Modesty, Mormonism and Feminism
Submitted by admin on Tue, 03/11/2014 – 16:07
Controversy warning…If you lean toward very conservative views toward modesty and sexuality you may find this essay a bit unsettling. However, a friend of mine (Andrea Beringer-Lyon) posted a link to a Salt Lake Trib article about modesty and I have pretty passionate views on this subject. I’ve been chewing on this and decided to write my own essay on this subject. I’m entitling it:
“Modesty? Self respect.”
A recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune asked whether the LDS focus on modesty actually has the reverse effect. Does it sexualize women more? Now that I have a daughter of my own, I have some thoughts.
As my friends know, I grew up in the church and spent time away before ultimately going back. I call myself a Mormon, but an unorthodox one. This background gives me a unique perspective–I love my church but also often question it.
I will begin by saying that I find the whole notion that little girls should not wear sun dresses or bare their shoulders to be ridiculous if not insulting for everyone. With that out of the way, where is the line with teenage girls? What would I want to teach my own daughter?
First, I recognize that social mores are real and that we should be mindful of them. People will judge the way you dress before they get to know you. For this reason, we’d all do well to play by the broad rules and to adapt when the line shifts. Go too far outside what any given culture considers appropriate and you’re going to create needless difficulties for yourself. I dress more formally at work than perhaps is necessary because I’m in a professional environment and I want to be taken seriously. In an educational institution, faculty and administration ought to model a high workplace standard. Not only that but I feel better about myself when I look sharp, and how I feel matters to me.
That is the main point I want to make here.
So what would I tell my daughter? Dress appropriately, and to do it out of self respect. By appropriately, I mean in a way that is attractive for her unique attributes. Do it to feel confident. Dressing slutty sends a message that, “I’ll do anything for attention, even the wrong kind.” There will be no shortage of people willing to give that kind of attention to a girl. So respect yourself more.
The Trib article quoted someone as saying basically, “You will marry the kind of man you dress for.” While that rubs me the wrong way, there is some truth in it. Dressing without regard for your potential does no girl or guy any favors. While the article also quoted a parody of someone giving the same advice for young men (and it was funny) it holds for them too.
Recently the LDS church added a new value, “virtue,” to the young women theme. I wonder if it was perhaps unnecessary because the value of “individual worth” was already there. If a girl or boy truly understands their worth, the rest basically takes care of itself.
The nuance of what “virtue” really means, though, is sexual purity. That subject, like many for me in the church, is complicated. My own history with this virtue is that I grew up hating this part of myself. I felt ashamed of my own–perfectly normal, well contained and healthy–sexuality. I had doubts about whether I could control it and church made me feel that my burgeoning sexuality was more of an addiction, dark and demonic. I hated my beautiful body, felt fat, and covered it up. What a sad waste of energy and I was resentful over pointless guilt for a long time.
In later years, I learned how to dress to flatter my hourglass shape and people thought I had lost a ton of weight. I had lost a little thanks to newfound joy in exercise, but most of it was that I simply stopped dressing fat. I stopped hiding behind clothes.
One of my most life changing experiences was getting married and growing to love my body. I was giddy to discover all that it could do. I learned to run, to enjoy sex and to see myself as beautiful for the first time. I realized what a marvelous, miraculous gift my body was. Since then, I thank God for it in my prayers all the time. This body is mine, and its imperfections are what make it different than anyone else’s. The differences make it beautiful. I used to dislike the gap in my teeth and wished I could have braces. I’ve come full circle and a few years ago an online dating profile asked the question, “What is your best feature?” I didn’t hesitate to put down “my smile.” I suspect most of my friends would agree.
So what do I plan to teach my daughter about her own body? That it is a gift. It is hers, and she should value it and discover happiness in what it can do. The human form is beautiful and should be celebrated in art and dance. (As an aside, when BYU couldn’t handle certain Rodin sculptures for their nudity a few years ago, it seemed to me they were acting like a 13-year old boy snickering for awkward lack of maturity.)
When my girl gets old enough, we will talk about how sexuality is part of what makes us alive. It is human and we should embrace, rather than shun it. The thing with sexuality, though, is its power. It can create life, provide exhilaration, and bond couples together. Anything powerful can also be dangerous. She should learn a healthy respect for it. Don’t trivialize sexuality. It means something and she has every right to draw boundaries to protect it. She should wield that kind of power on her own terms, with care, and in a way that will make her happy. With respect.
Someday if my daughter wants to wear a tasteful, age-appropriate, strapless dress to prom, I won’t bat an eyelash. The only thing that might give me pause is if cultural forces would cause others to judge her unfairly. Seriously, my mom and her conservative Mormon friends wore strapless dresses in the early 1950s and no one thought they were little strumpets. They were girls with radiant skin and beautiful shoulders and they looked gorgeous going to prom.