Uncovering Feminine Modesty – New Approach to Modesty Series

July 3, 2013    By: DavidF @ 9:27 pm   Category: Ethics,Life,Modesty,Mormon Culture/Practices

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.

(hottie?)

If leaders applied the sexuality standard equally, perhaps the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet would read a little differently:

Do not engage in any activity that might build a visible “six pack.”  As soon as you are able, grow a beard.

(not-ie)

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.[1]  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.[2]  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).[3]  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.


[1] 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)

[2] Modesty, therefore, is more than the way we dress. It reflects our testimony and the condition of our hearts…. Are we willing to do what it takes to dress modestly? (Arise and Shine Forth)

[3] 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.

30 Comments »

  1. “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.”

    This is so superficial!

    Comment by miskky — July 7, 2013 @ 12:05 am

  2. What a bunch of apostates.

    Comment by h_nu — July 7, 2013 @ 11:09 am

  3. I’ll tell you what’s so bad about posts like this:

    You make church leaders responsible for the thoughts and actions of the young women they interact with. Why can’t we just be enlightened enough to let female readers be responsible for their own thoughts and feelings when they read church magazines?

    Comment by Jeff G — July 7, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

  4. I’ve enjoyed both modesty posts you’ve done recently, particularly the sources you’ve listed. This is a topic that I’ve put some thought into recently. I like to chew on things for awhile. I spent a few weeks (a little at a time) tracing my confusion about what modesty means and writing down a coherent definition for modesty, a definition I feel like I can teach my kids and actually apply in my life. For anyone that’s interested, it is posted here:

    http://cowgirlsandlamanites.blogspot.com/2013/07/what-is-modesty-definition.html

    Comment by Cowgirl — July 7, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

  5. Thanks for the post. I feel like this series is moving the discussion forward instead of just pointing out the problems, keep them coming.
    I teach the 8 year olds in primary and today, during a discussion about the good things we are encouraged to do, one girl mentioned “be modest”, a perfectly appropriate thing to include on our list. But, it made me wonder if a boy would have ever thought to add that to the list. Regardless of who the modestly lessons are directed towards more (boys or girls) it is definitely a message that the girls are internalizing and relating to much more than the boys (at least for the primary aged kids).
    For the sake of our young girls we need to make sure this message is presented correctly. I’m excited to read your post on the benefits of modesty.

    Comment by Toria — July 7, 2013 @ 8:16 pm

  6. Jeff G,

    What? How am I making church leaders responsible for the thoughts and actions of young women? In this post I’ve merely critiqued the messages these leaders send itself. I haven’t suggested one way or the other that they are responsible for the way young women think.

    But we also need to be realistic. These messages influence people, both men and women, And I think it’s responsible to weigh whether the effects of these messages justifies sending them. I’ll show some of the damage that they cause in the next post. But I’ll also show why we need to keep modesty rhetoric. It’s an important value, but we can do better with it.

    Comment by DavidF — July 7, 2013 @ 8:23 pm

  7. Toria,

    Thanks. Part of the reason I started on this series was because I felt that much of the modesty discussion was just spinning its wheels in the sand.

    Cowgirl,

    I like your definition of modesty. I think it’s healthy, and it’s practical. It’s fairly similar to the one I’ll propose later in the series, but mine, admittedly, is a little more radical. I think you’ve taken a pragmatic approach. And you’ve done a good job at highlighting how much variance we put into the word modesty.

    Comment by DavidF — July 7, 2013 @ 9:02 pm

  8. The implied premise here is that men and women are functionally equivalent. Without that premise the post is nonsense. But I’m afraid the premise is also nonsense.

    Comment by Adam G. — July 8, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

  9. Adam G.,

    Can you explain?

    Comment by DavidF — July 8, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

  10. I was pointing out the inconsistency in blaming church leaders (broadly construed) for making girls responsible for guys’ thoughts and actions. This supposedly creates undue pressure and issues regarding individuality in these girls.

    But to make this accusation stick, you have to make these church leaders responsible for the thoughts and actions of these girls. But this just is to commit the very same crime which you are trying to criticize.

    Thus we must decide whether making someone responsible for other people’s thoughts and actions is tolerable or not. If it’s not tolerable, then we should not tolerate this particular argument against modesty. If it is tolerable, then the argument against modesty falls flat.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 9, 2013 @ 11:09 am

  11. Jeff G,

    Nah, I don’t buy that. I think you are using the word responsible too liberally. If a concept causes harm by fallaciously insisting that girls are responsible for boys thoughts, then it’s a bad concept. Feminine modesty clearly does that. Thus, it’s a bad concept.

    But I’m not saying that church leaders are responsible for girls’ thoughts. I don’t need to in order to make my case. If person A negatively influences person B, we don’t say person A is responsible for the way person B thinks. I can say that church leaders negatively influence girls without going so far to say they are responsible for the way girls think. If you think I’m wrong, I think you’d have a tough time reconciling free will with interpersonal relationships. And feminine modesty makes that very mistake. That’s partly why it’s bad.

    That’s not the position I made in this post, but I think it is an equally valid argument against the current form that modesty has taken.

    Comment by DavidF — July 9, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

  12. That wasn’t a very compelling reply.

    How is it obvious that feminine modesty causes harm? What harm? If you say that it causes girls to think bad thoughts, etc then you are making the very same argument against teaching feminine modesty as church leaders put forth against dressing immodestly.

    Your distinction between “negatively influencing” and “being responsible” also doesn’t scan. It seems clear to me that church leaders have never meant anything stronger than that dressing immodestly negatively influences young men. But this is exactly what you are accusing church leaders of doing to young women. You can substitute the phrases and the feminists will be equally offended when it comes to teaching modesty.

    I’m not saying that modesty standards are all fine and dandy. I’m only saying that the “modesty blames young women for young mens’ sins” argument is garbage.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 9, 2013 @ 11:39 pm

  13. If anything, the distinction you draw between influencing and being responsible works against such feminist critiques of modesty. Church leaders only claim that immodesty negatively influence boys. It is the feminist critic who equates this with making the girls responsible for boys’ behavior. Your distinction takes most of the wind out of that critique.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 10, 2013 @ 7:06 am

  14. Okay, my head’s a little clearer this morning. Here’s why I don’t accept your argument. First, leaders DO claim that immodesty makes boys responsible for girls thoughts. I gave one very clear example above: “We are responsible for the effect our dress standards have on others.” The first quote I used comes very close to this meaning when the girl says “I realized that I was making virtuous young men feel uncomfortable.” I haven’t found any speaker deviate from putting the moral blame squarely on women. If you can find an exception, I’d be interested.

    But in general, I still think you’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Let me set two arguments side by side to illustrate this. The first you’ll recognize:

    (1) Because it teaches that a woman’s dress is makes men think impure thoughts, modesty rhetoric tries to make girls responsible for boys thoughts. But girls aren’t responsible for guys thoughts, which, in part, makes modesty rhetoric harmful for girls.

    (2) Because it teaches that women should be so seductive that guys can’t resist, sexual advertising tries to make girls responsible for boys thoughts. But girls aren’t responsible for guys thoughts, which, in part, makes sexual advertising harmful for girls.

    Are you then telling me that I can’t decry sexual advertising because that would be a double standard? In either case we can spell out this argument logically. B=boys, G=girls, A=authority whether church leaders or sexual advertising:

    (1) A makes G responsible for B
    (2) G is not responsible for B
    (3) Therefore A (makes G…) and not A (makes G…), a contradiction

    You assume my argument to include:
    A is responsible for G, which then gives us two options:

    (1) If A is responsible for G then G is not responsible for B

    (2) If A is not responsible for G then G is not responsible for B

    The second one, if it were true, may defeat my argument. But since evidence shows that A *does* influence G, whether we’re talking about sexual advertising or leaders influencing women to dress modestly, I reject the second option from empirical evidence.

    But your first option doesn’t defeat my argument because it doesn’t actually challenge my first premise. I can believe both A is responsible for G and G is not responsible for B without falling into any fallacy.

    As a general rule, I think logical notation is easier to follow when you are creating it then when you are reading someone else’s (at least this is true with me). So if following my argument is a headache, I’ll just refer you back to my parallel argument about sexual advertising. But maybe it’s a little cheap on my part to coerce you into arguing why I shouldn’t decry sexual advertising. ;)

    And I still think there may be a useful distinction between influence and being responsible for, but I probably overstated it earlier.

    As for the harm modesty causes, I’ll show that in the next post. But to give a gist of it, if you look through church sources you’ll find that we glorify examples of young men shunning immodest young women. These examples are clearly praised, and while we don’t have to praise these examples, I’ll try and show that we will always end up thinking that we should shun women based on their appearance if we keep thinking about modesty in this way. I’ll have the quotes to show this next time.

    Comment by DavidF — July 10, 2013 @ 9:34 am

  15. “First, leaders DO claim that immodesty makes boys responsible for girls thoughts.”

    I’m not surprised, since neither they nor their feminist critics accept the distinction you are trying to draw. If they did accept it, however, they would almost certainly be on the “negatively influence” side.

    “Are you then telling me that I can’t decry sexual advertising because that would be a double standard?”

    No. I’m saying that your argument works against itself. It commits the very crime it decries. It is a performative contradiction.

    In the end, morality just is our acknowledgement that we are not isolated individuals and that our actions usually influence others and that we need to take responsibility for those foreseeable consequences.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 10, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

  16. … For example, church authorities speaking about modesty in a certain can foreseeably influence girls in a certain way and one should therefore be careful with such talk. Fine.

    In the exact same way, girls dressing a certain way can foreseeably influence boys in a certain way and one should therefore be careful with such fashions.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 10, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

  17. “In the exact same way, girls dressing a certain way can foreseeably influence boys in a certain way and one should therefore be careful with such fashions.”

    I’ll agree with this statement. I think there is a give and take on both sides. This is why I also have reservations about the “you choose to be offended” line that can be easily used to excuse anyone giving offense. I doubt Elder Bednar wanted to excuse offenders, but I can’t cite his talk to show that. I can only pull out citations that blame the recipient of offense for their reactions. Modesty rhetoric follows the same pattern in reverse.

    I may have missed one, but no modesty talk or article in the last three to four decades suggests that men need to take responsibility for the impure thoughts that they would otherwise attribute to an immodest girl. I’m sure that if you sat down a given church leader, they would say that men are responsible, but you won’t find it in the rhetoric. This is partly why I focus on the topic and not the speakers.

    Comment by DavidF — July 10, 2013 @ 9:35 pm

  18. Just got back into town.

    I’m not buying what you are selling in this post, David. It seems like you tried and convicted Church leaders in your mind before writing the post and thus rather than making arguments and supporting them you make just-so statements and present loosely related factoids around them. I’ll add more specific comments to follow.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 11, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

  19. “no modesty talk or article in the last three to four decades suggests that men need to take responsibility for the impure thoughts…”

    Really? I can’t remembered a single talk given to young men in which they weren’t supposed to take responsibility for their own thoughts. Church leaders simply assign responsibility to each group according to what’s under their control. Girls are told how to dress (since that’s under their control) and boys are told how to think for the same reason.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 11, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

  20. Here are some direct responses to the claims in the post.

    Not only does this sort of council make young women responsible for young men’s actions

    First, this is an exaggeration. Actions and thoughts are not the same thing. Second, you seem to be completely ignoring the fact that the way we humans dress is a form of non-verbal communication. (Most people whining about church modesty teaching completely fail to recognize this fact.) And since the way we dress communicates our sexual availability to potential suitors it is painfully naive to pretend otherwise. See this post and long discussion on that topic.

    Part of why male modesty rarely focuses on male sexuality could be because male leaders don’t find men sexually alluring.

    Such a lame accusation. It completely ignores the fact that women church leaders at all levels preach modesty to the girls as much or more than men.

    If leaders applied the sexuality standard equally, perhaps the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet would read a little differently

    You are missing that fact that there are important differences between males and females in our species. Here is what I wrote in the comments of that post I linked to:

    The first thing is to recognize that in the human species females are the gatekeepers of sex. While humans can and do bridle their mammal selves in many cases, males of the species are evolutionarily designed to seek sex with most any willing female. On the other hand, females of the species are evolutionarily designed to be selective about who they mate with (for all kinds of good reasons). All of this serves to strengthen the species. As a result, if a woman really wanted to have consensual sex with a man (and she weren’t picky) she could achieve that goal within a day in the vast majority of cases. In contrast there are many, many men in the world who want to have consensual sex with a woman today and may not achieve that goal this year… or ever.

    So with that as a backdrop for the species, it only makes sense that men and women communicate their interest in finding a sexual partner differently. Men do it by seeking women giving them the green light. Women do it by giving the green light (or not). But since women are the gatekeepers, a lot more is riding on the signals/communications women are sending out because there are virtually always willing male takers for women who are giving the green light.

    So it is perfectly understandable given our evolutionary design that Mormon boys are taught not to seek girls who are giving the green light and to turn down the girls who do. Girls are taught not to give the green light. And dressing modestly is one important way to not give the green light.

    In my opinion it is a severe mistake to say that recognizing and adjusting our training to account for these rather intuitive facts about our species is misogynistic.

    God has told us he wants us to have sex only within approved marriage. The modesty standards of the church are designed to support that law of chastity and increase the number of saints living it.

    So basically I don’t buy your spin or paradigm at all in this post.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 11, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

  21. Jeff G,

    Sure, church leaders teach young men to control their thoughts and actions. But when it comes to modesty, the lessons come down to judging a woman’s sexual morality by her clothing. Even if they were to say, “don’t think about a young woman’s clothing,” you won’t find, “don’t judge a young woman’s possible sexual promiscuity by her clothing” anywhere, with the one exception I noted decades ago. Can you see that this is a problem? I can’t see anyway of reconciling this principle with the scriptural council to not judge someone by their appearance.

    Comment by DavidF — July 11, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

  22. Visual signaling is a very useful way to navigate the social world around us. Why wouldn’t we use such information? Why wouldn’t faithful LDS women set themselves apart from the world in certain ways such as the way they dress?

    Comment by Jeff G — July 11, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

  23. Geoff J,

    Clearly my light attempt at humor didn’t work. The point about not sexualizing men was, perhaps, a bad joke. Still, pointing out that women leaders teach modesty to women doesn’t refute that male leaders might not teach modesty to men because they don’t think of men in sexualizing terms (and there’s nothing wrong with that). As for my For the Strength of Youth comment, arousal works both ways. Even if social norms dictate that women are the gatekeepers, I’m not sure this wholly justifies the almost exclusive targeting of modesty to young women only.

    As for the connection between modesty and chastity, I’m going to put up my next post either tonight or tomorrow on that. There clearly is at least some link, but I think it is very much overstated. I’ll be interested in your comments.

    Comment by DavidF — July 11, 2013 @ 3:42 pm

  24. David: you won’t find, “don’t judge a young woman’s possible sexual promiscuity by her clothing” anywhere

    Thank heavens no one is teaching that because that would be a ridiculous thing to teach. If a woman is intentionally dressing to send the message that she is sexually promiscuous, she probably is.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 11, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

  25. Jeff G,

    I’m not against modesty or dressing modestly. My position is that we’re teaching it the wrong way by putting undue pressure on women to control for the thoughts of men around them.

    Women simply can’t control man’s will to sexualize them. To use an extreme an example, let me point to Egyptian culture, where sexualizing women has gone to extreme levels. A tv show recently produced there dressed a male actor in a niqab (full body veil), and then followed him around as he walked the streets of Cairo. Even with virtually no visible skin, this actor was sexually propositioned. The series noted other bizarre examples of men sexualizing women including one instance where a man accidentally sexually harassed his own sister. (http://www.trust.org/item/20130510045933-gnoz8/)

    Of course, I’m not advocating the other extreme either, where women run around naked and men should be slapped for looking, or whatever. But modesty rhetoric clearly puts the moral blame on women for men’s impure thoughts, and I have a tough time accepting why that’s justified (especially considering places like Egypt, where they do this too, but at much more obvious degree).

    Comment by DavidF — July 11, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

  26. David: male leaders might not teach modesty to men because they don’t think of men in sexualizing terms

    This is still silly. Boys and young men have lots of women who teach them too. They have mothers, church teachers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, etc. There are lots of reasons that there isn’t a big worry about boys dressing “trashy” or “too sexy” or “slutty” whatever term you prefer. Mostly, because of what I mentioned in #20. That is, human males are designed to seek females who are willing to give a green light to sex. Human females already know that men are designed with a permanent green light and only willpower and training bridles that instinct.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 11, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

  27. David: As for the connection between modesty and chastity … I think it is very much overstated.

    You might not be surprised that I think it is vastly understated. Without chastity concerns I don’t see why the church would care about modesty at all. Nudism could be the trend and no one would care. (See the Eden story).

    Comment by Geoff J — July 11, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

  28. Geoff J,

    Okay, we might have slightly different ideas of modesty in mind. Not all immodesty comes down to intentionally dressing provocatively. Are leggings meant to be provocative? Tank tops? What about skirts that show the knees? What happens when a girl raises her arms above her head and shows some skin? Modesty rhetoric doesn’t discriminate between these slight infractions from clearly provocative dress. Anything remotely revealing gets treated as signs of a sexually active, or unfaithful woman.

    You and I are wise enough to know that there’s a difference, but if you look at the messages speakers and magazine authors are sending, they don’t make this distinction. Everything gets lumped together. And probably with good reason. The moment you say x is bad but isn’t nearly as bad as y, people are much more likely to wear x then if you say x and y are both really bad. But doesn’t that seem like a problem?

    Comment by DavidF — July 11, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

  29. My #28 was in reply to #24 by the way. Just to clear up any confusion.

    Comment by DavidF — July 11, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

  30. David (#28),

    The minutia of modesty rules is like the minutia of Sabbath observance rules — it varies from family to family and from region to region. In both cases people and families have to decide on the details for themselves.

    But the church’s overall counsel for women to dress at least somewhat more modestly than the mainstream is wisdom because it supports the law of chastity by helping send the proper non-verbal communication.

    I’m not saying that individual church members don’t say stupid things regarding modesty regularly. I am just saying this modesty thing in the church isn’t as broken as lots of people imply.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 11, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

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