I was raised Mormon. When I was 22, I left. One of the main reasons was the Mormon Church’s divinely sanctioned sexism. This permeates every aspect of its culture. One of its primary manifestations is the idea of “modesty.”
Mormons are obsessed with modesty. In the “For the Strength of Youth” manual, a manual outlining the Mormon lifestyle for teenagers, and available in 25 languages, immodest clothing is defined as “any clothing that is tight, sheer, or revealing in any other manner.”
While young men are simply counseled to be “modest,” women are counseled to avoid “short shorts and short skirts, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders or is low-cut in the front or the back…[¶] [and] wear only one pair of earrings.” Even “small children should be modestly dressed and taught about modesty.”
Beyond these rules, there are a whole host of informal rules. For example, women are strongly encouraged not to wear pants to church or to wear pantyhose. These rules are often the product of modesty one-upmanship. This is unsurprising, since women are taught that modesty “shows respect for the Lord” and that Satan himself “encourages us to dress immodestly.”
When a woman gets married or prepares to serve a mission – ideally the former – modesty policing takes physical form: the temple garment. All Mormons receive this “magic underwear” when they partake for this first time in rituals that take place only inside Mormon temples. Temple garments are required to be worn at all times – except when engaged in swimming, athletics, or sex – and women are expected to adapt their wardrobes to them.
Unsurprisingly, one of the common justifications for modesty is uncontrollably lascivious men. As one young man put it: “As a practicing LDS [Latter Day Saint] young adult, my covenants and standards are top priority. When a woman dresses immodestly, my mind starts to wander and it’s harder to focus on virtuous thoughts. Women become objectified; they become objects of pleasure instead of independent, beautiful, free thinking, covenant making women.” Apparently, this guy has never heard of modesty glasses.
The central problem with modesty – and this problem extends to all norms of appearance – is its inherent arbitrariness. Outside of practical concerns for weather or function, there is simply no good reason for limiting a person’s ability to creatively express themselves through their appearance.
Furthermore, because of its arbitrariness, the enforcement of norms of appearance is all about power. Only someone with power over you can require you to dress in an arbitrary fashion. Seen in this light, modesty is simply another manifestation of men using women’s sexuality to control them. Women can’t wear low cut shirts because men will be too distracted by this display of sexuality.
Finally, and infinitely more important, modesty hurts both women and men. It hurts women by decreasing their freedom, by objectifying them, and by devaluing them. It hurts men by causing them to be afraid of their own sexuality.
In short, modesty should be destroyed.