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“[F]or man (and woman) looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” –1 Samuel 16:7
Modesty is a loaded term (particularly within an LDS context); it can refer to one’s attitude, disposition, and, as is most commonly thought of, to one’s clothing. 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. Still, I am concerned that some in our Mormon community have (deeply) misunderstood and misinterpreted this principle. To demonstrate, allow me to relay a conversation that I overheard a few months ago among a few LDS boys about modesty.
“That is so immodest!” one boy said emphatically, shaking his head in disbelief at the bathing suit choice of a young woman in the neighborhood.
His friends nodded in agreement. “No way. I can’t believe she’d wear a two-piece bathing suit to a church activity. It’s so inappropriate!” one of them said. They appeared very confident in their assessment of this young girl’s immodesty.
Hearing all of this, I couldn’t help but give my two cents; I approached them and asked them, “Have you ever thought of the possibility that modesty is not just about what girls wear? That it also includes how you think, behave, what you feel, and what your heart is focused on?”
It was clear I’d caught them by surprise. They all looked at me with puzzled faces as if to say, “What on earth are you talking about?”
With their full attention, I continued: “Do you know that modesty is also about you? It is about checking yourself and making sure that how you think, feel, and act is an accurate reflection of who you want to be? Modestly is not about judging others. And, if you think about it, Jesus didn’t teach anything about one or two-piece swimsuits, but he taught a lot about the dangers of judging others and of being prideful. Just something to think about.”
The boys were quiet, and I could see self-reflection through thoughtful eyes and slowly nodding heads.
As I walked away from the conversation, I began to panic, fearing that I would hear from one of their parents asking, “Julie, did you tell my son it’s OK for girls to wear two-piece swimming suits to church events?” So far, I haven’t received any phone calls from upset parents. But as I’ve often reflected on this brief, yet powerful conversation with a group of active, faithful LDS young men, I’ve continued to feel very uneasy about how some of our youth (and adults) are understanding and applying the teaching of modesty. As a mother, as a woman, as a sister in the gospel, as a primary teacher, and as a therapist, I see some unintentional and very problematic consequences of overemphasizing modesty in our culture. Here are some key ways that obsessing about modesty hurts us:
1) When we reduce the concept of modesty to what females wear, we are reinforcing the very thing that modesty is supposed to help avoid: the sexual objectification of women’s bodies.
When we are hyper vigilant about hemlines, shoulders, necklines, and swimsuits of females, we are not only missing a more holistic and complete definition of modesty, but we are sending the message to boys and girls, men and women, that women’s bodies are primarily objects of lust for males that need to be covered. What young women need is to be seen as and treated as multi-dimensional human beings. By focusing primarily on a girl’s appearance, we run the risk of neglecting her soul, her mind, her dreams, her talents, her capabilities, and her future.
2) Overemphasizing modesty can unintentionally teach that girls are responsible for boys’ sexual thoughts and behaviors.
The way that you choose to physically present yourself impacts you and the people around you. However, it is important to distinguish influence on another person from responsibility for another person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. An extreme example is the classic excuse used to justify rape, “She was asking for it.” A woman dressing in a way that a man views as sexually provocative may have an influence on him, but only he is responsible for his behavior. Young women ought to be taught that modesty is about how they want to present themselves, how they want to feel, how they desire to show their obedience to the Lord, and what’s most important to them. Let’s make sure we aren’t inadvertently teaching our young women to be responsible for others’ thoughts and behavior.
3) Overemphasizing modesty can shame girls for having a feminine body and for physically developing into a woman.
Just open a magazine or turn on the TV to see the intense focus on the physical appearance of women in our broader culture. Most young women I have worked with in my therapy practice (and most women I’ve known personally, including myself) have an intensely complicated relationship with their bodies. Body shaming and pressure to be physically perfect is everywhere. What young women need from fellow saints is to feel less judged about their appearance; not more judged, to be less objectified, not more objectified. If you’re at church and notice yourself thinking, “Well, that skirt is a little short!” try remembering how wonderful it is that that young woman is attending church.
4) Overemphasizing modesty gives others implicit permission to judge and measure a woman’s dedication to the gospel, or “worthiness,” based on physical appearance.
Soon after this conversation with neighbor boys, the judgmental modesty frenzy erupted about the dress Lindsey Stirling wore to the 2015 Billboard Music Awards. I was so disturbed at the reaction and how many adults seemed to think it was acceptable to shame, ridicule, belittle and judge when it comes to issues of female clothing. No wonder the youth of our church feel perfectly justified in judging girls’ attire! As adults, we often do the very same thing to each other, online and offline. I know I have been guilty of this judgmental attitude at times. Is the clothing of other women so important that it justifies judgment and ridicule? Never.
5) Overemphasizing modesty in our young women may send a message that modesty does not apply to males.
LDS.org website defines modesty as “an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If we are modest, we do not draw undue attention to ourselves.” There is nothing gender specific about the principle of modesty. It is important to teach our young men that modesty applies equally to them. In what ways do our young men draw attention to themselves? How can we help them understand and apply the principle of modesty in their lives? These are important questions to consider as we seek to balance out the modesty discussion.
What Can We Do About It?
I came across a beautiful article that resonated with me as a true and insightful reframe of the concept of modesty. Samantha Shelley wrote “What we’re still missing about modesty” based on Book of Mormon teachings encouraging us to shift focus away from women’s hemlines and focus on where we set our hearts (it’s definitely worth reading and rereading). In her closing paragraph she writes, “We need to strive to minimize the importance we place on the way we look, the clothes we wear, and the material things we own, and remember what’s really important—our relationship to Jesus Christ and how we offer help to His children. We need to replace extravagance with generosity and luxury with humility.”
Yes, that’s it. That is the solution to these cultural problems with modesty: minimize the physical, focus on our relationship with Jesus Christ, and love his children with generosity and humility.
10 Ways to Balance the Modesty Discussion
Here are 10 practical suggestions to help balance the modesty discussions in our families, wards, and communities:
- Reflect on your own attitudes and behavior. Do you tend to think about, invest in, and lead with your physical appearance, your external possession, or visible accomplishments?
- Offer an expanded definition of modesty. If you are involved in discussions where modesty is being reduced to what females are wearing, speak up! Suggest exploring the meaning of “propriety and decency” of thoughts, feelings, words, behavior, and appearance for men and women.
- Lead conversations about how the principle of modesty applies to males. Explore how to better teach and apply modesty to young men with your family, friends, and faith community to balance out the discussion.
- Reach out to the youth. Make sure that everyone knows that they are loved and welcome at church and church activities (no matter what they are wearing).
- Notice when you are judging someone else’s level of modesty. Use this as an opportunity to reflect on yourself.
- Emphasize that modesty is about how you want to present yourself. When teaching the youth help them reflect on what kind of appearance feels congruent to them. What message do they want to send to others?
- Avoid using language that implies responsiblity for another person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Help the young women understand that appearance sends a message about who they are, based on their culture, and that it has influence on others, but they are never responsible for another person’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.
- Teach the cultural context of modesty. Help them understand that our current specific modesty guidelines are not fixed, but are inspired recommendations based on what specific clothing and appearance means in our era and culture. Share examples of other cultures that give different meaning to clothing that the United States. For example, in Polynesian cultures men wear lava lava, large pieces of cloth tied as a skirt. And in some traditional African tribal communities it is common for women to not wear a top.
- Speak up against body shaming. When you read, see, or hear people shaming a woman for her appearance or clothing choice, do not jump on the bandwagon. Be a voice of reason and of compassion in all conversations about other women.
- Focus on the doctrine behind the principle of modesty. It is important for us to understand the why behind the application. 1 Corinthians 6:20 says that our bodies and our spirits are gifts from God and he wants us to use them to glorify Him. (Click on image below for 10 Tips graphic)