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.
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:
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
"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.