not in Primary anymore

the cult of mormon modesty: a contradiction in terms

At my first Girls Camp, leaders asked me to wear a t-shirt over my swimsuit because my midriff showed when I raised my arms. At the same camp, I overheard a few of the leaders discussing whether or not some decorations featuring Ariel were “modest” enough. Later, they used a marker to color in the stomach on every image of Ariel in the cabin.

Tsk tsk, Ariel.

By insisting that our stomachs and Ariel’s be covered, they implied sex where, to us, there wasn’t any. We shouldn’t be ashamed of the female body, but that’s exactly the attitude that this kind of standard promotes, especially when applied so unevenly:

1. We hold women responsible for the way other people view their bodies.

As I grew and matured and attended lessons about modesty, the extent of my learning can be summarized thusly: Your inherent sexuality is an insult to my spirituality.

This is the foundation of victim blaming, which has everything to do with the proliferation of rape culture. Women are told to refrain from going out at night because they might be sexually assaulted. Women are told that they deserve sexual violence because they provoked their attacker by dressing a certain way. At church, women and girls are told to cover their bodies because doing otherwise impedes a man’s ability to regulate his thoughts and feel the Spirit.

We do our men a disservice when we hold women responsible for their behavior. When we presume that men are so vulnerable to temptation that a single bare shoulder or even–heaven forbid–a sexy, sexy abdomen is enough to send them into psychosis, we deny them proper dignity.

That’s what you get for looking at a woman, brother.

2. Standards change over time, but we act as if they don’t.

The church has developed an arbitrary set of boundaries for women’s clothing and declared anything outside this boundary “immodest.” For example, in December 2011, the church edited a painting by Carl Bloch by removing the angels’ wings, adding cap sleeves, and covering any skin revealed by their loose clothing. The new image was then published in an edition of The Ensign.

Angels on the right: exalted women of virtue. Angels on the left: shameless hussies.

Church standards of “modesty” have changed so much over time–and along societal trends–that it’s dishonest to hold others to the standard that exists today as if it were eternal and immutable. Clothing commonly worn in modern LDS chapels would have been shocking in polite company just a century ago.

Why is it acceptable for a woman to show her arms and calves in church, but when she wears a bikini to the beach, we as a church lose our minds as if her vagina had jumped out of her pants and taken the sacrament?

3. We conflate virginity with virtue.

Young people are taught, often quite forcefully, that sex outside of marriage is sinful. As a result, many Mormon men and women struggle to adapt to sexual activity after marriage because they’ve been led to believe that virginity and virtue are the same thing.

In an article published after her escape from her kidnapper, Elizabeth Smart identified a metaphor she learned in school during abstinence-only sex education:

“Imagine you’re a stick of gum. When you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who is going to want you after that?”

Too many young women are told that their virginity is the greatest determination of their worth, and if they “lose” it, then they’d better buy a cat and a body pillow because no man is going to want them after that.

“Mom, it was just here! I swear!”

When we demonize sex, we demonize the people who have sex. This inordinate emphasis on sexual purity encourages youth, especially young women, to think of themselves as objects whose worth is directly correlated with whether or not they’ve done the deed.

4. We associate bare skin with sexual promiscuity.

Perhaps the foundation of this skewed idea of “modesty” is the association of bare skin with sexual activity. Sex generally requires a certain degree of nudity; therefore, nudity is sexual. And if bare skin is sexual, and sex is sinful, then bare skin is sinful. I also shower naked and sometimes eat cereal naked, but whatever.

Skin and nudity are not inherently erotic, but we eroticize them when we insist that certain parts of the body be hidden.

Did someone say “have sex with me”?

Even as a child, I learned to control my body because other people apparently couldn’t control theirs. The first step toward remedying the hurt caused by this kind of rhetoric is seeing women and girls as full human beings who exist outside the potential of their bodies to excite, and this won’t happen until twelve years old girls can wear swimsuits that reveal their stomachs without being told to cover up.

19 Responses to “the cult of mormon modesty: a contradiction in terms”

  1. Katie

    I didn’t even notice the wings were gone until my husband pointed them out – I was so focused on the silly cap sleeves that were added in.

  2. Jenna

    I think this is great, and points out a lot of interesting ways of looking at a foundational issue of de facto female discrimination in the Church (and outside of it, too). I love this piece, and I’d like to respectfully pose a question to ask the author and any interested parties that builds upon what I’ve read about in this post and lots of other discussions on the YMF page, and many other pieces on this blog. Yes, there is a problem with the way we talk about modesty in relation to women in the Church. Does anyone want to write something that poses some possible solutions or courses of action to remedy this? I think it’s time we discussed this from this angle as well.

  3. Lindsay

    I agree with everything pointed out here but I’ve always thought of modesty as more of saving your body for your husband so that way it will be even more special. I don’t think it’s blaming us for what men do in the least, I just don’t want to advertise my body to the world. I’ve been a Mormon my whole life and I’ve never felt that way about virginity, if someone has had sex before marriage that is there own personal decision and I don’t blame them in the least if they don’t understand the gospel.

  4. Lindsay

    Also I think the fashion norms put on women are sexist. How often does a boy wear short shorts, leggings or skin tight shirts? Pretty much never. The female fashion norms are influenced by women who want to dress to appeal to men, which is a form of male-dominance which I will never support, so I never wear immodest clothes.

    • justmaegan

      Interesting. I guess it depends on how you look at it. But if women are CHOOSING to dress that way to impress men, then how is that male dominance? I don’t think it can be sexist if it is a choice.

  5. Maegan

    This is WONDERFUL. Every young woman should read this, Mormon, ex-Mormon, or neither. Heck, every young man should read it, too. My favorite part is “Even more, you can reveal your skin without inviting everyone to have sex with you.” EVEN as a sex-positive, 31-year-old ex-Mormon, I forget this. I forget that my short shorts are not about other people and THEIR sexual desires.

  6. Victoria

    What I don’t love, is those who jump on this bandwagon against the way the LDS church teaches about modesty (or other subjects for that matter), they pick it apart and generalize it. Yet, fail to actually come up with a better solution. We can all tear something apart, everything is fallible these days, but what I admire is those who actually find a solution to the problem, or help try to make it better -rather than tear it down.

    Woman will continue to be generalized for their body (skin) as long as pornography is lusted after, or movies, tv shows, and magazines continue to show that that is all that seems to be important in today’s world. You see a strong women in the movies, books, etc. and roughly 90% are dressed to provoke not her personality, not her intelligence, nor what makes her who she is, no, they dress her to look sexy, to appeal to the men to look at her only as an object -not for the strong, intelligent, loving, motivated woman she really is.

    It is a constant battle to try and counter act this today. So, I think it would be better that we come up with constructive solutions and bring them to the table, rather than find flaws and cast contention among ourselves.

    I’m with Lindsay, what I was taught never made me feel as you are describing, I am sad some feel that way. So let’s come up with a solution for those who do.

  7. VNMarshall

    Jenna and Victoria, Feminist Mormon Housewives published a slideshow that offers a way to move forward away from problematic cultural modesty rhetoric–see that slideshow here

    Her argument is that we must stop measuring modesty–it is NOT about inches of fabric on sleeves, shorts, or necklines. We should stop pretending that it is. I abandoned the Mormon modesty rhetoric when I was a teenager because I realized there is a better way to think about modesty. I stopped thinking “are these shorts close enough to my knees to be modest? does this shirt cover enough of my shoulder to be modest?” and instead I thought, “would I feel comfortable in the presence of Jesus Christ dressed this way?” I have found that I feel equally modest in a sleeveless shirt as in a long sleeved shirt when I approach modesty this way.

  8. Rory

    …Why did they add sleeves to the angels but leave Jesus’s shoulder hanging out?

  9. Gloria

    Using shock statements to mock ordinances that many find sacred shows a lack of maturity and an obviously ignorant and obtuse stance.

    What are the authors ideas on how to encourage self esteem and to empower young girls? No argument is presented as to an alternative in place of encouraging modesty and self respect.

    Sorry, I do not think we would have more empowered women if everyone was encouraged to model behavior and moral code after Miley Cyrus! Is there peer-reviewed data that supports the author’s argument?

    The idea of modesty is not forced on anyone. If anything, the workplace and social environments in 99% of the world put incredible pressures on women to be immodest. Women are reduced as sexual objects. This should not be the case, women are more than their bodies!

    This article has the tone of someone with very little life experience, no workplace experience, and surely no compassion for the pain experienced by millions of sexually exploited women throughout the word.

    • gracerebeccamiller

      Gloria, which ordinances am I mocking?

      I wrote this article to identify how modesty rhetoric in the church hurts women and girls. Did you miss the part where I was forced to wear a t-shirt over my swimsuit at twelve years old? I can’t tell you how many lessons we had about modesty where young girls like myself were pressured into dressing a certain way, or be shamed.

      You might find this image interesting. Rape is endemic in the Middle East, where standards of “modesty” are much more stringent than they are here.

      You’re right — I’m young and I have very little life experience. But one thing I do know about is how much it hurts to be told that my body should be covered, for whatever reason. That did not empower me; it shamed me.

    • gracerebeccamiller

      I see now that you mean I’m mocking the sacrament. I’m being satirical and mocking a certain attitude regarding women’s dress in church, not the sacrament itself, but I can see how that might offend you. I apologize.

  10. justmaegan

    To those looking for a SOLUTION rather than just complaints, I have one. Teach girls and women that they make their own choices about their bodies. They are in charge of how they look and what they do. EMPOWER them by letting them shop and dress and apply makeup how they wish. Then, when they are presented with the option to engage in sexual activities, they can say yes OR no. They need to have the ability to make the little choices if they are ever going to be able to make BIG ones. Plus, if you never had the option of “yes”, does saying “no” really mean as much?

  11. Eh

    Church policy regarding female standing in the church, as well as policy regarding female dress and conduct, comes from prophets, bishops, the relief society presidency, church leaders in general. LDS doctrine asserts the teachings of these leaders is inspired of God. LDS doctrine also asserts the church is not a buffet–one can’t choose to accept some teachings and reject others. No fence sitting.

    How can you justify continuing to be a member of the church, Grace? Seems to me you’re not seeing things clearly.

    (I’m a woman and used to be a member of the church. Couldn’t handle the gender inequality, among many things. Research Emma Smith.)

    • gracerebeccamiller

      Your comment is awfully presumptuous, as I never once claimed to be an active member. If you had read some of my other posts, you might know where I stand.


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