Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Story from English Class

I'll never forget a story one of my English professors told in college one time. I'm not sure why he told it, except for us English Lit people like to shake things up, but it was about modesty. He and his wife brought their baby girl to church for the first time since she was born, wearing a cute little sundress without sleeves. An older man came up to them after the Sunday service and commented on how cute their baby was..."if only her dress was modest," he casually lamented. My English teacher then told the man to keep himself and his pedophiliac tendencies away from his daughter.

Why did this story stick with me? Mostly because I'd never really thought about the sexualization of young girls in church culture. After consideration, I think the terms "modest" and "immodest" are irrelevant to young girls. I refused to read Sammy this story in a church magazine about a little girl that wouldn't go on a field trip until she put sleeves under her dress, because then she would be modest and ready to go out in public. Let's see, that would make my little girls, who I occasionally send to church in sleeveless dresses...immodest?

A while back, I tried to explain to my sister that my girls could be running around naked and still be modest, but I'm not sure she got the point..."Well, you wouldn't do that, there are pedophiles, etc." Of course I'm not going to let my children run around naked, but little children are innocent. They are incapable of planning to use their clothing to turn people on or draw inappropriate attention to themselves. They have not made any covenants to God concerning what they will wear. Thus no matter what my girls are wearing, they will always be modest. The only reason to dress a certain way now is to practice for when they are older and capable of choosing to dress in the way that lets them stand with confidence before God.

(And lady in church who declared that "some standards will never change, like not wearing sleeveless dresses," go back to church in the early 1900s and see how modest they think your dress is and if standards have changed.) Standards of dress change, but principles don't. And why our pre-occupation with sleeves? Are they just an easy cultural marker of who is righteous and who is not? I heard a mom talking about how modest her daughter is--yes, she always wears sleeves and knee length skirts but frequently her cleavage is busting out the top of her shirt, which I think should be way more of a concern for a parent...but I digress.

How do I plan to teach my girls about how they should dress now and as they get older? "Dress like a lady." "That's not appropriate for this social situation." "Let's dress with sleeves to practice being covenant keepers." "Our family rule is no bikinis." "I would hate for you to have to throw away most of your wardrobe when you start wearing garments." (Too passive-aggressive?)

I've watched with interest as the media has recently exploded with articles about modesty and my concerns about how it is taught. I thought this article most closely matched what I would say:

A couple months ago, I had a discussion with a guy in which he tried to explain how women have to take some responsibility for being raped if they're wearing inappropriate clothing. Yeah, that happened. It really bothered me, especially as one day he might be a bishop who, when a women comes to him for healing and hope through the Atonement after a sexual assault, could very well be asked by him, "Well, what were you wearing?" I didn't blame him for this viewpoint as much as the church he was raised in. The church sends out lots of positive messages to women, like "You are daughters of God, you have a divine destiny, etc." But then these are mixed in with the messages like, "Women, you are responsible for the actions of men," or "Little girls, you are being immodest by wearing certain types of clothes." These messages crowd out the good messages and make me want to leave the church and raise my girls elsewhere. Or maybe just blog about it so I can get my frustration and anger off my chest.


Kristin White said...

Huzzah, Anona! Well said. All of it.

Austin said...

I thought it was interesting in the blog you linked to that what the rape victim is wearing is not a significant factor. Which I think makes sense but isn't intuitive to me.

Charity Z said...

I love your blog- it makes me think! I have a few thoughts on this subject. Regarding your story about the old man commenting on the sleeveless dress: We have to recognize that people learn principles line upon line. Not everyone has the same understanding of all gospel principles. That man sounds like he was stuck at a "Law of Moses" level of understanding of modesty: "don't wear that, do wear this."

Second thought regarding the sister (me?). Modesty is both a principle and a protection. While little children are incapable of violating the principle of modesty as you pointed out, they can certainly enjoy the protection, (weather from sun or pedophiles) which of course you as a responsible parent would encourage.
Third thought: For Strength of Youth states "our dress and grooming influence the way you and others act." Do you disagree? While we are not responsible for the actions of others, can we not influence them in a variety of ways (words, behavior, dress, etc., all of which can be modest or immodest since modesty goes far beyond clothes). Are we responsible to ourselves for the influence we exert over others? Would you want your son to date the busty young woman, or would you worry that her immodesty might be a bad influence?
I would like to know your opinion.

e.a.s. said...

Well, you know I love to give my opinion! I agree that we need to protect our little kids--that's probably a much better way to talk to them about their clothes then the modesty/immodesty construct.
As far as influencing people with our clothing--of course we do! We are responsible for the messages we are intentionally sending with our clothes, behavior, and words. However, we are not responsible for the thoughts other people have when they look at us or interact with us. That is why victim blaming for rape is so disturbing to me. (Well, if only she hadn't gone there or done that or worn that then it wouldn't have happened.) A woman may be purposely sending a message with her clothes and behavior that she is sexy, or even that she wants to have sex. (Which are in fact two different things.) However, a woman will never intentionally send the message that she wants to have sex against her will, because that is by its nature an impossible message to send. (I want to do something I don't want to do). Therefore if a man thinks he is getting that message from her that is 100 percent his fault no matter what she is wearing and doing.
And as far as the busty young (Mormon) woman goes--let's think about the message she is sending. It could be an intentional choice to turn guys on or perhaps she just thinks she's sending the message that she looks attractive. (Note Mormon boutiques such as SexyModest. Women are supposed to keep their man sexually interested--but not too interested).
I would hope that if my son wanted to form a long-term relationship with her that he would find out which message she is going for. Then run away if she enjoys turning guys on/using her body as a tool to get what she wants. I had a roommate like that that thought it was fun to get a reaction out of guys. I might also mention to my son that his entire life he will be encountering women who do not dress to make his life easier. (What? There are women who's clothing choices don't revolve around men??) Therefore if he has an inappropriate thought in reaction to a women's clothing (not a sin) he can choose to send it on its way and not dwell on it, which would be a sin. This is an important life skill for men.

K La said...

Agreed! I love when you said: Women are supposed to keep their man sexually interested--but not too interested. So true.

I think we can all agree that modesty is important. I also think we can all agree that the way it is taught now is not optimal. Like you said, we need to teach "Let's dress with sleeves to practice being covenant keepers." I like "God made your body, he has asked that you dress it like this." Girls are modest for themselves! That is enough!

At the same time, we need to teach boys (and men!) that modesty is their problem, too. Their thoughts are their problem. Is it hard? Of course. Everything in life is hard.

And my last point: Judge not that ye be not judged. That old guy in your story was way out of line. Does he go up to YSAs and say "You would be so pretty if your skirt was a little longer!" Does he say to the Relief Society president "You would be so much more attractive if your dress wasn't so form fitting." Mind your old business, creepy old guy.
Modesty is a personal issue. We think that because we can see this particular commandment it gives us the right to judge others. We don't judge others about being tithe payers, modesty is no different. The bottom line is you have NO IDEA why she is wearing that. Maybe it was the only clean thing she had to wear. Maybe it was that last thing her mother bought her before she died and she's been wearing it ever since. Maybe she had to get dressed in the dark to keep from waking her roommate/husband/kids. Make sure your outfit is right with God. Make sure you love everyone else no matter what their wearing.

Apryl said...

I agree with this completely!

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