Mixed Feelings: The Reasons That Modesty Both Empowers and Discourages Me

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Quick note: I am writing this post as part of the Feminist Fashion Bloggers network. I'll be writing a few more posts in the coming weeks that bring feminism and fashion into conversation with each other, so be watching for those. And for more information on the Feminist Fashion Bloggers network, click here.

I was asked to write a little sum'n-sum'n about the idea of modesty, from my dual perspectives of a Mormon and a feminist. It's been a complex but fruitful thing to think about, and I'll get to that topic in a moment, but first: clothes.

Sheath dress (as tank top): secondhand Ann Taylor brand, $13 from thrift store
T-shirt: secondhand, gift from my mom
Skirt: secondhand D.P. Jeans brand, free from clothing swap
Heels: secondhand Nine West brand, $1 from yard sale
Earrings: secondhand vintage, hand-me-down from mom
Bracelet: local boutique, gift from my brother & his fiancee
Bag: Target, $25

The sheath dress remixing continues! I had a meeting on-campus with my boss today, and going to campus means dressing a certain way (more on that later). This dress is actually the perfect piece to accompany a discussion of modesty; it's a bit on the short side for my comfort and it's also sleeveless, so in order to make it modest, I have to employ some layering with each outfit. Layering-for-modesty is something I've been doing since, oh, age 14 or so. I added a comfy blue t-shirt underneath and a long skirt on top in this case. Voila - sufficiently modest.

Sheath Dress Remix #3:

See also:
Modesty is a very loaded word for me, ripe with both positive and negative feelings. This is why I haven't drawn special attention on the blog to my commitment to dress modestly; there are just so many connotations to consider. My thoughts on modest dressing have evolved through the years. It used to be a point of personal pride and even self-righteousness, as I saw my own clothing choices as superior to the choices of some other girls my age, the ones who wore tank tops and two-piece bathing suits. It’s also been something that represented religious commitment and respect for my body. My struggle hasn’t ever been to choose modest clothes; rather, it has been to develop a healthy perception of what modest clothes do and do not mean.

Before I go much further, I should probably clarify what qualifies as "modest" in my own measurement system of what I will and will not wear. This measurement system was highly influenced by my Mormon upbringing, but I certainly can't claim that my views are identical to all other Mormons' views on the subject. As I define it, modesty is characterized by:
- covered shoulders
- a neckline that doesn't show the curve of my breasts while standing (note: given my cup size, this one is easy)
- a mostly-covered back
- clothes that cover the belly and lower back while doing reasonable activity
- shorts/skirts/dresses that cover the majority of the thighs
- clothes that are not uncomfortably tight or sheer

As you can see, that list is full of subjective words - "mostly," "reasonable," majority," "uncomfortably" are all words that are up for individual interpretation. I get that modesty is subjective (I get that big time). I'll also say that this is all very situation-dependent; when I swim or exercise or have sexy-time with my husband, I wear things that don't conform to some/all of those rules, but I don't feel this is a violation of modesty; it's using clothes appropriately for their appropriate purposes. That's how I see it. Anyhow, these are the standards that I've held myself to since puberty, and they are simply automatic at this point. I don't hold anyone else in the entire world to my definition of what is and isn't modest.

Another dimension of Mormon modesty is that "endowed" members (ie Mormons who have made temple covenants) wear religiously-significant underclothing, which we commonly refer to as "garments." Endowed members are supposed to wear their garments pretty much all the time, and they're supposed to dress in a way that keeps the garments covered. Members can buy garments in various lengths, fabrics, and styles, so there's no single way to define what will and won't keep garments sufficiently covered; what all the garment styles have in common is that they cover the shoulders, chest, belly, back, pelvis, bum, and most of the thighs. 

I'm an endowed member of the church, so I wear these garments and keep them covered. This is a simpler way of defining what is and isn't modest, as it turns out, but the garments are meant to be symbolic of spiritual covenants, not to be used as a modesty measuring stick. As clothing styles develop through the decades, garment styles evolve to match. In the 1800s, garments were one-piece and went down to the wrists and ankles; nowadays, two-piece garments are available and cover less of the body (the women's styles look like an undershirt and a pair of long boyshort underwear). There's no real reason to expect that garment styles won't continue to change in coming years, which is fine since they're not about a universal, timeless standard of modesty; the garments symbolize covenants, whatever their length.

I was taught repeatedly while growing up in the Mormon church: Modesty is an outward symbol of an inward commitment. For me, that statement still holds true. I dress modestly because of my religious beliefs and because, to me, it represents a way to honor myself and my faith. Mormon doctrine teaches that our bodies are tremendous gifts and that we should act in a way that demonstrates reverence and gratitude for this gift; this means that the church discourages use of alcohol, cigarettes, illegal drugs, tattoos, excessive piercings, and - yep - dressing immodestly. As a religious person, these justifications make perfect sense to me. My modesty is motivated by faith, simply put, and I'm cool with that.

So, if I view all of this so positively, why do I have ambivalent feelings about the subject of modesty? I think it goes back to the way I was taught about modesty, the way this principle was presented to me by friends, family, and church leaders. These lessons often came from a place of judgment, whether in terms of judging others by how they dressed or trying to avoid being judged myself. One particularly damaging idea was that I, as a young woman, needed to dress modestly in order to avoid tempting the young men with whom I associated. I was responsible to make sure I wasn't "putting bad thoughts in their heads," that I wasn't turning into "walking pornography." I was taught these things repeatedly, and I bought into them. 

There was this underlying idea - sometimes stated, sometimes not - that males were not spiritual/mature/righteous enough to keep themselves from objectifying females, so we ladies had to do the work for them. We had influence, and we had to use it righteously. It was strangely gratifying, as a fifteen-year-old kid, to feel like I had that kind of power in this world. I felt like my level of modesty had a huge bearing on the spiritual welfare of me and any male who saw me, and I felt this way because I was taught to feel this way. It was a huge amount of responsibility for a young girl, which I both resented and liked, and as it turns out, that sense of responsibility got me into the lifelong habit of dressing modestly, so I guess it was a "success" in that way. But the lessons I was taught about modesty continue to hurt me and confuse me in ways that damage my spiritual welfare, that thing I was trying to protect in the first place. How sadly fitting.

Let me just say that during my teenage years, the years when I was being taught all the right and wrong reasons for dressing modestly, I would occasionally have moments of clarity. I wasn't too popular with the fellas, and when I was feeling particularly annoyed with or disinterested in the gender as a whole (as teenage girls are, sometimes), I would think to myself, "I don't want to be modest for them. I want to be modest because it's what I want, it's what I like. I want to do this for me and for God - no one else."

(this picture has nothing to do with anything, but I really like it and it lightens the mood)

I work for a church-sponsored university that has a code of conduct for its students and employees; that code includes dress and grooming standards. There's a heavy emphasis on modesty. All students and employees must agree to live by this code if they want to attend class/be hired.

In September, the newspaper at my university published an opinion piece, a Letter-to-the-Editor type thing, from a student who was upset over the way female classmates were dressing. He didn't feel they were living up to the dress standards set forth in the code of conduct, specifically in terms of wearing skirts/shorts/dresses that were too short. You can read the student's letter here, but I have to tell you that I found it pretty infuriating, even as someone who is familiar with this particular academic climate and the religious culture that contributes to it, so consider that fair warning. I'll be excerpting the relevant portions here.

I was very upset by this letter and submitted a response opinion piece to the newspaper. They didn't publish it (blame it on my wordiness), but they published two or three other responses that expressed my same feelings very well. There were a number of things that bothered me in the initial letter; it reeked of voyeurism, for one thing, and the tone was incredibly holier-than-thou. Though I recognize the author's stated intent to reinforce the already agreed-upon dress standards of the university, it came across as an intent to reprimand immodest women and show them the ample error of their ways, because he knows sooooo much better. Barf. Very frustrating.

There are lots of things wrong with the published letter, but the pre-eminent one in my mind is the author's effort to equate a person's woman's level of modesty with her level of character. This is ultimately my fear when it comes to teaching modesty from a religious perspective. I quote:

"Sisters, have you lost your sense of dignity? Integrity?"
"Sadly, it seems that many of you don’t care what you signed ..."
"Girls on campus and in the Church are wearing shorter and shorter outfits. It’s appalling to me, and to many other guys, because it doesn’t say much of you and your character."

It is very, very bothersome to me that my religious community produces men and women who judge others' character based on the way they dress. If you don't understand why this pattern of judgment would be bothersome, I'm not sure I can explain it adequately, but I think I can summarize by saying that people are complex, and judging them by their adherence to one standard (a standard that they may not hold, by the way) is ineffective, unfair, and small.

I know that this outlook is not unique to Mormons or even religious people in general. It is not unique to the town, state, or country I live in. It is not unique to college students, old folks, males, females, Republicans, Democrats, or the upper-middle-class. This way of judging others is widespread, and that saddens me; it saddens me when I participate it in such judgment myself, which I most definitely do despite my efforts.

When all is said and done, modesty is important to me, as both a Mormon who wants to honor her faith and as a feminist who wants to combat the objectification of women. The difficult thing is that I can counteract both of those desires if I'm not careful. Modesty can become a point of pride and judgment, and that's not the way I want to live my faith; modesty can become a way to unfairly define and limit women, and that's not the way I want to live my feminism. This is an ongoing balancing act. I'm not always getting it right. But I am taking responsibility for my views, my actions, and my outward presentation of self. I claim that right and feel good about it. But don't worry: I'll try to be modest in my self-congratulation, too.


  1. Thank you for this post! It's very insightful, and very clarifying, and even as an agnostic with no religious obligations, I find myself agreeing to your overall position.

    I'm similarly conflicted about modesty. It's good in that it can be motivated by care for one's body (spirituality aside, it's also the only body I'll ever have, so I should keep it in working order by dressing comfortably and safely - most "immodest" clothes can be health hazards too... little coverage means UTIs in cold weather, sunburn in hot weather, and don't get me started on stilettos or corsets!). It's good in that it can be used to combat objectification (though that can only be an intermediate solution, kind of like the women's quota, because of that flip side...). But as soon as that turns into judging and limiting women and shifting the responsibility for their objectification onto them, it's a big no-no for me. The impression I got from people who argued from a religious viewpoint so far was often heavily intermingled with exactly that attitude (alike to victim-blaming if we fully think it through), and that really irked me - it's great to see that there are ways to combine a religious and a feminist perspective and that one need not reject the one or the other.

    I am also really intrigued by how the idea of being responsible for guys' reactions to your body temporarily felt empowering to you, as I've experienced similar feelings in the past before I actively engaged with feminism. I think this potential angle on the objectification-blaming of women is part of the reason why society clings to it: There are women who feel empowered and gain a sense of superiority from the idea that they can make a guy go crazy with urges just by the way they dress or behave. I know that feeling all too well myself. It's akin to the old idea that women have had power (possibly more than men?) in the course of history by pulling strings behind the scenes, using their sexuality as a bait to achieve their own goals. There is still sooo much wrong with this angle - it still sets up men and women as opponents with inherently different natures, it still requires of a woman to have sexuality to barter with (mostly coded as youthfulness and beauty according to men's judgment), and the sneaky behind-the-scenes kind of power, effective as it may be, is still devalued and judged in contrast to overt power. But it's a strong cultural stereotype, and its survival is one of the obstacles in our struggle for equality...

    Ooops, went off on a tangent here. Anyway, this was a great post!

  2. Your hairstyle is beautiful!! Braids are the one thing I miss since I cut my hair.
    I really enjoyed this post and appreciate your openess. You've addressed really well the issue I find most difficult about modesty- the idea that women have to dress modestly to help men control themselves. The message is directed to women, to dress in a certain way, for men. Even though raunch culture is the opposite of dressing modestly, it does the same thing- women should dress sexily, for men.
    So I like that Mormon underclothes are worn by both men and women. And I really like what you said about how their style has evolved over the years, it isn't fixed and timeless.

  3. Great post! Oh the Daily Universe opinion section...I remember you!

  4. Thank you so much for this amazingly thoughtful post! I tried to read the letter but it's offline, I will check back on it later.

    Modesty in my house was a weird thing when I was growing up. I couldn't wear black dressed to birthday parties because the color was "too adult," but I could wear red. There was never any concern with the length of my skirts/dresses and I definitely wore some short ones, but they've been getting longer and longer as I get older. My mother went through a serious mini-skirt phase during her "mid life crisis" and I was so ashamed for her that I actually stole the shortest one from her closet and threw it away. I honestly can't explain where this sense of shame came from since it's not something I was ever really taught. Today, I only wear short skirts with tights. I don't feel comfortable exposing my bare thighs. Maybe the tights don't actually make much of a difference, but to me they do somehow.

    Anyway, I'm going to cut this short to keep it from getting insanely long, but I think you did a wonderful job in capturing the tension and confusion that can surround ideas of modesty. I have to say I feel like you always look great.

  5. This is a fascinating post, Sara - I've read it twice! The balance you talk about (and which I can certainly relate to in some degree) seems compounded by your faith in some ways, and I think it's important to keep questioning these institutions that we are part of. I like the point you make re being "walking pornography", and I think many of us - even non-religious types can relate to that feeling of power when you you are made aware of our sexuality in this way. Of course, it soon becomes a bone of contention as we get older, and obviously has more serious repercussions in society.

    On a lighter note - I will certainly be taking part in your remix challenge sometime soon!

  6. We have some very different ideas about feminism and religion and lots of other things, I'm sure, but this is a great post. Kudos to you, this is exactly the kind of thing that makes me really excited about FFB.

  7. I wrote about my feelings about Modesty here. I agree with most of what you've said here...

    During my stay at BYU, I developed a healthy hatred of modesty. I met so many women that felt extraordinarily burdened by the arbitrary standards of modesty they felt pressured to adhere to. I met women who would reluctantly wear t-shirts while in the swimming pool, or women who would wear 8 shirts on a hot summer day to try and cover shoulders, necklines, and midriff all at once. I met women with closets full of beautiful dresses they loved, none of which they could wear for modesty reasons (at least not without bastardizing the look with a t-shirt underneath or something).

    But the fact that these women would go shopping, find clothes they liked, and then bring them home only to never wear them again just absolutely infuriated me because it was a signal that they were letting other people make decisions for them about what they should or shouldn't wear.

    I wanted the women to feel empowered, and the situation in Provo re: modesty seemed horribly oppressive.

    Primarily, though, I have never understood the argument that modesty shows respect for our bodies. Why is covering our bodies a sign of respect? I want women to respect their bodies by making their own decisions about what they want to wear, not by allowing others to tell them what to wear.

  8. Thanks for this post. It's been a very interesting read. I too have fallen prey to judging others in the church who don't dress modestly, but I never thought of it as a reaction from those teachings you mentioned but as stemming from my own quickness to judge (which is unfortunately very true). What you say is true, and as a YW leader, I appreciate that insight so I can try to avoid the same mistakes with my young women. Personally, I'm grateful that I was taught to be modest at a young age, if for no other reason that when I went the temple, I didn't have to buy a whole new wardrobe.

    Also, I was at BYU when that letter was in the Daily Universe. I'm pretty sure my rant about it to my roommate included a few expletives. Or at least I thought a few expletives. :)

    North Meets South

  9. this post is so interesting. as someone who is not religious it is so intriguing to read about the different moral issues that a woman like yourself faces. way to paint a more in-depth picture about the modesty issue and mormonism.

  10. Excellent article. Many of my friends are Mormon and as we've all grown older and more comfortable with who we are, conversations such as this have blossomed. You have educated me and I thank you for that. I'm not a Mormon, but I'm guessing I am a feminist -- I've really never given it much thought. Love your blog and I respect your commitment to modesty a great deal.

    Oh, and yes, your outfit rocks. ; )

  11. Thank you for this post. I really appreciated the sense of balance that came from your writing. Although I am not Mormon, I think the issue of modesty goes well beyond the Mormon church - as people often equate what women wear as a reflection of their inner character or morals.

  12. super cool post! i really like how you explain garments... you are totally right about what they represent... if i ever have a friend who wonders about this stuff and am refering her to this post, well said!


  13. I love this: modesty is important to me, as both a Mormon who wants to honor her faith and as a feminist who wants to combat the objectification of women

    Just brilliant!

  14. I have also read this post twice. I've been pondering it. I guess the best I can say is that I'm troubled by this whole topic right now...for some reasons that I'm not comfortable talking about in an online forum (related to the "walking pornography" issue), but a couple that I will try to articulate. I had obviously already read the Daily Universe letter and heard the firestorm about it, and I agree that it is holier-than-thou and voyeuristic. But at the same time, I don't think that relating adherence to the Honor Code to one's character is completely out of line BECAUSE those women have obviously signed the Honor Code. Sure that guy's letter bugs me, but it also bugs when I see people violating something that they have voluntarily committed to. Do I write them off as lacking integrity? No, but I do wonder why when there is a specific standard (obviously some of the Honor Code could be legitimately open to interpretation) spelled out, people choose not to abide by it. I'm honestly perplexed by it at times.

    I guess in part I find the word "judging" problematic as well. Does judging really always have to have a bad connotation? I am not someone who cares very much about my specific clothing choices (although I too value my definition of modesty) but is it really wrong for someone to judge others by the way they choose to present ourselves? Of course, if that is the only dimension by which we are judged it is woefully limited, but does dress tell us nothing about a person? I don't know...it just seems like we want everything both ways. Do you know what I mean? Probably not...I'm not being very articulate here. Anyway, I always enjoy your post Ms. Sara. You are such a thoughtful person.


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