In Which I Wade Into the Mormon Modesty Debate

I've been following the Mormon modesty debate for months now. We talk about it at home, even in front of our son sometimes. But I haven't put keyboard to screen yet. My sister-in-law's post on the subject finally pushed me into writing some of the thoughts I've been having about the subject.

When it comes to Things Political, my sister-in-law and I agree on very little. However, we appear to agree that the way modesty is taught in the LDS church is not the ideal. We are both part of a growing number of women participating in the Mormon modesty debate, and we are on the same side, at least in terms of the idea that a change needs to be made in how modesty is taught to young men and young women.

It’s so refreshing when those on the Right and the Left can agree on something.

Lacey’s post in response to a March 2014 Ensign article – and, indeed, the way modesty is taught in materials for youth in the LDS church – is one that is well-thought-out and that makes a number of Very Good Points. In a church that preaches that anyone can receive revelation, I think that it makes sense for those In Charge to pay attention to what a sizable minority of the congregation has to say. While clearly we're not all receiving revelation for the entire church, I think it relevant when many ordinary people start asking the same questions and saying the same things.

Mormon Modesty Debate

And, forgive me, but when those In Charge are elderly men, I think that it makes sense for them to think about things from a point of view that takes into account what a growing number of congregants think and feel. Our religion often embraces progress and improvement. We're all moving forward, and the way we teach modesty needs to move forward as well.

One of the problems with patriarchy, especially one that is so incredibly hierarchical, is that just about everything, including the way doctrine is taught, is done so from a male point of view, and with the view of how women fit into what men want, rather than a view that sees women as whole, complex, rational people.

The way modesty is taught is a prime example, and the Mormon modesty debate centers around the way modesty is taught in an almost entirely sexual way – with the emphasis on women maintaining sexual desirability, expressed as “purity,” for men. Not for themselves, or to enhance a relationship with Christ, but so that they aren’t “tempting boys” who need to prepare for their missions.

The Way Modesty is Taught to Girls vs. The Way It’s Taught to Boys

Lacey does a great job of looking at the differences in the way modesty is taught to girls and boys. This is something that has bothered me for a long time. There’s a whole list of things that girls need to do in order to be considered “modest,” from the length of their shorts to the fit of their clothes. For the boys, though, the way it’s taught is pretty simple: “Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance.”

Lacey also points this out about Elder Callister's message in the Ensign — and it's something that applies to most Mormon modesty lessons I've heard:

Unfortunately, there is no mention here about the impact of how a man dresses on a woman. There’s no mention of how a man’s behavior towards a woman might influence her dress. There’s no discussion at this point on how important it is to control one’s behavior – not merely thoughts – even in the presence of an improperly dressed woman.

If women can “prompt” the thoughts and actions of men into impure paths, surely men can do the same for the women in their lives. Yet Elder Callister neglects to mention that men might also have a responsibility to help women live modestly (and not just because it helps the men keep control of their thoughts).

The boys are treated has full human beings who can be trusted to make their own decisions about modesty. The girls, though, are given a list of rules, as though they are children. On top of that, almost all the language used in teaching the concept of modesty focuses on sexual consequences, and places the emphasis on the girls maintaining their “purity” so they can attract a man who values their “purity,” as expressed by their outward choice of clothing. The boys are admonished to look for women who dress modestly — a woman who would never be a siren.

Modesty

This Method of Teaching Modesty Can Be Harmful

The Mormon modesty debate is so important because the way it's taught can be harmful to the dynamics between men and women. It's taught in a way that shames girls who don't “measure up” in some way, and it encourages boys to think of girls in one of two ways, based on how they are dressed:

  1. The angelic woman, pure and good, the spiritual nurturer who brings him to the Celestial Kingdom.
  2. The vile temptress, intent on leading him into sin.

The truth, of course, is that most women — who are people as men are already acknowledged as people — are complex beings and can't be reduced to these stereotypes. A woman wearing short shorts more thank likely isn't actively trying to lead men to hell. And she certainly isn't “asking for it.”

Here is an observation from a very interesting article in the Salt Lake Tribune:

Brad Kramer, a Utah-based anthropologist who studies the effects of language on Mormon communities, argues that there is a distinction between thoughts and actions.

Mormon males “feel a degree of guilt when any sexual desire is triggered by someone other than their wife, and they partially blame and resent the girl/woman in question if modesty rhetoric has given them a pretext for judging their dress as inappropriate,” Kramer says. “You see this play out especially strongly in the mission field, where young men feel the strongest pressure to completely suppress desire. You encounter an awful lot of resentment and sometimes vivid hostility in male missionaries toward local girls and women who trigger sexual desire or attraction.”

Instead, teaching modesty differently — as standards that men and women should all follow — can change this dynamic. Modesty isn't just about covering up. It's also about attitude, and avoiding ostentation (including overly-expensive clothing). Unfortunately, these aspects of modesty are often glossed over, if they are mentioned at all.

Friends

And, as Lacey points out, the way modesty is often taught in the church usually emphasizes sexual relationships, as if these are the only relationships that boys and girls — men and women — can have. I think this is too bad. Girls and boys, men and women, can have respectful friendships.

Immodesty, as one Christian man points out, doesn't “make” anyone do anything. Unfortunately, the way modesty is taught in the LDS church doesn't encourage these respectful relationships between complex people. It encourages girls to think of boys as lust-crazed, and out of control, so it's up to them to “cover up.” It also, I think, could potentially encourage boys to focus more on sexuality, since they are encouraged to think more about what girls are wearing (or might not be wearing, as the case may be), than actually getting to know her as a person.

When we reduce others to stereotypes and gender roles, and especially when some of the way we value someone is based on a perception of modesty, it limits everyone — and we miss out on developing respectful friendships with others, and we place undue burdens on both boys and girls.

22 thoughts on “In Which I Wade Into the Mormon Modesty Debate”

    1. Miranda Marquit

      I think talking about it is a good start. Plus, there is evidence that some of the higher-ups are listening, and ready to make some changes: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/07/us/from-mormon-women-a-flood-of-requests-and-questions-on-their-role-in-the-church.html Part of it is getting out there, asking questions, and being faithful while you do it. But with enough of us coming forward, I think there’s something there, and something that makes people question some of our practices.

  1. Speaking as a Mormon teen, the dress standards have never been an issue to me. In fact, I feel more comfortable when I am dressed modestly. I do agree with you, that women should not be responsible for having to prevent men from thinking immorally. But I do also believe that dressing modestly not only shows we have respect for ourselves, but respect for the people we will be around. While our standards of modesty may sometimes be portrayed to prevent men from having immoral thoughts, it shows we have respect for ourselves and God. In 1 Timothy 2:9-10 it says “Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” God has commanded woman to dress in “respectable apparel” and personally, to me that means modestly dressing. But anyone can inturrpret that the way they wish. When I have to consider wether something is modest or not I think “if I had to stand before God and Jesus Christ today, would I be comfortable in this?” I do think it is sad though, that in our society a woman can’t wear what she wants without being judged by other people around her. It’s a sad world we live in. All in all, the church is not trying to hurt us by asking us to dress modestly. I respect your opinion. You can dress the way you will and I will dress the way I will. In the end, we are all still children of God, and that’s all that matters.

  2. I think that the way the Church is teaching the whole modesty thing is absolutely correct. By not exposing our bodies, we are not letting Satan deceive us and tempt us into doing what is not pleasing to Heavenly Father. Being modest shows that we care for and respect ourselves. We are not using our bodies to get worldly attention. I once heard a story about a group of young men and women. The young men and women were asked to write on a board what they thought was the most important thing. Most of the comments on the board read “Modest is Hottest”. This was most written by the young men! By being dressed modestly, we are respecting ourselves, our heavenly parents, and those who are around us.

    1. I dont actually agree with you.As a teen we may say stuff and not even care about what we say or said. We are all humans that are tempted everyday into all types of sins, and dressing modestly yes will help a lot by covering or cleavage and not dressing like we are a million bucks. But also I agree with this article because for example: If one day it gets really hot outside and I’m in my yard fixing up my garden and I decide to wear some shorts I am not being immodest, because firstly I just want some cool air and am not thinking of sexually arousing my next door neighbor or etc. My way of thinking was just that I needed to wear shorts so that my body would be in a comfortable temperature.
      The phrase ” Modest is Hottest” actually disgusts me because its still implying that a woman looks “Hot” “sexy” wearing “modest clothes” so there’s really no difference from wearing immodest clothes. You might as well wear a trash bag as a dress trying not to be “Hot” or be sexual in any way.
      We as females will always beautiful,because that is how God wanted us to be. But now days humans are perverting feminism into a more sexual graphic way that now everyone who looks at a woman thinks sexually of her instead of in the right way.

      Miranda I absolutely loved your article, thanks for speaking up about this!

    2. So you think that young men saying that “Modest is Hottest” is a good thing? This proves that young men first look outward for the way they interpret the girl. If she isn’t dressed modest than they aren’t interested. Young men in this case are not writing things like “kind” “Loving” “Sweet”. Aren’t those the important things?!

    3. Hi there, as a mormon teen, I believe strongly in our doctrine and belifs. However, I have realized (when trying on cloths, etc.) that wearing clothing that shows a bit of belly, my shoulders, or shorter, not tight, shorts make me feel powerful and beautiful(partially because I have pretty distinct muscles). I often try to suppress my discomfort with mormon ‘dresscode’ which results in more anger. I see the effects of the methods used for teaching modesty in seminary and primary lessons. I understand that the church is trying to help out, I just dont think it’s helping.

  3. I believe that when you have the Spirit with you, you can understand what is being said in the way the Lord would have you understand. We are each different and need to work on modesty in different aspects. As we keep in our hearts what we need to know about modesty (for ourselves or others in which we may have a stewardship), we will be led and guided to have the correct thoughts and perspectives.
    If we are angry, we cannot have that spirit. Seek for the good, and you will find it!

    Love you sisters (and brethren)! Thanks for being passionate. May our passions lead us to faith, and love, not fear and anger.

    Elder Robert D. Hales, 2008, “Modesty is at the center of being pure and chaste, both in thought and deed. Thus, because it guides and influences our thoughts, behavior, and decisions, modesty is at the core of our character. Our clothing is more than just covering for our bodies; it reflects who we are and what we want to be, both here in mortality and in the eternities that will follow.”

    May New Era: Rachel Nielson, You Are a Child of God—Look the Part
    “Elaine S. Dalton, former Young Women general president, taught that modesty ‘is an outward manifestation of an inner knowledge and commitment.’1 When you really know that you are a child of God, a covenant keeper, and a participant in the work of salvation, you’ll want your actions and appearance to “glorify God in your body, and in your spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:20).
    The ‘most majestic, powerful, and glorious Being in the universe’2 is your Heavenly Father, and the blessings of that truth are incredible! Because you are a child of God, you have unlimited potential, you have infinite worth, and you have inherited goodness from your Father. As you come to understand this divine heritage, ‘it will be reflected in [your] countenance, [your] appearance, and [your] actions.’3”

  4. I am speaking as a LDS teen and honestly have never had a problem with the Mormon church’s modesty standards. All I am going to say here is that I do not agree with your article and do not think that you are in any position to be preaching what you believe to be “the truth” about modesty and how we should be teaching it.

    My dad is the Elders Quorum President of my church. He has searched and searched the scriptures, pondered its words, and poured his heart out in prayer to understand its words so that he could provide good guidance to the brethren in our ward. He has taught me so many things that many people don’t understand. When I asked him one day why he didn’t teach it to people when he had the lesson for the week, he said, “Because I am in no position to teach these types of things to other people. If I was the bishop I might be, but I am not.”

    1. Very well said!!! I agree with you!! This lady is as nuts as the one who thinks she should have the priesthood!!!! 😂

      1. This is not how “The Church” teaches modesty. This is how “Mormon Culture” teaches modesty. In the church essays it doesn’t say anything about keeping men’s thoughts pure. It talks about modest as being dress, grooming, language, and behavior. We are teaching it WRONG in Church. I’m sure God did not intend for modesty to be taught in a way that implies women are sexual objects. This lady is fighting for the truth and for women. The lady who wants the priesthood is very misinformed. It’s sad that she thinks women don’t use the priesthood power. I used it on my mission every day.

    2. Anonymous – I would encourage you to know for yourself. Don’t rely on your dad’s opinion for how you see yourself as a woman. You are more than your body. And modesty includes more than how you dress. Women are JUST as sexual as men are. Suppressing that will lead to unhappiness. God made us sexual beings on purpose. We just have to use it wisely

  5. Ok, just let me say something. The whole reason why we dress modestly is to prepare us for our temple garments. If we don’t dress modestly now, we won’t be prepared to were these sacred things. We will be in the habit of not covering ourselves in the way the church intended that we could try to alter the garments. That is why the church even has those rules, not because wearing a too short skirt will stop us from getting to Heaven, not because guys can’t control their own thoughts enough to see a immodest girl and think clean thoughts. (I think that that argument, that girls should dress modestly to help guys think cleanly as the only argument for modesty is slightly insulting to guys, implying that they aren’t strong enough to keep their own thoughts clean.) They are there to remind us of the temple covenants we make and will make in the future. Modesty isent for guys or anyone else. It is for us. We dress modestly FOR US. By the way, those “elderly men in charge” are called of God! Don’t you think He knows what He is doing? Those modesty rules aren’t written by ” the elderly men’s” point of view; they are written by God’s point of view. He knows better than any of us do. D&C 1:38 says “… weather it is by mine own voice, or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” That is why arguing against the church’s policy is kind of pointless, because Heavenly Father is the same yesterday, today and forever.

    1. To Kaylee –

      And the topic of how the temple garments are (or are not) designed with the 21st century woman in mind is a whoooooooole other topic of its own!

    2. Kaylee, I agree with you about being modest as a preparation for temple garments and such, but that is NOT how it is taught in the church. They tell you that it’s about your outward expression and being “appropriate”, but hardly about how modesty is a tool in preparing for garments.

  6. I hate how people always think that dressing modestly is only for girls, and guys don’t have to follow the same rules. In the Strength for Youth pamphlet it says, “Immodest clothing is any clothing that is tight, sheer, or revealing in any other manner. Young women should avoid short shorts and short skirts, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders or is low-cut in the front or the back. Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance.” It says so right there. Yes it talks a lot about what women shouldn’t wear, but the same goes for guys too. Which means that man have the same expectations as women do. I think that the reason the we push so much for women to dress modestly is because the world has a whole other set of rules for how to dress. When you go into a store, it is very hard to find any modest clothing for women. But if you go the the men’s side, all it is, is what we consider as modest clothing. So that it why, i think, we push so hard on being modest in our dress. But of course that is not the only way to be modest. Modest in speech, actions and many other ways, are ways to be modest. This is not a gender only thing, it is for everyone, and it helps us to our greatest goal.

  7. Dressing modestly is showing sensitivity and respect to the opposite sex. Knowing that they (and we) are programmed to want to procreate, we should realize that exposing our bodies tempts others. It isn’t a fault, it became a natural consequence of leaving the Garden of Eden. Spiritual maturity doesn’t find fault but it’s able to recognize the natural man and how to avoid temptation at it’s earliest stage. Modest is hottest is a silly phrase that rhymes and picking apart the meaning behind “hottest” doesn’t really change the fact that “hottest”, in this case, is meant to be seen as “best option”. Another simile that I don’t appreciate in social media is the use of “porn” as in “food porn” (delicious looking food) or “Earth porn” (a very scenic landscape). “Porn” in these phrases mean “so good I can’t stop looking” but UGH! Why dirty it up ya know?

  8. I LOVED your article. I actually searched for supporting articles today to send to my bishop who just had the “modesty talk” in our singles ward Relief Society. He said we need to help the young men keep pure thoughts. I was appalled, wrote him an email and attached many articles from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Elizabeth Smart, yours, and BeautyRedefined. He’s a great man. But I couldn’t stay silent. We have been encouraged to speak up and I will.

    This kind of teaching WILL lead to unhealthy sexuality. There are consequences to teaching tradition versus truth. I can’t believe some people are holding on to this.

    1. Thank you for speaking up about this, it gives me courage to speak up too. I feel like my whole life I have been taught that my body is an object. I want to make a difference but I just don’t know how when we are being taught about women’s modesty and not about modesty in our minds. I really want to speak up about this and you just helped me. Thank you 🙂

  9. I totally agree, I was born in the church and I’ve struggled my whole life with modesty, I was forced to cover up until I was 15, now I’m 19, strong, indipendent student and woman, I have a beautiful faith and I feel like I’ve never loved the Saviour more than now, but I still wear short skirts, crop tops, sleave less shirts and stuff that don’t cover up so much my body, I feel free, I express myself, I’m no longer feeling guilty, that’s my body, it’s like a work of art that my Saviour have created for me! I’m not going to hide myself anymore, but this has nothing to do with me respecting the commendements, because I follow all of them

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