At the age of two, my daughter Axa could point out an immodest outfit in a shop window. At five, she added sleeves to the dress on the princess picture her babysitter had drawn for her. Although I don’t recall making any special effort to teach her about modesty, I was surprised and gratified that she understood the concept at such a young age.
However, lately I’ve been having disquieted feelings when she brings up modesty, as I realize that something in the nuance of what I’ve taught has gone awry. And then just a few weeks ago, something happened that disturbed me.
Axa (who’s now seven) was reading the Book of Mormon out loud to me. She hadn’t interjected a word until we came to this passage (from the Testimony of Joseph Smith, describing the appearance of the angel Moroni):
He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant. His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the wrists; so, also, were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom.
My daughter looked up from her reading, raised an eyebrow, and said, “that’s not modest.”
I was taken aback. She didn’t notice the glory and mystery and wonder of an angelic visitation, or the awe that Moroni’s brilliant appearance must have evoked in a young boy. Her one reaction to the prophetic testimony of a miraculous event was that the messenger of God was dressed “immodestly.”
Now it’s possible that her attention was merely arrested by the unusual description, or the liberal use of the word “naked.” But the incident got me thinking, and upon further reflection I realize that I have, in some sense, failed my daughter. There are at least three crucial points that I (and her Primary teachers) have missed when we taught her about modesty:
1. Modesty is relative.
As someone who has committed embarrassing faux pas in more countries than I would care to admit, I am abundantly aware of the relativity of modesty to situation and culture.
For example, I was walking home from church along a street in Hammamet, Tunisia one Sunday, dressed as a paragon of Mormon modesty in a mid-calf-length skirt and elbow-length sleeved top, neither of them tight or in any other way revealing. Being a Sunday afternoon, the sidewalk cafés lining the street were full of people, and being Tunisia, all those people were young men (women have their own private cafés, which are too hidden-away to find unless you have inside connections). Although I was assiduously avoiding eye contact with anyone, I had the disconcerting impression (and my husband confirmed it afterward) that I was the focal point of an entire street full of leering men. It was obvious that only the presence of said husband kept my unwelcome audience silent in their seats, limiting their reaction to what a female friend who’d also visited Tunisia described as “violent eyes.” Had I been waltzing down the street wearing skanky lingerie, I don’t think I could possibly have attracted more unwanted male attention.
Why? Because the modesty standard to which I was conforming was different from the modesty standard in Tunisia, where floor-length skirts, figure-obscuring tunics, and covered hair tend to be the order of the day for “respectable” women. Was I dressed immodestly? Well, no. And yes.
In Italy, we tended to commit dress code violations of a different sort. People there are expected to expend considerable effort on their appearance, partially as a demonstration of respect and consideration for everyone else who has to look at them. Wearing baggy or excessively casual clothing, even to the grocery store, is considered rude, inconsiderate, and brutta figura (bad form), much in the same way that my HOA here thinks I’m ill-mannered if I neglect to cut my lawn.
I particularly noticed at church in our Italian branch that the men’s suits were much more form-fitting than I was used to members wearing back home. I was amused when we came back to the United States and my mother-in-law expressed her discomfort with the cut of my husband’s pants. I’ll be clear that his pants weren’t anywhere near skin-tight. In fact, they were looser than most American (even Mormon) women wear their pants. I thought he looked perfectly appropriate. Not to mention pretty darn hot. But his mother was scandalized. Was my husband dressed immodestly? Well, no. And yes.
Modesty is relative not only to place, but also to time. This was lost on the Mormon blogger who infamously posted a few weeks ago that the particulars of “the Lord’s standard for modesty” have been exactly the same since the beginning of time. Apparently oblivious to the irony, she proceeded to back up her assertion by posting a standard 20th century LDS portrayal of Adam and Eve, in which they are (predictably) dressed in coats of skins that carefully cover their shoulders and go exactly down to their knees.
I’m sure few of us would go so far as to presume to know the exact cut of Adam and Eve’s clothing. However, as we take care in our modesty lessons to emphasize minute particulars of length and coverage, we would do well to remember that by the standards of Joseph Smith’s day, our General Relief Society Presidency came to April General Conference in 2012 quite shockingly clad. Not to mention the troubling fact that the standards in heaven may also differ, as so ably pointed out by my seven-year-old.
I mention all this only to illustrate that our standards of modest dress are largely dependent on our culture and time. A bare knee or shoulder is no more inherently provocative or immodest than a bare ankle or a bare face, although all of those bare body parts have been (and are) considered immodest in certain times and places. While modesty (especially in its more comprehensive sense as an antonym to pridefulness) may constitute an eternal gospel principle, knee-length shorts and cap sleeves do not.
Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed that even as “worldly” standards become looser, some elements within the church (and other conservative Christian churches) are promoting an increasingly restrictive standard of dress, especially for young children. When I went to girl’s camp twenty years ago, the rule was that our shorts had to go down at least to our fingertips when our hands were at our sides. On my leg, that’s about six inches above the top of the knee. My children (ages five and seven) were taught a few weeks ago in junior Primary that their shorts and dresses are immodest unless they go all the way down to their knees.
I fear that our increasing rigidity and specificity with regard to modest dress is converting it into a Pharisaical measuring stick, rather than an introspective desire to dress in a way that shows respect for God, our own bodies, and the cultural norms of the society in which we live.
2. Modesty is about you, not them.
Even worse, we are sometimes guilty of using that Pharisaical measuring stick on other people. Something that commonly crops up in lessons for our young women is that they need to dress modestly to keep the young men from having bad thoughts. Among the many unsavory consequences of this rhetoric is the phenomenon of the so-called “Mormon Modesty Police”; overzealous young men who take it upon themselves to tell young women that their clothing is causing men to have bad thoughts. I find this offensive on too many levels to count (not to mention creepily Taliban-ish), but I’ll give you the brief beginnings of a list.
Firstly, as I have learned when traveling in predominantly Muslim countries, the more women cover up, the more men tend to find any exposed area titillating. Where burqas and chadors are the norm, men find eyes and toenails just as alluring as Victorian men found ankles, or certain men at BYU find leggings, skinny jeans, or book-bag straps. Mandating more stringent dress codes for women is not and will never be a solution to male lust. Secondly, what this kind of thinking teaches men is that they are at the mercy of their own thoughts and other people’s bodies. Thirdly, it objectifies women. Fourthly, it is just plain wrong to be judging and preaching to other people in that way. And so on.
I hope (and pray!) that none of the reasoning about dressing modestly so we don’t give other people bad thoughts is making it into any of these Primary lessons. No innocent little girl should be exposed to the idea that other people might be looking at her body sexually. To say nothing of the horrifying damage it does to children who are victims of abuse to be taught at an early age that dressing in certain ways might somehow invite or encourage unwanted advances from adults.
Our double-edged standards for modesty can be used as an excuse to judge people in all sorts of other ways too. After all, it’s difficult to tell from the outside whether someone is paying tithing, drinking coffee at home, or being honest. Any infraction of the dress code, on the other hand, is open to instant and exacting analysis. Modes of dress can unfortunately become an easy way for members to speculate on and categorize the goodness or faithfulness of others.
I was substituting as the Primary pianist a month ago, and so was privy to a Sharing Time on modesty in which my children participated. After going through the particulars of which body parts ought to be covered, the teacher decided to expand into how we should judge people who dress differently from us. She told a story of taking her young granddaughter to the fabric store. Present at the store was a group of young people dressed inappropriately. After coming home, the little girl told her grandmother that she had made some new friends. The grandmother related to the Primary children how disappointed she had been that her granddaughter would choose to associate with people dressed in that way.
Then, she singled out a girl on the back row, and asked her what she would do if the friend sitting next to her came to church the next week dressed inappropriately. Following the obvious lead of her teacher, the girl announced confidently, “I wouldn’t even speak to her!”
Needless to say, my children received a second lesson from me on the way home, about the importance of not judging people, and being kind to them regardless of their physical appearance. I wonder sometimes how much the emphasis on our standards of dress has to do with the natural desire of any group to define its borders, distinguish itself, and find a means to decide whom to include and exclude.
Most people are sensitive on some level about how they look. When we make insensitive or judgmental comments about other people’s appearance, we risk hurting them, driving them away from the church, and making them feel that they are not “good enough” for us. Certainly, judging or shunning anyone because of what they wear is unworthy of us, and anyone who claims to follow Jesus Christ.
3. Modesty is not everything.
A final concern I have is the very frequency with which modest dress is mentioned and emphasized at church, even to young children like mine. Apparently, modest dress is now right up there with (and sometimes more talked about than) faith, hope, and charity. A few Sundays ago in my ward, a young woman was asked to give a talk in Sacrament Meeting based on the following Young Women Value: “Good Works–I will help others and build the kingdom through righteous service.” She opened her talk by saying that to her, the real meaning of good works is to dress modestly and be worthy to go to the temple. It is wonderful that she recognizes the importance of the temple and modest dress. But aren’t we missing something when a young woman’s first thought about good works is to twist it around into yet another injunction towards modest dress?
Going back to the beginning of all this, I can’t help but think that when all my daughter sees in the Angel Moroni is immodesty, something is wrong.
My hope, then, is that we can step back and take a good look at the messages we are sending our children by the way we choose to teach them about modesty. Are we discussing modesty in age-appropriate ways? Do we focus too much on rules and too little on principles? Do we sometimes send them the message that their outward appearance is the most important measure of their faithfulness? Are we inadvertently teaching them to judge other people? Are we (shudder) raising the next generation of BYU Modesty Police? What can we change individually or as a church to elevate our discourse about modesty?