Thursday, October 4, 2012

On Modesty and Mormonism

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.


Elizabeth said...

I can't believe those modesty glasses exist! Seriously men need to literally blind themselves to prevent having "impure" thoughts about women? Wow.

In my random surfing of blogs one night, I got "sucked into the rabbit hole" (what I call clicking through random links on the internet into unexpected paths) onto a website about modesty aimed at teenagers. I was simply stunned. They had all of these testimonials from teenaged boys talking about how they can't control themselves and links for girls to articles about why they should dress modestly. This is a culture that I had literally no exposure to in my life.

I do think it's pretty insulting to guys to imply that they can't possibly control themselves around a woman showing cleavage. Although I suppose the church requires control of your thoughts and not just your actions. Either way, it's interesting that women need to change their behavior for men's benefit. At least using the modesty glasses puts the onus for action on the men, and not the women.

Jihan A. Kahssay said...

For me, one of the most irritating things that religious groups can do is control women's bodies. In this case, some Mormons are trying to control women's bodies with more scrutiny than men's bodies. Similarly, in my own religion of Islam, some Muslims try very hard to control women's bodies by pressing upon the need for feminine modesty.

We see the same obsession with controlling women's bodies in politics and the law. Most recently, the attempts of lawmakers to restrict access to female contraception is plainly an attempt to control women's bodies -- to control when and how women make babies.

The notion that women's bodies need to be controlled and regulated is incredibly demeaning and objectifying. Women's bodies are attached to the women who live in them. Women should be the ones to regulate their own bodies. Modesty is little more than some social constructed public expectation of how women's bodies should appear and be dressed. As if women need guidance. As if the public is better qualified than the women themselves to determine how women's bodies should appear or be dressed.

I agree, Sam, modesty should be destroyed.

Pali said...
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tzey said...

I agree that Modesty is all about power. It is a way to make women responsible for sexual harrassment. Women need to look at their own clothing and mannerism to make sure they protect both themselves and men from acts of violence against them. The fact that women should be responsible for men's actions is ridiculous.

I also grew up in a very religious home and found that as I challenged the power dynamics of religion I could no longer be a part of that system. I admire the courage it must have taken to take that step with your family.

Pali said...

I don't know if modesty should be destroyed, but it is unbelievable that women are consistently used as tools for men. Men are supposedly incapable of pursuing their religious ideals on their own and require the assistance of women. Women must adapt their behavior, and make it as simple as possible for men to achieve salvation (of course while continuing to be subordinate). Shouldn't someone assisting another to the "right path" be higher on this hierarchy-- as they are even more enlightened and selfless?