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!