Thursday, June 23, 2011

Modesty: Not just about chastity

Though I am woefully behind on the blogs, I finally read through the post and comments at Times and Seasons on "Stop Telling the YW to Be Modest for the YM." I actually won't get into the original post much, but I did want to respond to this comment (#202 by Geoff-A):

Is modesty anything to do with the Gospel (no mention in New Testament) or is it just Utah Culture attached to the Church?
Whoa. Seriously? First of all, we can't throw out modesty so long as we have the temple and the temple garments. When I was a YW, that was actually the biggest focus: get used to dressing modestly now so you won't have to throw out your old clothes when you go to the temple. I don't think that's really a great approach, but the idea that modesty is connected to the temple garment wasn't a bad thing to tell YW. (And it certainly sounds better than much of what Julie Smith's post at Times and Seasons was complaining about.)

So yes, there is no specific mention of "modesty" - in terms of length of clothes - in the New Testament. At least not that I'm aware of! :) And I'm not sure what it means to say something "is" or "isn't" part of the gospel. The basic faith-repentance-baptism-Holy Ghost definition is a perfect "definition," but it doesn't give a list of how to live it. A whole ton of things we do aren't in the scriptures explicitly.

But, the commenter does have a good question. How much of modesty is a result of Utah culture, or "traditional values?" I imagine the way we talk about modesty does indeed have a lot to do with our traditions. It's worth asking that question with nearly everything we teach in the church: how much of this is tradition? Where can I find it in the scriptures? What is the foundation for this?

So, what does modesty mean, at its root? And how does it relate to the gospel?

Modesty, as a word, not as a "standard," means moderation. We talk about a "modest house" as a home that is nice but nothing fancy. A home that is large enough for the needs of the person or family, but thing extra. I have the connotation of a home that is small, but not too small. The reason we might say someone bought a "modest house" is to say they were being responsible. They didn't go out of their way to spend more than they had.

(I think it would be fun to teach YW about modesty with the example of a house, and using it to show how our usual definitions don't really mean what the word "immodesty" means: can you imagine a house with its roof too short, its wood uncovered, and its foundation too high off the ground? :) )

We can apply the word "modest" in the sense of "moderation" to clothing, but does that really get us any closer to why it really matters? I mean, if we are just supposed to be "moderate," then we should change our clothing habits to be moderate in whatever country we live in or whatever style is popular.

I saw a clothing at for Macy's once that really caught my attention. It had a woman in a long black coat. It said, "Modesty forbids me shouting Look At Me! Fortunately, my clothing does that for me."

Immodesty shouts: look at me! The post at Times and Seasons discussed how we usually interpret this to be a problem of: look at me in a sexual way. But this ad was interesting in that the woman was completely "modest" by our definition of modesty. She was completely "covered up." But the woman was revealing her immodest attitude: I want to be the focus of attention, and my clothes will do that for me. Though "modest" by our For the Strength of Youth standards, she was claiming she had "immodest" clothing.

Now, I think the same coat could be worn by different people, some using it for a "modest" reason and some not! Modesty to me is a symptom of our relationship to God. Why would we seek to draw attention to ourselves? There could be a whole list of reasons! We could be selfish, wanting to brag or boast. We could be insecure, hoping to distract others to our body for attention. Lots of possibilities. But I don't think that it is always necessarily sexual. Women often want to draw the attention of other women, to brag about style or wealth. Could we also call that "immodest?"

What then does it mean to be "modest?" It seems to me that the scriptures direct us to be "neat and comely" - comely, translated, attractive. We should be nice-looking! We shouldn't try to look unkempt or too plain. Clothing is one more way that we can live a "consecrated life." What would it mean to be consecrated in dress? If we are dedicating that to God, then we are hoping to give glory to God by how we dress. We should look beautiful, because we are representing God!

Susan Tanner put it this way in her talk Sanctity of the Body from 2005:

Likewise, we would keep the outside of our bodily temples looking clean and beautiful to reflect the sacred and holy nature of what is inside, just as the Church does with its temples. We should dress and act in ways that reflect the sacred spirit inside us....

If we as Saints only made temples beautiful to show off to the world that we were rich as a church, that would be a problem! The beauty isn't the problem. Even the amount of money used isn't the problem. The important part is the attitude: we make temples beautiful to represent the important work that goes on inside them.

So I imagine the same should be the same for us. We hold to certain limits due to the temple garments, but modesty goes much beyond that. We have lots of important work to do, and how we dress will communicate with others. Are we drawing attention to ourselves out of selfishness? Can we dress in a way that our appearance is nice and attractive, but doesn't draw undue attention to our clothes let alone our bodies?

What are your thoughts?


  1. I like the comparison you made to our beautiful temples and how that correlates to how our bodies can be beautiful while still being modest. I think that's something that the youth definitely need to learn.

    I posted yesterday on my blog responding to the Bloggernacle modesty posts, and my conclusion was that "modesty" (i.e. "covering up", which isn't really the definition of modesty, but is the church definition of modesty) has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with a personal relationship with God.

  2. Thanks Keri. I'll definitely go read your post today.

  3. Love this approach to modesty. Thanks!

  4. Modesty can be kind of a litmus test, however--a sort of outer symbol of our inner change of heart. The belief we have in our divine nature, the acceptance of our body as a temple for our spirit, etc.

    Notice I said "can" be. There are plenty of immodest girls with testimonies, and plenty of modest girls without them.

    What I dislike are too many rules. I am increasingly frustrated by the strictness of the "no two-piece rule" at YW activities. I have worn tankinis for years, and trust me, with my short torso and ample chest, I am so much more modest in my two-piece than in a one piece. And yet, when we have a swimming activity, I feel the need to be in a tee shirt to model conformity to the girls, even if the rule is stupid.

    Modesty is also about behavior. I knew a young woman who could burp like a marine, and another who laughs out loud when she has a fart that clears the room. When we seek to draw attention to ourselves, particularly in an atmosphere where the focus should rightly be on another or especially on the Savior, then we are in trouble. On my mission, we talked a lot about "quiet dignity." And while that phrase might be old-fashioned, I also feel that the loveliest people I know and the most praiseworthy things in my life can all be described as "quietly dignified." Just because something is old-fashioned or traditional doesn't automatically make it dated or inapplicable.

  5. I read the last bit about temples more closely and would like to add this: my husband was the first groundskeeper at the Houston Temple, and was there every day during the last three months of construction, when all the finish work was being done. Artisans came from around the world, a chandelier was imported from Germany, the carpet was made in Italy, etc. etc. The things represent the work, but it is also the Saint's way of saying, "The very best of the best this world has to offer should go to the Lord." Can we ask any less of ourselves? The best of our best.

    A week or two ago in SS we did the story of Mary (of Mary and Martha fame) dumping a whole pot of spikenard on the Savior's head and, no doubt, filthy, feet. She anointment him in a way that even kings were not. The ointment was costly (I looked up a modern equivalent an what she used probably cost upwards of $800). Judas was angry. But she recognized what he didn't--the Savior tells Judas that Mary is doing it to honor his death. She knows. Somehow, the Spirit has taught her that NOW was the time to give the best she and the world had to offer to this many she loved, worshiped. Within the week, Judas would sell him out for a few dollars.

    Our modest(not necessarily plain) clothing and acceptance of the Lord's will is one way we lay our best on the altar of sacrifice.

  6. Well said, Science Teacher Mommy, and our other commenters too. PS, I totally agree tankinis can be a perfectly modest & appropriate swimwear. Swimwear in general, whew, what a hot potato. We should all have a) more options without having to scour the internet and b) a lot less judgmentalness (is that a word?) towards each other. The number of "pieces" of a swimsuit should be the last consideration, not the first.

  7. Kristine's post at BCC pointed me to the new sister missionary guidelines at I'm going to side-step their conversation and share a paragraph or two from the site itself:

    As an ambassador of the Lord, you are to wear professional, conservative clothing that is consistent with your sacred calling and that will clearly identify you as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Appropriate dress and grooming will help you earn respect and trust. Your appearance is often the first message others receive, and it should support what you say. Never allow your appearance or your behavior to draw attention away from your message or your calling.

    I think that's all very true and well spoken! That is the main message I was trying to get at in my post.

    The site is of course directed to missionaries, so some of it won't apply to YW. But a lot of it will. It gets a little too specific for my taste, and reminds me of old YW manuals (reminding them to wear deodorant, even!) but sometimes specifics are needed. Better to say it all, I guess.

    I did appreciate this specific clarification on what "knee length" means. Definitely not followed by most YW, let alone their moms:

    "Skirts should cover the front and back of the entire knee when you are standing or sitting. Slits should not be above the knee when sitting."

    But that clarification does match up with what we have been saying about modesty and temple garments, so I think it is a good one to teach YW.

    IMHO :)

  8. This is a great post - I love what you say about the temple and our attitude regarding modesty. A few months ago we had an activity - Modest Fashion Show. I was asked to give a little talk. I have posted it on my blog. One thing I feel is that we have a lot of power - more than sexual power, but our bodies have power. Isn't this why Satan is so upset/jealous with us? He tempts us to misuse this power in various ways.

    When we do misuse it, I think that we begin to misunderstand and underestimate our worth. Being modest helps us to guard our bodies - a source of great power for women.

    These are just a few thoughts. I've loved reading the post and the comments!


If you wish to comment anonymously, please comment with a made-up name.