For Mormons, modesty of dress (according to our specific modesty guidelines) is the easiest way to determine whether someone is a Mormon or not, especially at Disneyland.  The Mormons are the ones sweating it out in multiple layers, knee length shorts and high-coverage tee shirts.  Why is modesty important?  Is it?  What are good reasons to promote modesty vs. bad reasons?  What are some negatives of an emphasis on modesty?

First, a definition of modesty:  1. The state or quality of being modest (very helpful). 2. Reserve or propriety in speech, dress, or behavior. (our recent EFY post debunks this one!3. Lack of pretentiousness; simplicity.  (Mormons are not dressing like the Amish – we allow sequins, ribbons, buttons and bows – even novelty ties and socks – so this can’t be talking about us) 4. designed to prevent inadvertent exposure of part of the body.  (Bingo!)

Here’s some of what the church has to say about modesty, from a June 2010 New Era article called Modest by Design by Julia Woodbury.

  • “. . . beauty is in more than the cut of a dress or the style of a fabric.  True beauty is in a young woman who knows that modesty is the best policy”  Unless she’s an uggo.  That’s just genetics.  Can’t do much about that.  Maybe plastic surgery.
  • “Elise constructed sleeves for her dress. “When you’re modest,” she said, “you can focus on what matters: how you act.”  So, if you’re modest, you are unselective about your clothing?  I would think you can focus on how you act regardless of your attire.
  • “I want to enter the temple one day, so I need to prepare now for that day. One of the ways I do that is by dressing modestly.””  The idea of dressing modestly to prepare for the temple never made any sense to me.  I wore tank tops right up to my endowment figuring life would be over soon enough.  Why start enduring to the end before necessary?
  • “Many more young women mentioned how dressing modestly helps them to be confident and focus on who they are rather than what they wear.”  I can think of lots of immodest looks that don’t require much forethought.  Haven’t any of these people watched NASCAR?
  • One laurel said:  “I feel confident and comfortable when I know I don’t have to tug and pull at my clothes.”  Clearly she’s in for a rude awakening when she starts to wear garments.

Modesty is clearly cultural – it is defined by what is considered “modest” for that time and place alone.  Most of the clothing we wear today (women in pants, tee shirts, heads uncovered, knee length shorts and skirts) would be considered obscene in other times and places.  There are a few harmful justifications of modesty:

  • to ensure female safety from sexual crime.  The rule of law provides protection to all from crime; this justification is essentially blaming the victim based on how she is dressed.  Unfortunately, experience has shown that even women in burkhas are rape victims.
  • because girls are responsible for boys’ sexual behavior.  The notion that girls should dress modestly for boys usually stems from the notions that:  1) boys can’t control themselves, 2) girls have a lower sex drive more easily controlled, and 3) girls who dress according to different standards than ours are promiscuous entrappers.  In reality, both boys and girls are responsible for their own behavior, not for arousal which is involuntary. 
  • that sexuality is scary – it’s nearly impossible to control!  If this were true, no one could hold down a job or graduate school or remain faithful to their spouse.  It’s still up to individuals to control themselves, and people do that all the time.  Even people whose bare arms are exposed do not immediately and indiscriminately have sex with the nearest person.

So what is the church’s justification for our current definition of modesty?  It seems to fall into 3 buckets:

  • to prevent temptation / avoid sin.  We’ve covered this one above.  People sin, not because they are tempted, but because they are weak.  Plus, avoiding sexual temptation is like trying to lose weight through starvation.  One’s as likely to binge as to stick to it.
  • self-referential / circular reasoning.  These reasons are self-referential in that they aren’t really reasons to dress according to the specific standards of modesty so much as an encouragement to do so.  There is no justification given for the standards themselves in terms of rational personal benefit.  Some of these reasons sound like this:
    • dress to be an example . . .  of the standard according to which you are dressed (?).
    • live God’s law rather than the world’s.  But the dress standards are not linked to a specific revelation, and they have changed over time.  It seems that rather than God’s law (Angel Moroni’s chest was exposed – maybe to show his flashy gold chains and chest hair), it’s just society’s laws with a few minor tweaks to make us slightly more conservative than the average devout Catholic.
    • the body is a temple.  Many religions promote this notion, but with different dress standards than our own.  And you have to cover up more in the temple than you do outside of the temple.
    • dress modestly now so you won’t be tempted to be immodest later.  This one just defies logic.  So dressing is addictive?  This does not compute.
  • to promote self-esteem of YW.  Of all the reasons, this is the one I like the most, although it’s not rock solid either.  Teenage girls do have some blind spots about sexuality, and modest dress can help them avoid pitfalls (or maybe help cushion their fall) like:  1) misjudging sexual dynamics, 2) body image issues, and 3) using sex for power rather than for pleasure in a committed relationship.  Not only are modesty guidelines set by men in our church, but it’s in reaction to the immodest guidelines set by men in our society at large.  The quote about modesty giving YW more confidence is linked to this idea, as well as the idea that girls are choosing to be judged for their inner qualities rather than their physical appearance.  Does the logic follow that LDS-modest girls who can’t get the boyfriend they want are being rejected solely based on their inner qualities?

Can you spot the modesty violations to the right (yellow pantsuit)?  (answer below)

Reasons not clearly provided, but that are likely at play:

  • Insiders vs. Outsiders.  Having our own clear modesty guidelines makes it easy to tell who is in our tribe and who is not.  The friendlies vs. the others.  Mi casa no es su casa.
  • Conservativism.  Many (but not all) of our standards are simply the common standards of earlier eras.  This promotes an intentional (if outdated and needlessly conformist) image for the church.  Similar to Leave It to Beaver, but without the racy title!
  • Career Helper.  A conservative appearance can appear more professional and trustworthy and less risky, depending on the company or social group.  Does modesty keep people paying more tithing and off church welfare?  Or even working in more conservative careers?  That would be an interesting sociological study!

So, what do you think?  Is LDS modesty justifiable, and if so, on what grounds?  Does the church explain it well or are we messing with kids’ heads too much?  Do you dress according to LDS modesty standards?  Do you judge those who don’t?  Do your kids?  Discuss.

*Modesty violations (in order of importance):  sleeveless (tsk, tsk), helmet not on (you can’t repent if your brains are smeared across the pavement), no bra (this will have lasting consequences, people!), wearing her jumpsuit Angel Moroni style.  Also, jumpsuits are danged inconvenient in the bathroom; if she’s not indecent now, just wait until she has to pee.