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. . . )
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.
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.