I have breasts. It does not matter if my weight fluxuates a little high or a little low…the fact is: I have breasts. I’m not complaining. They are beautiful. I love them. They are round and perfect and represent one of my favorite things about myself. With the right accessories they produce beautiful cleavage that makes me feel feminine and sexy in the very best ways.
I have not always felt this way. Growing up in a culture obsessed with modesty, I felt bad/guilt/shame when I would accidentally flash some cleavage, which would happen with the most regular of V-neck shirts. I always had to take extra care to “cover up” so that I wouldn’t be seen as a sinful/disrespectful person (like those girls who wear flip-flops to church). I was constantly bombarded with messages like the following by Elder Hales,
“Some Latter-day Saints may feel that modesty is a tradition of the Church or that it has evolved from conservative, puritanical behavior. Modesty is not just cultural. Modesty is a gospel principle that applies to people of all cultures and ages. In fact, modesty is fundamental to being worthy of the Spirit. To be modest is to be humble, and being humble invites the Spirit to be with us.”
It hurts to think how much my 16 year old self would have taken this message to heart. I would have most likely gone out and bought some turtlenecks and prayed heartily that my “pride” would be taken away and that the spirit would dwell within me. I understand that there are different facets to the word “modesty” –but do not mistake the message here. Elder Hales, and all the other Elders, are pretty clear about what a woman should and should not be wearing.
I desire so much to teach women how to respect their bodies, find their bodies beautiful and lovely, and to tap into their power in taking control of what they wear (as so many young women wear short skirts for very unpowerful reasons–but I think that’s a big result of the modesty message too). As a teacher of high school students, imagine my horror when the principal of my school gave a welcome back to speech that contained the following message:
“Now girls, it is important for you to cover all of yourself up. Just cover up. I don’t want to see your stuff. No one does. It is proven that boys like a girl better if that girl will leave something to the imagination. No guy wants to date a girl when he has already seen everything she has to offer. Keep it hidden.”
Besides being sort of creepy, it was pretty awful. And what was more awful (and creepy), NO ONE batted an eyelash. I looked at a fellow woman teacher, my age, single, intelligent who was standing next to me and I said, “Did he seriously just say that? ” And she looked at me with a blank stare. I continued, “Are none of your feminist sensibilities derailed by this speech to these young women?” They were not. In fact, the next day I was going to go in and talk to him about it, but he brought it up in faculty meeting instead. Some parents had expressed concern that he didn’t say, “Keep it hidden UNTIL MARRIAGE.” That was the concern. The. Only. One.
How, I ask you, can we empower our young women with constant talks about covering up their bodies, constant affirmations that if a girl gets raped it must have been because of what she was wearing or doing, constant convictions that their bodies are not their own–but tools used to house the spirit of the Lord (who will leave if they wear a bikini)? I ask Elder Hales, the patriarchy, and the mother’s of the church just what kind of shameful, weighty, Puritan “Scarlet Letter” are we putting upon the young women with messages of this sort?
I’m currently teaching The Scarlet Letter to my 11th graders. I’m reminded that the reason Hester Prynne is such an amazing heroine in literature is because, as John Updike said, “She is a mythic version of every woman’s attempts to integrate her sexuality with societal demands.” When societal demands end up placing Scarlet Letters on women who like their cleavage, or dubbing a woman as sinful if she isn’t “hidden”, or telling her the spirit of God won’t be with her if she wants to wear a short skirt. If societal demands DEMAND that women (old and young) define their sexuality only by the confines of a religion (a religion that wants NO woman to actually be in CONTROL of her sexuality)– then, heaven help us, what does that say about the society of which we are apart?