TMI Friday: Mormon Beauty, Modesty, and Shame

false modesty toy story memeSometimes you feel something, but it’s not an appropriate time to say it. For me, I tend to keep my mouth shut (literally), bring it up on Twitter, and then talk about it on my blog later. Now it’s time to talk.

Today’s topic: Modesty.

There have been many talks, articles, blog posts, and firesides given in Mormondon about modesty. I’ve noticed that it’s been an especially hot topic in Utah since I returned from living in California, Michigan, and Georgia in 2009.

On the official LDS Church website, it reads “Modesty is an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If we are modest, we do not draw undue attention to ourselves. Instead, we seek to “glorify God in [our] body, and in [our] spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:20; see also 1 Corinthians 6:19). Continuing on,

“If we are unsure about whether our dress or grooming is modest, we should ask ourselves, “Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?” We might ask ourselves a similar question about our language and behavior: “Would I say these words or participate in these activities if the Lord were present?” Our honest answers to these questions may lead us to make important changes in our lives. Prophets have always counseled us to dress modestly. This counsel is founded on the truth that the human body is God’s sacred creation. We must respect our bodies as a gift from God. Through our dress and appearance, we can show the Lord that we know how precious our bodies are.

Our clothing expresses who we are. It sends messages about us, and it influences the way we and others act. When we are well groomed and modestly dressed, we can invite the companionship of the Spirit and exercise a good influence on those around us.

Central to the command to be modest is an understanding of the sacred power of procreation, the ability to bring children into the world. This power is to be used only between husband and wife. Revealing and sexually suggestive clothing, which includes short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, and shirts that do not cover the stomach, can stimulate desires and actions that violate the Lord’s law of chastity.

In addition to avoiding clothing that is revealing, we should avoid extremes in clothing, appearance, and hairstyle. In dress, grooming, and manners, we should always be neat and clean, never sloppy or inappropriately casual. We should not disfigure ourselves with tattoos or body piercings. Women who desire to have their ears pierced should wear only one pair of modest earrings.”

black mannequins

Do I have a problem with what the official stance of the Church is? Absolutely not. Do I have a problem with the cultural implications? Yes, I do.

The specific clothing items mentioned in this official declaration are “short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, and shirts that don’t cover the stomach.” That’s it. No flagrant scolding messages about bare shoulders, knees, and toes (knees and toes). No finger-pointing about blouses that actually elude to the fact that women have breasts.

There have been many talks, articles, blog posts, and firesides given in Mormondon about modesty, and the DOs and DON’Ts of modesty seem to be very regional, all while teaching out of the same For the Strength of the Youth pamphlet.. When I was a young woman in Oregon, it was during the grunge era. Our discussions about modesty were usually encouraging us to set aside the dirty flannel, brush our hair, and act like a lady.

Then I moved to Utah and was often advised in excrutiating detail which exact clothing items were approved, and which ones would basically send me to hell. If I wore a skirt that showed a hint of my kneecap, or wore a v-neck tee that showed a shadow of cleavage, and it prompted a young man to formulate a lustful thought, his weakness suddenly was on my conscience. If I wore a dress that flattered my curves, and it turned on a boy’s “little factory,” I was just as much as fault for his actions.  I knew I was attractive and caught the attention of guys, and I’ll just say it – I had larger breasts than most girls my age. Even if I was in a bulky sweatshirt, I got attention for my chest. I hated knowing that if a boy acted on him impulses, it suddenly could become my fault. Needless to day, my mid-to-late teens were spent with unnecessary shame…and in skirts that were mid-calf to floor-length.
Mormon Modesty Meme

Some activities require a “less modest” appearance, such as swimming, bathing, exercise and physical activity. When I lived in California, there was a lesson where our Relief Society president told us “We’re in a heatwave, and if you need to take off your garments and put on a sundress to get your yardwork done, by all means, DO IT. No need to put yourself in the hospital to mow your lawn in clothes that accommodate garments. Men are taking off their shirts to stay cool, and you need to find a way to stay cool as well.” To me, that makes sense. Do what you need to do, and then change back into your normal clothes.

byu cheerleadersI’m frustrated by the inconsistencies of modesty within the church. One of the most iconic symbols of beauty in Mormondom are the BYU Cheerleaders. But look at the uniforms – they’re tight, show leg up to mid-thigh, and sometimes have a deep enough V-neck that little is left to the imagination. Nobody else on the BYU campus could get away with an outfit like that, yet the cheerleaders can. And are applauded with it. Obviously I’m no prude, and the BYU uniforms are more modest than other colleges’ cheerleaders, but it’s an inconsistency nonetheless.

I’ve always loved swimming, even thought it’s hard to find a comfortable, flattering, and modest bathing suit. When I went to BYU-Idaho, I was excited that there was a place on campus where I could swim and do other exercise. Shortly after I arrived in Rexburg, I went into the locker room with my own suit. The attendant said “All students must wear a school-issued bathing suit.” I rented a suit, put it on, and looked at myself in the mirror. It was unflattering, unsupportive, and so sheer you could see the detail of my nipples and areolas. I can only imagine how much more detail would have shown when the suit was wet. I showed the attendant how I looked, and she apologetically told me that it was my only option. I got dressed in my street clothes, threw my bathing suit into the laundry chute, and never went swimming on campus.

In this case, modesty was knowing that I was not comfortable in the only clothing that was offered, and choosing to not participate. I would much rather look at myself in a mirror and decide for myself if what I’m wearing makes me comfortable, attractive, and gives off a vibe that I respect my body. And as the excerpt from the Church website said above, I don’t leave the house in anything I wouldn’t want the Savior to see me in.

hooker boots new beginningsI feel like talks about modesty have been so frequent recently, and so much misinformation and false doctrine is given. My friend Shannon recently posted this picture on Instagram from Young Womens New Beginnings night. Does anyone see the irony in “Stand in Holy Places” when there’s a pair of sexy hooker boots right next to a statue of a temple?

As an adult, these presentations have stirred up the shame and frustration I felt as a teen. This week I attended a combined Stake Relief Society and Young Womens’ event titled “Beautiful.” While my first impression was that there would be slideshows of pictures to James Blunt, One Direction, and Christina Aguilera songs, I hoped it could be an event focusing on true beauty and divine nature.

Instead, it was a glorified standards night. There was a talk about lures of the devil, chock full of fly-fishing metaphors (I guess that’s to be expected in a ward in Lehi). There was a reading of an odd fairy tale book about modesty. There was a lot of emphasis on the laundry-list items of modesty – no skinny jeans, don’t wear two-piece swimsuits, etc. The had an oppressive feeling, and I felt scolded (even though I don’t wear the items that they essentially forbade). I’m sure it had the same feeling as meetings where the Priesthood men get the “NO PORN!” talk. Even those without a problem leave the room feeling like garbage.

I didn’t feel the spirit. I saw people crying, and I could tell it wasn’t brought on by the spirit. It’s a sensitive subject for many women, especially when the gist of a presentation is that modesty=beauty. For women who have been abused, neglected, and told that they’re not beautiful enough, or that they don’t deserve love because of the way they look, there was no inspiring message to help those sisters. As the cliche says, beauty is more than skin-deep, but that was not discussed adequately. Inner beauty is essential, not whether or not I buy clothing items from Shade or ModBod (For you non-Utah types, these companies were created to help women be more modest by layering). I was sitting next to Rosie, and she was judging my reactions through the night…and we had a good talk about why I wasn’t happy about what was presented.

Earlier this week, Rosie led a discussion on modesty with the combined Young Men and Young Women, so the topic was fresh on our minds. She prepared questions, gave examples, and talked about inner beauty as opposed to the things you wear. When I talk to Rosie about modesty, I’ve told her that the way she feels is much more important than looking at a checklist of forbidden clothing items. She knows that boys will be boys, and that sometimes they will think inappropriate thoughts, but if she feels confident and chooses her outfits wisely, she does not have to bear any amount of blame when a boy can’t control himself.

alpine plastic surgeryUtah freeways are littered with billboards of this type, which tell women that they’re not beautiful enough until they choose plastic surgery. I would venture to guess it’s harder for men to pass billboards like this on the freeway, than to see a woman in a form-fitting outfit. But instead, women are given lectures full of propaganda about why their dress and appearance will be the downfall of men…who are likely viewing loads of scandalous content online (whether or not they seek it out). There is so much inconsistency in LDS culture about modesty, beauty, and sexuality. And it’s hard to know that there’s not a clear message given by the church, so local leaders are left to teach about it at their discretion.

How do you feel about these discussion about modesty? Do you think emphasis is given to the right details? Should there be less focus on the clothes you wear and more focus on the woman you are inside? Let me know in the comments.