Monday, December 19, 2011

Approaching Modesty

How interesting that I stumble across this literally a day after posting about For the Strength of Youth... The article is one woman's take on why the doctrine of modesty is harmful and even destructive for girls. Her main beef with it is that it is sexist and that it creates shame, essentially:

"Modesty taught me that I was a decoration. Everything about my life was governed by whether or not a man was watching. How I moved and what I ate or wore all depended on the male gaze. Modesty taught me that nothing I did mattered more than avoiding sexual attention. Modesty made me objectify myself. I was so aware of my own potential desirability at all times that I lost all other ways of defining myself."

Read the article, it's not too long. To be fair, her bio line indicates she was raised in an ultra-conservative religion, so of course she probably had a very different experience than most of us. But still, the way she views modesty makes me sad. It's such a wrong image of what should be a beautiful doctrine. My friend Anneke, who posted the link, had this to say:

"I believe in modesty because it protects women's self-respect in an age where our culture believes that women are for looking at and using. There are so many people who treat a woman's body as their own personal property. Dressing modestly is my way of saying 'No - this is not yours. You have no right to possess my body with your eyes and ignore who I actually am.' To me, modesty is the feminist answer to pornography. It's us saying NO."

Agreed. Modesty isn't about being a prude or protecting men from sinning. Modesty is about respect for yourself and respect for your God. It's about cherishing the precious gift that is your body and treating it with care. Another commenter, Joy, added the following:

"To me, modesty starts with respect for self and others and applies both men and women. Modesty is about recognizing that our behavior, words and appearance matter. Speaking, behaving and dressing in a way that shows respect for oneself and others, and is appropriate for the situation, impacts our own feelings and behavior and makes it easier for those around us to maintain positive thoughts and feelings. Modesty does not make a person a passive object nor does it render one invisible. It is the exact opposite. Modesty says we are here and we are powerful. Our thoughts, feelings and actions matter. Modesty does not ask 'Is this skirt going to make men lust?' Modesty asks if our behavior, speech and appearance help ourselves and those around us feel uplifted. Modesty recognizes that we influence others by our very existence and encourages us to be an elevating influence."

All that being said, do we get a little confused about modesty, even in the Church? I think so.

I still hear people say we should dress modestly so men won't have bad thoughts about us. It happened a few weeks ago in Relief Society, as a matter of fact. (Yes, I raised my hand... and pointed out that burqa-clad women in Egypt get groped all the time. Nicely, of course.) Well of course wearing a bikini to school would be distracting! But does that mean I have to constantly worry about some poor unsuspecting man catching a glimpse of the back of my knee? No. That's not the point. Additionally, the author kind of hit home in talking about the fact that modesty is typically only taught to women. Maybe that's not entirely true in Mormonism, but it feels like it sometimes. What does modesty mean for a man anyway? It's not like most men walk around in mini-shorts or halter tops...

Maybe one definition of immodesty for men would be wearing their pants so low that their underpants show? But other than that, I don't know. Maybe there really is something more exciting about a woman, more fundamentally appealing about her body, but it doesn't make much sense to me. Besides, modesty is about more than just clothing, it's in the way you act, speak, and yes, dress. But maybe it's fundamentally more about the way you present yourself to the world. I wish we spent more time talking about how you can present yourself rather than what you shouldn't wear... especially since it can be so subjective from one situation to another, from one culture to another, from one age group to another.

I ran into this article the next day from a Christian website. This author writes about how the phrase "modest is hottest" is silly and can even be damaging because of what it insinuates:

"Perhaps the phrase’s originator hoped to provide a more positive spin on modesty. I sympathize with that. However, 'modest is hottest' also perpetuates (and complicates) this objectification of women by equating purity with sexual desire. The word 'hot'” is fraught with sexual undertones. It continues a tradition in which women are primarily objects of desire, but it does so in an acceptable Christian way. Making modesty sexy is not the solution we need. Instead, the church [not sure what religion she is, but based on who she quotes I think she may be Catholic] needs to overhaul its theology of the female body. Women continue to be associated with their bodies in ways that men are not. And, as a result of this unique association, women’s identities are also uniquely tied to their bodies in a manner that men’s identities are not."

I feel like a big part of all these issues is the doctrine of original sin. No wonder all these ideas are lurking when people see Eve as the original temptress, the cause of mankind's fall. What a wonderful thing that in Mormonism we respect her, even admire her for her courage in taking the next step into mortality she knew was necessary. But maybe even we have remnants of "original sin mentality", when we put the responsibility for sin on women in cases like modesty or sexual purity for example. I worry that sometimes the ideas that both of these authors describe creep into our own rhetoric. And yet, official Church publications like For the Strength of Youth make it very clear that this should not be the case: "a young man and a young woman on a date are responsible to protect each other’s honor and virtue." Both of them equally.

So here's my question: how should we teach modesty to girls? What can we do better? And how should we teach our boys modesty too?

Oh and here's a fun fact: there may be scientific evidence for the value of modesty"Brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tool use lights up. Men were also more likely to associate images of sexualized women with first-person action verbs such as 'I push, I grasp, I handle,' said lead researcher Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton University. And in a 'shocking' finding, Fiske noted, some of the men studied showed no activity in the part of the brain that usually responds when a person ponders another's intentions. This means that these men see women 'as sexually inviting, but they are not thinking about their minds,' Fiske said. 'The lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens.'"


  1. You are delightful. I enjoy reading the contents of your brain.

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  3. I agree with the article you linked in the sense that I think that the *level* of focus on dress/appearance is the problem.

    I relate it to racism. Very young children are not racist because they are truly color-blind. They do not "see" colored skin. I remember when I went into kindergarten and we had a "lesson" on tolerance of the races, and actually realizing for the first time that people saw skin color as "more different" than hair color.

    As soon as kids are exposed to a heightened awareness of colored skin is when the problems start. It is the focus on it that is the problem, whether or not the focus is "positive" (affirmative action) or "negative" (WWII vet grandpa making racist comments about the Japanese).

    I think we see modesty literature as positive, like a modesty affirmative action. But the problem with any sort of affirmative action is that it is laying the sins of the parents on the children. We are teaching race tolerance to kids who are naturally colorblind. I think modesty is similar. We notice that certain levels of skin in certain societies elicit certain responses, and so we preemptively teach children to avoid sending those signals. If we threw away those cultural norms and stopped teaching modesty to naturally "skinblind" children, I think we would be pleasantly surprised at their natural level of maturity.

    I understand that at a certain point, individual parents and religions are unable to overcome existing societal constructs, but I agree with the article that the teaching of modesty as a moral creates more problems than it solves. Modesty is not an immutable issue. I would hardly say it's a moral issue, either, but a cultural one. Modesty varies extremely from culture to culture. To teach young girls that it's WRONG (in the same sense that killing or stealing or lying is wrong) to show their legs or to show their shoulders, well, it creates self-consciousness where there was none, and it is certainly damaging.

    Rather than teaching dress lines, we should be teaching young women the principles of respecting themselves and others. We should be giving them the confidence to be themselves. We should be making sure that they know they can say no to any unwanted male attention. They can develop their own sense of how to function and dress in their individual society as a natural outgrowth of that principle.