Category Archives: Modesty

An Open Letter to the LDS Church on Breastfeeding

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This letter was written on behalf of an acquaintance who was facing challenges from church leadership to her decision breastfeed “in public” at church (meaning that she did not excuse herself to the Mother’s Room). I spoke at length with her about the situation before I wrote my letter. Out of respect for her request that this situation not become public, I have held this letter for many months. Now, I feel comfortable sharing it.

Given that today is the first day of World Breastfeeding Week and a breastfeeding in church situation just came up again, I feel like now is an especially appropriate time to share this.

While it is addressed to the members and leaders of my faith, the same principles apply to members and leaders of all religious congregations and to members and leaders of the community at large.

Our Little Miss is now 22 months old and still breastfeeding. I still nurse her in public if she needs to. My hope is to encourage people everywhere to support women who breastfeed so that they and their babies can have the benefits of  breastfeeding until the physiologically normal age of weaning.

Dear members and leaders of the church,

I am an LDS mother. I have a beautiful almost-5-month old girl. From long before she was born, my husband and I have been making decisions with her best interests at heart. We have had long, intense conversations about the choices we are making.

It is important to us to give Monkey everything she needs to grow up healthy and strong and smart, with a conversion to the gospel and reliance on Heavenly Father.

One of those keys for us is breastfeeding her.

My husband and I have had long conversations about breastfeeding “in public”, which means anywhere from an intimate dinner with friends to during a trip to the mall. Somewhere between these two is attending church.

After those conversations, we have decided that not only is it appropriate for me to breastfeed M in church – in the chapel, during Sunday School or Relief Society (or during Young Women’s if I got called to serve our young sisters) – it is valuable to more than just M and me.

When Little Miss was born, breastfeeding was not easy for me. Like many modern women, I had not been exposed to it the way my grandmothers were. I had to learn how and I nearly gave up. I wish I had known someone in my ward who could help as my family is all far away. I wish I had grown up more exposed to breastfeeding (and since I am the oldest of four and my mother breastfed all of us, I was exposed to it some and it was still not enough). I wish that it had not been so foreign to me.

Ultimately though, when I breastfeed Monkey in public, my goal is not to offend. It is not to make a statement. It is not to educate others. It is simply to feed or comfort my baby.

When I do not “excuse myself” to another room, I do it not to throw my beliefs in someone else’s face. I do not wish to make others uncomfortable. I simply want to be a part of whatever else is happening or be blessed through participation in church and still do what is best for my baby.

We live in a world that is increasingly sexualized and our exposure to human bodies increases while our comfort level with our own bodies decreases. This is especially new of women and new mothers.

Like me, few women instinctively know how to breastfeed and there are many, many barriers to doing it. Unfortunately, one of these for LDS women is a culture that discourages us from any sort of familiarity with our own bodies. In an effort to stay “morally pure” we are not given the skills we need to be good mothers. This is tragic.

It has long-reaching consequences for the young men in the church as well. They are taught (as girls are as well), that “sex is bad, until you get married”. At the same time, they see semi-nude images almost everywhere they go.

For many, the taboo nature of a woman’s body in the LDS faith coupled with the sexualization of her in modern culture leads our young men to be curious. Some of them turn to parents or church leaders for answers while others, sadly, turn to friends and peers and the internet. This natural curiosity leads some of them down dark paths of addiction to pornography that takes excruciating work to overcome.

When leaders of the church ask women to cover up while breastfeeding their babies at church (or worse, go to another room), they reinforce these world-created narratives of a woman’s body and add barriers to something that is already not easy. They create secrecy or shame where there is none and they alienate women who often need the church interaction the very most.

Church leaders and other members would do woman an incredible service to every member of the church if they actively supported breastfeeding moms who care for their children (sometimes despite personal discomfort or inconvenience and public, cultural and familial disapproval) in the way their children most need. Sometimes this means uncovered at an unclothed breast.

A woman’s body is sacred and should be honored and respected, especially when it is being used to do exactly what our Heavenly Father purposed it to do: provide bodies for His spirit children and nourish and rear them.

Thank you so much for your support of us as breastfeeding mothers.

Lacey

P.S. This little package – a nursing cover – was delivered to an acquaintance of mine this week. It came from the Young Women of her ward. I am beyond horrified that this lesson is being taught to the Young Women by their leaders. Breasts, like nearly every part of the body, have both a utilitarian and a sexual purpose. This attitude creates shame, fear and unfamiliarity with breastfeeding. It should never, ever happen. Let’s work together to normalize breastfeeding, end the modesty debate and support mothers and babies everywhere!

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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.)

The Modesty Question

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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.

Why the Mothers’ Room makes me sad

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Our church building, like many church buildings, has a “mothers’ room” in it. It has a small carpet-covered counter top, a garbage can for baby diapers and two easy chairs. Unlike many of the mothers’ rooms in the LDS church houses, it is not in a bathroom.

In the five months since we started attending church in this building, I’ve been to the mothers’ room only a handful of times. Mostly dear, sweet Husband does diaper changes at church and I never use the mothers’ room to nurse (dang hippie).

When I occasionally do change a diaper at church, there are often other moms sitting there, nursing their babies. Often, these women have their backs turned to the door and a nursing cover draped over themselves and their babies. It makes me sad.

Now, I understand sometimes a nursing cover is helpful. I do own one and use it on occasion, mostly when Monkey is too squirmy and distracted to pay attention to eating. I also realize that I am kind of a hippie. I am swimming against the current, rejecting and challenging cultural norms. Not every woman is going to ever be comfortable nursing a baby in Sunday School (truthfully, while I am more comfortable than I was six months ago, I’m not totally comfortable doing it).

However, if there is any place women should feel comfortable nursing openly it should be the mothers’ room at church!

Good heavens, if a woman cannot feel comfortable nursing her baby – doing one of the things her body was designed by God to do – surrounded only by other women who also believe in the sanctity of motherhood, is there any place that nursing will be acceptable?

This may not seem to matter (who cares if you can’t nurse openly, in public or without a cover?). However, this attitude has long-reaching effects.

Breastfeeding has been stigmatized over the years. When I was born, formula was “the way to go” if you could afford it. Thankfully, my mom could not. However, this past preference towards formula – funded by a nearly $8 billion industry – has resulted in a generation of women who do not know how to breastfeed.

It is not always innate or instinctual for mom or baby in the beginning. Anecdotally, almost all of the women I’ve talked to who have had their first babies in the last two years have had issues with breastfeeding. We have not been exposed to it and it is not easy in the beginning. Many give up. By creating a culture supportive of breastfeeding, we support women, teach that it is normal to breastfeed, raise healthier babies and, possibly most importantly of all, help change the cultural attitudes about women’s bodies and help them trust those bodies.

American culture glorifies a woman’s body (as long as it is “perfect”) as sexual, using it to sell everything from cheeseburgers to tires. Simultaneously, it reinforces messages like “birth is dangerous” and “breastfeeding is natural, but so is pooping.” We are taught be exposure that if we have an airbrushed, supermodel body we are valuable as a sex object and otherwise we should not trust our bodies. They are imperfect, broken and dangerous. It is no wonder women hate their bodies!

God’s message is much different. In Genesis, we are told that we are made in His image. In the LDS church, we believe that this is literal, that God does in fact have a body and our bodies are made in the likeness of His. There are very few areas where we are fulfilling a divine role nearly as much as when we are succoring and sustaining our little babies. And yet women hide away in a little room and tuck themselves under a cover as though what they are doing is shameful.

It is tragic and has long-reaching consequences, including breastfeeding “failure” and a twisted view of women’s bodies.

I don’t blame the women who I see in the mothers’ room. I wish they knew to think differently and then had the courage to act differently. I wish we didn’t live in a culture that objectified and shamed women. I wish we didn’t live in a culture that didn’t teach us to disconnect from and hate our own bodies while we envy other women’s. I wish we didn’t live in a society that had a messed up view of modesty and sexuality.

I am not condemning the mothers’ room or women who cover while nursing. To me, they are just symptoms. And it makes me incredibly sad.

That is why I will continue to nurse my baby wherever and whenever she wants to eat, generally without a nursing cover. Hopefully I will be a part – however small – of changing attitudes about what it means to be a woman and how sacred our bodies are, especially nursing mothers!