What is wrong with…Modesty?By: Jeff Spector
I have been thinking about all the complaints lately about various things in the LDS Church. Therefore, I thought I might tackle some of the stickier ones in the coming weeks. Subjects such as Male Priesthood, Simplified History, Traditional Marriage, Missionary Service, etc.
So, there were a plethora of blogs and articles on the topic, some of them pointing out how wrong Elder Callister was from their perspective. Here are a few examples: (BTW, not all are totally negative)
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, “Moderating the Mormon Discourse on Modesty,” Exponent II, Winter 2014 (links to entire issue, with her article beginning on page 10)
Natasha Helfer Parker, “Morality? We Can Do Much Better than This . . .” Mormon Therapist (blog), 15 Feb 2014
Jana Riess, “Especially For Young Mormon Men,” Flunking Sainthood (blog), 20 February 2014
Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Does Mormon Modesty Mantra Reduce Women to Sex Objects?” Salt Lake Tribune, 28 February 2014
Becca A Moore, “Modest is Not Hottest,” The Life and Times of an Excessively Tall Mormon (blog), 15 February 2014
Mrs Hall, “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl)” Given Breath (blog), 3 September 2013
(Copied from the Mormon Matters website)
In addition, Mormon Matters just released a podcast, half of which discusses the very subject by Dan Wotherspoon, Natasha Helfer Parker and Jennifer Finlayson-Fife.
I found myself agreeing with about 90% of what they were saying, but of course, there is that 10%…. I will get to that in a bit.
Modesty is not just about dress
In spite of what seems to be the over-emphasis on dress, especially female dress.
We are a conservative faith, with very strict standards of morality and conduct. We believe that this position is deeply rooted in scripture and the teachings of the Prophets. The standards we teach and uphold are worldwide standards, in spite of culture. However, because we are an American-originated faith, exported to the world, there is apt to be some cultural proclivity imbedded in us. At least, that is some of the complaining you read and hear. Ironically, some will complain of a “Victorian” attitude in conduct and dress, even though “Victorian” is a turn of the century English standard. And, most English converts (about 30,000 of them) were already here in the US prior to the start of the Victorian era.
In my definition, modesty applies to thoughts, words, deeds, and appearance. It is a totality of all of it. Not just one thing or another. We would be no more accepting of a modestly dressed person using foul language while giving a Sacrament Meeting talk than we would a young woman in a halter-top or a young man in a tank top giving a talk. Yet, we have a tendency to focus on the outward appearance precisely because we can see it.
One of the complaints about Elder Callister’s talk/article is the phrase “In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.” I can understand their concern. It is really an incomplete thought, not necessarily untrue, but not complete. In my mind, it should have said something like, “In the end, people usually end up marrying the types they associate with.” This more generalized statement is based on a number of factors, which may include dress, but applies equally to men and women. That makes more sense to me.
Women are NOT responsible for men’s thoughts or actions
This is one of the great fallacies continually taught in the Church, but negates a most important principle, agency. No one controls anyone else’s thoughts, regardless of the circumstances. Without a long-winded discussion from me, the bottom line is that men need to control their own thoughts and not blame women, no matter what attire they are wearing. Besides, speaking from experience, dress is not always the prime factor in those thoughts.
Here is a quote from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, when he was BYU president. I found this on Becca Moore’s blog post, “Modest is Not Hottest:”
“I have heard all my life that it is the young woman who has to assume the responsibility for controlling the limits of intimacy in courtship because a young man cannot. What an unacceptable response to such a serious issue!
What kind of man is he? What priesthood or power or strength or self-control does this man have that lets him develop in society, grow to the age of mature accountability, perhaps even pursue a university education and prepare to affect the future of colleagues and kingdoms and the course of the world, but yet does not have the mental capacity or the moral will to say, I will not do that thing. No, this sorry drugstore psychology would have us say, He just can’t help himself. His glands have complete control over his life, his mind, his will, his entire future.
To say that a young woman in such a relationship has to bear her responsibility and that of the young man’s too is the least fair assertion I can imagine. In most instances if there is sexual transgression, I lay the burden squarely on the shoulders of the young man for our purposes probably a priesthood bearer and that’s where I believe God intended responsibility to be.
In saying that I do not excuse young women who exercise no restraint and have not the character or conviction to demand intimacy only in its rightful role. I have had enough experience in Church callings to know that women as well as men can be predatory. But I refuse to buy some young man’s feigned innocence who wants to sin and call it psychology.
Indeed, most tragically, it is the young woman who is most often the victim, it is the young woman who most often suffers the greater pain, it is the young woman who most often feels used and abused and terribly unclean. And for that imposed uncleanliness a man will pay, as surely as the sun sets and rivers run to the sea.” (Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments, BYU Devotional, 12 Jan 1988)
1988! This appears to be among the most enlightened thoughts on the subject and yet, we still hear the old rhetoric that the woman is to blame for men’s thoughts and she must use her dress to control them.
Culture is NOT an excuse
One of the most common excuses one hears about modest dress comes from in the form of different cultures have different standards; therefore, we should respect those standards. Or that somehow, men, in particular outside of the US, where dress and nudity standards may be different, have a more accepting attitude than men, say in the US, who are not subject to those same standards. As an example from the Mormon Matters podcast, one of the women contrasted the reaction of a native Brazilian missionary to that of an American missionary when seeing scantily clad Brazilian women. The Brazilian missionary took it in stride while the American missionary struggled at the sight.
Having been to Brazil myself more than once, I saw a different scenario. The women and the men, wore next to nothing on the beach (but with private parts covered), regardless of body type. Upon leaving the beach, the men and the women took great pains to cover up in more modest clothing, the type you might see in any setting in a warm climate. Perhaps not as modest as a strict LDS standard, but covered up, far more than when they were on the beach. So frankly, I am not sure what the actual point of that story was.
However, if we are actually abiding by the Lord’s standard, then culture plays little to no role in that standard except as it is equivalent to the Lord’s standard. I’ll address some variations in the next section.
What is odd to me is some of the double standards that we see in the Church when it comes to dress. For example, the dress standards at BYU Idaho are different than BYU Provo ( no shorts/shorts) and I suspect different again at BYU Hawaii. Why is that? I won’t touch grooming standards in the Church, because that sets me off.
Context is everything, or is it?
You wouldn’t expect to see someone in a swimsuit at the Prom, nor see a young man in a tuxedo completing in a swim meet. So, context of dress is an important concept. But how do you draw the line, then?
No one would argue that a speedo swimsuit is appropriate clothing when completing at a swim meet. Yet, for both males and females, it leaves little to the imagination. But take the swimsuit out of that context, and it becomes somehow inappropriate. What the BYU women’s volleyball team wears during their games would get them kicked out of a YSA dance. The men too , for that matter. I have no real answer for that.
So, what does dress say about us?
So, if you are what you eat, then certainly, to some extent, you are what you wear. Clothing does speak something about you, whether intentional or not. In today’s society, less is usually more when it comes to clothing, though styles change from time to time. I can’t understand that if one were to dress comfortably that one would wear their pants so low that it is hard to walk in them and their butt or underwear must show. Or that one could wear a top that has them falling out of it. Or that someone would wear something tight that was quite unflattering for them. To me, it is mainly about self-respect and what you are trying to say with your clothing. Sometimes, it is only that “hey, I am comfortable” or “the activity I am doing calls for this clothing.” In other cases, it is simply, “look at me,” or “check me out.”
But, I must re-state what I said above, no one gives anyone any thoughts through their clothing. Those are voluntary.
So, in closing, I restate my question, what is wrong with modesty especially when used in an appropriate manner to teach manners, self-respect, love of God and that our bodies are the temple they are intended to be?