Modesty, Shmodesty


Amy Hoyt is an awesome mother of five and teaches religious studies in northern California at a small liberal arts college.

A few weeks ago I received an email asking if I would speak to the Young Women in our Stake about modesty. Ugh. Modesty discussions usually make my blood boil. Like many religious traditions, Mormonism uses the female body, and how it is adorned, to signify our boundaries with the outside world. LDS modesty discussions explicitly and implicitly use females as “gatekeepers” for the thoughts and actions of boys and men. The assumption, of course, is that females do not have sexual urges.

Modesty is a small part of a much bigger issue, mainly the hyper sexualized state of our society and the “pornification” of our culture. Sexuality, which is an important and healthy part of our subjectivity, becomes central within a society that privileges sex above all else. This skews our world view and distracts many people, myself included, from living a Christ centered life. In our bid to attain or maintain beauty norms we spend endless hours consuming and conforming to unrealistic and unhealthy ideals. Most of us are trying to fit some type of standard that is generally about our physical body and how it is adorned.

To be clear, I believe that discussions about modesty have value in Christ’s church but I feel that the focus should be much deeper. Instead of focusing on what girls and women are wearing, why not pay attention to the sexualized messages we are internalizing from the larger culture and how we are grappling with them. This would allow for males to enter the conversation in a meaningful way and wrestle with their own modesty issues. We can ask ourselves if our thoughts, actions and representations are helping us to move towards a Christ centered life or distracting us from discipleship? The focus on hem lines and inseams reminds me of New Testament nonsense, where spiritual work was sidestepped in order to “obey the Sabbath.” When we focus on the minutia of modesty, we rob ourselves of doing the work of contemplating the larger issues.

After thinking about the invitation for a few days I emailed the Young Women’s leader who had extended the invitation and explained my apprehension about the topic. She invited me to meet for and discuss my concerns. Saturday afternoon, between a major bleach spill by my seven-year-old and a glass bowl being tossed over the stairs (thank you, dear toddler) I raced off for frozen yogurt with a woman I had never met. As I sat down, makeup still on from the day before (OK, that’s actually fairly common these days), sweaty from cleaning up the bleach and traumatized from one of the worst parenting days to date, I was relieved and pleasantly surprised to hear that we were on the same page! Apparently, she felt inspired to address modesty after she observed a young woman tell a leader that she “needed to dress modestly in order to help the young men control their thoughts.” This Stake leader was incensed and decided that the Young Women needed to learn a new way of thinking about modesty. Hallelujah!

I left frozen yogurt with a slightly lighter step and a feeling of excitement. I am anxious to attempt to shift the paradigm on the topic of modesty in our Stake. Fingers crossed!

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27 Responses

  1. AJ says:

    Would be interested to see a follow up post after your presentation or an outline of your thoughts. I would like to shift the thinking in my ward and stake.

    Bishop AJ

  2. Jenny says:

    What a great story! It always gives me hope that the paradigm is shifting when I hear stories like this. I love that your stake leader recognized the real problem when this young woman came to her. What a great opportunity for you too. Good luck!

  3. Dovie says:

    The Spirit is strong, and directs seekers for good, hope and clear thinking and a desire to lift where we stand. Hurray!

  4. Moji says:

    This was an excellent article. Thank you

  5. Jacqueline says:

    I recently gave a devotional at yw camp about putt bodies- the sanctity of the body, it being made in the image of God, and ask the implications of that doctrine. If it’s made in the image of God, do I need to change or alter or obsess over my body for some one else’s approval? Do I live in my body or live in a virtual world? Do I treat it like a gift, to maximize my talents or something to punish or neglect ? Do I worship my body by spending hours dressing and shopping and exercising? Do I enjoy life or hold back because my body might not look good doing that activity? Do I see my body as an instrument to do good, not as something to adorn? I felt really strongly that modesty and selfie/YouTube culture teaches girls to be self objectofying, and the real cure is to look outside themselves rather than keep looking in the mirror. Sister Daltons talk ” the sanctity of the body” was helpful. So glad you have local leaders who want to change the conversation.

    Now if I can just destroy all the “modest is hottest” tees the yw wear at camp.

  6. Liz says:

    This is fantastic! I’d also love a follow-up post with notes on how you address it (and how it’s received).

  7. Ruby says:

    I guess I’m the anomaly 🙂 I don’t necessarily disagree with what was said, but if we are going to teach our kids (girls AND boys) to be modest, I think it does include how we dress AS WELL AS a state of mind, but I don’t think hey are separate. We gain testimonies when we live the laws. You want to gain a testimony of tithing, you pay tithing, and then see the blessings that come from it. If you want to learn modesty, start with the easiest part, dress it, and then they will see the emotional, spiritual, and mental blessings of modesty through living it. Just some thoughts

    • Jacob says:

      I think the dress issue is more about actions reflecting our desires than anything else. It’s not much different than pushing the specific do’s and don’ts of the word of wisdom but ignoring the more weighty doctrines behind it including remaining free from addictions and leading a healthy lifestyle (cookies and brownies are not required at all meetings).
      We use dress as a bellwether for modesty (and extend it to testimony) because its easy to identitfy and control.

      Modesty really has almost no relationship to dress but is much more akin to humility when you get down to it. Letting our discussions of leading a modest life become discussions of clothing takes away from the power we have to bring people closer to christ.
      A truly modest life is one without excess, one without extremes. It respects the self and respects others while remembering any accomplishments or beauty in this world come through the gifts and power of God.

  8. Amy says:

    I had a similar experience recently and I also gave a fireside to our stake young women about modesty and I actually just blogged about it yesterday myself. I personally feel like discussing modesty as a facet of pride opens up the scripture to help us learn the difference between learning to be truly and internally modest and just learning to cover up. I know that doesn’t make sense in short form, but it is such a deep and meaningful topic and once I really dug into it I have been amazed at the pure doctrine involved.

  9. Cherisa says:

    Yes, keep us posted, please!

  10. Danielle says:

    A young women in my ward said it best during a sacrament meeting talk…”Dressing modestly invites the spirit into our lives.” I also was asked to give a talk on modesty to a group of young women and was only too happy to debunk the “modest is hottest” mantra. I despise the phrase, “she’s/he’s hot”.

  11. Meagan says:

    I love this!

  12. Dave K says:

    Not much time to comment right now, but I do have one recommendation. In my experience, the best modesty lessons are ones that begin by asking for definitions and applications of modesty completely unrelated to clothing. Modesty in speech (don’t exagerate). Modesty on the sports field (don’t run up the score). Modesty in consumption (don’t overeat or use resources). Modesty in the use of worldly possessions (don’t wear fine jewelry the creates class barriers – the BOM is big on this one). Once you’ve walked through all of that, the youth have a much healthier understanding of the principle of modesty and can begin to walk through its application to clothing and sex.

  13. Rachel says:

    That Is encouraging. Thank you for sharing, and thank you for being willing to meet with the woman, in the first place. It seems like that takes a certain kind of courage and integrity.

  14. Deidre says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments on modesty. I believe in modesty but not for any of the reasons people tell me I should! The idea that girls/women should be modest for the thoughts of boys/men has always made me sick. This was helpful!

  15. UrbanChicken says:

    I see modesty being used as a way to tell women to never stand out, never achieve real success, just blend in and be quietly supportive of the men in your life.

    It offends me.

    I want my daughters to accomplish real success for themselves. I want to see real success on the playing field. I want to see academic successes that include graduate degrees in the sciences. I want to see my daughters to achieve a level of accomplishment and achievement that makes them financially independent. I want them to have the ability to walk out of a bad relationship without wondering how they will survive.

    I want all my children to feel good enough about themselves and their accomplishments that they don’t their physical attributes as their only assets.

    So far they are making my proud.

    • Ziff says:

      That’s an excellent point that had never occurred to me before, UrbanChicken. Thanks for bringing it up.

    • Jacob says:

      Modesty isnt about not doing things, its about our attitudes when we do them.

      Do we thank God for our skills and talents that allow us to play sports or achieve graduate degrees or do we focus on our accomplishments? It isnt about a list of dos and donts, its about perspective and gratitude.

      Which is the connection to clothing also… Do we worship our body and fashion trends or do we signal our commitment to God by dressing in a way that shows our dedication to him? Its not about the length of shorts but the styles we choose.

  16. Caroline says:

    Terrific post, Amy. I too would like to see the rhetoric on modesty shifted away from hemlines and shoulders.

    I think UrbanChicken brings up an interesting point. Can we embrace modesty and embrace excellence and achievement at the same time? Is there an inherent conflict between the principle of modesty and achievement? I’d like to think it is possible (though tricky, I admit) for the two to go together — particularly if we focus on attitude (not bragging, not thinking we’re better than others, recognizing our strengths as well as our weaknesses, seeing and pointing out the strengths and talents of others, etc.).

  17. Tina-bina says:

    Here is some great help for your talk. I´m sure it will be awesome! I believe us women are the ones that need to change the rhethoric. For the sake of both our boys and girls.

  18. Mary says:

    I LOVE your thoughts. I run a website about called Marry Modestly, which is geared toward helping women of LDS and other faiths to have resources for a modest wedding. The problem is, “modesty” is such a loaded word these days, almost entwining itself with rape culture because of this whole idea that “women have to cover up to keep men from sinning” nonsense.

    I firmly believe that modesty has everything to do with your acknowledgement of your on divine nature as a daughter of God who must learn to respect her body, not as something to be covered and hidden, but as as a treasured gift that ought to be preserved, taken care of, and used for righteous purposes. Part of that definitely has to do with the law of chastity, as you said. We have this culture that tells us women have to be overly sexualized, which is wrong. Unfortunately Mormon culture retaliates by saying that women should be desexualized and judged on amount of skin showing. I have caught myself thinking these kinds of ideas, and I have to snap myself out of it. Modesty is not God telling us to hide ourselves and be ashamed of sex. Its God telling us that we are precious, and that we should treat ourselves with dignity and respect that a daughter of a deity deserves. I believe we convey modesty mostly with our actions and words, and our dress is an outward reflection of our inner selves.

    What are you planning to teach the YW? I would love to continue this discussion!

  19. Heather says:

    A friend of mine recently said that modesty is not showing off. I loved this, because it covers so much and also gets to the intent of our hearts. The YW are lucky to have you steering the conversation from shoulders to more meaningful (and Christ focused) areas.

  20. Tina says:

    Hooray for changing the modest paradigm!!!! I too am interested in a follow-up post about the presentation. One question: in avoiding going down the same old road of ‘modesty’ when talking about clothing standards, I know what I don’t want to say to my daughters but I don’t know what to say.

  21. X2 Dora says:

    So glad that you will speak with the YW about this topic, and that you shared your story here!

    I also feel that the popular rhetoric on modesty has put the cart before the horse. Modesty should serve the individual, and help her or him achieve her or his potential. When the individual starts serving modesty, it tends to inhibit their actions, and make them small.

    I haven’t had talks with teenagers lately, but I do think that starting off with hearing their thoughts is a good thing. This assignment to talk on the topic of modesty began with hearing what one YW thought. It might be enlightening to know how the youth really think about modesty, as opposed to what they feel are the “correct” answers.

  22. Sussi says:

    I forwarded this blog to our Stake Presidency member over the youth and he says the Young Men and Young women are planning to base their standards night discussion on this blog post. 13 wards in our stake! Really an idea whose time has come! Thanks

  23. Nate says:

    I can’t think of a better person to tackle this than Amy. Good luck and The Spirit be with you!

  24. AshleySB says:

    I’d also love to see a follow-up on your talk. 🙂

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