Musing on Modesty & Mormonism

The 2001 version of the For The Strength of Youth pamplet distributed to all LDS teens says the following regarding modesty:

…Never lower your dress standards for any occasion. Doing so sends the message that you are using your body to get attention and approval and that modesty is important only when it is convenient.

Immodest clothing includes short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and other revealing attire. Young women should wear clothing that covers the shoulder and avoid clothing that is low-cut in the front or the back or revealing in any other manner. Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance….
I’ve always bristled at this proscriptive, specific list of directions on how to dress modestly. Partially because I happen to LIKE women in short shorts & skirts, but also because it seems to ignore the fact that modesty is a moving target that varies based on context. What’s modest now wasn’t modest 100 years ago, and what’s modest on the beach isn’t modest in the chapel or at work. These guidelines always seemed rather arbitrary to me while I was a teenager – and I’m sure todays teenagers are similarly perplexed. Why are the young women specifically instructed to cover their shoulders but the young men aren’t? Why is it culturally acceptable for the young men to wear swim suits that reveal their stomachs, but that would be considered immodest for the young women? With the definition of modesty changing over time and depending on where you are or what you’re doing, the obvious questions become: why is modesty important, or is it important? Why are such specific guidelines given?

God doesn’t seem to have given any specific commandments like “Thou shalt always cover your thighs at all times and all places.” The closest we’ve got is 1 Timothy 2:9-10 which says “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;” But this passage seems to be more about avoiding expensive or pretentious clothing than making sure we cover specific body parts. The lack of specific guidance from God leads me to believe that He expects us to determine our own definition of what is modest and what isn’t – perhaps even that God isn’t particularly concerned about what parts of our body we cover and what parts we don’t.

So if God doesn’t command it, why are we modest? Part of me believes that modesty is something we do out of respect for ourselves. I believe we should treat our bodies with respect and take good care of them, but it’s not clear to me that covering our bodies is necessarily a sign of respect – or that not covering our bodies is a sign of disrespect. Rather than discussing modesty in terms of coverage, it seems more appropriate to discuss our intentions when deciding to cover or not cover certain parts of our body, and the extent to which our desires effectively objectify or dehumanize ourselves. In this respect, the act of wearing revealing clothing may be insignificant, but our intentions may be questionable.

Ultimately, I believe that the principle of modesty is primarily about having respect for each other – that society has constructed a set of cultural norms and expectations for what people should wear at various times and places, and that we should dress modestly according to what those around us are wearing, or what they expect us to wear. So I believe we should dress modestly, but not necessarily for God, because I’m not sure He cares. Rather, we should dress modestly out of mutual respect for each other. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbors, and part of loving our neighbors is agreeing to live reasonably within societal expectations. We aren’t loving our neighbors if we choose to wear clothing that we know will offend someone else.

Based on my understanding, modesty has much more to do with context than anything else. It’s inappropriate to wear revealing clothing within a context where it will be unexpected or unappreciated. Of course, by adopting this understanding, I’m also acknowleging that it may be appropriate to wear revealing clothing within certain contexts – provided that our intentions aren’t to objectify ourselves. But I believe that individuals are best suited to decide for themselves what is appropriate and what isn’t for every occasion – while allowing societal expectations to inform their decisions.

So how should we interpret the proscriptive instructions given in the FTSOY pamphlet? One option is to believe that I am wrong, and that these are universal guidelines that should apply to all persons at all times in all places. If that’s the case, then The Church has some explaining to do regarding those little shorts the BYU Women’s volleyball players wear (I’m just sayin’…). The better option, in my opinion, is to believe that The Church is simply establishing the arbitrary dress code that will be required of the youth attending church-sponsored activities – a dress code that doesn’t apply to non-church-sponsored activities – and a dress code that all members of the Church should feel comfortable deviating from any time they are not participating in a church-sponsored activity.

I am aware that the pamphlet says, “Show respect for the Lord and for yourself by dressing appropriately for Church meetings and activities, whether on Sunday or during the week,” which seems to imply the opposite – that these are guidelines to be followed regardless of where you are or what you’re doing. I choose to interpret this statement very literally, however, and I believe that we should dress appropriately regardless of what we’re doing. I just believe that it’s our responsibility to determine what’s appropriate and what isn’t.

DISCLAIMER: The exception to the rule is that parents have the right to determine for their dependent children what is appropriate and what isn’t – and within this context, parents have the right to be as arbitrary as they please in setting rules for their children.

18 comments to Musing on Modesty & Mormonism

  • Good post Reuben!
    Personally I prefer to rely on the spirit of the FTSOY standard (the way you dress is important and should be appropriate), rather than the letter (too many loopholes and, like you said, a moving target).
    I feel like the message I got in YW was that you dress modestly to show respect for yourself and to somehow give the message you expect other people to respect you as well. I hated being told that you will "send the wrong message" to boys if you dress a certain way.
    I don't really think wearing revealing, tight, short clothes means you don't respect yourself. It could just as easily mean you respect your body enough to take care of it and that you you are proud and confident in yourself. Or maybe you just find shorts a lot more comfortable on a 100 degree day.

    Of course the way you dress does send certain messages about yourself, but I'd rather focus on controlling the message you want to send than guilting girls into dressing a certain way to keep the boy's minds clean.

    Ultimately my dressing guidelines would be: dress should be appropriate (as considered by the local society) for the situation, dress should reflect that we are happy (not ashamed) with ourselves, dress should allow us to be productive (no need wear long skirts if you're mowing the lawn!), and dress should not offend others.

  • It is hard to believe in universal laws of modesty when you start looking across time (as you point out) or across culture. It is interesting to me how different cultures view the exposure of different body parts. For example in some cultures, it is inappropriate for women to walk around with uncovered hair. In other cultures, it is common for people to be nude on the beach. We have a tendency to think that such things are biological (of course a plunging neckline would be arosing), but forget the strong cultural influences in how we respond to how people are dressed. I think that a universal rule about modesty is that all people know how to draw attention to themselves by the way they are dressed. All you have to do is show a bit (or a lot) more than is deemed appropriate in your cultural context. It is mostly based on what people are accustomed to seeing.

    I don't know if you heard, but the President of France made it illegal for women to wear Burkas. This law makes me uncomfortable because people should certainly be able to wear more clothing if that is what makes them feel modest (it is a whole different question if someone is forcing you to dress a certain way, but I don't think the law really addresses this). What if someone made a law that no women could wear sleeves because it subjugates them?

    I agree with the points you bring up. Modesty is more about dressing appropriately for different situations. People should wear what makes them feel comfortable, and helps other people around them feel comfortable too.

  • Melanie, thanks for your thoughts. I agree – rhetoric about how girls need to dress a certain way to keep the boys minds clean should always be avoided. I like your dressing guidelines.

    Katie – I hadn't heard about the situation in France. That's very curious…

    One major complicating factor here is whether or not we should always dress to please the most conservative person in the room. Regardless of the function, there's always likely to be one person there whose expectations are different from the group. Is a person 'loving their neighbors' if he/she chooses an outfit that 95% of his/her peers will find acceptable but will offend the remaining 5%?

    I suppose I think you can't please all the people all the time, nor should you really try. So, while we should be sensitive to who is likely to object to our clothing choices – it may be acceptable at times to wear outfits that you KNOW some portion of society will find inappropriate. I'm not sure the situation can be avoided.

  • Just a warning: My post will not be as intellectual as any of you!

    My thoughts on modesty: Over the last 4 years I've gained nearly 30 pounds, it's times like this that I am more modest than I normally would be. I'm wearing baggier clothing and long pants/skirts and long sleeves. For me, it's about covering the parts I don't like. If I were in better shape (which I hope to be by the summer) I would wearing fitted clothing and not have any second thoughts about it. Why? Because I'm proud of the way I look. Ultimately I don't wear shorts because my legs are so stinking white that they drive me nuts! Melanie can tell you that before I joined the church I had no problems showing myself off! hahahaha! I had no shame, and I probably should have had SOME! ack!

    I think a lot of the rules of modesty in the church revolve around preparing members for a lifetime of garment-wearing. I say this because there are some clothing styles out there that are still very modest but they do not fit our definition of "modesty" because they wouldn't cover the garment completely. I struggle with one of my favorite shirts because the neck is wider than most, to show off the sexy collarbone … but this neckline also does not cover my garment neckline completely. So am I being immodest? No way! But there are limitations to what modest clothing we can wear.

    Maybe it makes me a bad person, but I think there are times when it's appropriate to lose a little of the modesty. 1) Vacations with your significant other and 2) Halloween (I sooooooo want to be a sexy & slutty goth vampire) ha!

    I don't know what to say about the contradiction between defining what is modest for girls and boys. I think maybe the feeling there is that covering girls more will lessen the impure thoughts of the males … but a girl seeing a good looking male without his shirt on may incite the same feelings that they're trying to avoid by covering up the girls.

    The rest of my thoughts are all jumbled in my head and I can't sort them out … so I'll leave you with the garbage I've already written.

    By the way, I thought your post was very insightful Reuben! Loved it!

  • Very interesting thoughts, Reuben. I recently had a HUGE discussion with my 7th grade students about modesty, wearing uniforms at school, and other some such topics after reading an article together. The boys and girls both agreed that the girls should cover up the cleavage, butt cracks, and stomachs so as to keep everyone focused on their school work rather than on WHO is showing WHAT.

    I found this very interesting coming from my 7th grade students, almost all of whom are not mormon and most of whom are not religious. As Melanie stated, my students are aware of the message a girl (or boy) portrays when wearing certain types of clothing. Clothing can be distracting. Even the messages on some of the boys' t-shirts is enough to get them sent to the principal.

    For me, I dress the way I do because I'm comfortable being modest. I like my body. I think it's a great body. But, I'd rather not show it off in its entirety to just anyone willing to look.

  • Angela

    Good post. I wonder if you might be persuaded to re-post it at MM. What do you say? – Hawkgrrrl

  • After I posted my comment I was thinking about whether you should dress in a way that makes you comfortable or in a way that makes others comfortable. Ultimately, I think there is always going to be some degree of tension between the two. I think Coco Chanel is a really interesting example of this. She regected the tight corsets and layers of fabric that were common in her day and wore pants and more simple, streamlined clothing. She had a whole philosophy that women should dress in a way that makes them feel comfortable instead of dressing the way that men want women to dress (or what was common and expected in her day). Did her choice in clothing make other's around her feel uncomfortable? You betcha. But I think she made a lot of important changes in women's clothing. Ulitmately I think we should dress in a way that makes us feel comfortable, but we should be aware and take into consideration how it might affect others.

  • Casey, I also think that preparing for garment wearing influences how many LDS members choose to dress – particularly for women. I don't think it makes you a bad person to believe that it's appropriate to "lose a little of the modesty." I'm arguing that we should tailor our outfits to the activities – and some activities lend themselves well to skimpy outfits…

  • Sassy Sarah, sounds like a pretty interesting discussion for a group of 7th graders! I definitely think people should dress however they feel the most comfortable.

  • Katie, I think that sounds reasonable.

  • Angela, no persuasion needed. Post away.

  • I like this post…

    I think that some people need to have things spelled out for them. If you tell them to just dress in a way that is respectful of themselves and others, they won't have a clue what you mean. So you have to spell it out for them.

    There is a double standard of modesty for men and for women. It's because of the sexist tendency in our culture to assume that women are objects of desire and men aren't. So it's OK for a man to be shirtless, show midriff, have shoulders uncovered, etc., but not a woman. That's something to think about… Maybe men voluntarily being more modest might be a step toward a less sexist society..?

  • John, I think you're right that some people need specific guidelines. I think it's quite practical for the church to establish guidelines to apply to church activities. It's a much better idea than allowing local leaders to determine on a whim what standards will be applied to local youth.

  • Yes, and I hear what you're saying too about the dangers of legalism. (Whatever happened to "it is not meet for you to be commanded in all things?")

  • I really liked the post and the comments. Melanie, I liked and agreed with your guidelines. The only one I would question is the fourth (and I think katie's comments explain why – since there is not a universal standard for modesty, it is inevitable that what some consider comfortable and appropriate will occasionally be considered inappropriate and even offensive by others).

    I think Casey's observation is spot on – that LDS standards of modesty are intended to prepare members to wear garments. In my own situation, I think high standards of modesty were excellent preparation. I never ever exposed my shoulders, so once I was endowned I didn't know what I was missing. (I no longer wear garments but still feel naked bearing my shoulders!)

    I think there are a few unfortunate consequences of high standards of modesty.

    One of those consequences is that a very specific positive/negative value gets attached to something which (I think) should be neutral, considering again that modesty is not universal. Just as observers of the WoW can begin to think that something fairly benign – like tea or coffee – is evil in and of itself, strict observers of modesty rules can begin to attach a good/evil label to apparel -and the wearers of the apparal – when that valuation is often not deserved.

    I remember as a very young child already thinking girls who wore bikinis were "sinning." Oh brother.

  • SimplySarah – thanks for chiming in. I think that universally, 'modesty' is a positive trait, and 'immodesty' is a negative trait, but we simply can't universally label any specific garment or any specific exposed body part as 'modest' or 'immodest'. The tendency for LDS folks to universally describe bikinis, bare shoulders, cleavage, short skirts, or shirtless males as 'immodest' is part of what I'm hoping to argue against here….

  • Eireann

    Just in reply to the comment about the French law: it actually bans the wearing of any sign of religious affiliation (so a yarmulke, a cross on a necklace, and a hijab are all included, for example) in government-run spaces, like schools, courts, etc. At least on the surface, this is not about reacting to perceived 'subjugation' of women; it's about preserving the idea of the 'laïque' or of 'laïcité', which is the French secular public society. You can read more about laïcité here:

    Here is the wikipedia article about the law itself:

    I found you via a comment on Stephanie's blog (How Does She Do It?).

  • Eirean, thanks for the info. Glad to have you stop by.