Why Modesty Matters

Of all the issues that I am nervous about with my daughters, the issue of modesty and self-image has me the most concerned. How do I teach my daughters to be beautiful but not vain, to love their bodies while respecting them? How do I explain that people who dress immodestly aren’t bad but that they should dress modestly themselves (as in the “For the Strength of Youth” guidelines). How do I show them the way to navigate through the labyrinth of eating disorders, immodesty, and promiscuity that surrounds them and will have such a huge impact on their lives if they get trapped? The “world” around my family is not a reliable source for truth, and the ideas that the world has embraced have been slowly making their way into Mormon culture as well (this link is to Mormon Women Bare– don’t click it if you don’t want to see naked middle-aged women). These are three ideas I’ve been thinking about to explain why modesty matters, not just “be modest, wear this” but how modesty gives women control and power over our own lives.

We are more than our body.

The problem is that we have started seeing ourselves as just bodies–we feel threatened if someone attempts to rein in our freedom to dress however we want, perceiving that as a limitation of our independence and self-expression. But we are not just bodies. I am a mind, spirit, personality, sense of humor, work ethic, skills and talents. Which is why I will teach my girls is that dressing modestly is vital for self-expression. Dressing in an unprovacative way allows a woman to be seen as a whole entity–a mind, a set of talents, a sense of humor, a spirit and a body. When a girl wears super short shorts and a low cut shirt, she becomes simply a pair of legs and a chest. And maybe she looks stunning–but it is hard to focus on what she is saying and take what she is saying seriously. This isn’t just a stodgy Mormon mom’s perspective either, there is a good reason why Hillary and Condaleezza dress the way they do. Angela Merkel doesn’t show a lot of cleavage. Legs and chests aren’t the source of our collective intellectual progress.

When my husband graduated from medical school, over half of his classmates were beautiful young girls, and when they walked across the stage in a pants suit or a nice trim blazer and skirt, I thought–”oh, she’ll be so great!”, and when they walked across the stage in a flouncy cocktail dress and 4-inch heels, I thought, “hmmm, I don’t think I’d choose her as a doctor”. Women do themselves a disservice when they present themselves as bodies; it makes it difficult to see past their sexuality to their minds and skills. Even though they were in every class and lab and rotation that the blazer-girls were in, the immodest girls seemed less credible.

And maybe that doesn’t seem fair, but it’s true. Initial impressions are largely made by sight. If a man wearing a bulky trench coat walked into my kids’ school, I’d sign them out immediately. Maybe he’s a great guy and he’s just cold, but it would freak me out. And if a man came to repair my plumbing and had a greasy long beard and long hair and clothes that looked decades old–I’d probably not let him through the door. We all make judgments based upon outward appearance; and the great thing is that we have total control over how we dress. So if we want to be seen as a mind or a spirit or a sense of humor or a great personality, then we have to let those parts of us be heard, and not let our skin take all of the attention.

Focusing exclusively on our bodies furthers the objectification of women.

Women and girls demand the right to wear short skirts and corset tops to whatever gathering they want to attend, and then we are frustrated by the billboards, music videos, and magazine ads that portray us as chattel. Not to mention the broken families and shattered lives that have followed in the wake of our “sexual liberation”. The fact is, when sex is available everywhere, young 20 somethings are always going to be sought after. But no one stays 25, and in our nearly amoral society, supply exceeds demand and women are the ones who have lost in this arrangement.

Sex and body are almost inextricably tied not because women have combined them, but because men are hard-wired to combine them. It is a difficult thing to explain how men are aroused by the sight of women’s bodies without casting blame on the women for causing those thoughts. Women are not to blame for man’s sexual actions, especially criminal or unwanted ones. Men have agency to choose for themselves what they do with their impulses. But I think it is helpful to at least know what is going on in their minds. I value the input of righteous men telling me– “low cut shirts and off the shoulder stuff turns men on, even just walking by on the street” because I honestly would have no idea. That’s not how my mind works. As a young dating college student, I truly didn’t know how their wiring works or what fires it into overdrive. And in my naivete, the way I acted definitely made life hard for those I was dating. (Sorry, guys.) It is good information for teenage girls to have–not to blame them for the reaction they cause, but to allow them to choose how they want to be reacted to.

The Law of Attraction states that like attracts like–mercy to mercy, light to light, darkness to darkness. Girls who dress immodestly and receive validation from looking sexy will continue to seek after validation for being sexy and may set aside the pursuit of other parts of her self–her mind, talents, skills, etc. She can fall into the trap of becoming just a body and then attract men who are interested in only a body. Too much skin makes good boys uncomfortable because they know they shouldn’t be thinking about sex. But it excites the boys who like to think about sex and would love access to a body. When a girl is seen as just a body, she is a tool to serve a man’s sexual desire. She is interchangeable with the other bodies walking around. It is our minds, hearts, talents, and spirits that make us unique and irreplaceable. If we crave love and attention, trying to get it through simply offering our body is a futile and heart-breaking plan, one that has failed over and over again. A boy will fall in love with a person, not just a body. Dressing modestly allows girls to be seen as a complete person.

We are the temple of God.

The last thing reason why modesty matters is the familiar refrain from Church–our body is a temple. The Spirit can dwell with us when we are modest. And honestly, I think this is the most important point, which is probably why the doctrine simply cuts to the chase. When we respect our bodies by covering parts that broadcast sensuality, the Spirit is comfortable to stay. Plus, we are more comfortable. (This is kind of a tangent, but whenever I would wear too short of shorts or a top that wasn’t quite right, I spent so much time tugging and adjusting and trying to make everything line up that it made me anxious and unhappy. I’ve seen the same thing in other girls walking around constantly pulling at their shorts or fixing their bra straps. I even saw one come out of a bathroom once who was wearing the shortest of shorts and I could see the imprint of the toilet seat on the back of her legs. Things to think about. . . )

Anyway.

I’ve had several experiences when the way I was dressed instantly changed the presence of the Spirit. When I was immodest, I felt dark inside and even though I was trying to project confidence and self-possession, I felt exposed and uncomfortable. And when I changed my clothes, I immediately felt better. I felt the peace and light that comes with the Spirit. It was worth the sacrifice.

Having the Spirit with me is the most important factor in my life. Truly. There are many ways to drive Him away in our thoughts and actions. The way we dress and think about our bodies is just one little aspect of our spirituality, but it is worth the sacrifice of not wearing everything that we want to. God honors our true sacrifices and blesses us for them.

modest

In conclusion, I am not advocating muumuus or polygamist garb. We can be really beautiful in modest clothing. We can be in style. We can make ourselves lovely to look at. Brigham Young taught:

Let the sisters take care of themselves, and make themselves beautiful, and if any of you are so superstitious and ignorant as to say that this is pride, I can say that you are not informed as to the pride which is sinful before the Lord, you are also ignorant as to the excellency of the heavens, and of the beauty which dwells in the society of the Gods. Were you to see an angel, you would see a beautiful and lovely creature. Make yourselves like angels in goodness and beauty (DBY, 215).

Being beautiful is our divine heritage. But beauty isn’t just about a body on display–it’s the whole package. The kindness in our eyes, the gentleness of our hands, the sharpness of our minds, the charity in our conversations, the way we pursue our talents and careers, the way we love our children and friends. Being modest in our dress allows the other beautiful parts of us to shine through, helps us attract people who see us in a more complete way, and allows the Spirit to guide us in our lives.

Please add your ideas of why modesty matters in the comments section, and share this article with the young girls in your life to start a conversation with them.

modest2

17 responses to “Why Modesty Matters

  1. I really like a lot of what you’ve written here, and the approach strikes me as much less shaming than a lot of what passes in Mormon culture for “doctrine” (the ideas that we should be dressing 4-year-olds to cover imaginary garments, or that girls can control what boys think about them, for example).

    I think that what is key is context – a cocktail dress and 4-inch heels wouldn’t bother me in and of themselves, but in the context of a professional setting, heck yes that’s inappropriate. I wish we would, as a culture, get past the inches of fabric mentality and instead focus on what is appropriate.

    I still remember having a major freakout when I got my first cross-country uniform because it was “immodest”….thank heaven for my wise mother who said “You wear a swimsuit when you swim, you wear your uniform when you run. You don’t wear either to class. Plain and simple.”

  2. This is a thoughtful and wonderful article about modesty. I have never quite articulated to myself the connection that not dressing modestly causes us to be viewed as (and treated as) the way we are displaying our body. That is true. What a great and well-written article.

  3. I agree with Em. Modesty is important, but sometimes I feel like we in the church become Pharisees when it comes to rules about how women can dress. Obviously those of us who have been through the temple need to dress in a manner that covers our garments, but I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with shorts that fall a few inches above the knee or even otherwise-modest sleeveless shirts (especially on children). I have friends who won’t let their toddlers wear sleeveless dresses or shorts, and while I think that’s extreme, it’s important we don’t impose our own standards on everyone else. I like Jan’s measure of being able to feel the spirit rather than measuring inches above the knee.

    The definition of modesty I ascribe to is “behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency.” If you ask a room of youth what “modesty” means, they’ll just mention dress, but it is so much more than that. Modesty is more than what we wear; it is how we act and how we portray the whole of ourselves. Young men are led to believe modesty is largely a women’s issue, but they should be taught the importance of modest speech and actions (especially in today’s overly crude and crass society). We do this virtue a disservice when we cheapen it to the length of a hemline or height of a neckline.

    It’s like Jan said–we are so much more than just a body, and when we only focus on the appearance aspect of modesty, it can reinforce the idea that our only power is in how we present our bodies. Dressing modestly is a natural extension of viewing and respecting ourselves as divine, multi-faceted beings.

  4. I’d like to better understand your logic for the denial of self inherent in allowing others to dictate something as expressive as the clothing we chose to represent ourselves to the outside world. We ARE bodies as well as minds, as the author has argued. We are sexual beings. Women as well as men are sexualized by ourselves, our society, and our culture, this is a fact. Denying that is to deny our power and our limitations.

    If only our choices in clothing allowed us to wield as much control over men’s thoughts as the author would have us assume. No matter what clothes you are wearing the observer will hold their judgments. Over that we hold no control. We can only control our own judgments.

    I’m reminded about how men are treated differently when they are wearing uniforms. Until we can look past the uniform (whatever it may be) to the person inside then we will be advocating judgement (as the snake in the garden taught us, and for that God cast us out of Eden). Judgment is the lord’s, it is NOT for us to say what clothing is “modest” beyond who and what we believe within ourselves. Judging others because of their choices is just as sinful. If you as an individual feel that your clothing makes you uncomfortable then do not wear it. Looking at others and judging their choices is a misunderstanding of them as free entities. If you are dressing out of fear instead of out of love for yourself REGARDLESS of what others, and in particular, close-minded men or women, then you are choosing to wear those clothes for the wrong reason.

    Despite the decrying that it is not advocating polygamist or fundamentalist clothing (again bowing to external validation), this blog post reads like a good argument for burqas using the same rationale behind keeping women cloistered, hidden, and afraid in our society. Afraid of our true selves or showing our partners who we truly are, afraid of our sexuality, intimidated by our bodies, both infinitely powerful and infinitely subjugated.

    This is something within the LDS culture that truly bothers me. By hiding who we are as individuals and adjusting our taste according to others opinions we lose our own power, our own individuality and freedom. By choosing to conform to a group mentality we can easily lose our individuality and sense of self-worth. By placing men’s perceived judgement (mind-reading?) above our own in matters of taste in all aspects of our lives, by thinking that we are being dictated to from on high what they will think of us, hands over our choice and freedom. Because of what we wear we are both commoditized and commoditizing ourselves.

    When a woman’s value is in what she wears (modest or immodest) we are just that – bodies. The observed and observer will continue to objectify regardless of what clothing we wear until individuals learn not to judge based on clothing. The place to start is within our own hearts. Stop judging others or their capabilities based on what they wear.

    Until we are seen and people, until we raise our sons and daughters to withhold judgment, nothing will change and we will continue living in our own judgmental hell. The only way to be free from this is to choose clothing based on reasoned and rational personal preference, regardless of what that might be… that is the truest form of modesty and truest form of freedom, regardless of how much skin is showing (as well as the purpose of the story of the fall of mankind).

    If we are making a sacrifice of our truest selves then we are denying our own heart and what God has granted us as women and as individuals. A complete person is one who is confident in their own choices because they are reasoned, rational, and well thought out, and not dictated by an external source, regardless of whether that is their partners, their parents, their church, or their society.

    • JD, you appear to value individuality and personal liberty over community. Is that right?

      You also seem to idealize a world in which nobody makes any judgments of others. Do you mean no snap judgments (i.e. first impressions) or no judgments at all?

      What about menacing-looking men in trench coats? What should we do? Ignore all our instincts for a utopia in which you are allowed to dress as you please, unfettered by disapproving glances?

      • I think perhaps you misunderstand. I believe the community has as much value as each individual chooses to give. I actually choose to give it quite a bit of weight in my life, but I CHOOSE… I am not obligated. I listen to the authorities and take their opinions into account, I listen to my friends and society at large as well, but I do it consciously and with mindful resolve. I listen to reason, and I listen to my own heart and look at cause and effect. But when I choose I make that choice for myself. I don’t perform a service out of obligation. I don’t wear clothing because it is what someone else wants me to wear, unless I agree to do that, but without being compelled. We are all individuals and we are all members of larger communities. We all are bundles of reactions and choices and to deny that is to deny the reality of our experience. Of course I take my safety into account. But if I do something out of obligation instead of agreement, then I do believe there is something dishonest and ungodly about it.

          • It isn’t and doesn’t have to be, but definitely CAN be taken as such – depending on how the individuals involved choose to portray themselves and how they choose to respond. Coercion is “force or the power to use force in gaining compliance.” I would say there are instances of ostracism and social pressure for modesty that could easily fit into that definition.

            If an individual is dressing that way out of fear of reprisal, then yes, it is coercion. Their heart is in conflict. What they want is different from what they are doing – their actions are in conflict with their reason and feelings and it is my personal belief that more thought and awareness should be taken to understand that reaction and determination to resolve the conflict.

            I’m truly talking about that internal guilt, conflict or dissonance of mind – taking action out of fear rather than out of love. For myself, in general, I’ve found when I am in conflict as such I react with some form of rejection of self and others. Dress, and really all of our choices, can be a very fundamental expression of that outlook on life. While I’m not saying one is worse or better, for me, knowing that my heart, mind, and actions are not in conflict is important to my overall health.

            I’ve found that when I judge others the root of the response is that I am judging myself as lacking, fearful, or incapable in some way.

      • Just another note here, I’m also sad that you are making judgments on menacing-looking men in trenchcoats. Most of the menacing looking men in trenchcoats are also being judged on appearances and are usually completely harmless.

        • My point is that we make judgments all of the time. And it is a good thing to do. Because it keeps us safe and helps us navigate a difficult world. And most of the time it works well enough.

          It would be ideal to make judgments based on all of the information there is about a person (e.g., a person’s socioeconomic background, religious upbringing, employment status, world travel experience, allergy sensitivities, dental records, views on pokemon, favorite breakfast cereals, etc.) but it is impractical to wait on judgment until you have all the information, especially when time is short and stakes are high (e.g., a man in a trenchcoat running toward you in a dark alleyway).

          It’s especially valuable to judge a person based on their choices, since they have control over those (as opposed to non-choices such as race and gender). Past choices are generally indicative of future choices. Dress is within the realm of choice for most people.

          Of course, it’s always good practice to remind yourself that your judgment is imperfect and you might learn something more in the future to make you rethink your decision. It’s also important to give them the benefit of the doubt, and see people in a default positive light (remembering that they are children of God), rather than negative light.

          Just don’t pretend that you can avoid making judgments. After all, haven’t you already judged me based only on a name and a few paragraphs I’ve written?

  5. I think that modesty extends beyond the amount of skin shown. I had an experience a few months ago sitting in the waiting room of the SLC temple. Since it was summer, there were quite a few weddings, and the room was quite full. I felt really out of place because it seemed that the majority of the women were wearing expensive, designer clothing, had perfectly done makeup, and really nice jewelery. I also had a similar experience at a sacrament meeting in southern California. Although I was appropriately dressed, I felt very out of place without makeup and wearing my non fancy clothing. I think that one can be wearing enough fabric to be considered ‘modest’ but still go a little overboard when it comes to fashion.

  6. Great article, Jan. You have a talent for explaining your stance in controversial topics in a gentle yet direct way. I like that you point out that women aren’t responsible for men’s sins, but that we sure can make their lives easier by not looking like we’re ready for sex at any moment.

    For the sake of discussion, I think that the sexiness of a woman actually does impact how seriously she’s taken. In the business world, its common for the sexily dressed professional woman to climb the corporate ladder faster than she would otherwise. Its a sad truth that men are more likely to give a woman what she wants if he’s sexually attracted to her. Many women know this and use their dress and grooming as a subtle form of workplace manipulation. I’m not saying this behavior is right, but it can be effective, and it is definitely common.

    I’d also like to discuss that culture plays a part in which exposed body parts are inappropriate. In 19th century Japan, an exposed wrist was an invitation for sex. In Africa, a woman can go topless and a man won’t think twice. In 19th century Utah, women were advised from the pulpit not to have too many buttons or ruffles on their dresses because it was too stylish and too inviting for the young men. Yes, it’s pretty safe to say that today in America, there are general areas of the body that should be covered, but it’s not a universal law and it’s likely to change again and again over the years to come.

    Thank you for the article- it was uplifting and thought provoking.

  7. I would love to frame the second to last paragraph of this essay for my bedroom and maybe every mirror and scale in my house. Such powerful and empowering ideas that speak to my soul as truth. Thank you, Jan.

  8. I just have to comment again and agree with elrahn:

    “You have a talent for explaining your stance in controversial topics in a gentle yet direct way.”

    True! I love your articles!

  9. I love this article Jan! This is something I think about a lot, and not just because I now have a girl, but I think about it in regard to my boys as well. It is important to teach them about modesty and all the things outlined here. I want my boys to chose to date girls who value themselves enough to be modest. I want my boys to look at a girl as a whole, and not just a fleshy part. This is a tough subject, but I think (like most everything) starting these conversations early helps. Well done.

  10. And yet, in your tone, you shame your sisters with “middle-aged” comment about them. Does their age matter? No. But your shaming of others and teaching your daughters that those who choose to dress differently is wrong is also vanity. Choose your life. Let others live as they choose. That is what you should teach your children.

  11. I’ve got a couple issues with your post. As a somewhat righteous man, I need to point out a fallacy in your argument. If a man is attracted to a woman, it doesn’t matter what she is wearing, he can(and likely will) have impure thoughts about her. I’m sure there is some Reddit subgroup about dudes ogling Condi Rice in her business suits.

    Second, judging someone about what they are wearing says more about your issues than theirs. Although you correctly say later that women aren’t held responsible for men’s sins of lust based on what they say, it sure sounds like you are saying that female doctors are responsible for the judgments you cast on them because of what they wear.

    I like what the commenter’s mom said above: wear appropriate clothing for the event. That seems like pretty safe advice.

    I do love the quote from Brigham Young. And I do appreciate how the dress and appearance of the missionaries changed when President and Sister Lawrence came to the mission.

What are your thoughts? (Please review the comment policy above)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s