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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.