’Arcy, what a wonderful realization to make and it is applicable to so many aspects of women’s lives. I wish that we, as members of the church, were given more freedom to get to know ourselves.

    You are fabulous, Azucar! And I hope that your fabulous attitude is contagious, I know I would like to adapt more of it. I am interested in how you’ve cultivated such a high self-esteem, I would love for you to share some ideas with our readers who might not share your enthusiasm for their bodies. Thanks.

    Kelly Ann, I look forward to your comment. And MJK, thanks for the explanation…it really is amazing what makes it into the zeitgeist of BYU culture!

  10. Tyler Manning says:

    I would like to give the viewpoint of an LDS man. While I am not a woman, I believe I understand the feelings that are being expressed. With that being said, the post seems to be based in ignorance. Maybe you have not lived in other countries or seen the way women dress in different parts of our country, but the way you dress most definitly has an influence on those around you. I am not speaking of the BYU debates we have all had while living in Utah, I am speaking of the real modesty issues that exist outside of the bubble many of you live within. Do you suggest that you will allow your daughter to wear what she wants without restraint? We are responsible for our own sins, but do you by any means think a playboy model is without sin? They never looked at the pornography, but I think everyone would agree they were the influence which allowed others to sin. I am not trying to condemn you for sin while dressing modestly and having someone look at you without respect. I applaude you for trying to live modestly in gaining the respect of others. I agree that our thoughts and actions demonstrate our modestly just as our dress does. However, if we think that the way we dress doesn’t influence those around us we are simply wrong. And then we must all agree that we will all be held responsible for the good and bad influences we have on others.

  11. D'Arcy says:

    Tyler, I’ve traveled the world, lived in several different countries and have taught and interacted with women from these countries.

    I don’t really understand what you are trying to say. Are you saying that the responsibility for what a man thinks and feels is also the responsibility of the woman? Are you saying that we need to cover up like the women of the middle east?

    I don’t think that you can put one person in charge of another persons thoughts. For me, that is simply not ok.

  12. mraynes says:

    Tyler, I think your comment assumes to much about me. First, I never argued that the way women dress does not affect those around them, only that that it is the beholder who bears the responsibility of how they react, hence the title. I am perfectly aware of how women dress both in and out of the so-called “bubble” and I still believe that the individual is responsible for their own thoughts. It is irrelevant whether that woman lives in this country or Africa and whether they subscribe to the Mormon prescription of modesty. If we are going to believe in the second Article of Faith, it is up to the individual man to keep his thoughts pure. Also, your Playboy example is a false analogy. There is a big difference between wearing a tank top and posing nude. That being said, if the nude model is in sin it is because she/he has not respected their body, not for potentially causing others to sin. We are all granted free agency and it is an individual choice whether or not we pick up the magazine and let our thoughts go in undesirable places.

    In the end, the modesty issue is not black and white, there are varying shades of grey. Yes, I as a woman have to be aware that what I wear may have an unintended or intended affect upon the men around me but ultimately, it is up to those men to be masters of their own thoughts.

  13. Starfoxy says:

    I can’t remember who said it, but “I can’t prevent a bird from flying over my head, but I can stop it from building a nest in my hair.” I think it is important to remember that another person’s clothes might be distracting. We can’t stop other people’s clothes from distracting us now and then, but we can control what we let ourselves dwell on.
    And I bring this up every there is a conversation about modesty. It is polite to dress with other people’s needs in mind. The only sin I commit when I fail to dress with other people’s needs in mind is the sin of rudeness.

  14. Sadii7 says:

    Very new here, and love that I’ve finally found a place in which others sometimes think like me. An unrelated ? though. What is the artwork at the top of Modesty?

  15. Tyler Manning says:

    Thanks you for your responses! We both agree that it is the beholder who bears the responsibility for how he/she reacts. However, my agrument was not to contradict this idea but to present the idea that the individual who dresses immodestly shares in that responsibility. This principle is seen in all of our laws. Why do you believe a drug dealer is punished while they themselves may never use any drugs? When our children act, speak and dress as we do are we not in part responsible? This does not at all diminsh the truthfulness of the second article of faith. We will be punished for our own transgressions, but don’t be fooled, dressing immodestly is a transgression.

    Obviously a difference lies between someone wearing a tank top and a nude model. I do not believe women should cover up like those in the middle east. With that said, a line must be drawn. This is what the church has done. My purpose in writing is only to defend the actions of the church. Do you suppose we not talk of modesty within church? I do not find fault in what is being done, but if you wish to find fault please provide a way in which to accomplish your ideas.

  16. Kelly Ann says:

    Wow, I wear one strap purses all the time… across my chest (a product of traveling and fear of loosing my purse). But I can imagine the uproar caused in the Daily Universe. I’m glad I didn’t have to live through that.

    I guess my biggest comment to this thread is the specific correlation between modesty and chastity. While I think this is a big part of the Mormon rhetoric, I am grateful that in my experience, they weren’t necessarily the same. While clothing was of course emphasized, I do like the focus I received in being modest otherways: in conversation, in accomplishment, in means, and in deed. To not live in excess, to not gloat, to not gossip all became important parts of being modest for me. As an adult, I have come to appreciate that humility, a form of modesty, is a lost trait in society. I do think dress is important but you can look the part and still not be modest.

    As for the specific comments regarding clothing, I do think you can dress well and be modest. It took me a long time to realize I can take pride in appropriately showing off my body (in the sense, hey, I can look good). And if someone is checking me out with these considerations, it is a compliment.

  17. Cindy Adams says:

    As women, we pretty much love guilt. My husband says that I should have been a Catholic, Jewish, Mormon mother with the way I can do guilt. I wouldn’t blame it on the church trying to teach dress standards – some teachers much better than others at it no doubt.

  18. Angie says:

    Tyler said:

    “My purpose in writing is only to defend the actions of the church”

    What do we do when we feel something said or done at church is in error? For example, I remember a YW Standards Night that involved a YW leader making a gigantic delicious ice cream sundae – and then dumping a bucket of dirt on it. The message was that we and our virtue is the ice cream, and the dirt is sexual sin. While I see the point she was trying to make, I think the metaphor is potentially problematic (see OP). If my daughter is taught something like this at church, I will absolutely talk with her and give her a context for making sense of it.

    In other words, I don’t think we can check our brains at the chapel doors – we must be constantly critically analyzing the messages that we are taught at church (and everywhere, for that matter). This is not a question of defending the church – it’s an issue of discerning truth and error.

  19. Davis says:

    I think we first have to realize that only a fraction of “checking someone out” is actually out of lust.

    In my experience, looking at a woman dressed immodestly is more like what happens at a train wreck. You want to look away, but you just cant.

    The vast majority of people I find myself doing a double-take at are scantily clad women that I would in no way ever want to actually view without any clothes on. I guess it is some kind of questioning second look where I wonder why on earth she ( or he ) is wearing what they are.

    In the real world, (at least from my point of view) it is incredibly rare that someone hot enough dresses immodestly enough to still the waters of lust.

    Most lingering looks are out of some kind of morbid fascination with bad fashion sense.

    I think more people need to remember that.

  20. Davis says:

    That should say ‘stir’ not ‘still’

  21. m&m says:

    My thoughts are these: I think this issue is just like about any other issue…there is a balance. My efforts at dressing modestly are ultimately between me and God. But I do have a responsibility to those around me as well. For all that we have individual agency, we are interconnected, and much of the doctrine of the Savior involves how we interact with, treat, and respect others. Being aware of how we can affect others through dress, action, words, etc. is, imo, an important element of discipleship.

    Suppose that I do something unkind. If someone takes offense at that, they have made a choice, and the ideal is that they don’t take offense. But that doesn’t absolve me from responsibility before God for provoking that person.

    We can make it a lot harder for people to make good choices if we don’t make good choices ourselves.

    Again, I think the key is balance, and I think our teachings in general include the balance…it’s not all put on the women, and men are reminded constantly to keep their thoughts pure, etc.

    It’s because of that that I appreciate the doctrine of modesty. Also, I think the doctrine involves more than just hemlines and necklines, and that makes a difference about how I view the doctrine as well.

    (There was a discussion at Segullah about this recently, btw.)

  22. m&m says:

    But that doesn’t absolve me from responsibility before God for provoking that person.

    Better said, that doesn’t absolve me from responsibility for making a bad choice myself.

  23. Janna says:

    It’s fascinating to me that men almost exclusively only comment on this forum when we are discussing women’s sexuality (modesty, chastity, family planning, etc.). It’s like, “Huh? Oh, you’re talking about sex? Gotta say something!”

    I have the theory that men think they are the “keepers of sex.” Meaning, they think it’s their job to tell everyone the when, where, how, if, etc. of sex.

  24. Jessawhy says:

    M,
    Great post!
    I remember when you told me this story. It really blew me away.
    More than the modesty discussion (which, like you said has been done before), the part of the story that surprised me the most is that your coworker would apologize to you for her son’s GAZING.

    I’ve never heard of this happening. Most people wouldn’t even apologize for their children if they broke your chair, much less undressed you with their eyes (which can’t be proven), especially if you didn’t notice. I admire this woman for being in tune with her son and for being brave enough to discuss this with you.

    This is a lesson to me in how to treat other people respectfully and encourage our children to do the same.

  25. Kristen says:

    While I am not totally indifferent to the positive results associated with Mormon modesty, I have to admit that I’ve come to resent it more than I appreciate it.

    I always dressed modestly growing up, though this definitely had more to do with being uncomfortable with my body than with overall dedication. Still, I was so proud that I only had to give away one shirt when I got endowed as an idealistic eighteen year old. And it had nothing to do with the shirt being low-cut, rather the church garment designer’s apparent disgust for accommodating square necklines. (Oh, how I miss flattering square necklines!)

    A few years ago, I took an adult ballet class through the local college’s continuing education program. Everyone was wearing some kind of modest, sleeved shirt. The teacher sighed and proceeded to lecture us on she understand the area’s cultural ideas about modesty (Utah County), that she is a part of that culture, but that we needed to show up to class in something fitted and sleeveless or she wouldn’t be able to do her job. She needed to clearly see our body outlines — we might get hurt if she couldn’t correct our posture.

    The ballet class was a turning point for me. Now I strongly believe in the right clothes for the right activity. I don’t do ballet anymore (I’m horrible!), but I do yoga and as long as it’s not cold, I wear a tank top. Always something fitted so the instructor can help make corrections.

    Learning to be comfortable in less “modest” clothing and being involved in thoughtful physical activities has changed my life. I am so much healthier and happier and in tune with my physical and emotional needs. I’ve come to resent and regret the years that I spent so out of touch with my body. I know that Mormon modesty wasn’t the only factor involved (never being taught physical activities beyond walking and hiking was huge), but I feel like it played a dominant role.

    I feel like it still does. I spend so much time covered up in garments that I was recently shocked to see what my naked legs looked like in the mirror! I had no idea! Even with my yoga and time outside of the garments (at least a few non-shower-related times a week), I feel the disconnect every time I put them back on. For me, it seems like it would be really easy to put on unnoticed weight or to miss some kind of lump or skin condition because I’m always in so many layers!

    I hate that our culture thinks something is horribly wrong with shoulders! Tank tops feel so fabulous and perfectly modest to me that it’s a real struggle to happily maintain our community modesty standards! I also hate what a clear community marker it can be. Here in Utah, the older women give me dirty looks if I stop in at a store before yoga in a tank top. In Denver last year, I found that the non-Mormon women responded better to me when I remained in a tank top after a yoga class, and the modestly dressed Mormon women looked right past me. But when I was in “Mormon” clothes, the Mormon women looked to me as if I were in the secret club.

    I accept that there are natural social consequences associated with clothing choices, but I sure wish there was more room to move in the middle. I am not wearing fundamentalist clothing and I am not wearing anything excessively revealing. I want more space to make my own choices without it becoming such a big deal.

  26. ShyGal says:

    Janna,
    while I agree with you that men tend to think they “own” sex, I think it is misguided in response to this post. There are 24 comments thus far and 1 or 2 comments are men.

    But I completely agree with your premise. I think that would be an interesting post.

  27. Janna says:

    Shy Gal – Sorry, I don’t think my comment was clear. What I mean is that men rarely comment, but when they do, it’s almost always in response to the sex topics. Sorry about the confusion!

  28. D'Arcy says:

    Janna,

    I absolutely agree…they come out of the woodwork whenever the topic of women and sexuality is brought up.

  29. Janna says:

    It cracks me up!

  30. mraynes says:

    Thanks for the continued comments, this has been a very interesting conversation. I feel that I should reiterate again that my position is not one of anti-modesty. Indeed, I agree that we have a responsibility to be respectful of those around us. My only point is that if modesty is to be taught, it shouldn’t be in a way where women are made to feel that they bear the sin of men’s thoughts.

  31. mraynes says:

    Sadii7, I love this picture, too. It is by Diego Rivera and is titled, “Portrait of Two Women, 1914”.

  32. Maria says:

    Years ago, during a typical lesson on modesty in Relief Society, my mother-in-law got sick and tired of listening to all of the women insisting that their daughters are responsible for how boys/men look at them. My mother-in-law was in the trenches of raising five teenage sons. She stood up and stated, quite emphatically, that regardless of how women are dressed, she is teaching her sons to respect women and it is their (sons) responsibility to control their thoughts. They don’t get to blame errant thoughts on the clothes of the girls they see. The discussion shifted gears immediately.

  33. AdamF says:

    Janna, I comment here with some frequency, and not just on the sex posts. Oh shoot. Just did. 🙂

    Actually, the truth is I grew up with 3 older sisters and find I fit in better here than all the male-dominated sites.

  34. mraynes says:

    In defense of our male commenters, female sexuality is fascinating so I totally understand why they comment. 🙂 And in the interest of equality, I would be thrilled if any of our male readers wanted to submit a guest post on male sexuality or male modesty!

  35. Deborah says:

    “male modesty”

    Wow, that phrase sounds so bizarre . . . which really reinforces how weighted modesty discussions are toward women’s bodies/men’s minds. How is modesty — men’s modesty — discussed in young men’s classes? Somebody want to spill?

  36. AdamF says:

    Hah! We never discussed male modesty growing up, but it’s about time!

    Let me come up with something to submit!

  37. Lashley says:

    I live in Dubai where both women AND men dress modestly. It is so nice not to have to see a beer-gutted shirtless neighbor mowing his lawn… it’s hard for me to come to the US home and see so many half dressed people after being here for a while.
    And another reason we should encourage more male modesty, is Mormon men’s affinity for jean shorts. Come on, those are so 87′.

  38. Azucar says:

    To clarify:

    The one-shouldered backpack brouhaha began with one earnest boy’s letter to the Daily Universe. It had NOTHING to do with BYU policy, church policy, or anything other than this poor child’s opinion. Namely, that wearing a backpack with only one shoulder on, or wearing the pack with the strap between the breasts, was provoking lust.

    Yes.

    The next day there were several letters from women on campus telling him where he could put his one-shouldered comment. This exchange went back and forth a few time.

    There was much eye-rolling for the poor man. I may have just committed another eye-roll.

  39. julie says:

    I would say my experiences were negative. I think it is a very unhealthy obsession in the current Mormon culture and rhetoric that often simply comes down to, like so many things, controlling women’s bodies.

    My sister won’t let her 3 year old wear sleeveless shirts. This is the norm in her area. What message is that ingraining in that little girl? Her son has no such restrictions.

    also, starfoxy said:
    “It is polite to dress with other people’s needs in mind. The only sin I commit when I fail to dress with other people’s needs in mind is the sin of rudeness.”

    I actually totally disagree. This becomes part of that unhealthy obsession or fixation people can have on dress. We should really dress for ourselves – who cares what other people think? I am sorry if some people on the street thinks my shorts and tanktop are obnoxious I really don’t care. I put them on because I like them and they are comfortable.

    I think my neighbor should feel free to mow the lawn however he is comfortable – let the gut hang out in all its glory. I mean really, doesn’t half of these sentiments come down to snobbery and conformity? Is it really healthy to be thinking about what everyone else will think every time we get dressed? That must get exhausting.

    Basically, I think mormon culture has turned modesty and how we dress into too great of importance – the doctrine that gets passed around really comes down to culture class-ism, conformity and control. We should not stand out too much, we should not look to poor/shabby, we should hide our bodies….

    And in fact, the standard set is entirely inappropriate for many situations. I lived in Houston and Phoenix, and let me tell you wearing multiple layers and sleeves/long shorts is just plain crazy. Wearing a tank top and shorts is totally appropriate when its 110 and 100 percent humidity.

    When my father in law (or your date, or any random man or woman) feels free to notice, and comment on, my choice of underwear I think there is something going seriously wrong in the culture.

    • Jane says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Julie, and I’m really surprised that aren’t more responses like this. I absolutely grew up ashamed of my body and constantly covering it up to “protect the thoughts of the young men”. Which led to another problem – the idea that any young man who has a lustful thought is unworthy. Sorry, folks, that is part of being a GUY. It goes back to this whole idea of sex being a bad thing – we grow up learning that lustful thoughts are bad, we’re not supposed to think about sex or want to have sex. But really, all those things are TOTALLY fine, we just need to learn how to manage it so we can hold to the Law of Chastity.

      Additionally, I’d like to point out that there are plenty of cultures who walk around pretty much naked, and not every male walks around with an erection. To me, modesty has VERY LITTLE to do with what you wear. There is a huge difference between walking out the door in a tank top and shorts and taking a casual walk down the street, and walking out the door in a tank top and shorts and performing a strip tease. If we’re talking about what WE are responsible for, it’s our intent. If you are unintentionally rude to someone (or if someone simply misinterprets what you say), you can’t be held accountable for that. But if you are purposely walking around trying to piss people off (or to show yourself off as a sex object in your actions and speech) that’s probably not looked upon very highly by God. But I don’t think it’s the end of the world either. It’s nice to look sexy sometimes. Everyone has a different opinion of what that looks like.

      To drive my point home, I’d like to use the popular HBO series “True Blood” as an example. The main character, Sookie, can only be described as cute, adorable, humble, MODEST. But by any mormon standard she would be considered to be wearing clothes that are completely inappropriate. I don’t see it. I think her attitude and her way of carrying herself is absolutely modest and demands respect, which is the end goal, correct? Sorry, I just don’t see the problem with shoulders, thighs, and maybe even a little cleavage.

      In fact, if you want to dress in a way that others view as “trashy”, go right ahead. There’s no sin in that. In fact, I think the sin lies in the person who judges you for that. Just be ready for some nasty looks and rude people.

      Yes, it’s true that there are social consequences for wearing jeans to an interview or going nude to a pool party. But since when is religion and spirituality concerned with “social appropriateness” except in cases where acts are illegal? If that’s a concern of ours, then we’d better get rid of the garments that make funny lines under our clothes and stop using phrases like “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that make other people uncomfortable. In fact, we should stop proselytizing and sending missionaries out in those suits everyday because they make people uncomfortable.

      Bottom line: If revealing shoulders and knees is a spiritual no-no, then the reasoning for doing it shouldn’t be “it makes other people think bad thoughts”. There should be some spiritual or even temporal consequence (that is actually the fault of the wearer, and not that of the person observing), and so far I haven’t been able to find one.

  40. chelseaw says:

    julie, Your point about appropriate dress in different situations reminded me of my mission. I would often laugh to myself as I struggled to remain modest while wearing a long skirt on a bicycle, pedaling uphill in the driving rain. Let those poor bicycling sisters wear pants!!!

  41. Paul says:

    Allow me to add another male perspective. I alone am responsible for controlling my thoughts and actions, whether I interact with women inside “the bubble,” on the Riviera, or skinny dipping. Someone else’s “immodesty” does not give me license for “immoral” thoughts. Dress standards at European beaches are different than those at most US beaches. After about 10 minutes, the shock wears off. The state of one’s underwear is not an indication of one’s state of mind. IMHO, that is.

  42. wendy says:

    It hardly seems worthwhile to comment after so many people have written such insightful things. I just wanted to share a recent realization I had that much improved my understanding of modesty standards encouraged by the Church.

    I had the opportunity to teach at a private school for a VERY conservative church group (just 20 students). As the year progressed, it became more clear to me that this group was more and more like a cult than I first realized in the way they controlled the lives of their believers. One of the things that really bothered me was how the boys looked like any other North American boy and the girls had severe restrictions: could never wear pants (even during gym), wore headcoverings, no make-up, no jewelry, un-cut hair, etc. I felt it was so unfair that the girls had to walk around wearing their religion and sticking out so obviously while their male co-horts could go unnoticed. I was reminded of this disparity recently when at a new school, (I only taught at the religious school for one year; my conscience would not abide being there longer), I saw a woman come in with a near full burka. The thought flashed in my mind: “I’m glad my going to the Temple does not require me to wear a burka to show my level of commitment.” With full clarity, and for the first time, I realized how both men and women have the same modesty standards in the church. Women may have to be more conscious of it, but that’s because of the world’s ideas of what women should look like, not because women are held to a different standard of modesty in an attempt to control them or make them responsible for the lustful thoughts of others.

    I think the modesty standards are to prepare individuals for their individual endowments. And the modesty standards post-endowment are about keeping covenants and honoring God, not about honor codes or hiding your sexuality. Misogynist messages cloaked in a lecture on modesty are culture- and not doctrine- based and do not reflect the equality of temple ordinances from which these very modesty standards originate.

  43. Kelly Ann says:

    I think the connection between modesty and garment wearing is crucial in understanding the fervor given to clothing issues in a strictly Mormon context. It can be a mark of the Pharisees so to speak. It really is one of the Mormon churches’ cultural abnormalities for good and for bad.

  44. D'Arcy says:

    Wendy, actually the standards aren’t quite the same. In reading the Strength of Youth pamphlet (which i did last week for some research) there are several rules dictated to the young girls about what they can and can’t wear and then one line to the men that says, “Young men should also be modest in their dress.” It was almost like an after thought, like, “Oh yeah, we better mention the boys too.”

    Religion, any religion, has always held a higher standard for female modesty over male.

  45. EmilyCC says:

    Great post as usual, mraynes! When I saw this on my Google Reader, I thought of this post and the excellent discussion.

  46. wendy says:

    D’Arcy, I realize that there are more guidelines aimed at women in the Church than men. My point is that the more detailed instructions have to do with the world’s pressure for women to reveal more of their bodies (which is not really present for men). When you look at how much of a woman’s body must be covered and how much of a man’s body must be covered, you do not see the discrepancy you see in comparing, say, the burka. I choose to see truth in that.

  47. Alisa says:

    I agree that women’s bodies are more objectified, and that objectification leads to pressure on one end to reveal, and pressure on the other to cover up. But both reactions/pressures remind us that women’s bodies are to be seen as objects.

    An argument for equal modesty can definitely be made in the Church. The temple garment is the same for men and for women. It treats our bodies and their parts as equally sacred, regardless of gender. While society deems it appropriate for men to go around topless (ha! it seems strange applying the word here), the garment would suggest that’s not so acceptable for LDS men. My stake no longer allows “shirts and skins” basketball games or practices for the EQ (even though rigorous exercise is one of those areas where one can choose whether or not to wear the garment).

    Breasts and nipples have a cultural value for women that doesn’t exist for men, but biologically it doesn’t make sense. Men have all the same breast equipment as women, but it’s actually the hormones that make the physical differences. Breasts aren’t genetalia. Similarly, a woman’s shoulders shouldn’t be more sacred than men’s, nor should her back, neck, or thighs.

    Although there are many circumstances where women are generally less clothed than their male conterparts, society frequently expects men to reveal more of their bodies than women, even when they’re participating in similar activies. On my HS swim team, men had to wear speedos. As a woman, I wouldn’t be caught dead going out in the exact same thing, based on how society has influenced me to treat my body more modestly.

  48. Kew says:

    Wendy- thanks for your observation. My husband’s sleeves have to be longer than mine, and I can wear shirts that dip a little in the back. Thank you for reminding me of that! Women’s modesty is more an issue of fashion.

    For the past several months I’ve felt oppressed by my garments. I don’t like that, since my mind tells me to wear them whenever I don’t have an ironclad excuse.

  49. Craig says:

    I’ve read several of the comments on this thread, and have been both impressed and disturbed by several of them.

    I realise this is several days late and my comments may not be welcome, but I feel a need to say this. I do not desire to detract at all from the conversation or the original post.

    I do completely affirm that women, especially those in Mormonism have to deal with terrible sexism, and that (especially in Mormonism) the male’s gender role is to dominate and own the women, including their sexuality. There is inherent inequality in the way women are expected to modest compared to men, the way men are arbiters of what is and is not modest for women, and the way women are answerable only to men when they “transgress” some rule of sexuality or modesty, and I criticise that just as loudly and often as anyone else.

    But it makes me sad then to see women who are fighting that oppression to go beyond decrying harmful gender roles and expectations, and start making harmful generalisation about men and male sexuality – regardless of the unfair treatment any women has received at the hand of a male, it’s just as wrong to make sexist comments and generalisations about men as it is for you to be treated in a sexist way. To me, you’re reinforcing your own problematic and undeserved sexist treatment by doing that and making these types of “they” comments about men in general. It only hurts your argument to do this.

    • Jane says:

      Good point, Craig, and well-said. I agree with you. I think there is also an underlying misunderstanding beneath this whole conversation that assumes that if there is an “Immodest” (according to Mormon standards) woman in the vicinity, the men are all staring and having lustful thoughts.

      Sorry, folks, I don’t think we’re quite that “special”, and men are not necessarily any more sexual than women are. I know plenty of women who get off just watching a guy walk by in a tight shirt. This is why I see this concern throughout the church so ridiculous. Men and women are both sexual creatures. Men and women both go “in heat” sometimes, and maybe even under similar circumstances. I think the church could benefit from spending less time trying to stop “impure thoughts” (especially considering these impulses are simply natural) and more time teaching youth and young adults how to deal with them in a healthy way to preserve their chastity and come to a better understanding of what their bodies are doing, and why it’s so important and special.

      Ya think?

  50. hkbigley says:

    I sat once in a class in a family ward where the bishop was teaching the 5th Sunday lesson on modesty. He said, rather apologetically, that women could still be attractive even if they were modest.

    He didn’t seem to actually believe it. And he seemed to assume that none of us did either. This has been my one complaint about the emphasis on female modesty in the church: at least within the dating pool, men weren’t very interested in female modesty.

    I like what others have said here about modesty being so much more than sartorial choices.

  51. Jill says:

    I was a YW counselor in a ward where the YW president was very strict about modesty. She would actually send girls home from activities if she felt their outfit was inappropriate. She was very hard on one less active girl in particular. Once the YW president told us in a meeting that it would be better if this girl didn’t come because she was a bad influence on the other girls. I was appalled. Instead of being welcomed with open arms and unconditional love this struggling girl was harshly judged and ridiculed. I feel this leaders actions were far more shameful than any short skirt ever worn by the teenage girl. Just sayin.

  52. Rachel says:

    I am curious to know what this is referring to in the post: “the one-shoulder backpack fiasco” at BYU??

  1. May 17, 2016

    […] The most commented guest post of 2009, The Purity Myth, came from a high school teacher discussing the harmful comments an attractive 16-year-old student was receiving from male teachers and students alike who seemed concerned about policing her sexuality. Along the same lines, mraynes discussed the problems with modesty rhetoric in Modesty is in the Eye of the Beholder. […]

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