Modesty is in the Eye of the Beholder
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?