What’s Wrong With the Modesty Message?

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When you’re raised in Mormon culture, you hear a lot of messages about modesty. Modest is hottest!! Just say no to porn shoulders!! This subject has been ruminating on my mind quite a bit and more especially lately because it was brought up in the marriage group I participate in. There are some issues that break on faith lines, but I don’t think this is one of them. I think women tend to be more bothered by this regardless of their level of orthodoxy, but that is most likely merely because they are more aware of it. My own opinions about how modesty is promoted in religious contexts have evolved a lot since I was a teen myself and as my own daughters have grown toward the autonomy of adulthood. So, what IS wrong with the modesty message?

  1. Shouldn’t it be their body, their choice? Although this hasn’t been something that’s been a part of my parenting for the duration, it has evolved over time to become a message that even my youngest children are very familiar with now. Simply put, I don’t own my children. I teach them my values and dialogue with them about pros and cons of potential choices. But, at the end of the day, it IS their body, and it IS their choice. (Seriously, if people ask their name and they don’t want to share it, I don’t. If you try to coerce them to hug you, Mama Bear comes right out.) The modesty message reinforces the idea that body choices don’t belong to the individual, and that’s a problem for me. My kids don’t need to think about who might be looking at and assessing them whether it be me, my husband or their church leaders, friends or neighbors. You can’t be comfortable in your own skin if you’re not sure who’s in charge of it.
  2. It puts all the pressure on girls. I have sat through countless young women’s lessons about dress, decorum and standards. (And, based on what I’ve observed, the boys don’t focus on this. Statistics show that teen girls receive six times as many modesty messages as teen boys.) I’ve seen people sit in front of a classroom and hold up specific people as examples of either what to wear or what not to wear. (Seriously, ewwww.) Modesty is promoted as the idea that we are worth more than an objectified standard (which we are.) However, objectification cuts both ways. When girls hear over and over that they are better without their shoulders showing, that is pretty objectifying. I know girls that have stopped participating in church activity because they’re so tired/bored/annoyed by the one-dimensional nature of this message. In addition, the modesty message suggests that girls need to worry about what boys think, and that if they aren’t careful, they could be responsible for someone else’s poor decision. This is pretty gross to both men and women, frankly. Men are better than that and, if they’re not, the absence of a tank top is certainly not going to inspire them to be decent because it’s a much bigger problem than anyone’s clothing choices.
  3. There is no cultural context. Simply put, modesty means different things to different people in different environments. It is the cultural norm in some countries, for example, for women to be topless to promote bonding and easier access to breastfeeding for their babies. In sharp contrast, Victorian cultures found ankles to be titillating which seems downright ridiculous in our modern era. The only difference is context. I think it is pretty shortsighted to preach modesty as if this context isn’t fluid. It is. (Did you know that the 1964 BYU Homecoming queen wore a sleeveless dress? Yep. It was pretty common in that cultural context and not considered taboo at all.) Our children, both boys and girls, would be much better served to learn self-respect, responsibility and accountability than to focus on a checklist of dress standards.
  4. It interferes with the development of healthy sexuality. This is an issue that I don’t think most young women really understand because, sadly, it only begins to rear its ugly head when they are adults. The standard modesty message does not promote healthy sexuality. It promotes the idea that “good girls” stick to a narrative that is prescribed, and they are broken and used if they don’t. Except, once a girl is married, then the narrative changes. The problem is that girls can’t flip that switch overnight, and many, many religious women find themselves mired in shame, heartache and misunderstanding with their partner because they literally do not know how to be comfortable as sexual beings. This is so, so sad to me. (How I escaped this attitude myself with my background is a miracle to me.) And, again, young men don’t get this same message. The modesty message gives a wink and a nod to the idea that boys will be boys, leaving the majority of the long-term burden of this consequence to women.

I need to make it perfectly clear that this is not a treatise on what anyone should or shouldn’t wear. In fact, it is just the opposite. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who follows a strong internal compass. I just happen to think that every person should feel free to choose these priorities themselves. I don’t always approve of everything that my kids wear out my door. I hope that my children will choose to invest intimacy in a long-term, committed partnership that includes marriage because I think there’s pretty practical benefits to doing so. We talk about these things, and I give my kids my opinion. But, I am pretty dang defensive about anyone who tries to leverage cultural messages in a way that is unhealthy to them. I haven’t always recognized the modesty message as harmful, and I internalized an awful lot of it myself as a teen and young adult woman.¬† But, when you know better, you do better, and I hope to give my kids better than what I got in this department. For the rest of my readers, maybe it will, at the very least, provide a different perspective that will give you something to think about. Could we do better? Is there a healthier way? I think so.

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Marking The Year That Changed My Life

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I’ve been mulling this post over for at least a week. How do I address the year that changed everything? What can I say to even begin to do it justice? I probably won’t, but I will try. There are some things in life that are so earth-shattering, so groundbreaking, that you mark them by before the thing and after the thing. You can remember your life before them. You can even look back with fondness, but you can never, never go back to the way it was. This year was that year in my life. 2018 will forever mark that before and after.

I have been called brave for standing up to someone who took advantage of me. I have had women open up and share their own “me too” stories that they do not feel able to expose publicly. I don’t know how I feel about that honor. The truth is that I didn’t feel brave; I felt desperate. My life had become riddled with minefields that were no longer avoidable, and they were tripping in our marriage and home life every time we turned around. I needed out of the almost constant adrenaline fest of fear and insecurity. Going public was the only way I saw, and we took it.

There have been many times over this year that I have wondered if it was worth it. I vividly remember falling apart in the arms of my daughter’s future other-mother-in-law when she came to look at my girl’s foot that was hurting yet again. See, she had chronic sprains, and we were afraid that she had maybe broken it this time. Except, my life had been utter chaos for six months at that point, and things like renewing our insurance had fallen through the cracks. Which meant that I didn’t even have the resources that particular day to take my girl to the doctor. I felt like the worst mother in the world. I did take her, I did sort out the insurance, and she did get the care she needed, but I was so deeply aware in that moment how much of a price we had all paid, and I felt completely and utterly broken by that fact.

I have seven kids, and I truly hope that they either do look up to me or will come to as they become adults. But, having other people see me as representative of something bigger than myself is new, different, humbling. The truth is that my life is largely quite boring. I’m a homebody – a private person, even. I sew. I make soap. I raise my kids. I try to be a good neighbor and friend and not put my foot in my mouth too terribly often. (I don’t always succeed – ask my friends and family.) I write because it’s good therapy and people seem to think I have words worth reading.

I am not a perfect person. I yell at my kids way too often. (The other day my 5-year-old told my 7-year-old that she better do what I asked before I was “tired of this sh*t.” Yep, that happened. Oy. For the record, I don’t speak that way to young children, but I have teen boys and adults that push my buttons like you can only understand if you have them as well. :/ ) I have stolen zippers and laundry soap before (on accident) and been too frazzled to run back in and pay like a proper citizen should. I can be ridiculously self centered and me-focused. We all have a baser nature – inner selves that aren’t pretty or polished. But, I really and truly try to live by a set of values that lead me to be better. All this was true before January 2018, and it will be just as true as the calendar turns again.

Things are different for me. My relationship with religion is different – everything has shifted and adjusted. It’s quieter. There’s less expectations and more uncertainty. It’s more honest. I don’t know how it will look going forward, but I do know that it will be mine. My marriage is different. There’s less fear and insecurity. There’s more mutual respect and room for our own individual expressions.We’ve both had to face the prospect of losing our relationship and found reasons to remain and thrive.

It’s the end of this year. It’s almost officially the after the thing mark. This makes me understandably introspective. How do you process what could arguably be considered the biggest event in your life? What is the debriefing process? I don’t even know. I’ve dealt with it like I think anyone else does: you take it one day at a time and do your very best to cope and learn and grow and survive. It feels more like learning and growing as the year wraps up and less like coping and surviving. And, I guess that is the most important thing to communicate about this year – I made it THROUGH. I’m not really special – truly. My journey may be different than yours, but I would put good money on the table that you have what it takes to get through hard things, too. It may be that you haven’t walked through a year that changed your life. It may be that you have. Either way, when you find yourself faced with your own giant, take it one day at a time. Do your very best to cope and learn and grow and survive. You will. You have what it takes to fight the battles put in front of you. I promise.

 

The Gift of Identity

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Sometimes when I’m preparing my blog posts, I have a lot on my mind or have had a recent experience that I’ve really been ruminating on. Other times, however, the deadline is looming, and I’m chugging along in my daily life trying to figure out what in the heck I should write about. What is this blog about? What do I have to say? And, then it hits me, isn’t that just life? Who am I? What do I have to say? Who do I want to be? How does the world see me?

Even though I have an independent streak a mile wide, I’ve spent a good part of my life picking identities off the shelf. While it’s said the youth brings with it all possibilities, the fact is that it is tempered by the pressures to be the vision that others have for you. There is a lot of fear around making the “wrong choices” or letting people down. I think this carries quite a ways into adulthood, and most people push and pull against it well into their 20s and 30s – sometimes their entire life.

While I don’t want to draw lines on the basis of gender or anything (heaven forbid!), I tend to notice this being more of a thing for women. We give so much to our husbands, to our kids, to our communities. I am my husband’s wife. For decades, I’ve basically introduced myself to people as his wife, and people say, “Ah!” and there is a place for me in their head. This year has changed that dynamic a bit because I have a reputation of my own (for better or worse), and my husband has found himself, for the first time ever, introducing himself as, well, my husband.

I am my kids’ mom. I have spent 22 years largely focused on the health, growth and progress of the seven humans that I grew in my uterus. I homeschool them and don’t work outside our home, and most of my daily energy goes into their lives. In my headspace, though, my life does not revolve around my children. I don’t think I’ve ever said that I’m “just a mom.” Because I’m not.

When women (again, more our thing) lament aging and getting older, I kind of don’t understand it. Don’t get me wrong, I would prefer to still have the flat stomach of my 20s, but I take it pretty much as the tradeoff for the better gift of life experience. I turned 40 in 2017 and posted this on my Facebook page:

“Turning 40 last month has made me super thoughtful. This has been a year of huge changes for me. I’ve struggled in my personal space over the last five years, and this has been a year of resolution and finding peace, but not necessarily in the way I was “supposed to.” There have been really hard parts and days I just wasn’t sure it was going to work out. But, it mostly is, and I feel more comfortable and confident in my own skin every day. Mostly, I just love my life so much. I have a strong and resilient relationship and healthy and thriving kids whom I just adore. I’m embracing and feeling confident in building a career that I fully believe will eventually be a huge boon to our family. I know who I am deep down where all the layers are stripped away, and I’ve really come to love that strong, beautiful and passionate woman. Life is good!”

So, if this blog seems to go in a bunch of different directions, it’s because it’s a reflection of my real life. I don’t always know what direction I’m going. I don’t always know what it is that I want to say. I’m at a point where I feel like I can be and do and say what is actually a reflection of who I am. I AM my husband’s wife. I AM my kids’ mom. I’m also a woman, a friend, a writer, an advocate. I’m less afraid to say things as I see them. I’m more comfortable taking up space in the world. I don’t always know exactly what my identity is, but I do know that it is mine to determine. This, more than anything, has been the gift of this year.

 

 

Why Can’t You Just Forgive??

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For the first six months of this year, I ate, slept and breathed the drama that we were engaged in with my church and in my family. I don’t recall a single conversation I had with my husband at the time that didn’t involve the situation, and I thought about it all the time. Was I being fair? Were my motives pure? Was I certain that my memory was reliable? Was it even worth the turmoil it had caused to confront this trauma from my past? (I actually haven’t thought a lot about this lately until I stumbled across this blog post yesterday.)

When you are dealing with a church community, you end up in this strange dichotomy where you are surrounded by people that truly believe in a moral system that they adhere to – they genuinely care about getting it right. However, everything is wrapped in a dogma that doesn’t always have individuals’ best interests at heart, and collective priorities are often given precedence over those of people, families and even more firm moral codes. It’s bizarre, disorienting and eye-opening all at once.

Nothing more clearly illustrates this conundrum than the narrative around forgiveness. As someone who still has a Christian worldview, I think the teachings of Jesus Christ were not only admirable but downright radical when read in their cultural context. Jesus did things like care about children, give women an unprecedented voice in community and promote the interests of the less fortunate. So, please don’t misunderstand me for a complete and utter lost soul.¬† However, the church (Mormon, Christian, Catholic…this seems pretty universal in extremely organized dogmatic structures.) has really missed the boat on this idea.

I would have mucho money if I was paid for every time I was (gently, usually, and often not directly) lectured about forgiveness. Can’t you just forgive? We should all forgive! What about forgiveness? I think what becomes clear when you’re on the receiving end of a situation that asks for serious forgiveness is that forgiveness as a process is my business. It’s personal. It’s a journey that belongs to me and to every other person who has experienced trauma at the hands of another person who should have known better. It is wholly inappropriate for anyone outside this situation to offer unsolicited advice or to lecture. The hard truth is that you don’t know anything about it. For most people, this is a philosophical discussion, but ignorance is a luxury that not everyone has. Regardless of what the circumstances are, it behooves every person to move on and live productive and healthy lives. Frankly, I think I do a pretty good job at that.

Still, I’ve had to come to terms with forgiveness and what it does and doesn’t mean. I’ve heard sermons my whole life about forgiving. What I’ve come to see is that this dialogue¬† often has much more to do with the comfort of the speaker than with my own well-being. Though the words aren’t said, what I really hear is, “Forgiveness is important! You should forgive. It’s for your own good – can’t you see?? (Besides, this is making me VERY uncomfortable!)” See, forgiveness often becomes a way for other people to feel washed clean of a situation without actually having to do anything real or productive or helpful at all. When someone tells me to forgive, I’m pretty astute about discerning if it’s about my mental/spiritual health or if it’s about them. Rarely is it about me. (As an easy rule, if you have to remind someone that something is for their own good, it’s probably not.)

When we were in the middle of our fight, we found this article on dealing with sexual abuse in the church, and it became one of our best tools for advocacy and education. We sent it to dozens of people to help illustrate where we were coming from and what we felt would be appropriate. (If you’ve read my prior blogs, you’ll remember that we eventually succeeded in having my perpetrator removed from his church position.) Clearly, there is a need for this type of education because most people don’t understand this: how I feel about what happened to me on a personal level and what I feel should be done about it are two very separate issues. My emotions (hurt, unfairness, anger/revenge…) do not play into my decision making process. There is often a clear, right thing to do, and it should be done with neither guile nor bias if integrity is at all important.

I haven’t been to church since August. I would imagine people have all kinds of opinions about what this means and what’s going on in my life. (If you ask, I’ll just tell you. The Cliff’s Notes version is that I’m doing well.) Usually, high-demand religions create a dialogue around leaving or disconnecting. You’re offended. You’ve sinned or want to commit sins. You couldn’t hack it. YOU’RE the problem, somehow. It’s my fault. I can’t forgive. This doesn’t even come close to adequately describing why I’ve made this decision.

I posted this on my Facebook feed on August 12, just a few weeks before my last sacrament meeting:

I’ve forgiven a lot of people for a lot of pretty horrible things, and I continue to do so. It’s a process. However, it’s frankly none on anyone else’s business what the status of that process is. People can make a conscious choice to disengage with toxic environments and people. The idea that stepping back equates to a lack of forgiveness is complete and utter hogwash. It’s nothing more than an attempt to deflect the consequences of others’ deplorable actions onto the innocent, while gaslighting them into feeling that it’s somehow their fault. Just my thoughts for the Sabbath.

This is usually what I hear about forgiveness. It’s usually people protecting people who have done bad things that say these things. I get that it’s wicked hard to look ugly in the face when it lives on someone you love or, even worse, yourself. But, to speak of forgiveness as some sort of spiritual Jedi wave that disappears the facts is deeply insulting to people who have walked through the shadow of this valley. If you can’t offer genuine support, please leave me alone to get on with my life in whatever way is most healthy for me. But, please stop talking about things you don’t understand. If you can’t meet hurting people with compassion and support, your religion is hollow, and you need to sit down. (Most people truly are well-intentioned, but it’s a band-aid at best. To be clear, the person that prompted this Facebook post recognized that I was reacting to their statements and went out of their way to apologize. I greatly respect that.)

My husband is a big fan of several Christian apologists, including Professor John Lennox. I’ve been deeply impressed with his approach to Christianity and have listened to several of his very thought-provoking lectures. My husband sent me this one a month or so ago, and outside of Dr. Laura who takes a somewhat more secular approach, this is the best breakdown of forgiveness that I have ever heard. On the most simple level, forgiveness is multi-faceted. There is the part that you take care of for your own personal well-being; this consists of letting go, moving your focus to other things, finding wholeness in other parts of your life. The other half of forgiveness requires recognition, remorse and restitution from the other party – the repentance must be sincere for it to be efficacious. Professor Lennox does a much better job of outlining this. (If you start at about 48 minutes, the segment is less than ten minutes long and well worth the listen.)

As for me, I’m not making decisions out of anger, malice or bitterness. I am, however, finally giving myself permission to make decisions that are the most healthy for my situation, regardless of how unconventional that looks. I’m very much at peace with where I’m at.

 

Where Do You Belong, Anyway?

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At the risk of being flippant, I feel like I should announce to everyone that I will NOT be taking a hiatus from social media this week. Not that there’s anything wrong with taking a little break, but I’m at a point in my life where it’s pretty important for me to make my own decisions. You know, like a grownup. When you end up in a position where you’re a bit on the outs, it becomes glaringly apparent how much people like to be on “the ins.” While it is disconcerting to find myself bumping around life largely on my own, it is incredibly instructive. Mormon culture (I know. Sorry, not sorry.) prides itself on being “in the world, but not of the world,” but the truth is that it’s incredibly homogeneous, at least here in the Mormon corridor. People do or don’t do the things they are expected to do to conform to their culture, often for no other reason than that it’s expected. This can be a good thing (firm values), but this can also be pretty dangerous. (Bishop interviews, anyone?) (Lest you think this is dogging on religion, I’ll expand this in a minute. If you’re going to offend, spread it around, I guess. Ha.)

It’s strange to look back on how my life has unfolded and how much my perspective has changed. There was a time that this sense of belonging, this blending in with my tribe was pretty important to me. I’m a coffee drinker; I’ve always liked it. While that can be a pretty big deal in the mainstream LDS church, it’s kind of overlooked a bit in fundamentalism. You might get a few jabs about it, but it won’t “hold you back” from callings, etc. There were many, many years where I didn’t really disclose the exact nature of my religious background to people. It’s complicated to talk about and for other people to understand. (Yo, I’m not FLDS!) When you’re raised in towns/schools/communities that pretty much shun you, it leaves a mark, and it was just easier to say I was a normal Mormon to people who didn’t need to know more. I went on a sewing retreat when I was pregnant with my now 11-year-old. These were ladies I’d been virtually hanging with for a decade. I had a great time, despite being pretty knocked over by morning sickness, but I didn’t drink a drop of coffee the entire weekend, even though several of the ladies were quite the connoisseurs, and I’m sure it was phenomenal. None of these ladies cared at all what I did or didn’t drink – they were an eclectic mix of atheists, committed Christians and even a Muslim – but, it would have messed up my image – what they knew to mean “Mormon,” and I would have had to get out of my box and explain. While I know that this was my experience, it’s hard for me to remember or recognize that girl.

I’ve spent a lot of time mulling this idea over the last week or two – how easy it is to follow the crowd. The political climate in our country is nuts right now. Being that I’m someone “with a story,” I suppose I’m expected to join the chorus chanting “Believe women!” But, somehow, that doesn’t seem to be ingenuous to me. I personally understand how difficult it is to come forward and take a stand against abuse and assault. You pay a price, no matter what. It’s hard. You have to be strong and committed and have nerves of steel. I know. However, I also have a husband, brothers, a father and male friends that I deeply love and respect. They aren’t the enemy. It’s not us against them. I would never throw my victim status in front of someone as a way to deflect from due diligence in sussing out the facts. Despite my personal emotions about these issues, I can put myself in someone else’s shoes and see that evidence and fairness is paramount in these matters because I would want that same courtesy for my own brothers/friends/sons. I would never want anyone to just believe me. Instead, I would hope that people would believe the truth as it was presented, witnessed and corroborated. As a society, we should have zero tolerance for unacceptable and deviant behavior – full stop. However, we can’t run our collective lives on emotional outbursts and tantrums without ever stepping back to examine a situation critically. The truth is the top priority precisely because these issues are so, so important. And, lest you think I’m heartless, I’m not commenting on the specifics of this case so much as on the disappointment I feel in the public politics of it.

There is a freedom in owning your right to make adult decisions all on your own. However, stepping away from the crowd also means that you’re left on your own. There’s few people around you to check with for a thumb’s up that what you have and haven’t done is acceptable. I have mixed emotions about this – I’ve spend my life tucked up under the wings of high-demand ideology. Now, if I screw up and offend, these words are all my own. I can’t point to my church or my community or my political leanings to make excuses for myself. However, I also have the opportunity to really look inside and see who I really am and what I want to stand for. It’s liberating. You should try it. In the meantime, if you want to catch me for coffee or dinner, you’ll find me on Facebook, like usual.

Our Babies Are Counting on Us

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There’s been a few things in the news lately that have caught my eye. On the national stage, I’ve been following the abuse scandal involving the Catholic church in Philadelphia. Just last week, it came out that the coverup went all the way to the top of the organization and Pope Francis likely knew and did nothing. On a more local level, Sam Young of Protect LDS Children was just called to a disciplinary council because he won’t give up his fight to change the intrusive interview policies in the LDS church. For those that don’t understand the implications of this, Bishop Young is slated for excommunication. For pleading with the church to please stop asking kids sexually explicit questions. Isn’t this common sense?

If you come from my Facebook page, you have probably noticed that my posts lean heavy toward abuse advocacy and education. I honestly sometimes feel like everything I post these days is controversial. The irony is that I spent three decades trying not to tell my story and desperately wanting to protect the people in my family that it would and did hurt when it went public in early 2018. The battle that we fought this year with our own small and pretty obscure church was not what we expected. Frankly, we were naive. We did ultimately win what we felt was a victory though we paid a pretty high price for having my perpetrator removed from his ecclesiastical position. We’re still trying to recover from seeing things behind the curtain that we can never unsee. Speaking out, especially against institutional constructs that hold power, is incredibly difficult and risky. Our identities are wrapped up in these relationships and, in many ways, it feels like a spiritual divorce.

I still struggle to know what to say about these situations. I have such big emotions about things that I have so little power to change. As moms, it’s devastating to see how at-risk our children are in spaces that should be safe – that we expect to be safe. In the culture of Mormonism, there is a cliche saying that reads, “The people make mistakes, but The Church is true!” My experiences have led me to a completely opposite conclusion, “The Church is a mess, but the people are good!” Coming to a place where you understand power structures and their priorities can be both heartbreaking and eye-opening. I know we all like to think that these things aren’t or can’t be happening in our own back yard, but, sadly, they probably are. People that use positions of power to abuse children will hide wherever there is a cubby for them. This isn’t just a Catholic problem or a Mormon problem or a Protestant problem or even a religious problem; this is a human problem.

While I have mixed feelings about the politicization of the #metoo movement (Though it’s statistically rare, I think women who falsely accuse should be subject to prosecution,) our ability to speak up is so, so important. As parents, we’re responsible to protect our children. We’re the front lines and the big guns. Handing that power and responsibility over to an institution, any institution, is a grave mistake in my opinion and experience. If you belong to a church that offers you spiritual and community support, that is wonderful. But, do not make the mistake of overlooking red flags and questionable circumstances because it happens at church with people that you identify as inherently trustworthy. And, if your church punishes or censures you for being concerned, please run, don’t walk right out the door.

Though the road to it has been deeply painful, this knowing has been a gift to my family. My creeper meter, so to speak, is highly tuned, and I have used it to protect my kids from people and situations that were unsafe. I can’t go back and change my history; my #metoo story is an integral part of who I am – it impacts my marriage, my parenting and my relationship with faith, and there are days that this is incredibly hard. Still, I have a voice and a perspective that can be used to help people, and I feel a deep responsibility to use my story for good. I’m determined that my own children will experience the world in a safer way than I did. While I’m under no illusions that my tiny effort will change the tide of this issue, maybe all of us mama bears together can do just that. Stand up; speak out; say no; make a difference. Our babies are counting on it.