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How Not to Teach Modesty to Young Women

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I recently wrote an article entitled "Five Myths About Female Modesty" for a liberal feminist site. It addressed harmful ways we tell women why they should dress modestly. Since I wrote it for a broad, worldly audience and not an LDS one, some people misunderstood it. I thought this blog would be a better place to express my view from a gospel perspective and share better ways we can teach modesty.

[Please remember that as much as I always try to back up my opinions with scriptural references, authoritative quotes, and other legitimate Church resources, these are still only my interpretations and should not be taken as official doctrine.]

The first point I made was that we shouldn't teach women that the purpose of dressing modestly is so men won't have inappropriate thoughts. We are only responsible for our own thoughts and actions, not other people's. We are counseled in the Book of Mormon to watch our thoughts (Mosiah 4:30) or they will condemn us (Alma 12:14).

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland discussed this in his revered talk about sex,"Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments." Although it is in relation to sexual transgression, I think the principle also applies to modesty: 
In this matter of counterfeit intimacy and deceptive gratification, I express particular caution to the men who hear this message. I have heard all my life that it is the young woman who has to assume the responsibility for controlling the limits of intimacy in courtship because a young man cannot. What an offensive and unacceptable remedy to this problem. What kind of man is he, what priesthood or power or strength or self-control does this man have that lets him develop in society, grow to the age of mature accountability, perhaps even pursue a university education and prepare to affect the future of colleagues and kingdoms and the course of the world, but yet does not have the mental capacity or the moral will to say, "I will not do that thing"? No, this sorry drugstore psychology would have us say, "He just can't help himself. His glands have complete control over his life--his mind, his will, his entire future."
To say that a young woman in such a relationship has to bear her responsibility and that of the young man's too is the most discriminatory nonsense I have ever heard. In most instances if there is sexual transgression, I lay the burden squarely on the shoulders of the young man--for our purposes probably a priesthood bearer--and that's where I believe God intended responsibility to be. In saying that I do not excuse young women who exercise no restraint and have not the character or conviction to demand intimacy only in its rightful role. I have had enough experience in Church callings to know that women as well as men can be predatory. But I refuse to buy the feigned innocence of a young man who wants to sin and call it psychology.
Indeed, most tragically, it is the young woman who is most often the victim, it is the young woman who most often suffers the greater pain, it is the young woman who most often feels used and abused and terribly unclean. And for that imposed uncleanliness a man will pay, as surely as the sun sets and rivers run to the sea.
With that said, it does not mean women are entitled to dress and act however they want to without any consequences. Of course our appearances and behaviors influence both others and ourselves, and not just sexually. For example, when I stay in my pajamas all day, I'm less likely to be productive--and so is the rest of my family.

The "For the Strength of Youth" pamphlet expresses this as well: "When you are well groomed and modestly dressed, you invite the companionship of the Spirit and you can be a good influence on others. Your dress and grooming influence the way you and others act" (p. 6).

Still, we are ultimately responsible for our own choices. Potiphar's wife continually threw herself at Joseph, yet he never gave in. When she grabbed his clothes, he ran away. He did not submit to her and blame her for it (Genesis 39:712). And Jesus "suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them" (D&C 20:22).

The second point was that we shouldn't teach women to dress modestly to "leave something to the imagination" of men. This idea upholds the view that women are objects for the pleasure of men to look at, even when we are covered, and condones men imagining inappropriate things about our bodies. It focuses on the interest and desires of men instead of the interest and desires of God.

The third point was that we shouldn't promote "modest is hottest." While well intended, this saying encourages dressing modestly to gain attention and approval from others, even if it's the right kind. True to the Faith counsels us not to dress with the intent to seek approval from others (107). Being modest for that reason is very shallow. Rather, modesty is an outward expression of a personal testimony, understanding, and an inward commitment to obey the commandments of the One who created our bodies and knows them best. It is not so we can be seen as more attractive or valuable than other women. We females should be less competitive with and more supportive of one another.

The fourth point was that we shouldn't tell certain women to dress modestly because people "don't want to see that," meaning physical features that society deems undesirable or offensive. It implies that women whom society labels as sexually enticing should expose their bodies for others to enjoy, and that those who do not meet that standard should cover up to save themselves from embarrassment and others from discomfort. While our bodies are magnificent creations and it is natural and appropriate to appreciate their beauty, their purpose is not for public display and gratification. Furthermore, beauty is subjective. Telling others to cover up to hide "flaws" reinforces the media's unrealistic and narrow standards of beauty, and that leads to low self-esteem and harmful behaviors such as eating disorders.

The fifth point was that we shouldn't teach women to be modest so they won't be viewed as promiscuous. We should not judge others based on appearances but on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). We should remember that those outside our religion do not hold the same standards as we do, so we shouldn't judge them according to something they don't know about or believe in. We should also remember that those within the Church, especially new converts, are at different levels of testimony and understanding.

We also need to consider the spirit of the law, not just the letter of the law. Clothing is not the only avenue of modesty. It also applies to our thoughts, words, actions, and intentions. The "For the Strength of Youth" pamphlet advises us all to "avoid being extreme or inappropriately casual in clothing, hairstyle, and behavior" (p. 7, emphasis mine). True to the Faith states, "Modesty is an attitude of humility and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior" (p. 106, emphasis mine).

It is unfair to judge someone's sexual behavior based only on their appearance. Often, immodest dress is the result of media's lies and peer pressure to look sexy and define our worth according to our desirability. If we want to get to the root of the immodesty problem, we need to address those issues instead of just spouting off cliches about modesty. Beauty Redefined is an excellent resource, and although it has a nonreligious focus, was founded by two LDS women. 

Again, this doesn't justify us wearing whatever and acting however we want to. The "For the Strength of Youth" pamphlet states, "When you dress immodestly, you send a message that is contrary to your identity as a son or daughter of God. You also send the message that you are using your body to get attention and approval."

Since people cannot read our minds and hearts, what we wear, say, and do reveal to them who we are. If we want others to have positive, precise images of us, then we need to represent ourselves accurately through our clothing and life choices. However, in the end, we are accountable for how we choose to perceive others and should be careful in the judgments we make.

You may be wondering, "If all these concepts are wrong, then how should we teach modesty?" Here are better ways to teach why we should dress modestly:

1. To Stop Objectification
Although men are responsible for how they think about and treat us, we can help stop the cycle of women only being viewed and valued as bodies. We discourage ourselves and others from objectifying us when we put more focus on our character and abilities and less focus on our bodies. We invite others to notice the beauty inside of us and see us as human beings whose bodies are instruments for glorifying God (1 Corinthians 6:20), not ornaments for decoration. We show God and others that we know our bodies are precious, sacred gifts to be cared for respectfully.

2. To Help Each Other
When we were baptized we covenanted to "bear one another's burdens, that they may be light" (Mosiah 18:8). So although modesty is not about being responsible for the thoughts of others, it is about showing courtesy and respect to each other as visual, sexual creatures. Just as it would be rude to flaunt a chocolate cake in front of a friend on a diet, it's not okay to purposefully entice someone with your body (unless it is your spouse). Of course we should look our best, and our mates should be physically attracted to us, but we shouldn't encourage others to think about and desire us inappropriately. We should uplift our brothers and sisters and help them to "let virtue garnish [their] thoughts unceasingly" (D&C 121:45).

3. To Prepare for the Temple
The "For the Strength of Youth" pamphlet notes, "Your dress and appearance now will help you prepare for the time when you will go to the temple to make sacred covenants with God " (p. 8). If we adhere to the standards while young (or newly baptized), it will help us stay close to the Spirit, keep us worthy to enter the temple, and make the adjustment to wearing temple garments smooth and easy.

4. To Be Moderate
The word modesty is related to the word moderate. When we find a balance in our efforts to look our best, we can still represent ourselves and the Lord appropriately while having more time and energy for more important matters, such as serving others.

5. To Be Obedient
Sometimes we don't always understand the rules God gives us. We can show our trust in His wisdom by obeying out of faith until we gain understanding. Perhaps the reason for something that seems insignificant to us--like the rule about one ear piercing for women--is simply to test our willingness to obey Him in all things. Furthermore, our bodies are gifts from God that Christ paid for, so we should treat them as He asks us to (1 Corinthians 6:1920).

The Bottom Line

Remember that teaching any commandment from a viewpoint of empowerment, self-control, and blessings is far more effective than teaching through shame, force, and negativity. It is also important to teach modesty properly to our young men. For more in-depth ideas, read my other articles on modesty. Also, check out this LDS modesty lesson created by Beauty Redefined.

Discussion: What are other helpful, positive ways to teach modesty to young women and young men?


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