Guest Post — To Wear or Not to Wear: Rethinking How We Teach Modesty

By Emily

Upon my acceptance to BYU, I was put in a group message with almost 300 other new freshmen. Our conversations covered a wide variety of topics from politics to the superior dog breed with the help of some individuals who liked to pose controversial questions and then duck out of the group before the ensuing chaos. One incident in particular stuck out to me. Someone posed a question about modesty, and, more specifically, if leggings qualify as modest. One young man weighed in saying (and I’m paraphrasing), “Skinny jeans are basically the same as leggings, which you shouldn’t wear. If something is skin tight, it’s immodest. You shouldn’t wear it.” His comment created an uproar in the group and caused a veritable firestorm of messages that practically froze my phone.

For days, I mulled over the controversy generated by this thread on leggings. I came to realize that we need to do a better job of teaching accurate, thoughtful, doctrine-based principles behind modesty and encouraging youth to govern themselves. If youth view guidance on modesty as an inflexible “laundry list” of rules to follow, or a standard by which to judge others, then they grow up begrudging modesty standards and lose the focus on the beautiful principles behind them. Instead, we should emphasize dressing and acting in ways that would allow us to convey our inner character, to feel comfortable in the Savior’s presence, and to avoid drawing undue attention to ourselves or to encourage others to objectify us (intentionally or unintentionally). These are relatively simple principles but they can make a huge difference in the lives of the youth because dressing modestly can improve relationships with others, the Savior, and ourselves. Modesty is so much more than deciding what to wear.

As history has shown, it is human nature to want to focus on minutiae and ignore weightier matters. For example, long before the coming of Christ, the original purpose of the Sabbath had become largely ignored in Israel; the spirit of its observance had been “smothered under the weight of rabbinical injunction and the formalism of restraint.” Often, in our discussion and teaching of modesty, we are like those in Christ’s day who quibbled over the smallest outward expressions of Sabbath day observance. We get wrapped up in trying so hard to do what is right that we completely miss the meaning behind the simple principles. In our day, this often spills over into social media and other online forums where the result is counterproductive, combative, judgmental debate, all fostering a spirit of contention and hurt feelings. We would do well to keep in mind that our main objectives in the church are to love and serve one another—unconditionally. How can we do that if we’re judging each other based on our individual interpretation of guidelines and quibbling over fashion? How can the youth learn to show unconditional love if they’re being trained to be hypersensitive to what a person is wearing?

Overemphasizing the appearance aspect of modesty by trying to create a list of specific things one can and cannot wear undermines, rather ironically, the purpose of modesty. By focusing on appearances, we are constantly evaluating, worrying, and looking each other up and down, drawing greater attention to our appearances, when we should be teaching the principles of modesty as a technique to focus instead on inner qualities, such as character, faith, and charity. Modesty is more than just how we dress, though that’s often how we treat it. We need to carefully teach true principles of modesty and encourage the youth to use these principles to govern themselves. Rather than getting carried away by quibbling about what we “can” and “cannot” wear, it is imperative that we understand that modesty is chiefly about “glorify[ing] God in [our] body, and in [our] spirit.”

Growing up, many of my friends struggled with figuring out what was appropriate to wear. I was once a part of that group that would roll their eyes during young women’s lessons on the topic. We wondered why in the world we were given this strict set of rules, why we were nagged incessantly to dress modestly, and why modesty seemed to only apply to girls. We’d already decided that we didn’t want to be told what we could and couldn’t wear.

I believe that if we’d been told how modesty could benefit us, augmenting our characters, solidifying self-confidence, and strengthening our relationships, we would have been more receptive. We should teach youth that they should dress their outsides to match their inner characters (and that it’s their responsibility to decide what that character will be). If we emphasize that it is up to each individual to decide how to act and dress modestly through personal revelation, agency, and with the help from parents and leaders if needed, then we can encourage introspection and foster within the youth a desire to follow the standards for their own benefit.

For many youth like my friends and those in the BYU group message, the biggest problems arise when we disagree on the specifics—the “do’s and don’t’s” surrounding modesty, and forget the important “bigger picture” principles behind them that ask: “Am I trying to use my body to get attention or approval?” And “would I feel comfortable with my appearance and conduct if I were in the Lord’s presence?”.When we degenerate into a spirit of contention and confusion, we forget that these principles are what matter, that modesty is more than just what we wear: it’s also how we act and portray ourselves.

In teaching modesty to youth, church leaders should emphasize the primary principles that we dress and act a certain way to “show respect for the Lord and [ourselves]” (“For the Strength of Youth”). We should teach this principle thoroughly and repeatedly to the youth so that they (and we) are united in that common goal and collectively can see the bigger picture captured in those values. If we teach the principles behind modesty more thoroughly and allow the youth to make those decisions for themselves, they (and we) will gain a stronger testimony of the concept of modesty and how it can truly bless our self-image and spiritual strength. It’s up to us to institute it correctly in our lives.

As leaders and peers, we should follow the counsel of the prophet Joseph Smith when he was asked how he kept order in the church: “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves” (“Leading in the Lord’s Way”). We should not make the guidelines on modesty more important than the principles, which exist to help us to learn to value ourselves and others for reasons beyond physical appearance. We should be modest to respect our own bodies and characters; we will feel better and more confident because we are dressed appropriately for whatever situation we’re in. If we can teach youth to value those principles, then we are one step closer to becoming like our Savior; “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)


Emily’s bio: I am a student at BYU, originally from Virginia. My hobbies include sports, reading, making music, and ranting, not particularly in that order. I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I love the church. However, sometimes I think we have a long way to go before it’s what it’s intended to be. I originally wrote this for an English class but I wanted to contribute to this community, so I decided to try to submit it here!

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14 Responses

  1. GEOFF -AUS says:

    Can you give an example of dress that shows respect for the Lord and your self and one that doesn’t, please?
    I live where mormons are less than 0.01% of the population. As far as I can tell most people dress to look their best in the situation the expect to be in.
    Are you really saying you choose what to wear by whether it shows respect for the Lord or yourself?
    I really don’t understand how dress relates to respect for the Lord or yourself?
    The fashion in swim wear here is for the bottoms to be very high cut at the back, exposing the bottom, would you judge a woman wearing one of these to have less respect for the Lord or herself? How?

    • Tessa says:

      Modesty is attitude focused, not hemline focused. Modestty is self focused, not other focused. As long as you are evaluating modesty based on hemline, your doing modesty wrong. And as long as you are evaluating whether or not someone else is dressing modestly instead of worrying about yourself, you’re doing modesty wrong.

      • Tessa says:

        And my phone auto corrects incorrectly again.

        Please excuse the typos.

      • s says:

        Modesty first starts in the heart with a will and desire to surrender the issue to God and go His way. But, you better believe that proper, biblical modesty also considers hemlines, sleeves, necklines, waistlines, fabric types, sheerness, clinginess, tightness, suggestiveness, patterns, design, colors, how/what body areas are exposed, how/what body areas are not exposed, and other things. You need to realize that God wired men to have a more active eye-gate than women. Men need to learn to control and subdue it, so to speak, but it’s part of what keeps the procreation of the human race going. If men didn’t notice or desire to be with a woman, we wouldn’t even be here. Please reconsider the dress pictured at the beginning of this article. That sleeveless dress revealing the soft, curvy woman skin of the shoulders and upper arms, along with the form fitting waist line showing the womanly size/shape – these can be real turn-ons for men. While the woman may feel very pretty in such a dress, it is defrauding men, plain and simple.

      • Risa says:

        Please tell me s is being facetious.

      • Moss says:

        I can’t tell, either, Risa, but s should checkout this recent post…

  2. Evangelina Voz says:

    This is brilliant. I wish it could be the next general conference talk on modesty. I have never heard it taught more profoundly, accurately, and with inherent agency: Something we are losing more and more with our Pharisaical obsessions and prophet worshiping on most subjects in the church. I too love the gospel but think the church has a long ways to go before it becomes “What it’s intended to be”.

    Thank you for sharing your wise, gentle and inspired insights.

  3. SC says:

    Beautiful piece. I used to be one of the patriarchy’s Modesty Police, so I don’t dare talk about it myself for fear of sounding like a hypocrite, so I mostly just cheer for articles like this. I have many years of penance, therapy, and de-programming to work on…

  4. Eileen says:

    there is so much that gets ignored in most talks/lessons about modesty in the church. I have yet to hear about living a modest life, of acknowledging that we should adopt the philosophy of “we have sufficient for our needs” in regards to what we consume/purchase (clothes/home/food/cars…)
    living a modest life is more than insisting that girls/women cover themselves and the conversation should instead focus on how we can avoid taking an excess of resources…

  5. GEOFF -AUS says:

    Is there any need to teach modesty at all. Most of the women in the world manage to dress themselves without men advising them.
    I was questioning above what respect for Lord or self have to do with what you wear?

  6. RoseE Hadden says:

    “Am I trying to use my body to get attention or approval?”

    I truly, truly loathe this phrase. This is the thinking that had me wearing ugly, baggy, navy blue sweats day in and day out for YEARS.

    Attention and approval are not bad things. We as human beings need them. And all of us use our bodies to get attention and approval. But when it’s a midriff-baring shirt: “She’s just wearing that to get attention.” When it’s a shade shirt under a spaghetti-strap dress, with carefully done hair and makeup and a conspicuous engagement ring: “She looks so nice and well-put together. She’s going to be a beautiful bride.” Giving attention and approval. Which was the goal.

    Singles wards, when I was stuck in those, were a barrage of “Don’t use your body to get attention” over the pulpit and “You’ve got to put some lipstick on and SMILE or you’ll never get a husband” in private.

    I am working on getting over this, and giving myself permission to use my body to get attention and approval. I need attention and approval. I’m human.

    • Risa says:

      I so agree. I’m really sick of “seeking attention or approval” being demonized to be bad things. Every human being wants validation that they matter. That requires both attention and approval. Those are human needs not character flaws.

    • Em says:

      This is pretty insightful. When I was younger, the modesty rhetoric made me painfully self-conscious, whether I thought I looked good or thought that I didn’t. My self-consciousness prevented me from pursuing a lot of opportunities for personal growth.

      As an adult, I’ve finally managed to put together a wardrobe where I can get up every morning and quickly grab an outfit that I know is flattering and professional enough for work. Many days I barely think about what I’m wearing. For me, that seems like it ought to be the real goal of “modesty” in dress: being able to focus on other things besides one’s personal appearance and what people might be thinking about it. But for me, it’s a lot easier to not spend time worrying about my appearance when I know that I generally look attractive. And for a professional woman, being sharply dressed is often an important part of getting people to listen.

      In any case, telling young women not to “dress for approval” is inherently confusing, especially when we constantly tell them to prioritize the perceptions of the people around them over their own comfort.

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