The Modesty Myth: Why Covering Up Just Won’t Do
In the last month I’ve read a couple of opinion pieces about the sexualization of our young girls. In “Parents, Don’t Dress Your Daughters Like Tramps,” LZ Granderson, an ESPN columnist and CNN opinion contributor, called attention to recent trends in sexualized clothing for young girls, including padded bikini tops for 5-year-olds and a push-up bra for 12-year-olds. Granderson criticizes the companies who manufacture and sell these clothing items, but ultimately locates the blame for “dressing little girls like prostitutes” with those girls’ parents:
In 2007, the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls issued a report linking early sexualization with three of the most common mental-health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. There’s nothing inherently wrong with parents wanting to appease their daughters by buying them the latest fashions. But is getting cool points today worth the harm dressing little girls like prostitutes could cause tomorrow?
For Granderson, the problem is not just that parents buy these clothes for their daughters, but that parents are trying so hard to be their kids’ friends, that they forget to be their parents and enforce standards.
In “Why Do We Let Them Dress Like That?”, Jennifer Moses situates blame for sexualizing young girls similarly—with the parents, specifically mothers. However Moses gets even more specific in her assignment of blame, pointing to a couple of underlying problems: 1. the mothers’ inability to find a way to talk to their daughters’ about the importance of modesty in both dress and sexual behavior, allegedly because they are conflicted about feeling hypocritical if they tell their girls not to do what they themselves did as young women; this is complicated by the fact that the mothers want to help their daughters be attractive and socially successful and that the mothers (themselves beyond the period of physical attractiveness) enjoy living vicariously through their daughters. And 2. the primary part of #1 is essentially the fault of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution, which caused these mothers to behave unwisely as young women and now inhibits them from teaching their girls appropriate dress and sexual practices. So ultimately it’s those damn feminists’ fault that girls today dress like prostitutes and, as a result, become little better than prostitutes in their sexual behaviors.
I read these articles because they were sent to me by a family member involved in the Young Women’s program in her ward or stake. She was in planning mode for their upcoming Standards Night, at which they emphasized modesty, and had found these pieces. She was thrilled that Moses pointed to Mormons (along with orthodox Jews and evangelicals) as the only people who seem to know “how to teach [their] sons and daughters not to give away their bodies so readily.” And, of course, my family member agreed that it was terrible that we allow our daughters to dress like prostitutes and that parents shouldn’t buy those clothes for their girls. I agree. We shouldn’t dress our daughters like prostitutes. We shouldn’t buy these clothes for them.
But all parties are wrong in where they situate blame and in their suggested remedies, including the Mormon church and its emphasis on modesty in dress. Granted, Granderson is correct in encouraging parents to be parents and to set limits on behavior. And granted, Moses is correct that mothers may have a particularly important role to play in helping their daughters understand and express their sexuality appropriately. But even if we concur that part of the problem is that the mothers of today’s girls are themselves troubled about how to discuss modesty and sexual behavior, she’s wrong about the underlying cause of that problem, too. The cause of that problem is not that these mothers were granted permission as young women to sleep with as many people as they want without the traditional consequence of pregnancy and social stigma (I would argue that she’s incorrect in saying that social stigma is no longer a consequence, but this is a digression); nor is it that they now regret their previous behavior.
The problem is much more radical—radical meaning a problem of roots. The underlying, root cause of the sexualization of today’s girls is the same underlying, root problem of their mother’s alleged promiscuity and inability to talk to their daughters about appropriate dress and sexual behavior. Namely, while women in 21st century America (and other areas of the developed world) have many more freedoms and opportunities than their predecessors had, their value is still largely determined by their sexual appeal and reproductive capacity. And this is every bit as true of Mormon culture, with its overdeveloped rhetoric of physical modesty, as it is of the broader culture in which parents try to be hip friends rather than authority figures and magazines are presenting what Moses sees as “a constant stream of semi-pornography.” And since I am Mormon and this is a feminist Mormon forum, I’m focusing on the Mormon aspect of this problem: that our culture of hypermodesty contributes to the sexualization of young girls as much as a culture of absent modesty does.
It’s very easy to fixate on the extreme of young girls and young women getting all dolled up like little prostitutes and then to scream foul at irresponsible parents and the terrible media and the evil feminists, but our own emphasis on the externalities of modesty sends the same message: females are first and foremost sexual beings, meant to attract the sexual interest of men in order to reproduce, which is, after all, the divinely sanctioned role for women (if you believe the contemporary Mormon church, anyway). Both extremes (the extreme cover up and the extreme exposure) reduce girls to their bodies—their sexual bodies and the capacity of those bodies to attract the male gaze and set off a process that ultimately leads to sex and reproduction. The fact that the Mormon version ends up with sex and reproduction within marriage does not change the fact that that is how we define women. And the fact that we think sex and reproduction within marriage is a Good does not change that defining women in such a limited fashion is Not Good.
The Mormon emphasis on external, clothing-oriented modesty is just another form of sexualization. We attempt to negate the sexualization of young girls’ and women’s bodies by covering them up and locking them behind the door called Chastity. But when the female body is taboo because of its inherent sexuality (a sexuality so powerful that a woman literally turns herself into pornography for some men by dressing immodestly, according to that canard advanced by Dallin Oaks), and when women are celebrated almost exclusively because of their potential as breeders and nurturers of children, then we successfully sexualize the female body every bit as much as pushing heels, padded bras, plunging necklines, and miniskirts for pre-teens does. The invisibility of the female body, or of the attributes of the female body that stand for Sex, does not mean we have refused to grant the female body a sexualized status.
- a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
- a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making;
- and/or sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.”
As a culture in which we begin telling our girls as toddlers that their value comes from their ability to attract and retain a mate in the interest of fulfilling their divine role “Mother” and in which we far too often pay too little attention to other characteristics of our girls; in which there are externally imposed standards of what it means to be physically attractive, which standards often conflict with the message to physically attract men; in which girls’ capacity for independent action and decision making outside the realm of their role as mother-in-training is downplayed; in such a culture I can only conclude that girls’ sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon them as a class.
I have a radical proposal: the church and Mormon parents should teach girls that they have value without connecting that value to the sexiness of their bodies, their attractiveness to men, their capacity to make babies. Rather than lessons in which girls make lists of characteristics they should look for in a worthy, Priesthood-holding husband, have them make lists of the characteristics they should foster in themselves to be loving human beings in relationship with others, successful employees, and contributing members of their larger society. Rather than teaching them how to iron their future husbands’ dress shirts, teach them appropriate grooming and behavior for success in the workplace, as civic volunteers, as adult women. In addition to YW activities during which they learn new recipes or make crafts, offer activities during which they learn less stereotypically female skills.* I guarantee that if we prepare our daughters to be successful, well-rounded individuals rather than spending so much effort to prepare them to fill a preconceived concept of “wife and mother,” then we’ll have a sure way to get away from both ends—extreme cover up and extreme exposure—of the sexualization spectrum. When we do so, we will see women and girls as human beings with enormous worth and potential, with wonderful things to offer the world rather than as sexual beings who offer primarily their ovaries, vaginas, mammary glands, and uteri. And then, when we see a girl’s bare shoulders because she’s wearing a perfectly decent tank top or an expanse of skin on her thigh because it’s hot and she’s wearing shorts, when her neckline makes it recognizable that she does indeed have breasts, we’ll be a hell of a lot less likely to see her as salacious and hypersexualized and instead register little beyond the lived reality of the female body.
For some excellent treatments of teaching modesty and appropriate sexual behavior take a look at Starfoxy’s amazing four-part series on modesty at feminist Mormon housewives and Kathryn Soper’s brilliant essay on teaching sexuality to the young women.
*All of these lessons or activities are things I experienced as a member of the YW program or have heard about from my nieces currently in the program; I realize that my suggestions do happen in some places but I still think the YW program errs in teaching gender stereotypes in preparing our girls to be wives and mothers rather than preparing our girls to be well-rounded individuals.