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Re-framing the modesty dialogue: A pathway of discipleship

Bishop Eastland’s recent talk to young single adult women provoked an explosion of emotion among members of the Church, and this outpouring has made one thing abundantly clear:

Many of us are uncomfortable with the way modesty is currently taught in the Church.

We want to promote virtue in society, but we are tired of sexist philosophies that unduly burden our women with confusing directions on how to successfully navigate the territory of “sexy modesty.”

We are eager for our daughters to understand that they need not advertise their sexuality to feel validated in our sex-sick society, but we also ardently wish that church leaders would be continually, unequivocally, even aggressively clear that no outfit gives any man the right to sexually exploit a daughter of God.

Many of us are searching for a better, clearer, more Christian way to teach the principle of modesty to our daughters. As I have studied the scriptures, one thing that has become increasingly apparent to me is that modesty might be less about hemlines and more about where our heart is. Christ, our Exemplar, spent his ministry caring for the poor and enjoining us to do the same. Could we begin to teach modesty by drawing clearer correlations between our purchasing power and our ability to help the poor? For me, modesty in our consumer habits is a purer, truer manifestation of discipleship than whether our unendowed women elect to wear a tank top on a hot day. 

As disciples of Christ, should we be spending so much time and money on our appearance that we are unfamiliar with the humanitarian box on our tithing slips? Do we purchase so much stuff that we need closets the size of small bedrooms? If so, why? Why, when there are people suffering in the world for want of basic necessities, would a disciple of Christ make purchasing decisions that place selfish desires above our ability to help others?

Here’s why, in Moroni’s opinion: “For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.” (Mormon 8:37)

He asks us this, two verses later: ” Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?”

When I teach my daughters about modesty, I will teach them that their deportment reflects their discipleship. Yes, I will tell them that they are women of substance who need not heed a worldly, overtly sexual dress code. But hopefully I will spend more time explaining to them why their shopping habits may differ from their friends’, and why I hope they feel no need to preen for hours in front of a mirror. I hope that if they are sufficiently equipped with skill-sets and a strong desire to study the word of God, they will opt out of a beauty culture that would lay claim on all of their spare time and resources.

We are disciples, and disciples have real work to do. There is room in this work for everyone, and I hope as we go about doing the best we can to align our purchasing decisions with our discipleship, we will forgo the temptation to judge fellow brothers and sisters who might not feel the same way as we do. My one fear is that this mode of teaching modesty could make us susceptible to unrighteous judgment when we notice people who may appear to have different consumer habits or philosophies.

Even as I type, I can think of many instances in my own life where my purchasing habits or material focus do not align with my genuine intentions to be a true disciple. In these cases, I trust in the Lord’s forgiveness as well as the time He has given me to realign priorities and repent. In His mercy, he has granted us all the time and space to contemplate our own paths of discipleship and consider how we can do better. As we do better, let us also not judge our fellow brothers and sisters on the way they choose to interpret modesty. In all cases, the Lord’s counsel to Samuel of old is a great reminder:  “…for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Tiffany W December 9, 2013, 1:45 pm

    I really like this.

  • Tracy Keeney December 9, 2013, 5:40 pm

    Love it, love it, love it!!
    Very well said and I couldn’t agree more.
    HOWEVER, I hope that everyone understands that this IS the doctrine. There isn’t a problem with the doctrine. The problem is how lay, local leaders and teachers (maybe even parents) plan lessons, Mutual activities, what they emphasize, how they express the doctrine so that it’s understood to reflect the doctrine. I think every leader would agree with what you said. But often, they don’t realize that they give one area a lot of focus, and don’t focus enough on another. For example, I think it’s a tragedy to teach about sexual purity and remaining chaste without teaching (and making sure they really understand) that sex isn’t sinful. That it isn’t the “act” that’s sinful, it’s the “when” and “with who” that’s the issue. Too many (and I was one of them) grew up with the twisted notion that sex is bad, evil and gross. I thought “that’s what dirty people do”. And comparisons of “chewed up and spit out pieces of gum that no one would want to pick up and put in their mouths” are NOT helpful but detrimental. That is NOT what the church teaches– but lay local leaders, in their desire to prevent premarital sex sometimes thoughtlessly use such ridiculous metaphors.
    As your article beautifully expressed, there’s a lot more to modesty than hemlines. And when one part of the modesty issue is focused on, without covering the others, the youth can come out with a twisted understanding.
    My only caveat would be that while we’re emphasizing the more pious aspects of modesty, we have to be careful not to downplay the actual “physical” standards that have been set and make it sound like they aren’t really that important.
    You may not have meant it the way I read it but the following thought made me pause in my cheering just the slightest bit.
    “For me, modesty in our consumer habits is a purer, truer manifestation of discipleship than whether our unendowed women elect to wear a tank top on a hot day.”
    Whether or not someone is endowed has nothing to do with the standards set for modesty. And unendowed member of the church has the same dress standards as an endowed member. It isn’t just a coincidence that the dress standards given to the youth (who are all unendowed) just happen to be the standards that would cover garments. If “one of our unendowed women” can wear a tank top, then there’s no reason why the youth can’t. And yet the standard for all our unendowed youth says, “wear clothing that covers the shoulder”. All doctrine is spiritual AND physical. There are spiritual manifestations and physical manifestations to how we are living any particular doctrine. Covering the shoulders is a physical manifestation. It’s also the easier one— understanding modesty at it’s deeper levels as you so beautifully expressed shows a much more wisdom and spiritual understanding that just how modesty can seen on the outside.

  • Darci Cole December 10, 2013, 9:47 am

    Brilliantly said, Lily. I also loved the thoughts shared by Tracy above. It took me a long time being married to realize and accept that sex wasn’t bad. Those emotions and physical reactions are perfectly normal and expected.

    Along the same lines as your article, I was talking with my husband yesterday about our consumerism and the temple recommend interview question that asks if we support groups who oppose church doctrine. When we purchase products from companies who then turn that money around to support causes the church disagrees with, are we violating temple covenants? It seemed gray to me at first, but after talking about it I now see it clearer. We wouldn’t hand those companies money, we should try to avoid purchasing from them. But if need requires, and the product isn’t available anywhere else, I believe The Lord will understand. (I.e. missionaries are now getting iPads. Apple probably supports causes the church doesn’t, but the product is furthering the work.)

    Modesty in clothing, lifestyle, attitude, etc. has so many applications to our lives. I completely agree that we need to change the way we teach it, and allow our youth to see and understand the deeper meaning behind modesty.
    Darci Cole recently posted…Yeah, I Lost NaNo. So What?My Profile

  • Ashley December 10, 2013, 11:02 am

    What a great post, Lily! (It’s Ashley F, from Chicago.) I most loved the sentence about judgement–it’s SO IMPORTANT! Many very good points here.

  • Angie Gardner December 10, 2013, 6:09 pm

    Welcome to MM and I look forward to hearing more from you! 🙂

    I really liked this a lot and concur with Tracy. Well done!

  • Marie Thatcher January 15, 2014, 1:09 pm

    “Could we begin to teach modesty by drawing clearer correlations between our purchasing power and our ability to help the poor?”

    Yes! Thank you! In Isaiah 3 the immodesty described is that of those “grind the faces of the poor”–who spend too much money on clothes to draw attention to themselves. I don’t recall any time that bared skin is even part of the discussion when the immodest clothing of covenant people is described. Not that baring skin can’t serve the same purpose (intentionally drawing attention to ourselves), but it’s just one small part of a larger problem. Man, do we have that problem in spades….and with plastic surgery we can sell our discipleship birthright for an extra decade or two of sexiness. Per capita, Utah has the highest number of plastic surgeons in the U.S.

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