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.

Wearing Pants To Church On Sunday

mormons pants on sunday

I’m a Mormon.

Did you know that? Although I’ve been a member of the Church for my entire life, many people have said that this surprises them. While  I dress modestly, avoid coffee and alcohol, go to church almost every Sunday, live in Utah, and refrain from swearing (usually), I’m used to getting a startled look from my acquaintances who have assumed that I’m not Mormon.

My sense of humor has an edge of crassness that I can’t deny. I have opinions, and as a blogger have found a good platform for speaking my mind. “Slightly inappropriate” is part of my blog’s tagline. I have a progressive view on many topics.

So, why don’t people think I’m a Mormon? Maybe it’s because I didn’t do a profile for the “I’m a Mormon” campaign.  Maybe it’s because I have friends of various ethnicities, sexual preferences, and walks of life. More than anything, I think it’s because I adhere to LDS Church doctrine, but I’m not a strict adherent to every facet and social norm of Mormon culture. Especially Utah Mormon culture. I’ve lived in six different states around the US, attending church outside of Utah for most of my life.
So. Let’s get to the topic.

Wear Pants to Church Day.

If you aren’t familiar with the hullabaloo about Wear Pants to Church Day event , read up here. Or here. Or here. Or here.

The Wear Pants to Church day is not challenging a rule, but it is against the Mormon social norm. Nothing in Mormon doctrine nor official church policy says that wearing pants to church is wrong or breaking a rule. But it’s the cultural expectation in the Mormon church, especially in Utah, that women must wear dresses and skirts to church.

I will admit. I lean toward the feminist side. Not necessarily because I think that all women have been disenfranchised, but because I embrace the divinity of womanhood. I am proud to be female, and I am glad that there are things about me that make me different from a man. That being said, I am not a raging “Femi-Nazi”, or even an outed Mormon feminist. I am not wearing pants because I want a change to official Church policy, but I am wearing pants because I’m concerned about the harsh ways people are treated when they don’t fit the social norm at church.

From Feminist Mormon Housewives:

“What makes social norms so powerful is that they often are not enforced by the hierarchy or someone in formal position, but rather we all enforce them on each other.  We do this by treating people who break the social norm as deviant.  This can be as clear as screaming hate speech at them or telling them how wrong/awful they are, but it can also be as subtle as the sideway glance, the fake smile or the cold shoulder.  Alternatively, those who follow the norm can receive more acceptance, quicker dinner invitations, more visible callings, faster friendships.   Often social norms don’t operate as clear bright lines, but often in matters of increment and degrees.”

mormon modesty short dressThe topic of modesty has been an oft discussed topic in the LDS bloggosphere (AKA the Bloggernacle). It is a cardinal sin in Mormon culture to be deemed immodest, but there are so many opinions on what is modest and appropriate attire for Mormon women (and token Mormon men, too). There is too much shaming in the church over modesty. And while modesty isn’t the topic of this post, it’s definitely related – It’s likely that you’ll be shamed or judged if you wear the wrong thing. Especially if you’re wearing the wrong thing to church.

For this reason, there is a proliferation of modest boutiques in Utah, which specialize in clothing items that cover up the parts of your body (like your shoulders) so that temple garments are covered. Although there is some cute stuff on their website, it cracks me up that a store called Sexy Modest even exists. I like to wear clothes that fit my body well, and sometimes trousers and a blouse look dressier than a dress.

My friend Sue gave a wonderful summation of her thoughts on the Pants to Church issue on Facebook yesterday. It’s lengthy, but worth reading:

I plan to wear pants on Sunday, if I go at all.

Here’s what I don’t understand about the furor over the event. It wasn’t a protest. The church, as lately as last Tuesday, has already said that pants are fine at church. So there is no rebellion in it. It was a simple, quiet way to show solidarity and support with those who might not be totally orthodox. A way to perhaps quietly identify other women who struggle with the same concerns about what it means to be a woman in the LDS church. There is nothing attention seeking in showing up at church in a pair of pants. There is nothing disruptive about it. It was just a nice, harmless thing. A way to say, you know what, feminist lady who often feels alone and disenfranchised at church – we support you. We’re quietly here and around you. We recognize that not all women share these concerns. Some women feel valued and loved and respected in the church. Nobody denies that. But there are some women who do NOT feel that way. This was, as Courtney said, about outreach.

But people went absolutely bat-crap crazy about it. Some of the responses from conservative members were hateful and cruel and vicious. My friend Stephanie Lauritzen received death threats. DEATH THREATS for encouraging women to wear pants – SOMETHING THAT IS TOTALLY ALLOWED. And then it did become about standing up for something.

One thing that makes me sad about this are the many, many comments inviting people to leave the church if they don’t like it. TO LEAVE. Let me ask my true believing friends and family this question, because I really don’t understand it. If you believe you have the one true path to God, how can you justify inviting someone to step off that path? If you believe that the church saves people, and brings us back to Heavenly Father, how can you justify encouraging people to leave the church? Aren’t you then working directly for the adversary, trying to lead people away from his church? Please explain that line of thinking to me. You are uncomfortable with how someone else thinks/feels/believes/works through their Mormonism, and so, instead of embracing the fact that we are all in different places in our faith journey, you INVITE THEM TO LEAVE. I don’t understand this.

I’ve also heard a lot of complaining about disenfranchised/inactive/former Mormons being involved in this. When you leave the church, why can’t you just leave it alone, they ask. Here are my thoughts. It is really hard to “just leave” the church. There are a lot of good reasons for staying and trying to make it work for you. Maybe you are married to a member. Maybe your kids are Mormon. Maybe you are afraid to lose your friends. Maybe your entire social structure is built around Mormonism and you don’t want your kids to be ostracized. Maybe you love a lot of the religion and see good in it and want to make it work, but have a lot of concerns that you are trying to work through. Maybe you are intellectually connected to Mormonism. Maybe you are angry because you feel lied to. Maybe you love the people. Maybe you HAVE left, but you have parents, family members and friends who still judge you for it, admonish you for it, mourn over your inactivity. Maybe you have parents who remind you every week that they are putting your name on the temple rolls and are praying for you to return, making you feel like crap. Maybe you are tired of being judged for your beliefs. Maybe you love green jello and roadshows. Maybe it is your spiritual and cultural home and you are trying very very very hard to make it work, because it is a big part of who you are, and at the same time, knowing that the church DOES change and evolve, you are hoping to see it change and evolve in this regard as well. Maybe. Maybe a little of all of those things. It is really hard to just leave and leave it all behind. That doesn’t make people angry and possessed by Satan, that makes them human.

One thing this pants event has taught me is that you just can’t disentangle the culture from the religion. I have had so many well meaning true believing friends respond to some of my objections by saying “that’s cultural, not doctrinal”. Well now we know what happens when you push back against the culture, even in a totally harmless way. It seems like the culture is just as much the religion as the doctrine. It makes me really sad, and it makes me feel a whole lot less welcome and able to continue attending. But I won’t be pushed out until I am ready to leave and convinced that it won’t harm my family to do so. So l will quietly sit behind the piano again this week, fulfilling my primary pianist calling. I will be there in body if not entirely in spirit, and I will continue to allow my patient, understanding bishop to have hope that he will eventually win me back over to the right side mentally, however futile that hope might be.

And I will be wearing pants.

Can you see why wearing pants isn’t a bad thing?

For the record:

  • I am not in direct rebellion with church doctrine.
  • I am not trying to be a dissenter.
  • I am not possessed by Satan.
  • I am not breaking the rules.
  • I am not rallying for women to be given the Priesthood
  • I am not begging for absolute equality of the genders within the Church
  • I am not asking for a change to official Church policy
  • I have no problem with wearing a dress or skirt
  • I am not asking for others to wear a skirt, but to understand why I won’t be wearing one tomorrow

I am silently showing support for my sisters who feel like they don’t fit in at church. It is a show of respect, not disrespect.

My faith has waxed and waned over the years. I’ve had a difficult time moving from ward to ward, and always being immediately called into Primary (8 or my last 9 callings have been primary teacher or nursery leader). I feel a little out of touch with the workings of the Relief Society (despite doing my visiting teaching, attending mid-week activities, reading the lesson manuals, etc). And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

However – I am currently feeling the most faithful I have in years. I am excited about the progress the church is making worldwide. I pray. I am temple-worthy. I’m feeling less jaded with Mormonism than I was, say, a year ago. I’ve had recent and magnificent promptings of the Spirit. I feel more faith in mankind. And despite the horrible tragedies that happen in the world, like the shootings in Connecticut yesterday, I think there is so much good in the world.

I don’t think anything bad will come of me wearing pants tomorrow, but I expect it cause some confusion and questions. I hope it will generate some conversation about acceptance, and why social norms and culture of the church are not doctrine. And especially, why we should not shame others or ask them to leave the church over trivial matters.

As the 11th Article of Faith says,

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege; let them worship how, where, or what they may.

If we allow others to worship how they see fit, it shouldn’t matter if they are wearing trousers.

So readers, tell me. Will you be wearing pants to church tomorrow?