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Why Modesty Still Matters

No, women aren’t responsible for men’s thoughts. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to lay aside all morality standards.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been given very few hard guidelines to follow when it comes to keeping their covenants. By this, I am referring to lists of the specific do’s-and-don’ts of acceptable behaviors of members. We have the Word of Wisdom, of course, which delineates particular substances that are off limits to a member of the Church of Jesus Christ. And we have the temple recommend questions, which represent the basic behaviors and attitudes that a worthy temple recommend holder is expected to exhibit. But for the most part, the leaders of the Church embrace the guiding ethos of Joseph Smith when he said to “teach them correct principles and [let them] govern themselves.” This is sometimes frustrating for members who, for example, want to know exactly what constitutes a Sunday-appropriate activity while the leaders of the Church repeatedly refuse to give a list detailing such activities, instead offering general guidelines like asking yourself, “what sign do I want to give to God?” But this approach of letting the members figure out how best to worship Christ in their own lives allows for both greater freedom and greater responsibility and encourages stronger discipleship as members seek the guidance of the Holy Ghost to learn what they personally ought to do to be better.

The consistency of dress and grooming standards. Because of the overall lack of behavioral guidelines in the Church, it should be significant when Church leaders do give specific, detailed guidelines for how to behave. One of the areas that leaders have spent time developing guidelines in is the dress and grooming standards of the Church, especially as they pertain to youth. In the “For the Strength of Youth“ pamphlet, the following simple details are given: 

Immodest clothing is any clothing that is tight, sheer, or revealing in any other manner. Young women should 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. Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance. Young men and young women should be neat and clean and avoid being extreme or inappropriately casual in clothing, hairstyle, and behavior. They should choose appropriately modest apparel when participating in sports. The fashions of the world will change, but the Lord’s standards will not change.

These clothing guidelines are only the latest in a long history of church leaders counseling their members on what to wear. 

  • Brigham Young told the women of the Church, “if we ask you to make your dresses a little shorter (NOTE: presumably to conserve fabric), do not be extravagant and cut them so short that we can see the tops of your stockings. Bring them down to the tops of your shoes, and have them so that you can walk and clear the dust, and do not expose your persons” (Discourses of Brigham Young [Deseret Book Co., 1941], pp. 214-16).
  • In a letter pertaining to a resolution published by the Church, Joseph F. Smith stated that “An evening dress may be beautiful and becoming to the wearer and yet be free from objectionable features. The dress should be made to cover the shoulder and upper arm; the round or V neck should not be extreme and the skirt not immodestly short. Very sheer material, while beautiful in itself, is not in good taste unless worn with underclothing which properly covers the body.”
  • The original “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet, released in 1965 under David O. McKay, gives these guidelines: “Clothes should be comfortable and attractive without calling attention to a person’s body; for example, skirts should be of modest length, and they should not be too tight fitting. Dresses should not be cut extremely low at the top. Strapless dresses and spaghetti straps are not acceptable either on sun dresses or evening dresses.”

Obviously, there have been some changes to the specific guidelines over the decades, and those changes usually reflected the cultural norms of the time. It is important to note, though, that prophets have consistently given detailed dress and grooming standards to members of the Church. Dress and grooming standards are something that church leaders have always deemed important. Furthermore, a distinctive feature of the Church’s dress and grooming standards is that it often, if not always, seems to be tied up with a certain conception of modesty. The FSY pamphlet doesn’t just note that tight or revealing clothing is against church standards; it calls this clothing immodest, and it encourages youth to be modest in their appearance. This implies that the clothing standards aren’t just arbitrarily decided on; there is evidently some moral weight behind them, as some clothing is considered bad and other clothing good. Modesty stems from the Latin word modestus, which means “keeping within measure,” and clearly, the leaders of the Church have always believed that it is a good thing for members to “keep within measure” (or to be moderate, reserved, conservative, and unostentatious) in their clothing. But why? What is the value of having these standards?

Clothing standards aren’t just arbitrarily decided on; there is evidently some moral weight behind them.

Am I my brother’s keeper? One reason for encouraging modest clothing, especially among women, that has been around for quite a while is, frankly, an inadequate one. There is the notion that women must wear appropriate, non-revealing clothing for the sake of men to help protect men from having impure and immoral thoughts. This is an insufficient reason for modesty. The FSY pamphlet points to something much larger than that, encouraging women (and men) to dress modestly because “your body is sacred … Through your dress and appearance, you can show that you know how precious your body is. You can show that you are a disciple of Jesus Christ and that you love Him.” In other words, our clothing standards serve as outward expressions of an inward commitment to Christ. They help set disciples of Christ apart from the rest of the world.

More than that, the idea that women have to cover up for the sake of men paints a rather unflattering picture of men. It implies that men are incapable of controlling whatever inappropriate thoughts or urges arise from the sight of a naked shoulder, that they just can’t help themselves. It is also an unfair burden to place on women. As Julie Hanks recently shared on Instagram, “Women are not responsible for men’s thoughts.”

So the shift away from this mindset is perhaps a good thing. However, I am also seeing the pendulum swing too far to the other side. The idea that women are not responsible for men’s thoughts is being used by some to eschew modesty standards altogether. In the same Instagram post, Julie Hanks expressed that she “was happy to notice that there were no modesty dress rules” for her daughter’s Young Women’s camp “like ‘no leggings’ or ‘wear a T-shirt over your swimsuit’ or ‘shorts must hit mid-knee.’”

Yet why might these dress rules have been included in the past—for instance, the FSY clothing guidelines that caution against “short shorts” or “clothing that is tight” (leggings)? When these Church-approved clothing standards are rejected, it is often done under the rationale that women are not responsible for men’s impure thoughts and thus are also not beholden to the Church’s clothing standards because those standards only exist to protect men. Thus, any correction on women’s clothing must only be happening because that clothing is causing impure thoughts in men, which, as has already been established, women are not responsible for. One commenter on Julie Hanks’ post sums up the reasoning well: “My girls [wear] whatever they want. Don’t shame us [because] you’re pigs.”

The difficulty with positions like this is that there are reasonable things tied up with unreasonable things. Are women responsible for men’s thoughts? No. Is wearing modest clothing just to protect men a good reason to wear it? No. 

Yet does this reason allow for total rejection of modesty standards? Not at all. If men ask women to follow the dress standards, is it always because men are “pigs?” Nope. Is protecting men’s thoughts the only reason to wear modest clothing? No again. 

It is also worth noting that the original premise of all of this, that “women are not responsible for men’s thoughts,” is itself somewhat muddy. It is a well-known fact within social psychology that our peers influence us in a myriad of subtle, unnoticed ways. People are more likely to go along with the majority opinion. And school uniforms decrease delinquent behavior in students. For good or bad, we influence those around us, and that influence extends into clothing. It’s a form of communication. If you show up to a job interview in professional clothing, it’s because you want to communicate the message that you are a professional person and should be hired. Showing up in your pajamas would convey a much different message, and the interviewer would naturally respond accordingly. Our clothing invites others to see us a certain way.

The FSY pamphlet explains that “when you are well groomed and modestly dressed, you invite the companionship of the Spirit and you can be a good influence on others. Your dress and grooming influence the way you and others act.” Of course, that doesn’t mean we are solely responsible for other people’s behaviors. If I’m offered drugs, it is entirely my decision and my responsibility if I accept those drugs. But certainly, I would be less likely to accept if I had never been offered them in the first place. 

So again, is a woman responsible for a man’s thoughts? Well, yes and no. If a young man is trying to overcome the vice of sexual temptation, a prom date in a revealing dress won’t be doing him any favors, especially if the girl is dressing deliberately to draw attention to her body. On the other hand, it would be ridiculous to say it is the girl’s fault if the young man entertains and tries to act on those sexual temptations. As with many things, the question of ultimate influences and responsibility is a difficult one, with no black and white, clear-cut answer. One thing is clear, though: it takes two to tango. One’s clothing choices always exist in relationship with other people. And whether it’s intentional or not, immodest clothing invites others to see you a certain way, even to objectify you. Perhaps this helps explain why one usually doesn’t hear complaints of being objectified as a sex object coming from modestly dressed women.

Modesty and good manners. There’s one more question that often comes up in debates about modesty and the Church’s dress standards. What are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supposed to do about them? How are we supposed to follow them and encourage others to follow them without seeming rude or judgemental? Are we our brother’s or sister’s keeper? Do we allow some leeway because those dressing immodestly are not responsible for the actions of others? Should we rigidly enforce dress standards among youth even if it leads to embarrassment or offense? These are ethical questions that don’t have easy answers. There are some who seem to believe that if you see immodesty, the right thing to do is nothing. Be silent and don’t judge, or else you’re a ‘Karen.’ And to be fair, everybody has heard the stories of the investigator who did not have the appropriate clothing for church, and some well-intentioned member bore down on them about it publicly, making that person feel so embarrassed that they never showed up to church again. Or the inactive young woman who was bullied and ostracized at a stake dance because she didn’t even have a dress in her wardrobe that covered everything. Surely that is not the result the leaders of the Church desire when they encourage us to follow the dress and grooming standards. And yet they do give us standards, and they do expect us to aspire after them and do our best to follow them. How do we navigate these confusing and seemingly contradictory waters? Surely there’s a better way than the false dichotomy of don’t judge vs condemn to hell.

To resolve these conflicts, I would encourage people to hearken back to an ancient and outdated tradition: etiquette. Before continuing on, though, I must immediately explain that by etiquette, I am not referring to how many pieces of silverware belong on a table and if the forks go on the right side or the left. That is only the stereotypical version of a much broader set of guidelines for proper behavior. Judith Martin, a commentator on etiquette for nearly 45 years, states that:

[Etiquette has been] dismissed as an archaic frill to be dispensed with by a world on the go that was much too busy to trifle with such niceties. Yet serving as the language and currency of civility, etiquette reduces those inevitable frictions of everyday life that, unchecked, are increasingly erupting into the outbursts of private and public violence so readily evident in fractured families, stymied legislatures, drop-of-the-hat lawsuits, road rage, and other unwelcome by-products of a manners-free existence. These unpleasant developments have bred a nationwide call … for a return to common courtesy.

Simply put, the purpose of good manners and proper etiquette is to avoid and mitigate the embarrassment and shame that can so easily arise in social situations. It is easy to see how this could apply to situations involving dress and grooming. Someone comes to church in ripped jeans. A date shows up in a backless dress. How do we handle scenarios like these without offending someone and subjecting them to public embarrassment? Wouldn’t it be nice if there were guidelines for how to move through these difficult situations?

Society as a whole used to follow such guidelines for social behavior. But few today would disagree that principles of good manners have largely been abandoned. People today seem much more prone to jettison etiquette for the sake of some higher good than avoiding hurt feelings. Everywhere one looks, there are accusations of racism, bigotry, hatred, etc., and all this finger-pointing seems to be done in the hope of somehow making life better. But, Martin says,

The likelihood of bringing about a higher good … by rudely expressing one’s concern for others’ health, voicing unflattering criticism, and forcing confrontational consideration of moral issues is small … However, it is nearly a certainty that these morally righteous etiquette transgressions will cause embarrassment and hurt feelings, evils that manners seek to forestall.

Of course, there is importance in speaking the truth, and sometimes the truth will cause hurt feelings. But that truth must always be spoken in love, or else it can cause more harm than if it went unsaid.

The idea that women are not responsible for men’s thoughts is being used by some to eschew modesty standards altogether.

One new convert in a midwestern singles ward frequently wore revealing outfits to her new ward congregation. Yet out of a desire to spare her feelings, no one in the ward mentioned anything about it—attempting to nudge her in a better direction. As a result, this woman never learned any different—nor absorbed any different message about her life and worth. How her body looked was her worth—and showing as much as possible remained her default operating principle. Before her first year was over, these same ward members were sad to see her step away, partly due to the influence of men outside the faith who gave her that kind of sexual attention her dress kept inviting.

Before correcting someone’s clothing, remember Thomas Monson’s counsel to “never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved.” Extend to other people compassion and assume goodwill toward them. Built into etiquette is sympathy for the stranger. It assumes that the person violating the rules has good intentions, even if they don’t look like it. Etiquette insists that you do what you can to make the other person feel welcome. So next time you see someone at church who isn’t covering everything, ask yourself: Will addressing (publicly or privately) this violation of the clothing standards help this person feel welcomed and loved? Or will it ensure embarrassment and hurt feelings? In my experience, it’s usually the latter. 

The importance of Gospel norms. Now, before you start thinking that good manners mean we can’t ever enforce the Church’s dress and grooming standards for fear of insult or injury, please remember that these standards have been given to us by the leaders of the Church as some of the inspired norms we should adhere to as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The norms we choose to maintain define us as a community. They also represent a sort of clearance bar for those who wish to join our community of believers. When people are baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ, they agree to sacrifice some norms (like strapless summer clothing) and take up the norms of Christ’s church (like wearing clothes that cover the garment). These strong norms bind people together and direct their attention to the shared value of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So yes, we should be encouraging adherence to the Church’s dress standards.

Keep in mind also that etiquette cuts both ways too. While it may be impolite to criticize someone’s revealing dress, it is also impolite of that person to wear such revealing clothing in the first place, especially in a social situation where it openly flouts the norms. But a high point of etiquette is that when others are being rude, you are not. And it is often rude to point out others’ rudeness. God is patient with us, and so we must be patient with others. Perhaps before we can truly encourage a norm of following the dress and grooming standards outlined in the FSY pamphlet, we need first to solidify the norm of being polite to people who aren’t following those standards.

While I was serving as a missionary in Indonesia, a certain investigator came to church. Ibu Mika was a little old lady who was very nervous about coming to church because while she was “a Christian on the inside, she was a Muslim on the outside.” It had been decades since she’d been to a church, and one of her main fears was the many questions her Muslim neighbors would surely ask her when they saw her going out on Sunday. But she plucked up her courage and eventually made the journey to the only church she had an address for, the one a young American boy in a white shirt told her about. Thus she found herself in the Bogor 2nd ward. 

Ibu Mika was not dressed for the occasion. The Relief Society women that Sunday were dressed in particularly beautiful dresses in celebration of a national holiday. In contrast, over her regular clothes, Ibu Mika wore a big, yellow winter coat that made her look like a walking lemon. While the coat was not ‘immodest’ in the revealing sense, it was painfully obvious how out of place she seemed.

At least, it was obvious at first, but it soon wasn’t obvious at all because the women in that ward swarmed her like bees to a flower. With open arms, they showered Ibu Mika with love. The little old lady didn’t stand a chance. She was hooked. She was absolutely coming to church again next week, and she was absolutely coming to the Bogor 2nd ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because there was nowhere else she felt more wanted than in that church building. It didn’t matter that she had all the wrong clothes. It didn’t matter that she sometimes wore a hijab to church (until her baptism, she was still technically Muslim after all). Those issues were resolved in their time as she was literally loved into the Church. The joy Ibu Mika felt didn’t come from current members correcting her choice of clothing (though that did eventually happen in appropriate ways). Her joy came from being able to join a community whose norms pointed her to Jesus Christ. Any norm that does that is worth maintaining.

About the author

Jacob Tubbs

Jacob Tubbs is in the Psychology Ph.D. program at the University of West Georgia. His dissertation is on the nature of joy and how classic children’s literature can aid people in experiencing joy in their lives. He and his wife have three beautiful girls.
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