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?


I'm an artist, writer, photographer, feminist, listener, lover, and a fighter. I believe that travel is fatal to prejudice, that skies are meant to be blue, and that the world is full of endless possibilities.

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18 Responses

  1. kate says:

    I love this essay. I do not have the words to express the depths of my appreciation. Thank you!

  2. CatherineWO says:

    I think the message to women to “cover up” is just another way to make us invisible. A woman’s body houses her own soul and expresses the very essence of who she is. Your concern over the message sent to the young women you teach is valid.

  3. The Heretic says:

    Thank you for this.

    I actually happen to be one of those women who don’t really appreciate their breasts. I never have. But not necessarily for all the same reasons you list.

    For me, the issue is a practical one. I run, and dance, and carrying around the extra bouncy weight has always kind of been a pain. I just remember in sixth grade, I thought life was pretty great. I was in the top section of runners on my team and had some of my fastest mile times. Seventh grade, and a changing body, brought a world of frustrations to me. I didn’t understand why I was so much rounder than before and I didn’t understand why it was necessary at all. And I still don’t appreciate it. I wear sports bras all the time. Really. Because they’re comfortable and I’m very active. But I wish I could be more comfortable with regular bras.

    But enough venting. Where I was somewhat concerned about modesty the way Elder Hales describes it, I think my modesty was a way of dealing with a body part I didn’t appreciate rather than responding to direction. However, as I’ve drawn away from all of that, I find myself having to slowly re-adapt my way of thinking about my body. I still don’t appreciate my chest, but I appreciate my body for what it is otherwise. I’m strong and I’m beautiful. And the poise that comes along with that brings power to what I do. And I’m tired of pushing that down. I intend to embrace it. I am who I am and I like it that way.

    So, again, thank you.

  4. Rebecca says:

    This post takes me back to those painful teenage years when I spent a lot of time in super baggy t-shirts, hoping that no one would notice that I was starting to develop some tiny breasts. I was so mortified when I was teased, mostly by an older brother and other male relatives. I shied away from high heels for the same reason; I didn’t want anyone to notice that I was growing up. I look at pictures of myself from that time, my petite little body swimming in baggy clothes and I feel that awkwardness all over again. Lets just say that my parents were never concerned with my modesty. Those are the years of living in fear that the boys on the school bus would dump my purse hoping to see a tampon roll out. Seriously, this was a big concern and happened more than once. It’s only been in the past decade that I’ve become more comfortable with my curves, and learned that looking womanly is nice. That principle’s speech would have just made me feel mortified back then. I feel mortified reading it now.

    Maybe next year you can volunteer to develop a print version of the school dress code that could be reviewed, without anyone adding their personal “spin”. Just state the rules in a matter-of-fact way, without putting a lot of emotion on it.

  5. Caroline says:

    Thanks for this, Stella. I need this reminder to appreciate my breasts. 🙂

    As a (former) high school teacher, I too have thought about young women and modesty. I went into teaching thinking that the way we dress in individual and an important way to express ourselves, and wasn’t interested in passing along messages of modesty to the girls. I did rethink things, however, on Halloween when I saw dozens of teenage girls wearing hot pants and bustiers to their classes. “Whoa,” I thought. “There has to be a better way to get attention. Be witty, be smart, be daring and imaginative. Don’t think that the only way is by exposing your body to this extent.”

    So thus started the battle between these competing principles when I think of teenage girls. It’s not one I’ve resolved.

    That said, I think grown women should embrace their curves if they want to. I see nothing wrong with cleavage and show my fair share, I’m sure.

  6. I’m another one who’s never appreciated why we’ve got to have these annoying things. They seem to be our symbol of oppression sometimes.

    And though I can appreciate them for their practicality in nourishing babies, I say “cover them up” but for different reasons. I don’t believe it’s a woman’s fault if she is raped or if a man close to her has bad thoughts. But I know that I think it’s just arrogant or ignorant or a whole bunch of other things that are considered negative when I see more than I want to. But it’s not just with boobs. It’s with backsides/midriffs of gals OR guys. It’s with too much thigh or a huge belly seen in those peopleofwalmart pictures. It’s with wife beaters and spaghetti strapped tanks where I just think, “Do you really want us to see all that jiggling? Because I don’t want to see it and I feel stupid talking to you.” One of the worst has got to be those shirts that have the loop that CIRCLE the hangy two pieces of flesh on the woman’s body opposite of you. I also don’t like seeing really tight things that cover or see-through-ish materials.

    So, in short, I’m all for lots of modesty. I just don’t think that “we want to protect men because they can’t help it” is a real reason for it.

  7. Jana says:

    I don’t really ‘get’ the fascination that many men seem to have with boobs. But I suppose I like the attention that mine have attracted at times 🙂

    A few weeks ago I had some scary mammogram results & thought I might lose one of mine. I wore my prettiest lacy bras for several days afterwards, just reveling in still having mine, and realizing that I’d never really appreciated them much & wishing I could change that.

  8. Corktree says:

    I’ve been a bit conflicted about my breasts for the last 7 or so years. In breastfeeding, I’ve come to appreciate them immensely, and I am able to treat them as just another useful body part when nursing. They’ve become so functional that I don’t feel immodest anymore when they are inadvertently exposed. And I only have cleavage when I’m nursing, so I try to enjoy it for a while – because I also love how sexual my breasts can be in my marriage. I don’t think they should be objectified by any ogling passerby, but I really enjoy the fact that my husband finds them arousing. It’s a precarious balance to shift between the two roles, but they are somewhat inseparable for me.

    I think this is part of what we need to convey to our young women and daughters. They are important, beautiful, life giving pieces of our bodies that should be respectfully celebrated. They give balance to our shape and they can help us to learn balance in our lives as we move between the many pleasures and gifts they provide. They shouldn’t be an excuse for men’s weakness, and they shouldn’t be hidden out of shame. But they also shouldn’t be flaunted to exert power and expose those weaknesses. Girls should be taught clearly the influence and advantage shapely breasts can give (we can’t pretend it’s not true) but that it’s better to use them to strengthen the bonds between them and their husbands, and them and their children – in different yet equally beautiful ways.

    They should also be told to appreciate them while they can 😉 – I know when I’m done nursing and lose my baby weight that they will be sagging to non-existence. Boo. 🙁

  9. Angie says:

    I’ve thought a lot about this issue, and there seems to be a logical disconnect in the viewpoint that modesty is anti-feminist. There are many ways to think about modesty, chastity, feminism, and sexual expression:

    In the human species, the female bears the majority of the burden of child-bearing. Because of this, females are biologically hard-wired to be choosy. Just like in other animal species, the male should present himself as an option to the female, and the female should decide whether or not to accept him as a mate. The female has much more to lose in this process, so she should be the one in control of the choice. In the animal kingdom, this plays out with males that are brilliantly colored and that engage in elaborate courtship rituals.

    So what’s the problem with human females? You look around, and you see us woman painting ourselves, displaying ourselves, trying to attract a mate. Biologically, this is all backwards!!! Modesty is actually biologically smarter, considering the heavily unbalanced cost of child-bearing.

    In my opinion, modesty and chastity are not religious constraints that deny a woman her right to express her sexuality. Modesty and chastity protect a woman and give her a context within which she sets the rules regarding her sexual expression and activity. If man accepts and follows the law of chastity, then the woman enjoy the benefits of sex (pleasure, intimacy, and a committed man who will remain with the woman when/if children are created). Outside the law of chastity, a man is free to have sex with a woman and then leave her, even/especially if a child is created.

    High school-igically 🙂
    I work in a high school, too – I’m a high school counselor. Young men do show too much of their bodies, when their pants sag. But the overwhelming majority of dress-code violators are young women. The amount of cleavage on the average high school campus is appalling. Showing breast and thigh is not feminist activism. It’s casting pearls before swine – irresponsibly emphasizing sexuality in an academic environment – bringing excessive attention to the physical at the expense of the intellectual. The principal in the OP didn’t use the right words, but his intent was right on. He and all school authorities have a responsibility to protect the young women from themselves, if the young women force them to.

  10. Rebecca says:

    The thing that bothers me about the principal’s words is that he seems to have forgotten that a lot of kids are just trying to navigate the awkwardness of puberty in the best way they can. Trying to fit in, trying not to be teased. Geez, almost everything is embarrassing at that age. Maybe that’s not typical now? His words just seem overly harsh. I’m reminded of this verse Jacob 2:7 “And also it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children, many of whose feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate before God, which thing is pleasing unto God…”

  11. Rebecca says:

    I wanted to add that I don’t see immodest dress as a big problem with my son’s teenage friends, but I do live in Southern California near the beach and so maybe I’m just desensitized to all the boobification. 😉 Sundresses and shorts over a swimsuit are pretty normal attire here during the summer months. Lots of LDS people surf and spend time at the beach. Maybe it’s not as much of a big deal as in other parts of the country. I’ll agree that what’s appropriate at the beach isn’t appropriate at school but I still think the principal could have been more matter-of-fact.

  12. CatherineWO says:

    Corktree said: “They [breasts] are important, beautiful, life giving pieces of our bodies that should be respectfully celebrated. They give balance to our shape and they can help us to learn balance in our lives as we move between the many pleasures and gifts they provide. They shouldn’t be an excuse for men’s weakness, and they shouldn’t be hidden out of shame. But they also shouldn’t be flaunted to exert power and expose those weaknesses.”

    Very well said!

  13. Two of Three says:

    Love this discussion. Interesting that breasts are linked to modesty more than any other body part. I have seen a good friend with self esteem issues who uses her cleavage to define herself. As in “I may not value myself otherwise, but, man, I have nice ta-tas!” I realize her story is her own, and other’s experiences are better. I have a love/hate relationship with my own! For years, they represented “something that someone wants from me”. I was not a comfortable breast feeder. It was hot, sticky (summer in New England) and often painful. Then, when I finished the day and wanted to fall comatose into bed, someone else wanted time with them. I would have removed them and said “Here, take these somewhere and let me sleep!!” Now, I am older with growing teens and have claimed my body back. I am finding in my middle age that I, also, enjoy the fact that I have something my husband finds attractive. I like them, but they have nothing to do with why I value myself.

  14. Tam says:

    I would love for a principle to say that when my girls are in high school. Not because it is an issue with them, but because they need to hear that modesty isn’t just a something that the church makes up to control people. It really is a part of our culture that is being lost. I don’t think we need to be covered from head to toe or that women should only where dresses, etc. Modesty is elegant.
    I would also love for my son to hear that from a principle for the same reasons. Boys don’t need to be distracted by immodestly dressed girls.

    After high school and college when I finally got a higher self esteem I wished I could go back and wear tighter, less modest clothing, and feel like I was ‘fashionable’. Now that I have children I’m glad I did have those standards and I’ve come to realize that I didn’t dress modestly due to low self-esteem. I actually had higher self esteem than I realized because I held myself to standards that were higher than those around me. Now, those girls that were testing the waters with modesty still don’t know who they are or who they want to be and their modesty has gotten worse over the years.

    I am one that has a larger ‘rack’ and struggle not to show cleavage, as well. But, I am aware of it and I can still dress nicely and fashionably without making people around me uncomfortable.
    Again I say, modesty is elegant.

  15. AdamF says:

    Now that I have a daughter, and have been told that the minute she was born (4 months ago) I should start thinking about how to make her be virtuous (!), posts like this are always interesting and a bit frightening to me.

    Something doesn’t seem right about having strict guidelines on every angle and length etc. of our clothes. For me, it is almost all about the intent. I would want to know why my daughter (or son, etc.) liked wearing the clothes they wore. At the same time though, it seems to me there has to be somewhere to draw the line… idk.

    Having worked with clients with cases of “problematic pornography use” I am a little concerned about what other men could be thinking about my daughter in the future… although I guess some men are going to think whatever no matter what people are wearing.

    Anyway, great post, and I would LOVE LOVE any ideas or input for a new father of a daughter.

  16. Jessawhy says:

    Great post and great comments!

    As a woman who, in a sports bra, could be mistaken as a survivor of a double mastectomy (but I’m not, I’m a 32 AA but only because that’s the smallest size they make), reading about how much women love their breasts makes me envious.

    I mean, I technically have breasts, and if they had feelings they would be sad that after nursing 3 babies I have such little respect for them 🙂 But, I do not love them, I’m embarrassed by them because I don’t feel feminine or womanly. I wonder if it’s part of our Victoria’s Secret, over-sexualized culture, or if it’s more than that.

    However, I agree with the person who says they get in the way of exercising. It’s lovely and freeing to jump and dance without having to worry about bouncing parts.

    It’s coincidental that you wrote this post, Stella, because I was going to write a post about breasts after I read “When Everything Changed.” There’s a passage that describes a group of women meeting in the 70’s and discovering how they each hated their breasts (too small, too big, to saggy, etc). It was eye opening for me to read about that conversation. I’m glad to see that this conversation has most women loving their breasts!

  17. Justin says:

    The main problem my family’s encountered in regard to the “breast-shaming/modesty” culture is the stigma it attaches to breast-feeding.

    My wife is a breast-feeding peer-to-peer consultant, and many of the women she has spoken with feel a sense of shame associated with pulling out their breast to feed their babies.

    Often we focus [and rightly so] on how women suffer as a result of the “cover those up”, Puritan mindset — but that should not come at the expense of focusing on how children likewise can suffer when mothers just relent to weening sooner b/c a bottle carries less stigma.

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