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:
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.
(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.)