Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I recently shopped for and purchased a new swim suit, which of course has me thinking about modesty. Nearly any swim suit you buy is going to have some areas that you wish were a little more covering, which has also made me think about why. Why do we view the body the way we do? What makes something modest or not? Why do we care? And finally, why do most "rules" associated with modesty apply only to females?

I was reading And They Were Not Ashamed by Laura Brotherson, and she talked about how we teach young women to be modest, and too often it comes across as "be modest so you don't tempt the boys". This has a couple of problems, first it tells the girls that boys are animals and are not capable of controlling themselves. Second, it teaches boys that they are animals and are not capable of controlling themselves.

Young men need to be taught that they are responsible for controlling their hormones no matter how girls around them are dressed, they also need to be taught what true beauty is, instead of society's idea of beauty. Young women need to be taught that dressing modestly means we show respect for ourselves by dressing in a way that shows we understand that our bodies are beautiful gifts given to us from loving heavenly parents.

Back to my original questions...

Why do we view the body the way we do? I think far too often, we've been conditioned to be ashamed or embarrassed by our bodies. Especially if they don't measure up to whatever made up level of perfection we see on TV or in magazines.

What makes something modest? When I was little, I remember my mom had the rule that shorts or skirts couldn't be more than three fingers above the knee. In high school, shorts had to be longer than our fingers when our arms were at our sides. I always viewed strappy tank tops as immodest, but not sleeveless shirts. I think the definitions of modesty change somewhat, obviously over the last 100 years there have been major changes in what is viewed as modest, even today, different cultures have very different standards of modesty. I think modesty is a personal thing. There may be, in each cultural group, things that are universally considered modest or immodest, which brings me to the next question, why do we care? We care because I think culturally, we've turned the most obvious things like modesty, or word of wisdom things into a litmus test for righteousness. I don't believe that most people are purposely going around judging each other, but on some level we all do it. Whether we're like my 5-year-old who likes to point out when he sees people not wearing motorcycle helmets ("they're not very safe mom!") because that's how we reinforce "rules" in our minds, or comparing how low cut your neighbor's swim suit is to make you feel better about your own, we all judge others. Should we? No. Are we going to stop anytime soon? Probably not.

Finally, why are nearly all modesty rules for females only? I've never heard anyone talk about a man's shirt being too tight, or low cut, or his shorts too short (although I've seen men's shorts that were too short). Are we conditioning boys to be more visually stimulated than girls, or is it prewired?


David said...

I think that males being more visually stimulated is pre-wired, but that does not mean that we should not be teaching boys to be modest in their dress as well. After all, it was not just female bodies that were created as "gifts given to us from loving heavenly parents."

Boys need to demonstrate as much respect for the physical body they have been given as girls do.

Alice said...

That's right David, but for some reason boys aren't told by society that they need to wear revealing clothing. It just doesn't seem to be as much of an issue for boys.

adamf said...

I don't know if it's prewired, but it does seem to be the case.

I do think that what is considered "modest" depends heavily on the culture and the time. It's kind of weird to put it this way, but often it seems what is modest for an LDS person is often "a bit more covered than the average person."

The line or standard has to be drawn somewhere though, at least for each person individually. It does seem to be near-impossible to avoid comparing ourselves to others, if only to judge if we are fitting in with the culture and the situation. In some cases I guess making that judgment is important, just not to the extent that we look down on the other person.

Charlotte said...

Very interesting post, Alice! It brought up a lot of conflicting feelings for me. First, I love "And they were not ashamed"! Second, you are so right about the "cultural litmus test" of using modesty or WOW to judge others' righteousness. However, I would like to point out that this is mainly a Utah thing. (And maybe an AZ/ID/WY thing too) Having lived outside of Utah now for longer than I lived in it, I can say that that kind of pressure is only that intense in that particular environment. It's been very freeing for me to be out of that. And the funny thing is that when I lived in Utah, I tended to rebel against some of the more visible LDS norms (although I stopped just short of breaking a commandment) but without people judging me in that way, I have discovered that the standards are something that I enjoy following, not something to rebel against. I don't know if that makes any sense. I could write 10 pages on this subject but it's a major factor why we have chosen to raise our kids outside of Utah. Not that I don't like Utah or the Mormon Culture (a distinct entity from the LDS religion btw) - I DO - it's just harder for me to live there and be a good person. Have I totally stuck my foot in my mouth now? Probably.

To answer your question: I do think boys and girls are wired differently sexually. And I do think you are right in that our society places conflicting expectations on our children. But while there are rules - like modesty - that seem to be applied more to the girls than the boys, there are also rules - like masturbation - that seem to be applied almost exclusively to boys even though many many girls engage in that activity.

Charlotte said...

And um, you can feel free to not publish that last comment or delete it at will.

Kaspar said...

I love this post! I agree with what Charlotte said about living outside of Utah. I have always found it interesting when people bare their testimony and say that they've traveled somewhere outside of Utah to find that the church is the same no matter where you go. I agree, but the people are different. Their views on modesty and pressures of being perfect are different.
I always had such a hard time as a young woman understanding why I am to blame for guys who can't control their thoughts if I were to dress "imodestly". I haven't read that book you mentioned, but I'm going to. I think my view of men is distorted into really looking at them as animals.

Anyway, I love this post. It's something that I have thought about for years. Well said!

Alice said...

Charlotte- you're right, it does seem to be a "jello belt" phenomenon. If it weren't for family, (and a great job) we'd look into moving elsewhere as well. I think there are a lot of good things about growing up in Utah, but there are also some unique challenges.

I've never felt the need to rebel against religious values, but some of the cultural things in Utah bother me- and I know it's not everywhere but a lot of the time it feels like there is such a push for perfection- whether it's our home decor or pedicures, there's a pressure for things to "look" a certain way. (take acrylic toenails for example- they're cute, and I don't mean to badmouth anyone who has them, but really, why do my toenails have to be perfectly manicured?!)

I HAVE felt the need to rebel about other things though, and admit that one of my thoughts about my new swimsuit is that it's probably lower cut than someone might approve of. (I have no cleavage so I figure it doesn't matter too much)

And Thank you Charlotte for pointing out that there is at least one area where we have more rules that are focused on boys. I rarely read or hear anything mentioning female masturbation. (and did you think the word masturbation would keep me from publishing a comment? I'm only bashful in real life, online I'm not so easily embarrassed.) :)

Shantell- I have the book if you want to borrow it. I think it's a must read for all young couples. I think it might be my new bridal shower gift. My Mister had a long drive for work, and I got it on CD from the library so he could listen while he drove. He said he learned a lot about how my brain works. :)

Emily said...

This could also be a discussion about peer pressure, young and old.

Not long ago, I remember talking with my parents about this and they related that modesty isn't just covering up, it's about not going to extremes. For boys that means ear piercings, beards, long hair, etc. For everyone that means extreme styles that shout at you and demand your attention. LOOK AT ME! If something is modest it does the job - not too much, not too little. Modesty's not about looking for attention or vanity. It's about being humble and not egotistical.

It's hard as women because we think we're being judged for everything we wear or do. From our toenails to our earlobes. And it's hard here in Utah because you feel you have to maintain something without being preachy, because everyone seems to know it. And you want to be stylish and not look like a pioneer or 80's housewife, so where's the balance? Yet you see LDS girls in strapless things because, as I heard one girl say, "It's so fun to wear!" Wayne and I laugh about it still.

Living out of state though, I still saw Mormon women (not all of them, though) falling into the same pattern we see in Utah: I have to join this group and learn to scrapbook and read excellent literature and cook and provide hundreds of opportunities for my kids to become talented and sew and put vinyl lettering in every room and wear that cute dress you got from your cousin in Utah who sells modest clothing and buy that jewelry and get my hair and nails done and look like you...One Sunday after someone had one of those "parties" I saw no less than 10 women wearing the same style of dress, in differing colors. All in the name of modesty and fashion. And for the most part it was o.k. because your neighbor wasn't LDS so you were probably alright in doing those things because the closest person who dressed and acted that way was at least 1/2 a mile away.

So I'm getting long winded here, but I think as women no matter what we religion we feel pressure to do what is best. And sometimes somebody else's life looks good, so I'll do what they do. Or we want to prove that we can be good parents too by doing it all.

But I think no matter where you live you have to stand up for what is right. And there are places where certain things are harder than others. You just have to go with fits you and your family is right for them.

adamf said...

Now that we're on the topic, lol, I have to add two thoughts on masturbation: 1-I haven't heard anything in church about it in the last 10 years, and it is not mentioned in the church handbook of instructions. 2-I don't want any church leader asking my son or teaching him anything about it. about it--I will teach him myself, thankyouverymuch.

I have enjoyed the other comments on modesty as well.

Charlotte said...

Adamf - Masturbation has def. been mentioned to the boys in our ward at least twice within the last 6 months. Not having a handbook of instructions, I can't speak to that but it IS in For the Strength of Youth manual that we, as youth leaders, are encouraged to teach from. Also, they do mention it (albeit not by name) in the YMs manual.

adamf said...

In the most recent "For The Strength of Youth" manual, it says "Do not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another person’s body, with or without clothing. Do not allow anyone to do that with you. Do not arouse
those emotions in your own body."

I don't know about you, but that last line is somewhat ambiguous, and could include a LOT more than just what most people would consider masturbation - as far as I can tell, this is the only related reference - it is NOT mentioned specifically "by name."

Parents need to be teaching this stuff, not local church leaders. I am fine with stuff from the FP given to parents, for example, but I think local leaders should stay out of the specifics of sexual behavior with kids, unless those leaders are trained or able to handle such important yet difficult topics. Growing up it often seemed to me that leaders would just read off a list of all the "sins next to murder" but no one (especially the kids) were brave enough to talk more about it. Who would be? Anyway, I generally don't think it's a good idea to be discussing this stuff the way we seem to be doing.

Perhaps I haven't heard anything recently because I'm not a YM. ;) Really though, I think we should be focusing more on the proces of compulsive behaviors in general, and less on specific things that are going to pile on the shame, secrecy, and guilt.

Charlotte said...

Adamf- I'm not trying to be disrespectful in discussing these things. If the point that you are trying to make is that you, as a parent, should be the first and primary person to discuss these things with your children then I absolutely agree with you. However, I do think it falls within the spiritual purview of priesthood leaders and class advisors to teach these things within the guidelines given us by the church (i.e. manuals, conference talks etc.) Sadly many kids do not have parents as comfortable or as proactive as you and aren't getting these lessons at home. And for those kids who are getting taught at home, I don't think it does them any harm to have the lessons reinforced in a church setting.

I wonder if I'm missing your point in all this though as you seem to be upset about it? It was never my intent to provoke anyone and I apologize if you have felt attacked.

adamf said...

No no, no attack was felt. :) I should include more of my usual smileys.

MOST of the church stuff, imo, is to make up for what is lacking at home. We wouldn't need so much of it if our families were all functioning well. That is obviously not the case, however.

I just disagree that leaders, holding the priesthood or otherwise, should be talking about a lot of this stuff with the youth, unless they have some sort of other training or capabilities, i.e. bring in an LDS therapist under the direction of the bishop or something to talk about it, not regular members who probably have their own issues already.

Example, I was 15 when I first learned the word "masturbation." I understood chastity before then, but then a leader in a class read off a list of all the things we had to talk to the bishop about (including "simulated sex" which I had NO idea what it was, until I saw it mentioned in a movie content review - I wondered if I had done it just by thinking about sex). I think he was uncomfortable, because he just read the list and told everyone to come talk to him if they had done any of it. There was no further discussion about any of it. Needless to say, I (and I suspect many others) was very uncomfortable, and I don't think I could comfortably even say the word "masturbation" until I was in grad school. This would lead me to thinking that we should talk MORE openly, but at the same time those open discussions would HAVE to be facilitated by some VERY competent and trusted.

You have not provoked me, :) but the church's current practice around this topic needs a lot of work, imho, and I'm tempted to teach my son, should he be asked about sexual issues in an interview, to politely decline and say it's none of his business.

adamf said...

That is, outside of the standard question, "Do you keep the law of chastity." I'm also okay with leaders talking about pornography, although something needs to be improved there too because the secrecy and shame is still so powerful in LDS culture that the problems are only made worse.

George said...

Two observations:
1. The other day I subbed for a friend on the Thursday 3rd shift at the Bountiful Temple. The parking lot was full as there was a lot of activity that day. I walked to the door from across the parking area wondering how I could get through a gathering of friends and family who had recently emmerged from a temple sealing. I saw the freshly minted married for eternity couple and the bride's wedding dress had no sleeves. Shamlessly she had bare shoulders and was having her wedding photos taken in front of the temple. How could this be? Where were the security people to prevent this from happening?
2. Boys (men) make the rules.

Alice said...

Adam- don't you think masturbation would fall under the "do not arouse these emotions in your own body?"

I think it's certainly a grey area, and we do ourselves a disservice to view much of anything as black and white, or treat subjects as taboo.

I agree the shame and secrecy associated with some issues such as pornography makes them much more powerful problems then they would be if we were able to talk about them openly.

I'm hoping that by teaching my children the proper names for their body parts, and talking openly, that they won't associate shame with their bodies, and maybe a new generation will grow up fewer problems then our generation.

George said...

The Centers for Disease Control in a just recently released report said from 2004 to 2006 100,000 females in America aged 10 to 24 visited a hospital emergency room for nonfatal sexual assault, including 30,000 girls from ages 10-14. I recall visiting with the director of LDS Family Services in Farmington who told me one in three LDS girls or women have suffered from physical or sexual abuse. That is alarming statistic and I would not have believed it. I don't think the problem is one of modesty on the part of our women. I believe it is a problem with with men not respecting the opposite sex. I was called once to the ER at Lakeview because of a date rape of a young woman in the ward. I wanted retribution upon the young man but I was overwhelmed with sadness for what this girl had gone through and was feeling. The young woman's father owns several guns and I think he actually tried to find the boy. Glad he did not.

George said...

Thinking more about what is modest and what isn't I refer back to the earlier comment about the bride at the temple on Thursday PM. To answer what is modest maybe we frame it in the context of instructions, promises, and covenants, associated with that portion of the endowment ceremony, early on, where we are told if we do certain things then we have a promise of safety in so many words. If we do not keep the covenants we make and immodestly dress or dress less than instructed and shown in the tempe, then can I ask the question --Have we compromised something incredibly important?

Perhaps then, what is modest and not, is delineated by what we are shown and instructed in the temple.

A few years back a numnber of my peers were fond of wearing shorts to play golf and other activities. Two were bishops and one in the stake presidency. A letter came from the First Presidency counseling about modest dress including the boys this time. It was made clear that shorts must be long enough to cover the garment and that it must not show or be visible. All of my buddies gave their shorts to DI. What a sacrifice! Gave your shorts to DI...

Just a couple rambling further thoughts on the subject of modesty for you Alice. For me, I guess i am comfortable with a temple standard. I believe that standard was not made up by the boys and we are benefited by adhering to it as best we can.

Alice said...

I've never had issues with modest dress as far as every day clothing goes. A benefit of the high numbers of LDS folk in Utah, is I think, a market demand for modest clothing, and there are many businesses dedicated to modest clothing.

Swimwear on the other hand is trickier. For girls camp, the YW are instructed to wear one piece swim suits, which really got me wondering, since the only once piece suit I own isn't modest, in my opinion, yet to follow the rule, I wouldn't wear my tankini. Those are the kinds of things I wonder about.

I was reading a talk from someone in the RS general presidency, or board, maybe- who spoke about modesty, and how like I said before, the way we dress and act show our respect and reverence for the bodies we have been given. The world tells us that we have to be sexy, and turns sex into something vulgar, the gospel teaches us the be modest and respectful and that sex is a sacred ordinance (but that's a whole different post topic).

I'm all for modesty and respectfulness, we just need to make sure that we aren't using whatever guidelines as a basis for judging others.

Charlotte said...

I have to agree with you Alice about the tankini/one-piece issue. I've found that I can get a LOT more coverage out of a tankini than I can a one-piece. I currently own two tankinis that I wear for swimming in public and one one-piece that is just for church. The latter I am not very comfortable in as it is too low-cut in the front and too high-cut on the legs. (And it's a Speedo brand so it's not like I'm rocking the Parish Hilton one-piece). I have to wear shorts over it to feel comfortable. Many of my YW have the same issues. When you are one size on top and a different size on bottom, a two-piece can be a lot more modest than a one...

adamf said...

"Adam- don't you think masturbation would fall under the "do not arouse these emotions in your own body?""

Yes, that makes sense, but I thought the purpose of the ambiguity (and the old FTSOY was NOT ambiguous AT ALL--it had a list of specific things) was to leave it up for individuals to decide. We are getting more now to the "not commanded in all things" e.g. like King Benjamin said.

Back to modesty, I'm not sure I agree regarding it being SO related to the temple. I think the main point of the temple garments is the symbolism, the putting on the flesh of Christ (as he is the veil, as it says in Hebrew), and the covenants. The standard of modesty the the garments somewhat enforce is just a byproduct of wearing them, in my opinion. I also think they are subject to change in the future. Really, the only change that I would care about right now is for the women's tops. Men can use them as an undershirt part of their overall look, while women cannot because of the lace (which has NOTHING to do with the covenants) and the style. If they made something out of a material like a cami I think that would be nice for the women folk, and a LOT more "equal". Keep in mind, I didn't even say to make them less modest. ;)

adamf said...

And I DO NOT get this business about one-piece swimsuits. If they had to wear shorts over them, I would agree, but otherwise it just seems strange, and if I'm ever a bishop that rule is going in the tank, or else they will be wearing shorts over them. I suppose they are afraid of tankinis because GOSH someone might show an inch of their back? Really? I don't buy this cr*p that men's backs (well, men who don't have a lot of hair there, lol!) are less revealing or less modest than a woman's. Same goes for a stomach. Then again, perhaps most men's stomachs are chubbier, and therefore less tempting, lol!

I am passionate about this issue. :D

wordsfromhome said...

With regard to one piece swim suits,
This year our instructions from the stake for the girls was that it did not matter if the suit was one piece or two pieces, as long as it was modest. And the instructions of modesty were, " if you think that your leaders might label your suit immodest, it probably is, so bring a tee shirt to cover it if you have any doubts. Then when you get to camp, if you do not have a tee shirt and we think your suit is not sufficiently modest, we will give you one of our special white tees to wear over it." And the stake leaders all came out wearing these gread giant sack tee shirts.
Point was made for the girls- consider it, do not fret over it- and everthing will be fine.

Alice said...

Words- that is the way it should be. Give a general guideline, and let the girls and their parents figure out the specifics that they feel good about. (and make it fun)

adamf said...

Good for your SP. I am glad there is some humor and flexibility involved in all this.