Speaking at a Women’s Conference event, Sister Claudia J. Dansie said:
Part of our responsibility as parents is to guide, direct, and warn if necessary…. Some topics must be covered as directly as their consequences are lethal—subjects such as modesty, drugs, pornography, and immorality.
Lethal? Assumedly, Dansie meant spiritually lethal. A woman’s bare shoulders expose herself to consequences with eternal implications. Does modesty really merit this language?
Elaine S. Dalton expressed a similarly solemn message calling modesty “the foundation stone of chastity,” explaining “it is essential to our very safety to be modest.” Adding to Dansie’s and Dalton’s severe warnings, BYU president Cecil Samuelson explained that dressing immodesty may be as perilous as breaking the Word of Wisdom:
Most of you have no problems concerning the Word of Wisdom….What we may not realize is…that what we put on our bodies may be as equally corrosive and dangerous as what we might ingest into our bodies. (emphasis in original)
It’s hard to imagine that a woman’s uncovered knees could be as dangerous as her drinking alcohol, especially since the latter has temple-worthiness implications. But because feminine modesty so closely connects to chastity, modesty rhetoric has adopted grave themes.
Despite these’ themes modern frequency, such severe language on feminine modesty can’t be found in the scriptures. In fact, the scriptures don’t connect modesty to sexual purity at all. When the scriptures refer to women’s dress, they condemn women wearing ostentatious apparel (see 1 Timothy 2:9), much like Brigham Young did when he discussed modesty. Modern speakers often connect modesty to chastity using Genesis 3:7-11, 21 when, after Adam and Eve saw they were naked, God made them skin coats. While a surface reading may suggest that God’s first act for the fallen Adam and Eve was to dress them in something modest, this interpretation has problems. Was God worried that Adam would get impure thoughts seeing a naked Eve? Was modesty God’s first concern after Adam and Eve sinned? The Genesis 3 story has multiple other interpretations, none of which have to twist in some awkward directions to give feasible answers to these questions. For example, one commentator suggested that nakedness symbolized Adam and Eve’s sin, and God rejected their attempts to fix their sins on their own. Only God can cover our sins. Not only does this interpretation comfortably include all the components to the story (i.e. why would God make Adam and Eve skin coats when the fig leaf covering, while flimsy, already made them modest?), but also it fits with the thematic symbolism of the Fall. Other interpretations, of varying quality, also avoid the awkward questions raised by the modesty reading.
Although feminine modesty lacks a scriptural basis, studies link immodest, provocative dress to negative mental and social benefits. An APA report showed that girls who dress immodestly could be victims of self-sexualizing, a result of internalizing sexualizing media. Studies connect self-sexualization to an increased likelihood of eating disorders, low-self esteem, depression, smoking, and accepting teen date violence among girls. Self-sexualizing women have higher incidents of plastic surgery (a sign of a low body-image), and a harder time advancing in careers. In terms of sexuality, teen girls who self-sexualize have less sexual assertiveness, meaning they are less likely to say no to sexual encounters, including ones they don’t want.
Importantly, self-sexualization goes beyond fabric dimensions. Even a few church speakers have noted this, pointing out, for example, that a girl can dress modestly but still be sexually provocative. Utah-based modest clothing stores, such as American Fork’s Sexy Modest Boutique may be symptomatic of a culture that has sexualized modesty. The same goes for phrases like “modest is hottest”. As I discussed last time, feminine modesty incorporates an acceptance of judging women’s sexual attitudes by their clothing. If modesty rhetoric doesn’t sexualize women, it still objectifies them by equating appearance to sexual attitude. Utah’s high rate of female depression and plastic surgery may suggest that the heavy emphasis on modest dress doesn’t block the side effects of self-sexualization.
Even if feminine modesty corrects for some of the negative aspects of self-sexualization, we should consider the negative costs that we can more easily verify.
Church resources, especially the New Era, praise instances where young men shun immodestly dressed young women. It’s easy to see how these stories get treated so positively. Youth learn from modesty rhetoric that immodest dress leads to immoral sex. They learn from other sources to choose friends who uphold their standards. We then get stories idealizing comments such as this:
One comment from a priest spelled out what most of the young men seemed to feel. He said, “There’s a line between suggestive and attractive. A lot of young women try to play the line, not just in their clothes, but in their makeup and attitude, too. It’s unattractive when they look suggestive and act stuck up.”
Tragically, what this young man misses is that these girls immodest dress, makeup, and stuck up attitude are probably linked, bridged by low self-esteem issues that positive peer influences could change. But young men get highlighted for taking a different attitude:
“I don’t respect girls who dress immodestly.” Another said, “I don’t care about girls who dress like that [in revealing clothes].”
These attitudes don’t end with the teenage years. In a Mormon Channel podcast featuring a youth panel on modesty, one young woman described her older brother as a college freshman who went on a four couples date (go to about minute seven). The young women dressed immodestly for the date. After a while, the four young men decided to leave the date. Because the girls were confused by their decision, the young men explained that they weren’t comfortable being around them dressed as they were. By passively allowing, and in some ways encouraging, young men to shun young women for their clothing choices, we ought to consider if we aren’t reinforcing un-Christlike patterns in priesthood holders’ behaviors? Applying feminine modesty might not only cause women harm; it could be stunting the spiritual development of men.
Of course, the problems associated with judging a girl by her dress and praising men who shun immodest girls go away if all women would just dress modestly. But how could we ever justify the message, “dress modestly so that Mormon men won’t assume you’re sexually active and shun you as a bad influence”? Modesty speakers may not intend to send this message, but the repeated themes that guide modesty rhetoric make this message perfectly feasible.
In these last two posts I’ve summarized some of the aspects of feminine modesty that are at best undesirable and at worst contribute to objectifying women. As I pointed out, feminine modesty doesn’t come from the scriptures, which begs the question, where does it come from? In the next post, I’ll give a very brief history describing the origins of feminine modesty in western civilization. This will provide the proper context to rethink what we mean by the word modesty. There should be a few surprises for everyone.
 Another commentator suggests that Adam and Eve were originally coated with light, and seeing their nakedness indicated to them that they had fallen. So God gave them a material covering to match their new state. Other commentators believed that the animal coats symbolized flesh, which came with being mortal. Finally, medievalists, following the Greek philosophers, saw clothing as a symbol indicating that mankind is different from savage beasts. God clothed Adam and Eve to set them apart from the other animals (with shame I admit I don’t have the reference I got this idea from).
 There are other explanations for both of these statistics. For example, the high plastic surgery ratio may be partially because Utah offers cheaper services than other states, and is therefore an ideal travel location for cosmetic surgery. Depression could be an effect of a culture that expects perfection among Latter-day Saint women.