Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Note on Modesty

As a young woman, I've heard a lot about modesty since I was around 12 years old. Unfortunately, one of the most prominent messages I've received is that I need to keep my hemlines and necklines a certain length in order to help young men keep their thoughts and actions clean. This is no reason to be modest, and in fact, the more I've thought and read about it, the more offensive I find this attitude. The conclusion I've come to is that this ignorant, demeaning look at modesty has permeated our society long enough. It's time we really think through the message we're sending to people in the name of something as lovely and pure as modesty.

We need to start teaching our young people (and not just women, mind you) about true modesty, of which dress is only a part. (See this article for more on that) And we need to start teaching our young men that they are not victims—that they live in a world full of pornography; it's pretty awful, no doubt, but we need to learn how to deal with it. They will likely face inappropriately dressed females on a regular basis, and regardless of how a woman dresses, she still deserves to be treated like a human being and never like an object, as the father explains in this blog post entitled Seeing a Woman: A conversation between a father and son. (I encourage everyone to read this post.)

But the widely accepted view of modesty is not like this man's. One part of this prevailing attitude is that it implies that men are incapable of controlling their thoughts and actions. Men, I can't imagine that any of you are happy that we all assume you have no control over yourselves! How does it make you feel that we imply that you have no choice but to think and act like an animal? That you are a victim? That you cannot control your thoughts when faced with an immodestly dressed woman? It's kind of offensive, right? It's very offensive! Plus it's justifying and enabling bad behavior! I know you are in control. No matter how a woman dresses, you can treat a woman well and keep your thoughts clean. Perhaps sometimes this takes very deliberate effort, but the bottom line is God gave you agency.

Now I'm going to say something obvious, that actually doesn't seem as obvious as it should: women are not sex objects. We are people. We eat, sleep, work, study, have fun with friends, act silly, play sports, and go to the beach too, and we deserve to feel comfortable in all aspects of life without the burden of making sure all the right areas of skin are perfectly covered at all times. Just because we have bodies that have boobs and hips and butts doesn't mean we're always trying to get attention with them, and it doesn't mean we should hide those features either. We should love our bodies! Bodies are not just sexual; they are practical, functional, and miraculous. We should not be shamed into covering them up because of the ignorant and demeaning argument that a man can't help his sexual thoughts and feelings. Modesty is so much more than that. And our souls are so much more than what we wear.

How can we discuss modesty without bringing up the fact that when it comes to clothing, there's a double standard? Women are given strict rules on what not to wear, and what of men? From the female perspective, this really isn't fair. It's simply not fair to put the burden of keeping one's thoughts clean and pure on another person. So what effect does our current attitude toward modesty have on us? Women get the daily challenge of wearing the right thing and risking judgment every time we leave the house. Men and women alike are given the right to judge and blame women who do not meet their expectations of modesty. Again, unfair.

Now, before I get into other things, I just want to mention this as well—another thing to think about. Women get two drastically different messages regarding the body. One is from the world telling us that we are worth nothing unless we are physically beautiful and flaunt it, and that we can only get attention by using our bodies. Sure, it sounds a little over-the-top, but think about it. The next time you watch a sitcom, reality show, or listen to the radio, really listen to what they say. Listen to jokes. Absorb the attitudes and ideas expressed and think about them. You'll see what I mean if you don't already. The other message is from those touting modesty in the wrong way—they tell us that our bodies are sinful, that we should not show them off in any way—that in fact we should hide them so as not to disturb our fellow males. Both messages are exceedingly false. We should not be afraid of our bodies. Our bodies are not terrible, wicked, sinful things; neither are they everything important in the world. They are beautiful gifts from God given to us to house our spirits!

Sadly, despite the miracle that is human anatomy, women especially are taught in our society to hate our bodies. We see "perfect" women on TV all the time. They are skinny, toned, tan, perfectly dressed, and perfectly put together. We (men and women alike) idolize them! And what we forget is that they're PAID to look like that! They need to keep themselves in tip-top shape to be successful in that arena. The average person, however, lives a life where we can't spend all day working out with personal trainers, eating right, and taking care of ourselves on that level. Thus, we feel we don't measure up, and we complain about our bodies to each other all the time. We say we're too fat, too skinny, too short, too tall, too busty, not busty enough, have too big of hips or butt, or nose. We talk about how we hate our hair, our complexion, our acne, our ankles. We demean our own bodies constantly. Is this how our Heavenly Father would have us look at our bodies? Do you think He'd want us to idolize them either? I don't think so. Do we want to perpetuate either of these attitudes to our daughters?  Please, please say no. Can you imagine the healthy confidence your future daughter would have if you set a good example and never complained about your body and only mentioned how grateful you are that you have one, that it can help you work, reach goals, play sports, learn, and so much more? I hope that someday women will not allow others to make them feel uncomfortable, afraid, or ashamed of their bodies.

We need to remember that each and every person is a child of God. Our spirits are invaluable. Our potential is unimaginable. This INCLUDES women who dress in short skirts, tank tops, high-slit dresses, bikinis, or low-cut blouses. In fact, if we really thought this through we'd realize that the women who dress this way are often the very women who would benefit the most from love and kindness and positive attention. The last thing these women need is to be shunned or used. Especially when it comes to young teenage girls, please do not ignore or shun them for dressing immodestly. Likely, they are feeling beautiful for the first time in their lives. They like boys. They want to be attractive to them. Help them and teach them to go about it in the right way. Love them no matter what they wear.

But back to my point. The way a man chooses to see a woman is exactly that: his choice. And yes, it may take a little training to get that message across to young men because the world is constantly teaching men, in often very subtle ways, that women are objects to look at, lust after, and use rather than people to talk to, love, and laugh with. It is not the responsibility of a woman to keep a man from objectifying and using her. It is his responsibility, and his alone. One person's impure or sinful thoughts or actions are NEVER the fault of another. Have I said that enough?

Now after saying all this, I want you to know that I'm not saying that we shouldn't dress modestly. I'm a strong supporter of modest dress. I'm also a supporter of modest actions and modest living. What I am saying is that modesty is a subject far deeper than the v-neck on a woman's blouse, and we should stop perpetuating these incorrect notions about who is to blame when it comes to inappropriate sexual thoughts and actions. Women should not be dressing to get lots of attention or to seduce a man—that is definitely true—but everyone needs to take responsibility for themselves; it is ultimately a man's responsibility to keep himself pure.

Modesty, to me, is really more of a way of living. A modest person is not prideful, does not seek for praise, does not boast, does not put others down, is selfless, is kind, and does all of these things without seeking out praise and adulation. A modest person does not care for the superficial and fickle approval of men. A modest person seeks to help others for the right reasons. We should dress our bodies modestly for the right reasons as well.


  1. I love this post. Well said, Holly. I completely enjoyed this post and agree with your perspective. It is absolutely aggravating and demoralizing to both men and women, the way that this topic is addressed generally.

    Taking it a little further, the idea that women are responsible for mens' thoughts also carries into the idea that they are responsible for their actions.. consensual or otherwise.

    This idea is perpetuated by the church population as a whole in my experience with it, but interestingly it's one of those rampant misconceptions thay fonts actually reflect doctrine because the church leaders have occasionally challenged that and placed the responsibility on men for their own thoughts, choices and actions. Basically church leaders have said the same thing you're making a point of but sadly there is little guidance in spreading a more affective and correct way of addressing morality and agency. The principles get lost because behavior is the focus. I think that shame and miss-placed responsibility are used when trying to produce moral lifestyles and the principles are completely lost.

  2. Heather, it's definitely true. When we blame our bad thoughts on another person, the next step is to blame bad actions on another person too. It's a common thing too--to blame rape and abuse on the victim rather than putting full blame on the culprit. "You must have done something to set him off." "If you hadn't dressed that way, this wouldn't have happened." These words send the message that the fault lies with the victim, which is not only wrong but cruel and completely unfair. Here's a great video that has to do with that. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TqFaiVNuy1k

  3. I agree with all of your points you made on modesty. This is exactly the message we should be teaching to young men and women. Consider this one shift in perspective, if you will: in addition to all of the fundamental reasons you have cited for dressing and living modestly, perhaps one benefit is also that it gives those who would choose evil less invitation in their own twisted minds to do so. I do not think that compassionate youth leaders are trying to blame girls for the immorality of boys (though it is often a 2 person dance, however, this is beside the point). I think these male leaders are trying to offer a warning to young females that male biology creates "natural man" instincts when a female body is exposed. It is absolutely the man's responsibility to control this natural man, but we would be criminally naive to assume that all men WILL control themselves. It is because of these men that such warnings are deemed necessary. Just as it is the man's responsibility to control his thoughts, it is the woman's responsibility to control hers, by interpreting these kinds of warnings as precisely that, not a condoning of male wickedness. Unless you truly believe that this bishop truly believes that men are exempt of their sexual sins under these circumstances, receiving the message as it is intended to be received is the role of the listener, as the speaker will always try their hardest to convey the message they want conveyed. Last but not least, remember that we are to be compassionate to our fellow men and women, and I feel that crucifying them for messages they did not intend is wrong. You feel this way too, as you have advocated in your post.

    Again, I respect your views on modesty, I think that more emphasis should be put on exactly the things you have talked about. I only feel that perhaps you are being too hard, maybe even too quick to anger, on a loving man who is trying to protect the rising generation of God's children.

    My name is Tim, I'm a friend of Hanna W.'s. If I have offended you, I am sorry, blame Hanna for giving me this link. ;)