On Modesty, Chastity and Responsibility

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Oh boy… This is a huge and potentially very controversial topic. It’s also one that’s getting a lot of buzz in the last week or so in my online community (mostly among Salt Lake Mormons).

For reference, you should start with reading Elder Tad Callister’s article in the March 2014 Ensign.

Before we go any further, I want to emphasize that disagreement with the end result of a message does not mean I do not sustain the brethren, that I don’t believe in continuing revelation/inspiration or that I reject the basic teachings of chastity, morality and modesty. My mom always says that “Good information leads to good inspiration” and so it’s important to communicate with our church leaders if there’s a problem. I believe that the best way for us to understand if our teaching method is useful is by openly discussing the content and end result of those teachings and analyzing their effects and value.

I have previously written a little bit on modesty mostly in relation to breastfeeding (see The Modesty Question, Why The Mothers Room Makes Me Sad, and A Few Points of Clarification). In fact, most of my evolving thoughts on modesty in my LDS faith has come as I’ve become immersed in my mothercare education (pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum, breastfeeding, etc).

I have become increasingly unsettled with the messages we are sending our young men and women and young single adults in the LDS church in regards to modesty, chastity and responsibility. This concern has caused me to really critically study the materials put out by the church on modesty and chastity, particularly that which is directed towards the teenagers in the church. The more I read the less appropriate I think the direction we have taken is.

There is an inconsistency in how we teach modesty and morality to our young men and young women. Take this statement by Elder Callister:

Immodest Dress
Our dress affects not only our thoughts and actions but also the thoughts and actions of others. Accordingly, Paul the Apostle counseled “women [to] adorn themselves in modest apparel” (1 Timothy 2:9).
The dress of a woman has a powerful impact upon the minds and passions of men. If it is too low or too high or too tight, it may prompt improper thoughts, even in the mind of a young man who is striving to be pure.
Men and women can look sharp and be fashionable, yet they can also be modest. Women particularly can dress modestly and in the process contribute to their own self-respect and to the moral purity of men. In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.

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).

In fact, while preparing this post I spoke to a number of now adult men (primarily my peers) about what they were taught growing up about their responsibility towards young women. In almost every case the only answer was “to encourage them to dress modestly”. Most could not tell me what that meant or why they were counseled to do so.

Elder Callister does emphasize in following paragraphs that we (general) must control our thoughts but there is never any reciprocal direction that men influence women.

There is, however, the potentially ominous statement (taken in whole) that “…most women get the type of man they dress for.” Without flying off the handle, is it possible that the adversary might use that statement to attack a young woman who has been raped or abused to justify a young man’s immoral or abusive behavior? This gets uncomfortably close to victim blaming to me.

And again, do men also get the type of woman they dress for?

Take also the entry on modesty from the For The Strength of Youth pamphlet. Young women are counseled thus:

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.

Meanwhile, the church’s direction to young men is non-specific:

Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance.

I am left to wonder a little if there was nothing else to say to the boys? Should they not be counseled that tank tops are immodest? What about pants that are so baggy as to show their underwear? Jewelry that is over the top? What about going shirtless while they play basketball or work in the yard? Could no specific direction be given to the young men? Or do young men not need the direction because modesty is only an issue that young women need details spelled out on.

In actuality, I somewhat like the guidance to Young Men. Direct but without being so specific as to micromanage or leave room for the “but the pamphlet doesn’t say this…” type rationalizations. In fact, why couldn’t the guidance simply be:

Young men and young women should maintain modesty in their appearance. As you strive to dress modestly, allow the Spirit to guide you and talk to parents and church leaders if you have questions.

We see this same sort of language in other parts of the FTSOY pamphlet and elsewhere in church teachings to youth. It is not unreasonable to think it could extend to modesty.

If this message seems to simply be because of the difference between men and women, you should compare also the upcoming August 2014 curriculum for youth on Eternal Marriage. Under the sub topic What Are The Lord’s Standards for Dating?, there are three talks from past conferences, one for young men and two for young women. The article for young men focuses on being prepared for marriage in a well-rounded way: financially, emotionally and spiritually. The two articles for young women – one from the priesthood sesson of conference – focus heavily on being sexually pure, almost to the exclusion of everything else.

Over and over I’m afraid the message we are sending is one that objectifies and continues to sexualize young women instead of rejecting the world’s message that women’s bodies are primarily sexual.

There is no doubt that this world is increasingly oversexualized. I am so thankful for a church that is holding a line, even though it is not popular or easy, in an attempt to stem the tidal wave of immorality in the world around us.

There is also no doubt that men and women are different and from time to time need different lessons. However, we do a major disservice in our lopsided teaching of responsibility to each other and to self when it comes to modesty. Our young women deserve more and our young men are capable of far more than “we” give them credit for.

It’s time to teach modesty in an unsexualized way, one that recognizes that culture plays a huge factor in how we view how men are “wired” and what the purpose of a woman’s body is.

Lacey and Mack-Professional Pics 192

(I’ve been asked to add a photo. On my wedding day, not only was my dress modesty in the traditional sense, but also modest in the sense that it was affordable and simple and it fit me well. It made me feel good about myself. It was not however, warm and most of my temple pictures are of me bundled up. I suppose my point is that “modest” doesn’t guarantee something is appropriate under every circumstance. It’s important that when we’re talking about modesty we’re not just talking about a list of rules for young women to follow to keep young men out of trouble.)

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9 responses »

  1. Makes sense to me! I teach my boys that no matter what they see their reaction is their choice! Not the girls choice by dressing immodestly. I am trying to help my boys bear equal responsibility. I encourage my boys to let girls know that the more modest they are in dress the more my son is interested in them. They are seen as more confident in who they are and what they are worth. I do not encourage my boys to walk around ever with out a shirt unless we are at a swimming place. I hope this gets more attention because we do need a clearer line of what is required of boys.

    • Thanks for that! I don’t yet have any kids this age and I never had brothers so I feel like I have a little bit of an authority problem on this subject. I’m glad to know there are parents out there who are bucking the status quo and teaching their sons co-responsibility.

  2. Interesting post, Lacey. “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).” Precisely–there is such a huge imbalance in how modesty and responsibility are taught to YM & YW. Growing up, I probably had a YW lesson on modesty every other week or mention of it. Those lessons always focused on being modest to help the boys–not on deeper commitments or respect for self. I think we can do better than that. The part on the Eternal Marriage lesson was also a little bothersome. Is the only thing women have to offer a marriage their purity? I think it’s equally important for them to be ready emotionally, spiritually and financially.

    • I agree. It took me a long time to understand what modesty meant *to me* and it has nothing to do with the men around me, including my husband.

      There’s an argument that YW get the modesty lesson while YM get the pornography lesson. Apparently YW need no direction on porn and my need no direction on modest dress. I have a whole library full of harlequin romance novels and basketball courts full of shirtless men that might prove otherwise.

  3. I think the best thing to be taught from the pulpit would be a completely fair statement to both sexes on dressing modestly, as you stated in your article. Then to address self-worth. Girls in general, suffer from lack of self-esteem. If they were taught that they hold the power of their self-worth and the young men were to enforce that by not wagging their tongues at girls who are scantily clad then we’d be in the best position possible. But, most importantly….EACH INDIVIDUAL IS ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR OWN ACTIONS. No “devil made me do it” allowed.

  4. Really enjoyed your thoughts on this. My hope is that as time goes on, more members of the church will shift their focus on modesty to reflect an attitude more similar to yours. I’m entering a new phase of parenting with my two older children. My oldest son is 12 and my oldest daughter is 9 1/2. They’ll come home from church and talk about “bad kids” wearing two pieces or tank tops. I think that’s really disturbing, not to mention unfair and unkind.

  5. I would argue yes, men do get the woman they dress for; the simple facts are that people DO perceive us by the way that we dress, whether it’s cleavage or a $2,000 suit. One of the more humorous lines I’ve heard is “women like a man in uniform because it sends a clear message — he has a job.”

    Women ARE more sexualized in our society and DO have a responsibility to keep them covered up… Just because a man isn’t as encouraged to do that though he will still be perceived that way. It’s especially true as I’ve found out coming to the west coast. People wear appropriate attire depending on the environment they’re in.

    Things get rationalized no matter what the sin is. Immodesty is a respect thing, on both ends. When we start respecting our bodies it doesn’t matter WHOSE responsibility it is…

    • I don’t think as women we have a responsibility to cover ourselves because the world says our bodies (as women) are sexual first and utilitarian maybe second. That’s buying into Satan’s agenda.

      The problem is the message that gets taught implies that women are responsible for men’s thoughts (and frighteningly their actions) which contributes to a culture that asks if a rape victim got what she deserved.

      For example, what if Suzie grew up in a home where her father was abusive. She has very low self worth because if it. She knows she will get attention from the boys in her ward for dressing in less than modest clothing. These supposedly clean cut, priesthood holding boys pay Suzie a lot of attention because of her dress. Suzie is so desperate for the love and attention that she lowers her standards and eventually gives in to one of these young men’s request for sex. She gets pregnant, keeps the baby and leaves the church. A few years later she marries a man who is also abusive.

      No doubt Suzie is responsible for some of her choices, but does her father and the young men who encouraged her immodesty also hold some responsibility? Or did Suzie “get the man she dressed for”?

      When the church – and not just the world – sends the message that a woman is sexual first, that simply her presence and dress can cause men to think bad thoughts and perhaps do bad things and that the most important thing she can do in dating and preparing for marriage is to stay a virgin, we’re setting a dangerous precedent in the church that does more harm than good, reduces the divine value of a woman, reduces the quality of men in the church and puts artificial limits on the power of the Atonement.

  6. Pingback: In Which I Wade Into the Mormon Modesty Debate

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