Thank you to those who posted thoughtful and articulate comments on my article “The Costs of Misunderstanding Modesty”. I had no idea that this blog post would spark such intense conversation and elicit so many varied responses and questions. No matter what you thought about the article, I think it is a good thing for us, as individuals and as a group, to reflect on and discuss our approach to teaching modesty.

I’d like to address a few themes and questions that prompted some to (passionately) disagree or take exception to (parts of) the article. It seems that some of you may have misunderstood my intent in writing it. Hopefully I can clarify some of those misunderstandings. The following are questions or concerns gathered from emails, messages, online comments and discussions:

Q: Are you are suggesting something different than the standards in the “For the Strength of Youth” (FTSOY) pamphlet? Are you saying that our girls can wear two-piece bathing suits and not have to worry about it?

Many of you seem concerned that I didn’t outline LDS modesty standards in this article, and that because I didn’t, I am suggesting that modest dress is not important. I made an assumption that if you are reading Meridian Magazine, you are already familiar with the Church’s teachings on modesty, that you have read FTSOY pamphlet, or that you are easily able to search the term modesty on LDS.org and find pages of articles defining and outlining modesty.

Here is a comment that exemplifies this concern:

Please, I beg of you to just read For The Strength of Youth. And also, why is nobody talking about the significance of garments? We need to be modest in dress ALWAYS. There should be no exceptions to God’s commandments.

To be crystal clear, I wholeheartedly support the guidelines in FTSOY and the Church’s doctrines on the sanctity of the body. I teach them to my children, and I strive to live them. We do need to be modest and strive to follow the commandments. I didn’t summarize those teachings in this article because the focus of this article was not to outline or to challenge the LDS modesty standards, but to open up a discussion about how we appear to be applying those guidelines in ways that may be harmful, particularly to women. In the opening paragraph, I mistakenly thought it was sufficient to say, “As someone who believes in the teachings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, I value and heed the counsel we’ve been given about modesty.”

It seems that including the word “modesty” in the title of the article set up an expectation for some readers that the article would be (or should be) a lesson on modesty focused on reiterating the Church’s guidelines for female clothing, or a sermon on the doctrine and principles behind modesty guidelines. This intense criticism partially illustrates my concern; that we have come to expect discussions on modesty to be about reiterating our dress guidelines. Teaching modesty guidelines to women is an important part of the modesty discussion, however, it is only one part of modesty as defined in the Church’s True to the Faith Manual:

Modesty is an attitude of humility and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If you are modest, you do not draw undue attention to yourself. Instead, you seek to “glorify God in your body, and in your spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:20; see also verse 19).

If you are unsure about whether your dress or grooming is modest, ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?” You might ask yourself a similar question about your language and behavior: “Would I say these words or participate in these activities if the Lord were present?” Your honest answers to these questions may lead you to make important changes in your life… (LDS.org)

If you’ll notice, the focus of this quote is on us, as individuals, reflecting on our own dress, grooming, language, and behavior. “Would I feel comfortable wearing, saying, or doing this in the Lord’s presence?” Not “Should she feel comfortable wearing, saying or doing that in His presence?”

Focus on improving your own life

Q: Why didn’t you validate the boys’ assessment that a two-piece swimsuit is immodest? It says it in FTSOY. Why didn’t you approach the girl regarding the inappropriateness of her wearing a two-piece bathing suit?

For clarity, the conversation with the boys didn’t happen at a church event. The boys were talking about a girl’s “immodesty” in an attitude of judgment and gossip, after the fact. If they had been talking about another person (male or female) in a judgmental way by saying he/she was “fat”, for example, I would have interrupted their conversation whether or not the person they were talking about actually was overweight. I hope that if you overheard a group talking about my daughter (or son) in a negative light, you would step in and help those youth reflect on their behavior.

I didn’t address whether or not a two-piece was immodest, not because I disregard modesty or I am trying to promote immodesty. I didn’t address it because that wasn’t the issue at hand. What struck me was the irony of the situation. These wonderful boys appeared to feel completely comfortable and justified judging and talking about a young girl’s swimming attire, while disregarding a core and unchanging doctrine of Christ’s teachings: charity and love.

In my view, the FTSOY guidelines help our youth stay as far away as possible from potential hazards that would hinder their spiritual growth. However, does that mean any appearance that deviates from our recommended safety zone is automatically deemed immodest or provocative? If my female neighbor, who is not a member of any faith community, wears shorts 2 inches above her knee and a sleeveless top to the grocery store, is she dressing immodestly? If a little girl wears a tankini that shows 1/2 inch of her stomach, do we have the right to label her or her attire as immodest or provocative just because it doesn’t meet our Church modesty standards? I don’t think so. Just because it doesn’t meet our recommended guidelines doesn’t mean that it is, by default, immodest.

For those who were concerned that I chastised the boys unfairly, I didn’t approach them with an attitude of condemnation. I simply and calmly asked them questions that might encourage them to reflect on their own behavior in that moment. If I had focused on whether or not a two-piece bathing suit is immodest, I would have been reinforcing the troubling cultural pattern of openly judging female’s level of modesty that I am trying to address in this article. This comment summarizes my point well: 

We teach that modesty is important because it invites people to pay attention to our personalities rather than our appearance. But if we’ve gotten to the point where we scrutinize women’s outfits to make sure that the sleeve reaches all the way to the edge of the shoulder and that the skirt reaches all the way to the knee, or if we make snap judgments about a woman’s character based on whether or not her outfit exactly meets the standards in For the Strength of Youth, then we’ve come back around to judging people based on their appearance, and the point of the principle has been lost.

Q: How can you say that we are overemphasizing modesty to young women? I am appalled at what some young women and women are wearing to church! It seems the problem is that modesty is not emphasized enough. 

In the article, I suggested that we use a more holistic definition of modesty as defined by LDS.org website: modesty is “an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If we are modest, we do not draw undue attention to ourselves.”

I agree that the issue of modest clothing is a lot more of a concern for females than with males in the Church. However, one of my points is that definition of modesty encompasses a lot more than just one’s clothing and applies to both genders. I am concerned that we, as a people, have reduced the principle of modesty to the narrow definition of “what women wear,” which ironically can further objectify women’s bodies, and that have used this narrow definition as permission to police the attire of others. These guidelines, like all other guidelines and commandments are for us to evaluate ourselves. While appearance is certainly an important part of modesty, it is not the only aspect of it.

When we reduce modesty to _what females wear_-1

Q: How can you say that a woman is not responsible for man’s lustful thoughts if she is dressed immodestly? Doesn’t that discount biology?

I am very aware of the sexual attraction that goes on between human beings, that men (and women) are affected by the appearance of others, and that the appearance of an attractive person may trigger sexual thoughts and feelings, particularly in men. I address this in the article by identifying the distinction between women’s influence on vs. responsibility for men’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The way we dress has an impact on others, but we are ultimately responsible for our own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. I appreciated the perspective of this commenter regarding attractiveness:

I’m attracted to men in suits. Should there be church rules against men in suits? Some males are into stockings. Should we women not wear stockings to church? People need to take responsibility for their own thoughts. It’s disgraceful that we’re holding women responsible for men’s thoughts. Women and men are attracted to each other. Of course they’re wired to look for/at what attracts them. The principle here is self-control. It is a trait we see in our Heavenly Father. Maybe we need to learn it.

Like this commenter, the number of comments indicating that women actually are responsible for men’s thoughts shocks me. If I am responsible for another person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, doesn’t that disregard the important principle of agency upon which this whole plan of happiness hinges?

Many male commenters strongly criticized this article for not emphasizing that men are more visually stimulated than women and that’s why we do and should focus on women’s appearance. While research generally supports this belief, there seems to be a more complicated story than the “we are just wired that way” explanation. There are sociological factors and cultural narratives that teach us what is sexually attractive and inform our physiological responses.

For example, a 2008 study looking at arousal in men and women found that while both sexes were aroused by visual stimuli, different aspects of the visual cues aroused them. Of particular interest to this discussion are that scenarios in which men could objectify the person were associated with higher male arousal. The researchers suggested that arousal to objectification is likely a culturally learned response.

This leads me to question whether our cultural (not our core principles and doctrine) approach to teaching and applying modesty is weakening or strengthening this objectification response. Is it possible that by hyper focusing on which female body parts are covered or exposed we might be inadvertently strengthening the objectification? By culturally labeling exposed shoulders, knees, and stomachs as “immodest” are we unknowingly sexualizing parts of the female body that don’t need to be sexualized, and in doing so, making the situation even more difficult for men to control their thoughts? It’s something to consider. To be clear, I am not saying that we should abandon our modesty standards. I am just exploring the possibility that our approach to applying modest clothing guideline might actually be compounding the problem we are hoping to address for women and men.

Q: Why should we listen to you? You’re just a therapist. We already have everything we need to know about modesty from the FTSOY and from the brethren.

I’m not claiming any authority or saying you have to listen to me or agree with what I’ve written. It is an opinion article. I felt moved to share my perspective and concerns as a wife, as a mother of sons and daughters, as a primary teacher, and as a therapist who has worked with LDS families for over twenty years. You can take it or leave it.

But to those who say that there is no problem in how we are teaching and applying modesty in our communities, please consider the following comments:

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! Growing up, I developed a “womanly figure” really early, and after having it hammered into my head that a woman’s body is inherently sexual and that people will instantly objectify you if they see too much of your shape, I had a lot of shame and resentment regarding my body. I only just got over it, thanks to months of my husband’s patience and voice of reason.

My daughter was judged mercilessly for her “immodesty.” She is a gorgeous young woman, but we are far more proud of her intellect, loyalty and empathy than we are of her physical beauty. Still, because of, to quote Jessica Rabbit, how she was “drawn,” she couldn’t wear anything that hid the fact that she is 5’8″ and mostly legs with DD breasts. She literally duct-taped her breasts every day of high school because people made such harsh comments. Our remarkable young women deserve better than that. So I’m very grateful to you for using your voice to open the discussion and say something so meaningful! 

Final Thoughts

The article was really about something much bigger than modesty. The larger concern is our tendency (myself included) to use our standards, teachings, and doctrine as self-righteous justification for judging others instead of looking at how we can improve ourselves and bring our lives in closer alignment to the teachings and doctrine of Jesus Christ. The topic of modesty could be replaced with keeping the Sabbath Day holy or following the Word of Wisdom, but the principle is the same. We would be wise to focus on improving our own lives rather than focusing on judging and policing the choices of others.

For additional resources visit DrJulieHanks.com and WasatchFamilyTherapy.com