The Modesty Question

Standard

The single biggest question I see when nursing in public is discussed is modesty. There is an attitude that when we talk about nursing without a cover we are going to “just flop out” a breast and let it all hang out while we nurse.

In my experience, most women are discreet (whatever that means) when they nurse their babies and those of us who don’t cover up or remove ourselves to a secluded place believe we can be so without those stipulations.

The modesty question is interesting, especially in the LDS faith. More than almost any other faith, especially any other sect of Christianity, we have a strict code of modesty. Adult members who have gone through our temples commit to wearing clothing that covers the shoulders and legs to the knee and nearly everywhere in between. When discussing the modesty question in the context of the LDS faith, we cannot compare to others who might find it acceptable to wear sleeveless shirts and short skirts – an easy argument to make in favor of breastfeeding for the rest of the world. In this, I do not mean to offend those who are not LDS, just to point out we have a much stricter standard of modesty than others may.

Unfortunately, this standard of dress sometimes is seen as the only aspect necessary to be modest and modesty is taught to many young women that “We need to dress modestly so that we don’t make young men think bad thoughts.” That actually makes less sense to me now then when I was in Young Women’s, though it’s a topic for another post.

Since having a baby and deciding to breastfeed her in public without covering up, I’ve had to decide whether or not I believe it is modest and, more importantly, if I believe that God believes I’m behaving modestly.

To that end, I started in my favorite place: the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

It states that Modesty is:

1 : freedom from conceit or vanity

2 : propriety in dress, speech, or conduct

While most of the words there are commonly understood, I would suggest you look up each defining word separately for a fuller understanding. The one that really caught my attention was “propriety”.

The first two definitions of propriety are obsolete, but I still feel they still have value in this discussion:

1 obsolete: true nature

2 obsolete: a special characteristic : peculiarity

3: the quality or state of being proper or suitable : appropriateness

4a: conformity to what is socially acceptable in conduct or speech

4b: fear of offending against conventional rules of behavior especially between the sexes

4cplural: the customs and manners of polite society

Clearly, my behavior lacks propriety when defined as conformity to what is socially acceptable. However, in many ways and may places my behavior does not conform to what is socially acceptable. Additionally, just because the culture dictates that a behavior is appropriate or inappropriate does not make it so in the eyes of God.

Additionally, when defined as “true nature” or appropriateness, then my behavior of nursing my baby whenever, wherever has propriety.

Please do not mistake me as dismissing the value of social norms or polite society. They are both necessary and extremely valuable when they are correct. However, when they are incorrect they become stumbling stones that can have long-reaching negative effects on individuals, families and societies.

Left with this failure of clarity, my next step was to refer to material published by the LDS church. In the Gospel Topics section of the church’s website, modesty has it’s own section. It states in part:

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).

I also referred to the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. There is no section on modesty, but under Dress and Appearance it says:

Your body is God’s sacred creation. Respect it as a gift from God… Prophets of God have always counseled His children to dress modestly. The way you dress is a reflection of what you are on the inside. Your dress and grooming send messages about you to others and influence the way you and others act. When you are well groomed and modestly dressed, you invite the companionship of the Spirit and can exercise a good influence on those around you.

So then I must question, do my actions accurately reflect who I am? Moreover, do they invite the companionship of the Spirit and are they respectful of my body? If all are true, then I can infer that my actions are modest as well as my dress and grooming.

The section further counsels:

Ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?”

This is the ultimate question. Would I feel comfortable nursing my baby in front of my Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ without a nursing cover? The answer to that is absolutely, unequivocally yes. It is unfortunate that others are made uncomfortable by something that would not make Heavenly Father uncomfortable.

Finally, I found this statement in A Parent’s Guide:

The scriptures often refer respectfully but plainly to the body and its parts. There is no embarrassment and often there is sacred symbolism. It is the world that makes the divinely created body an object of carnal lust. For example, it makes the female breasts primarily into sexual enticements, while the truth is that they were intended to nourish and comfort children…

Teach your children that they will find joy in their bodies when they use them virtuously after the manner taught by Christ (emphasis added).

This confirms to me the answer to the previous question, would I feel comfortable with my [behavior] in the presence of the Lord? Note that it clearly draws a line between the world’s view of breasts (sex) and God’s view of breasts (childcare).

The foregoing is not a comprehensive answer to the modesty question. It does not include all the doctrine on modesty and on breastfeeding. It does not include a discussion on cultural differences over time and geography, LDS breastfeeding art or historical context.

However, it is my answer to breastfeeding and the modesty question. Not everyone will answer the questions the way I did. That’s ok. Some of modesty standardized. The rest is personal, between God and man.

I do not believe breastfeeding a baby in public uncovered is immodest. I know it challenges cultural norms, but I think that’s a good thing. Change is coming on our attitudes about women and sexuality and breastfeeding. Someday this debate won’t even happen.

In the mean time, there’s more to come from me on this subject, so stay tuned and send me your feedback. I’m dying to hear your thoughts.

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3 responses »

  1. Good thoughts. The only thing I take issue with is suggesting that breasts are only made for childcare. God creates many things with a dual purpose. I think the world (and perhaps the author here) makes the mistake of focusing too much on a single purpose.

    • Jared, that sentiment, that breasts are for childcare, comes directly from LDS church doctrine. I agree that, at least in Western culture, breasts are also sexual. However, other cultures all over the world are more aligned with the idea that breasts are for childcare. I would emphasize that every part of the body can be sexual. Breasts are not unique in this, but just as hair, bellies, bums, legs, wrists and ankles are not primarily sexual, they can be or have been seen as such. Humans are sexual beings. Things get messed up though when any part of our body becomes emphasized as sexual and their other (primary, even) purposes get diminished.

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