Monday, April 30, 2007

Before All Else: Modesty

It's prom season, apparently. I don't have kids in school yet, but I do have a brother-in-law who recent went to his senior prom. (I skipped mine and have never looked back, but that's another story.) We talked to my in-laws the night of the event (after his group had come to the house for pictures and had left) and I was really struck by the disdain they seemed to show for all of the girls but one (my brother's date). The reason, of course, was immodesty. It was as if nothing else was visible to them. Was their hair nicely done? Did their dresses look stunning? Could you sense their youthful exuberance on the brink of launching themselves out into the big, wide world? No, they were just immodest. It was like they had just met a bunch of pole dancers.

What is modesty, anyway? My favorite definition comes from a book written by Karol Wojtyla, "Love and Responsibility." I don't remember a lot of the details, but this concept stuck in my mind--immodesty is dressing in a manner to present oneself first and foremost as an object of sexual pleasure. I liked it because 1) it's gender neutral, and 2) it's about your own intentions, rather than how others will view you.

This is still subjective, obviously. People gladly tromp around at the beach in clothing that would be considered immodest on a date. Acceptable skin-baring has varied considerably over the last 200 years. And different cultures simultaneously to accept different levels of exposure, as a quick trip between Europe and the US will show.

Is it immodest to try to look attractive? That seems a little draconian--like requiring a burqa. So if we're not expecting people to make themselves hideous, we should expect them to flatter themselves with their clothing. In the US, this frequently means showing shoulders and back if you're a woman. I have to admit that when I see most formal dresses, I think that they are lovely articles of clothing, not the uniform of a street-walker. I've seen a couple wedding dresses go from the original stunning design to "temple-worthy," and it always seemed like a sad sort of aesthetic destruction--like the Taliban scratching the faces or heads off of artwork in Afghanistan.

But somehow, in mainstream Mormon culture, modesty has become extremely legalistic. It's like temple garments (whether you wear them or not) are the imagined line of acceptance. Dress off the shoulder? Immodest. Collarbone visible? Immodest. Muumuu? Modest. The fact that the garments themselves started showing lots of skin in 1923 is conveniently forgotten in this approach.

It seems like modesty is falling in line with smoking for the church. It's very easy to draw defined boundary, then look with disdain at those on the wrong side of the line. My thoughts are drawn to the message of Sister Nadauld, YWGP in 2001: You can recognize women who are grateful to be a daughter of God by their outward appearance.

Sure makes it simple to determine who is good and bad, doesn't it?

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Blogger Sister Mary Lisa said...

And taking this one step further:

Say your young brother-in-law overheard the comments by his parents as well as the lessons on modesty taught at church, which I'm sure he did. Now he's got an idea that women who dress in anything that doesn't fit the LDS standard of modesty are basically "whores."

What does he (or any other typical LDS male) do in his mind then if he finds himself attracted to one of those girls? What if he ends up falling in love with a girl who dresses in a way that he was always taught was wrong? Will he resent her for making him want her when he clearly knows she's not a woman of worth? Will he feel compelled to shame her or treat her as if she's a contempt-worthy woman for dressing the way she sees fit?

Will he feel guilty for his lustful thoughts? Will he blame HER for bringing lustful thoughts out in him? How will this self-guilt manifest itself in his relationship with her?

I remember never wanting to ever wear even longer shorts in public when I was in junior high & high school. Somehow I thought my body was horrid, and that if I wore so few clothes, I'd be behaving badly in God's eyes. Ugh.

April 30, 2007 at 8:08 AM  
Anonymous Equality said...

How did I not know you had a blog? I keep telling people that rule #1 when you start a dismo/exmo blog is to tell Equality so he can list you on his blogroll. I'm adding you now.

May 1, 2007 at 1:12 PM  
Blogger Ujlapana said...

True, I have not advertised this as well as I should have. But I somehow got 18 comments on my last post! That is so much better than my "family" blog.

Thanks for the link-up.

SML: It's interesting to see how this has played out in my wife's own life. She clearly doesn't judge "immodest" dressers in formal situations--I tease her about exquisitely-dressed women looking "trashy" when they are revealing their shoulders. Our little girls wear summer dresses all the time. But she seems almost viscerally repulsed at the idea of showing her own shoulders in public. Which is funny, because she did so pre-temple. (And boy has she got some nice shoulders!) Ah,'s her body, but it's frustrating that her decision to hide it is driven by the dictates of some guy in Utah, rather than her own reasoning or the broader culture. I mean, seriously, if you can wear it in a business casual setting, it's not immodest anywhere.

May 1, 2007 at 1:42 PM  
Blogger Sister Mary Lisa said...

Yeah. I just wish I had nicer shoulders to flaunt, now that I feel like I can. You know? :)

May 1, 2007 at 2:05 PM  
Blogger Sideon said...

I have always cheered the men who wore non-white shirts and no ties on Sunday.

Seeing the sea of white shirts and ties... I wanted to shout "lemmings, you're all lemmings."

Amen for individualism.

June 4, 2007 at 2:11 PM  

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