Today’s guest post is from Reuben Collins who also blogs at Single Speed.
The 2001 version of the For The Strength of Youth pamplet distributed to all LDS teens says the following regarding modesty:
…Never lower your dress standards for any occasion. Doing so sends the message that you are using your body to get attention and approval and that modesty is important only when it is convenient.
Immodest clothing includes short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and other revealing attire. Young women should wear clothing that covers the shoulder and avoid clothing that is low-cut in the front or the back or revealing in any other manner. Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance….
I’ve always bristled at this proscriptive, specific list of directions on how to dress modestly. Partially because I happen to LIKE women in short shorts & skirts, but also because it seems to ignore the fact that modesty is a moving target that varies based on context. What’s modest now wasn’t modest 100 years ago, and what’s modest on the beach isn’t modest in the chapel or at work. These guidelines always seemed rather arbitrary to me while I was a teenager – and I’m sure todays teenagers are similarly perplexed. Why are the young women specifically instructed to cover their shoulders but the young men aren’t? Why is it culturally acceptable for the young men to wear swim suits that reveal their stomachs, but that would be considered immodest for the young women? With the definition of modesty changing over time and depending on where you are or what you’re doing, the obvious questions become: why is modesty important, or is it important? Why are such specific guidelines given?
God doesn’t seem to have given any specific commandments like “Thou shalt always cover your thighs at all times and all places.” The closest we’ve got is 1 Timothy 2:9-10 which says “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;” But this passage seems to be more about avoiding expensive or pretentious clothing than making sure we cover specific body parts. The lack of specific guidance from God leads me to believe that He expects us to determine our own definition of what is modest and what isn’t – perhaps even that God isn’t particularly concerned about what parts of our body we cover and what parts we don’t.
So if God doesn’t command it, why are we modest? Part of me believes that modesty is something we do out of respect for ourselves. I believe we should treat our bodies with respect and take good care of them, but it’s not clear to me that covering our bodies is necessarily a sign of respect – or that not covering our bodies is a sign of disrespect. Rather than discussing modesty in terms of coverage, it seems more appropriate to discuss our intentions when deciding to cover or not cover certain parts of our body, and the extent to which our desires effectively objectify or dehumanize ourselves. In this respect, the act of wearing revealing clothing may be insignificant, but our intentions may be questionable.
Ultimately, I believe that the principle of modesty is primarily about having respect for each other – that society has constructed a set of cultural norms and expectations for what people should wear at various times and places, and that we should dress modestly according to what those around us are wearing, or what they expect us to wear. So I believe we should dress modestly, but not necessarily for God, because I’m not sure He cares. Rather, we should dress modestly out of mutual respect for each other. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbors, and part of loving our neighbors is agreeing to live reasonably within societal expectations. We aren’t loving our neighbors if we choose to wear clothing that we know will offend someone else.
Based on my understanding, modesty has much more to do with context than anything else. It’s inappropriate to wear revealing clothing within a context where it will be unexpected or unappreciated. Of course, by adopting this understanding, I’m also acknowleging that it may be appropriate to wear revealing clothing within certain contexts – provided that our intentions aren’t to objectify ourselves. But I believe that individuals are best suited to decide for themselves what is appropriate and what isn’t for every occasion – while allowing societal expectations to inform their decisions.
So how should we interpret the proscriptive instructions given in the FTSOY pamphlet? One option is to believe that I am wrong, and that these are universal guidelines that should apply to all persons at all times in all places. If that’s the case, then The Church has some explaining to do regarding those little shorts the BYU Women’s volleyball players wear (I’m just sayin’…). The better option, in my opinion, is to believe that The Church is simply establishing the arbitrary dress code that will be required of the youth attending church-sponsored activities – a dress code that doesn’t apply to non-church-sponsored activities – and a dress code that all members of the Church should feel comfortable deviating from any time they are not participating in a church-sponsored activity.
I am aware that the pamphlet says, “Show respect for the Lord and for yourself by dressing appropriately for Church meetings and activities, whether on Sunday or during the week,” which seems to imply the opposite – that these are guidelines to be followed regardless of where you are or what you’re doing. I choose to interpret this statement very literally, however, and I believe that we should dress appropriately regardless of what we’re doing. I just believe that it’s our responsibility to determine what’s appropriate and what isn’t.
DISCLAIMER: The exception to the rule is that parents have the right to determine for their dependent children what is appropriate and what isn’t – and within this context, parents have the right to be as arbitrary as they please in setting rules for their children.