I have heard it said that modesty died when clothes were invented.
You know, its funny, reading earlier issues of church magazines there seems to be a focus on boys having long hair is bad and not modest. This is from the 70’s. Today we would think nothing of it and it would not be an issues but in the church culture having long hair as a boy was a terrible thing and almost a stigma that if you did you were a wayward youth who needs help to see the light and come back to the gospel.
This long hair look was a hippy look and often associated with smoking weed and drinking thus it was bad.
Nudity, and the way we dress is the same way, immodest dress and nudity is bad because it is associated with something bad, promiscuity, sex, sluttieness etc… not because it is of itself bad, but because of how we associate it in our minds and culture. What is immodest dress as well is largely determined by our culture not religion.
This is just one example of how standards of modesty are not determined by doctrine but rather by culture, and pre-conceived notions of what is good or bad. No one cares today that some guy in the church has long hair. Attitudes can change, and so can our perceptions and ideas of what is modest or immodest. It is up to us to change the way we think.
What is immodest in one culture is not in another. And thus it is not about doctrine but about our attitudes and perceptions. Wearing clothing has become an important part of functional society, and should remain so. It has many purposes. We wear clothing to church dressed in our Sunday best to worship God. We wear special clothing in the temple to assist us with our temple worship. Professional wear clothing that identifies them as members of certain professions. Clothing keeps us warm and protects us from the elements. Clothing can help us tell a story through film, and theater. It can be functional in numerous different ways and in general is a good thing for numerous reasons.
However with that comes the problem of modesty in appearance. When we step back and actually look at what modest in appearance means both within and without the church it is entirely focused on our choice of clothing and how it fits on our bodies. This has led to the assumption that simple nakedness is immodest, bad, to be avoided and not seen except our selves and our spouses. I do not believe that we should go out of our way to be naked around everyone all the time. There is as always a proper place and time to be naked and dressed, with or without others. When speaking of things outside our homes and in many cases within our homes, being naked is not proper. But nor is it wrong to be naked within our homes.
I was thinking about this when having a conversation with my daughter about a dress she was wearing at church. It has a split up each side that runs up her legs on both sides. When she sits down or positions her legs a certain way the dress can fall to one side or another exposing her legs up to her underwear. Because it can fall to either side in such a way me and her mother have asked her to wear pants or shorts with the dress so that is not a problem.
My daughter, who was not wearing shorts or pants last week with the dress was becoming frustrated and upset by this because shorts and pants she states are just not comfortable while wearing them under her dress. I encouraged her to read For the Strength of Youth dress standards on her LDS gospel library app on her phone. Despite my stance on nudity in general I do want her to adhere to church standard in her dress when she needs to be dressed.
I can’t help but be frustrated, not with her but with the entire standard and perception of modesty to begin with. For the strength of youth dress standards of modesty are extremely heavily focused on women’s dress and men’s is barely mentioned even in passing. The issue with whether her dress is modest or not is entirely and issue because she is wearing a dress to begin with. It’s not that I want her to wear immodest clothing or show up at church naked. I simply want her to wear or not wear what makes her comfortable without artificial constructs of modesty in relation to clothing. I am frustrated because she is not immodest, her dress is not immodest but rather it is very nice dress that flows down to her feet. And yet I find myself having to worry about whether her underwear is even slightly visible because of the way her split in her dress is when she sits. As she is a baptized member of the church and part of the young women’s organization she has the choice in the end. The frustrating part is that we even need to worry about it in the first place. Should it really matter as long as she is dressed for church in her Sunday best?
Lets be honest here, any person within the church who makes any comment with regard to whether they felt her chosen manner of dress is immodest is not likely looking at her thinking any in-proper sexual thoughts but rather commenting based on something they have been told over and over again without really understanding why. Or at least still believing what they have been taught which is people and especially men are carnal and would think nothing but sexual thoughts about her if they see even the slightest hint of immodesty in her manner of dress. The irony is the ones who would make such comments likely would not even recognize their own reasoning. It is just the way it has always been.
In conversations with others it seems to come down to the idea that fallen man is carnal and lustful. while there is certainly some truth to that, it is this christian cultural obsession with covering up that has done more to drive the lustful appetites of man than simple nudity. This is evident in non western cultural attitudes towards nudity. Nudity is not seen as something lustful and sexual. African tribes that live naked and have for thousands of years and still have not degenerated into lustful orgy fests of rape and sex due to men and women being unable to control themselves at the sight of another naked human being.
The scriptures state we shall know them by their fruits with regard to false prophets and doctrines. This idea of modesty widely accepted by Christians and western cultures relating to how covered or uncovered we are has not had good fruits. Lest someone get the wrong idea I am not trying to say the church is preaching false doctrine. They are not and the dress standards of modesty are good and important and inspired by God to be given to us via church leadership. The problem is not in what the church teaches but rather the way in which we have internalized this idea of modesty and projected it onto others within our culture. If you were to visit the Polynesian cultural center seen below
You would see that the traditional dress for the shows that are put on does not meet For the strength of youth standards. There skirts easily expose skin up to the waste, well beyond the knees. The dresses are tight and form-fitting with shoulders and arms exposed above the breasts. The men are often bare-chested wearing little to nothing except around their wast. This is a church facility run by the church at a church school which is BYU Hawaii. If a church facility can get away with immodest dress on their performers then perhaps our idea of modesty is not what we perceive it to be. Otherwise the church would be hypocritical. I cannot believe that is the case. My testimony is that the church is led by God and so their must be some other explanation to this standard of what is truly acceptable or not. Modesty then has more to do with intent than just level of dress.
I had written a bit about the consequences in my own life regarding this false idea of modesty in a previous post called What I have learned from losing the nudity taboo. In Utah, where LDS culture rules supreme, we find that the state has the highest rates of pornography consumption in the united states. Countries with the highest amounts of porn consumption are also the most “modest” when it comes to dress standards. Middle east countries where woman are fully covered except their eyes have the highest in the world. (a quick google search confirms this).
Based on what I have learned and seen, the more focused on clothing and whether it is modest or immodest, the more we are drawn to the sexual nature of our fallen and carnal state. The very act of trying to cover up and hide our nudity has the effect of driving our desires to see that which is hidden from our view. This has been termed the forbidden fruit effect and we continue to perpetuate it by our desperate attempt to suppress those things which are and should be the focus of our natural sex drives. I do believe however that we can obtain a happy medium in our dress. Being overly dressed drives one to think “what are your hiding” While skimpy revealing and formfitting clothing has the effect of drawing attention to ones sexuality. Because this forbidden fruit effect has been programmed so heavily into our psyche I must ensure my daughters dress properly. Dresses in the happy medium between dress meant to draw attention to her body verse looking like she is trying to hide something.
What if anything can we do about this. The sad thing is that I feel that for me and my family personally nothing. I cannot do anything to change the way my daughters may or may not be perceived by those around them or what kind of thoughts they may think when other see her. Because of this I must do everything in my power to protect her from those who would think such things. The Irony is that whether she is wearing clothes or not, or “modest” or “Immodest” clothing people will think what they will. I still must ensure she is covered up properly to protect her from the natural and carnal mind of man and to ensure she is not being immodest because being naked in a room full of clothed people is not modest. That however has nothing to do with how much or little clothing is being worn however, but rather the programming of the human mind and what we are taught virtually from birth about the human body.
We can be the change we want to future generations by stopping the repetitive cycle of condemning the human form. Teaching the purpose behind modesty to our children and helping them understand the principle not pre-determined ideas of how to act and behave and dress. We need to help them understand what modesty is and not just routine and conformity based on cultural pre-conceived notions.
And that is the Gospel according to Andrew