This is the second post in the New Approach to Modesty series. For post one click here.
Getting ready for a Mutual activity, Chelsea Anderson casually put on a pair of short shorts. “It never occurred to me that they were inappropriate.” She sat down in one of the few remaining seats, prepared for a lesson from the missionaries. With the last couple of remaining seats to her side, Chelsea overheard the missionaries’ whispered argument over who would have to sit next to her. Although she didn’t hear why they argued, Chelsea figured her immodest shorts caused the argument. “I realized that I was making virtuous young men feel uncomfortable.” Thereafter Chelsea dressed modestly.
While her story is unique, Chelsea didn’t have to look far for council to mirror.
Young women, respect your body and help others, particularly young men, maintain virtuous thoughts and actions. (Dress and Appearance: Let the Holy Spirit Guide)
Not only does this sort of council make young women responsible for young men’s actions, but it signals an even greater problem with current modesty rhetoric. But before getting there, we first have to establish what modesty means today. To begin with, modesty rhetoric rarely refers to men. When it does, speakers implore men to dress appropriately for sacred ordinances and meetings, leaving references to virtue virtually nonexistent.
Part of why male modesty rarely focuses on male sexuality could be because male leaders don’t find men sexually alluring.
If leaders applied the sexuality standard equally, perhaps the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet would read a little differently:
Modesty rhetoric holds women to a much higher standard. In fact, the term feminine modesty might be helpful, since modesty for women seeks to preserve the west’s feminine ideal.
While church speakers basically agree on what feminine modesty is, they sometimes clash with each other, and themselves, on the details. Some speakers note that modesty doesn’t come down to fabric measurements but then share standardized rules that essentially match measurements to body type. Some note that modesty is about attitude, not dress, but all of them note that dress indicates attitude—and dress guidelines come far more frequently than attitude guidelines. Finally, some speakers note that we shouldn’t judge the immodesty of others, while others say we should. Here’s an example too good to go unmentioned:
We usually have the most impact on those with whom we already have a relationship…you find a moment when you’re alone with the person you need to talk to and then speak simply and honestly. “Look, this is going to be a little awkward for both of us,” you might begin, “but it would be wrong if I didn’t tell you that your swimming suit is not exactly appropriate for a Church activity.” (More than Hemlines and Haircuts)
Awkward and creepy.
Sadly, this poor author isn’t an anomaly. In a Mormon Channel podcast, two callers asked Julie B. Beck how to encourage immodest members they’ve met to dress more modestly. To her credit, Beck unabashedly told both women that we don’t police others’ clothing. But Beck’s instructions haven’t had much influence (and was not the answer the two women were looking for). In fact, some speakers and magazine authors praise instances where members shun immodest members, typically teenagers (more on this next time).
Even with more Beck-style directives, can we get away from a culture that judges and shames, and then shuns some women? Probably not. While we’re commanded not to judge someone by their appearance (1 Samuel 7:16; John 7:24), modesty rhetoric begins on the premise that a person’s outward appearance gives us a clear indication of their spiritual conviction.
Our clothing is more than just covering for our bodies; it reflects who we are and what we want to be, both here in mortality and in the eternities that will follow. (Modesty: Reverence for the Lord)
The outward appearance of the temple and the grounds reflect the inner spirit and beauty of the temple. So it is with us. (Arise and Shine Forth)
Outward appearance is often a reflection of inward tendencies. (Looking Toward the Mark)
Does that give individual members permission to judge women by their dress? Not quite. But feminine modesty assumes that men are not wholly responsible for the impure thoughts that a woman’s immodest dress induces in them. Elder Bednar taught that when someone gets offended, they choose to be offended. Feminine modesty reverses that lesson. When a man gets impure thoughts, the moral blame rests on the woman.
We are responsible for the effect our dress standards have on others…. It is especially important that we teach young girls not to wear clothes that would encourage young men to have improper thoughts. (The Latter-day Saint Woman, lesson 9)
I wonder if our young sisters realize the temptation they are flaunting before young men when they leave their bodies partly uncovered. (Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood, lesson 19)
For example, [young women] need to understand that when they wear clothing that is too tight, too short, or too low cut, they not only can send the wrong message to young men with whom they associate, but they also perpetuate in their own minds the fallacy that a woman’s value is dependent solely upon her sensual appeal. (Mothers and Daughters)
The last quote has particular irony considering that other church speakers have suggested that a woman’s dress reflects their spiritual commitment and probable tendencies.
How we dress affects how people react to us. It also demonstrates where our heart and spirit really desire to be. (Modesty: Reverence for the Lord)
Feminine modesty tells us what’s in an immodest woman’s heart, how she will (likely) act, and that she is responsible for a man’s impure thoughts. If modesty rhetoric does not permit men to judge women by their outward appearance, it doesn’t have to. The concept itself has done all the heavy lifting. Men just have to believe it. It’s time to reimage modesty.
Next time I will show how modesty rhetoric negatively affects men and even modest women.
But wait! I’ll soon start showing why modesty can be really good and how we can get the benefits of modesty without keeping the harm. Don’t get turned off by the criticisms just yet.
 e.g. : Instead of coming up with exact measurements for hemlines and necklines, we discussed the principles surrounding modesty and the challenge of finding modest clothing that looks attractive.… She lives the standard of modesty generously and doesn’t try to alter the rules of dress and appearance. (Dress and Appearance: Let the Holy Spirit Guide)
 Spencer W. Kimball is the only speaker to condemn judging others by their immodest dress that I have found, saying that doing so is an even worse offense than dressing immodestly. It’s a pity he doesn’t get quoted for this, but as I hope this post shows, quoting him wouldn’t change much so long as we continue to conceive of modesty in this way.