What Is Modesty, Really?

D Christian Harrison - December 9, 2007

I think we understand what the standards of modesty are in the church. Cover your garment if you wear one or dress like you wear one if you hope to some day. And when modesty is discussed at a BYU campus, it’s almost entirely framed within the context of the Honor Code — and the Honor Code Office’s delightful, quirky, and just a little creepy advertising.

But what is modesty? What are we trying to achieve?

It can’t just be about dress and appearance, can it? Sure it’s hard to not dress your daughter like a floozie — but is that the length and width of the issue? Aren’t we really just picking at the surface of a higher law — a body ethic?

What might that ethic include — what would it look like, how might it behave? And what would its scriptural underpinnings be — or would it come from somewhere else?

20 Comments »

  1. Well, obedience is a higher law, for sure.

    But I think it’s actually pretty ridiculously simple that we hem and haw over length and tightness –men (and women) are carnal and devilish. We are weak and mortal. The body, all-be-it kind of gross sometimes, is very appealing. It serves its purpose not only for procreation and the like, but for sexual desire. And since sexual desire, under the laws of God, are only allowed in so many ways (etc.), modesty serves as some kind of…litmus test, I would think. Plus there’s the issue of “not flaunting it around”.

    Also, it’s easy to go back to the ideal that our bodies are temples –because, really, they are, aren’t they? We’ve been taught over and over that our bodies house our spirits. We’re encouraged from every angle to keep them healthy, out of harm’s way, and to keep them within the bounds the Lord has set. Doesn’t always work that way –I’ve seen some of the brightest spirits thriving in the most crippling bodies. But…those are exceptions.

    So, I guess I don’t know. Besides my original thought about us being sexual fiends and perhaps learning to respect each other’s boundaries through modest dress, I don’t really have much…

    (and it’s late. So what I wrote above could just be gibberish!). :)

    Comment by Cheryl — December 9, 2007 @ 11:14 pm

  2. Silus – This is an interesting premise that has interested me for some time. When my artistic son was found to be painting nude models in his painting class (taken at a local gallary – my son was about 17 or 18 at the time) my wife was very upset. I reminded her that I also had nude models in my drawing class at the university when we were first married. I expressed my feelings that the human body is one of God’s most beautiful creations – even when they are not tight and toned as mentioned above by Cheryl. A painting class can and should be a healthy way to understand the beauty of the human body.

    Having said that, I also believe that modesty is as much an attitude as it is a behavior or manner of dress. I think that people – men and women or girls and boys if you will – can dress in a manner that makes them attractive, that takes advantage of their best physical qualities and yet they can still be modest. This is done with their attitude or their presense or however you might say it. They can be flirtatious or provocative if they want but they could do that without necessarily looking attractive. Or they can be modest and unassuming. They can promote and provoke dialogue that is non-sexual and have meaningful conversation without any sexual inuendo.

    Being a heterosexual man, I have known some women who are sexually very attractive who, in the end, become unattractive to me because of their attitude. This is not necessarily related to suggestive conversation but rather it is just related to an ugly personality. Likewise, I have known women who do not meet societies standards for beauty but who I have come to think of as beautiful because of what they carry in thier hearts. I suppose the best combination would be a physically attractive woman who also has a good heart.

    I have no idea if what I have written has anything to do with the premise of your post, Silus. But I thank you for letting me express myself.

    Comment by Lamonte — December 10, 2007 @ 6:14 am

  3. I think Lamonte has a valid and accurate point. I, too, have known women who are physically beautiful, but they way they comported themselves made them unattractive. And I have know (and been) average looking women who become so beautiful by how they carry and deport themselves.

    Other than a few totally over-the-top outfits, this often had little to do with clothing.

    Modestly might just boil down to self-respect. If one beleives one has inherent worth, the need for external validation is lessened- and external validation is often what you get/seek when you but your body on display with provocative clothing.

    Obviously our church standards of clothing are arbitrary- it they weren’t they wouldn’t have changed over the years, and we’d all still be in long unionsuits.

    Comment by tracy m — December 10, 2007 @ 9:53 am

  4. Sorry for all the typos in that last entry- that’s what I get for trying to get the kids off to school and type at the same time!

    Comment by tracy m — December 10, 2007 @ 9:57 am

  5. Hehe.

    No worries, Tracy.

    Y’alls comments are true, but only begin to scratch the surface of the body ethic, I think.

    So let’s open this up a little more:

    How does nudity work within a godly body ethic? What about nudity in front of one’s own children? What about men jogging shirtless? Do Victoria Secret ads breach the body ethic?

    How do we raise children who are at once comfortable in their bodies and comfortable with others’ — while maintaining a reverence for the sex act?

    Is there consensus that Victorian prudishness has spawned a broken body image?

    Comment by Silus Grok — December 10, 2007 @ 10:53 am

  6. I know I would react considerably more to a men jogging shirtless, than to Victoria Secret ads. If anything, the latter are disgusting and repulsive.

    Comment by Nick Literski — December 10, 2007 @ 11:29 am

  7. Silus –

    No comments on BYU-Idaho’s infamous honor code policy? I’m offended!

    You wouldn’t believe how much this comes up whenever there’s some sort of discussion on campus here in Rexburg

    Comment by Brandt — December 10, 2007 @ 12:10 pm

  8. Silus-

    You dress for the act.

    If you are swimming, you wear a swimming suit. But you don’t wear one to the office.

    If you’re jogging or exercising, you dress for the sport.

    If you are having sex, you’re naked (usually).

    I think God’s greatest creation was our bodies. They are amazing! But shouldn’t that then beg for a sense of respect? The utmost respect? Flaunting our bodies (whether it’s in those STUPID Victoria Secret ads or prancing around naked in front of our children –which would be very disturbing, really, I mean, how many of us want to see our own parents naked? Gross!!) doesn’t show any ounce of respect. It says “Ooh! Look at me!”

    Of course, a well-dressed, modestly clothed man or woman could be saying the same thing. But at least they are respecting the other person by covering up…?

    Raising our children to be comfortable with our bodies goes way beyond “don’t wear this”, but it also goes way beyond “it’s okay to be nude!” There has to be a middle ground. And that’s why I will always, always, always be grateful to the Church for it’s guidelines. Because then I won’t have to “guess” or come up with something on my own. God has already given me something to teach my kids, and by golly, that makes my life easier!

    Comment by Cheryl — December 10, 2007 @ 12:39 pm

  9. Silus, this is a good topic to explore. Modesty is professional and does not provoke or draw attention in a negative way. I think that people should be far more modest in speech. I have seen forums that are LDS and blogs discuss things that I do not think are appropriate. Some of them are well-meaning thinking that it would help maried people if they are more open. I think there is so much expectation in our society about how we should have our needs met that it makes others into objects and also makes people want to have variety constantly. I have read things at LDS forums and blogs that have caused me to have what I consider to be impure thoughts. But the problem may be my own problem as I am sensitive that way. I try to be careful with what I watch and read. I worry about where to draw the line with thoughts too. I am not sure exactly what is good or correct to think about, but do feel guilty about certain thoughts and a need to repent. I think people should avoid talking about sex as much as possible. This society is too plastered with it. And I think it is terrible that friends know about other married friends sex lives. If I were married, I would not discuss that with others unless it were something I needed to do with a professional to help save my marriage. And I would be mortified if my husband shared anthing including the frequency of how often we were intimate with anybody unless it were a professional. Maybe it is a good thing that I am single. Less worries.

    Comment by Barb — December 10, 2007 @ 1:31 pm

  10. I’m probably the exception to this- no, I’m certainly the exception.

    I’m very frank and open with my children about their bodies. They know all the correct names, and we don’t use generic terms like _pee pee_- Even for my daughter, my children know the difference between vulva, labia and vagina- and I feel this is a good thing. It’s taught in a non-sexual way, but I want them aware of and responsible for thier bodies.

    As far as my husband and I, we have no issue with the kids seeing us nude- in context. If we are getting out of the shower, changing, things like that. Sex is another story entirely- that is private, and kept that way.

    Also, as a fine artist (subjective!) I have painted many a nude, and one of my favorite series of classes at art school were the life drawing classes. I don’t consider that vulgar or inappropriate- and neither did Michelangelo.

    I think a lot of it boils down to intent and attitude. As was stated earlier, a brazen woman who is physically lovely, can be quite unattractive due to her attitude. Self respect is paramount.

    One of the most dignified women I’ve ever beheld was on the podium of a nude life drawing class- her bearing and confidence and composure made her far more regal and modest nude than the girl with her sequin g-sting hanging out the back of her low-slung jeans.

    Comment by tracy m — December 10, 2007 @ 2:22 pm

  11. Tracy (#10), you may be exceptional, but you’re not unique in that regard!

    Our home is similar: our bathroom door might as well not be there (except when we have guests or visitors), so they already know what real, average adult human bodies look like (as with tracy, only in the context of showering, etc., not intimacy).

    I think it’s vital that they receive correct information about their bodies from us, viewed in the light of the gospel. I have little doubt that they will be exposed to skewed, devilish versions in the future. So it’s a kind of inoculation.

    This is why I disagree with both Barb (#9) and Cheryl (#8).

    I think people should avoid talking about sex as much as possible.

    If it’s about one’s own intimacy, I agree. But in general terms I think we should be talking MORE about sex. I sense that too many LDS kids don’t learn enough about romance, sex or their bodies from the scriptures or their parents, but rather from ill-informed peers, Seventeen magazine, America’s Next Top Model, The O.C., and their equivalents.

    I think God’s greatest creation was our bodies. They are amazing! But shouldn’t that then beg for a sense of respect? The utmost respect? Flaunting our bodies ([...]prancing around naked in front of our children –which would be very disturbing, really, I mean, how many of us want to see our own parents naked? Gross!!) doesn’t show any ounce of respect. It says “Ooh! Look at me!”

    If my parents’ bodies are so amazing, why would it be gross to behold them? Note that I don’t have any particular desire to do so, but I find the logical contradiction noteworthy, and I think it’s one that relatively few American LDS work through. I think it really is a broken body-image thing, as Silus said, and stems at least partly from Victorian prudishness.

    I agree that it’s essential (as Cheryl said a little further on) for our children to be comfortable with their bodies, including how to take care of them. They should also know that they are beautiful, regardless of weight or shape.

    I guess all I’m saying is that teaching modesty and self-respect doesn’t have to be a rule-based exercise, but can be principle-based and body-positive.

    Comment by mistaben — December 10, 2007 @ 4:20 pm

  12. Mistaben, I agree that parents should have age appropriate discussions with their children about sex. Also, there is occassion at Church in Young Women and Young Men or with the Bishop to talk about the law of chastity. I think we can speak in open terms while emphasizing the sacred nature of sexuality. One of my favorite analogies was in The Catholic Voice that described sexuality as a gift to not open until marriage. What I am against is the inuendos everywhere and the obessession with whether someone is “all that” in worldy terms. I think that our modern society makes people into objects as I may have said.

    I actually know very little for my age. And I plan to keep it that way unless I get married.

    Comment by Barb — December 10, 2007 @ 5:22 pm

  13. mistaben-
    You do have a point. I abhor hypocrisy, and yet I seem to always find myself contradicting…myself. I find it’s because I haven’t formed solid opinions in some areas; and sometimes it’s because some things are naturally contradictory.

    Anyway, I think you have good points. I also admire Tracy M for being candid with her kids. It’s a hard business raising self-confident and educated kids in a world full of evil.

    Barb-
    I admire your desire to remain ignorant. Now, don’t get me wrong, that was definitely not a back-handed compliment. I totally get what you said. I could delve into stories about my naive mind when it came to sexuality, but then made sure I was educated before I was married, etc. but I won’t. Just know that I get where you are coming from. My chosen prudishness got me to places I’m very happy to be…

    Back to body image. Is there something about teaching our children too much? Couldn’t there be something about too much information which could lead to unhealthy fixations? (sorry, Silus, I don’t mean for this to be a threadjack). I just wonder if sometimes people could be too quick to swing the sexuality pendelum so much the other way that our children are learning things that they just don’t need to know yet…

    Comment by Cheryl — December 10, 2007 @ 6:11 pm

  14. P.S. I just realized, while re-reading #13, that my question wasn’t really focused on body image, although I said it was…I’m sorry! :(

    Comment by Cheryl — December 10, 2007 @ 6:15 pm

  15. How many of you men (especially when it is hot) wear (on the top half) just the garment top (no overshirt) around the house (and on the bottom half wear shorts over garments)?

    How many think that this (garment top only on men around the house) is immodest?

    Comment by anon — December 10, 2007 @ 9:12 pm

  16. That was common among my college roommates and my mission companions.

    Comment by Silus Grok — December 11, 2007 @ 9:38 am

  17. anon-
    My husband does. But sometimes I do, too…

    Immodest? Not in the privacy of my own home.

    Comment by Cheryl — December 11, 2007 @ 9:50 am

  18. anon – I think the garment top (at least the ones I wear) looks ridiculous, not mention my pendulous belly would be even more pronounced so NO, I don’t wear just the garment top around the house. I live on the east coast where the heat and humidity of summer can be deadly. Thank goodness for air conditioning.

    One of my sons, who wears the crew neck cotton tops refuses to let even the top show when he has an open neck collar shirt on. He wears another T-shirt over the garment because he thinks that is more appropriate. I don’t think that makes either one of prudes but I think we have a conservative viewpoint about nudity around the house – at least more conservative than some of the practices mentioned above. That being said, I think the practices espoused above are all healthy and the more our children are comfortable with their bodies, and the bodies of others, perhaps the less likely they will to experiemnt with sex – behind closed doors – until it is appropriate (like after they get married!)

    Comment by Lamonte — December 12, 2007 @ 5:28 am

  19. I’m glad that this topic is being discussed because honestly its not something that is around much there is too much marketing for it. The media tells us that we need to walk around naked and puke our guts to be beautiful but what really is the meaning of beautiful. Its a tough topic to talk about and usually there isn’t much of a definite answer. I have a blog about this same problem, I would love it if any of you would come and take a look and maybe give me your insights that would be awesome.

    Comment by lolamae — November 18, 2008 @ 11:42 am

  20. At age 35, I met a woman of character born into the LDS church, was converted, and married her in the temple 1 year and 1 week later. I grew up an agnostic, the son of a divorced mother who freaked on the one or two occasions when I accidentally saw her disrobed. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but she apparently did, which left an indelible – negative – impression on my young mind.

    I’ve been home teaching two families when the wife began nursing her child right there in front of me. Yes, I accidentally saw some breast. Was she immodest? I don’t think so. If a mother has to hide her breast and even hide in a closet (aka “Mother’s Lounge”) from everyone when engaged in one of the most natural expressions of love, what message is the child being taught about women, breasts, the human body, social conventions, attitudes, and even morals? About “modesty”? It’s not a positive one IMO. Yes, some people have a problem with public breastfeeding. And its THEIR problem. (Forty states now have laws specifically permitting a mother to breastfeed whenever/wherever.)

    As an adult, I have had perhaps a dozen occasions to be socially nude, both before and since joining the church. I don’t think I was being immodest. Modesty is as much a state a mind as it is what you wear. I apply this standard at all times: “is my behavior modest and appropriate for the situation?” including when sans clothing.

    I persuaded my born-in-the-covenant wife to try social nudity a couple of times at two different hot springs-type resorts/retreats. She was pretty resistant at first, and she adjusted quickly to the fact that there wasn’t anything sexual about being nude in the company of other nude men and women.

    Two summers ago our family went to a church-related family campground and took a hike into the back country. It was a steep, hot hike and when we got to a relatively isolated lake, I was the first one to doff my clothes for a skinny dip. The boys all joyfully followed my example, and after a few minutes of swimming in her suit, my wife did the same. Were we immodest? I don’t think so.

    Around the home, I set an example of respect for the human body. My four sons (now spanning 8-15) have seen both me and my wife naked “in context” from time to time. We don’t make a big deal of it. She and I cuddle on the couch watching a movie sometimes with the boys and I’ll cup her breast under her clothing. The boys don’t even pay attention. I make it a point to kiss and hug her in front of them. (They say, “Get a room!”) I tell them the human body is a wonderful, God-given gift, and there’s nothing shameful about it. Sexual relations are also a God-given gift, and are reserved for your spouse.

    I remember how intrigued I was by my mother’s negative reaction to seeing her naked. As an adult, I once asked her, “How did I learn about sex?” Her answer: “I have no idea.” (Older now, I am able to put her answer in the context of her own upbringing, and I understand why this was true.) But it was an unfortunate experience for me, for my curiosity led me in wrong directions and life detours.

    As part of sex education in our home I’ve shown my oldest son famous paintings of the nude female body. I hope to satisfy their natural curiosity in a neutral, loving way. I hope my sons grow up with a healthy attitude about the human body, male and female, not scandalized by nudity, with a desire to live an inwardly and outwardly modest and chaste life.

    Comment by Brian — January 6, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

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