Several months ago, a woman in RS talked about her daughter’s prom dress not being something you could wear with garments, and that her daughter hadn’t yet gained a “testimony of modesty,” which is something that she said most women don’t get until they are older. That concept has been stuck in my craw ever since, and I’m still not done unboxing it. My reply at the time was to add to the discussion that I don’t have a testimony of modesty, and I’m 50 years old, so maybe I’m just immature for my age.

Hear me out. Modesty–referring specifically to women’s dress codes and not the broader definition of not drawing attention to oneself–as we all know, is very contextual. I’ve been asked to cover my head in a Cathedral with a shawl because that’s their modesty standard. I’ve had to put on a zip up floor and wrist-length covering in some mosques because it is likewise their modesty standard. What you wear to the beach differs from what you wear to work. When an actor like Donny Osmond plays Joseph taken into Egypt, he’s shirtless because that’s what the scene calls for. When Claire in Outlander time travels, her very-modest-by-today’s-standards-even-for-garments 1940s style dress is scandalous because everyone thinks she is wearing a “shift” (basically underclothes for women). “Modesty” isn’t something timeless and static. It is fluid and contextual. We are conditioned to respond based on norms, and norms vary depending on time, culture, and other contexts.

Having a testimony of modesty therefore is problematic to me, but I do take this woman’s comments at face value. So what is it that she has that feels like a testimony of a principle to her? Is it a confirmation that modesty protects her from something (e.g. unwanted sexual advances, not being taken seriously at work, being too focused on her own hotness)? Or is it a humility for her to suborn her own comfort for the preferences of others (patriarchy in particular)? Is the act of personal sacrifice something that in and of itself feels like a spiritual act? I tend to think it’s the latter. When someone sacrifices something, even if nobody else appreciates it, they are being humble.

But I don’t like that, and I’m not like that. Self-sacrifice is not always a virtue, particularly when we sacrifice something that truly helps no one in the long run and inconveniences us on a regular basis by making us feel unworthy or as if we (and our comfort and choices) don’t matter or need to be suborned. John Wooden said that the only thing you should never do for another person is what they can do for themselves. Modesty for others is not a virtue but is its opposite because the more modest you are, the more you feed into the lasciviousness of those who are looking at you as an object. There was an excellent post on that here:. Not everyone is making those types of sacrifices. Women are disproportionately asked to be self-sacrificing (usually for the benefit of others: men in particular).

Maybe making meaningless sacrifices for theoretical others is the nature of religion.

Why is that a problem? A few reasons. First, there’s a reason the airlines advise you to put your own oxygen mask on before assisting other passengers: you can’t assist others if you are passed out from lack of oxygen. Women often do burn out. Eventually, our pointless sacrifices feel . . . well, pointless! Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.

Another reason is that observance of rules can actually lead to ignoring weightier matters. The more of our “goodness” we spend on silly things, the less likely we are to spend “goodness” on other things. That sounds like a scarcity mentality, one that shouldn’t be so, because surely goodness should be a thing that increases the more we have it like the wise servant with ten talents who was given more of them to invest because s/he was a pretty amazing day trader. This concept is called “moral licensing.”

Apparently, doing something that helps to strengthen our positive self-image also makes us less worried about the consequences of immoral behaviour, and therefore more likely to make immoral choices. (Wikipedia)

So as Fernando said on Saturday Night Live, “It is better to look good than to feel good”. . . or to do good, apparently. As a friend put it, people who feel they are already sacrificing in one way may not feel inclined to do so in other ways:

I actually think this may have played into the story of the good Samaritan. The priests would likely be heading to the temple and shouldn’t touch unclean things. Did they feel that because they were doing temple work that they were already doing enough “good” and could skip helping the poor sap on the side of the road? I have seen this behavior in me and I am sure we all do it at times. I wonder if some of this is in play when the woman feels like she is getting her quota of “good” by making sure her shoulders are covered.

Victor Frankl talked about this in Man’s Search for Meaning.

Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.

When we make sacrifices that are ultimately meaningless, we eventually come to resent them.

People with a positive self-image are less likely to worry about sin, but the flip side is that people who don’t have that positive self-image, people prone to self-flagellation, are going to be overly worried about sin. They are going to be scrupulous perfectionists. Whew! At least I don’t suffer from that nonsense! Overconfidence is definitely more fun. So maybe a testimony of modesty is just the internalization of guilt feelings about our responsibility for others’ choices through the way we dress. Or the internalization of feelings of worthlessness associated with being seen. Modesty in dress allows us to be less visible, to stand out less.

And this definition does go hand in hand with the actual definition of modesty:

  • the quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities. (humble, unpretentious)
  • the quality of being relatively moderate, limited, or small in amount, rate, or level. (having modest aspirations)
  • behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency. (often rephrased as dressing in such a way that undue attention is not drawn to the self, dressing appropriately for the occasion, not standing out)

I posed this question of how one gains a testimony of a principle like modesty to a group and another friend made a parallel to how some people gain a testimony of the Word of Wisdom without ever breaking it. The steps in this process are:

  1. live the principle on faith
  2. observe other people not living the principle
  3. wait for something bad to happen to them
  4. tie their misfortune back to their non-compliance with the principle

I’ve heard this type of testimony bearing. It sounds something like this: “I know that the Word of Wisdom/Law of Chastity/modesty/tithing is true because if it weren’t for the Word of Wisdom/Law of Chastity/modesty/tithing, I would totally be the kind of person who would be a raging alcoholic/slutburger/hoochie-mama/lush spending my money on booze because my friends/relatives/random strangers/neighbors/people in movies behave that way, and I know I would be just like them.”

What do you think?

  • Have you ever felt that your sacrifices were meaningless? Which ones and why?
  • How do we gain a testimony of a principle? Is that possible or is it just something we become used to doing?
  • Do you ever feel as if you spend all your goodness on the wrong things?

Discuss.