How was modesty taught to you?
A slight change or distortion in doctrine may seem insignificant. Some may say that a few poorly-taught lessons are harmless. However, the sisters of the Church have grown into adulthood, and are still being negatively affected by modesty lessons taught to them in their youth. There is a trend of false doctrines that are still lingering within the young women’s program. After brief interviews and discussions on the topic, it has come to my attention that false doctrine is being taught to the women on a church-wide level. The topic of modesty will continue to be taught incorrectly, until we are able to step back and realign ourselves with true doctrine.
We were taught that dressing modestly was to help the men keep their thoughts pure. Many members of the Church continue to teach this, not knowing the damage that it has caused to both men and women.
First, this idea has no relation to why God commanded us to be modest. Heavenly Father has told us that our bodies are sacred, and He compares them to a temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). The claim that women have stewardship over another man’s thoughts is nowhere to be found in the scriptures. In Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s talk To Young Women, there was no mention of young men depending on the women to keep them clean. Instead, he reminds the young women that the way we dress should give us confidence in our divine identity. The talk is Christ-centered and is a perfect example of how modesty should be presented to the young women of the Church. It is a reaffirmation of our sacred identity, a reminder that our bodies are gifts from God, and there is no discussion of keeping men clean. So why do we continue to teach this as doctrine without proper verification from the scriptures? If it is not true, it has no place being taught to our young women as the truth.
Second, what happened to Mosiah 3:19? I distinctly remember sitting in church and hearing my young women leaders say: “They’re just teenage boys; they can’t help it if they have a dirty mind,” or, “It is natural for young men to think about sex on a regular basis.” If this is true, then we need to review the concept that the natural man is an enemy to God (Mosiah 3:19) and not put a ridiculous responsibility on the women. And if young men are constantly thinking about sex, it would be essential to remind them to bridle their passions (Alma 38:12). The general authorities recognize that these passions are sacred and a crucial part of the plan of salvation. However, if these natural tendencies turn into snowballs of lust, there is an issue here — and it isn’t the clothes. The issue is the young man or young woman who is unable to control themselves. To clarify, the thought that someone is “cute” or “handsome” is not impure. It is impure when the thought is irreverent to the body, or is against the law of chastity and the sacredness of procreation.
I don’t think we can fully comprehend how much we offend God when we approach perverted minds with unaccountability, and excuse them as something natural or biological. It is explicitly written that even our natural tendencies (which are probably fueled by movies, music, and pornography) are an enemy to God. He has asked us countless times to control and “bridle” our passions. Yet, we find our church leaders teaching that young men are constantly lusting after women, with the connotation that there isn’t anything they can do about it. Christ teaches quite the opposite in the New Testament. We read the following in Matthew 5:27-29:
27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
Jesus is talking directly to the individual who has the impure thoughts. Those who lust after another commit adultery spiritually, regardless of whether a sexual encounter takes place. The very thought condemns the individual to sin. In the 29th verse, we read just how serious Christ is about disposing of impure thoughts and obtaining self-control. Can’t keep your thoughts clean? Remove your eye from the socket and throw it away.
Not once does Jesus say that the person being lusted after is held responsible. Not once does Jesus instruct his followers to approach poorly-dressed individuals, and tell them to go change. Jesus clearly tells us to focus on our own issues and take accountability for the thoughts that we allow within our minds.
We were taught that modesty is a woman’s issue. Although modesty may be taught within the young men’s program, it is typically emphasized more for the young women. Even pamphlets and handbooks mention modesty exclusively to the women. Why is that? One of the most common arguments is that women “struggle” with modesty more than the men do, or that women’s fashion is typically more immodest. These types of responses show us that we are connecting modesty to the amount of surface area being covered by fabric. Although that connection is coming from truth, it has completely omitted a critical part of modesty. Dressing modestly is partially about what we are wearing, but has more to do with why we are wearing it.
The direct definition of modesty varies among sources, but they all have the same characteristics in regard to one’s character. Synonyms for modesty are humility, lack of vanity, moderation, lowliness, and meekness. The opposite of modesty is arrogance, conceitedness, superiority, and pridefulness. Someone could be wearing clothes that cover the body completely, but still be immodest in their heart.
Men and women can be immodest just by wearing (or not wearing) clothing with intentions that contradict our representation of the divine. When I was serving a mission in Bulgaria, the Elders were immodest more often than the Sisters were. The Elders started to get their suits tailored tighter in the bicep and thigh area. Their conversations were centered on workout routines rather than the work that they had been called to do. This concerned my mission president, and he brought it up in our leadership meeting. He literally used the term “immodest” to describe the Elders’ new fashion choices and behaviors. He tactfully reminded us that we are representatives of the Savior, and that our clothing, behavior, and conversations need to be in line with Him. From this experience, I realized that men are just as susceptible to being immodest as women are.
An attitude of pride, arrogance, and superiority is immodesty. With this in mind, can men be arrogant or prideful in the way that they dress? Yes, of course they can.
We were taught that it is acceptable to tell people what to wear. To be frank, what other people wear is none of our business. Yet, we have developed a sense of obligation to point out any indication of a young woman dressing immodestly. Leaders might consider themselves a hero for “helping” a young woman see where she went wrong. This typically does more harm than good and is not a responsibility within their calling. Consequently, the bad example of “dress coding” our young women has become a trend. We (men and women) are quick to point out when someone’s dress is too short or neckline is too deep. I have heard my own girlfriends bring others down by saying, “She wore that to the pool? She is obviously looking for attention.” Young men are frequently dress coding the young women, and young women are frequently dress coding each other. I personally experienced this when I was in high school.
I was being picked up by a group of friends to go to a concert. I was wearing a Victoria’s Secret PINK shirt that I had considered to be modest. This was a shirt that I could have worn garments underneath without any exposure. It was loose-fitting, and my entire chest, stomach, and shoulders were covered. One of my guy friends waited for me at the front door. Once I took a step out of the house, he looked at me and said, “Are you sure you want to wear that? Your shirt is immodest.” I was confused and asked how it was immodest. My friend said, “The logo on your shirt is going to make the guys uncomfortable.” I immediately went back into my room and changed. I was so embarrassed that I threw the shirt away, and couldn’t take my mind off of it for the rest of the evening.
Unfortunately, sometimes members of the Church expect people outside of our faith to follow our modesty standards. One of my good friends (we’ll call her Sarah) grew up in a different religion than I did. When we got to high school, Sarah was asked to junior prom by a member of the Church. Sarah sent a picture of the dress to her date so that he could get a matching tie. Even though her dress was floor-length, it didn’t completely cover her shoulders. Sarah’s date responded with an ultimatum, “You either get a modest dress, or I’m not going to prom with you.” Sarah was completely caught off-guard. Keep in mind that Sarah is outside of our faith. She has no idea what modesty means, or why we consider it to be important. If you’re going to ask someone from another faith on a date, wouldn’t it be implied that she/he may not have the same idea of modesty as you?
Parents are highly encouraged to give their children specific guidance on clothing that is appropriate to wear. Mission presidents are also encouraged to set dressing standards according to the missionary handbook, and the climate/culture of the country. For example, missions with a lower socioeconomic status might have discouraged fine jewelry or anything that could make missionaries a target for robbers. Some missions have discouraged thick, winter boots, and others have encouraged them due to extremely cold climates.
Yes, there are a few moments when it is appropriate to tell an individual that what they are wearing is inappropriate. If that individual is not your child, missionary, or employee, it would be wise to refrain from giving correction.
We were taught that our priesthood leaders are attracted to the young women. It isn’t unusual for this principle to be taught; especially at girls camp. One summer, I was at a girls camp for all of the young women in the stake. I remember the leaders giving us our daily agenda. One woman said, “We will eat dinner while we present our skits, and then we will be blessed to hear from Brother _____ from the bishopric, so please be sure to wear modest clothing.”
Weeks prior to the camping trip, a different young women’s leader was giving a lesson on modesty. She said, “Just remember that when you wear immodest clothing, it isn’t just the boys at school that can have impure thoughts. It’s also the 30-year-olds, 40-year-olds, 50-year-olds, etc.” All of us were squirming in our chairs at the idea of adult men lusting after us. After all, we were only in middle school.
Fast forward to girls camp, and we are being reminded to dress modestly for the bishopric. There are two main issues with this situation. First of all, we shouldn’t be dressing modestly for anyone but ourselves and Heavenly Father. Second of all, we are taught that adult men are aroused by the sight of an innocent middle schooler’s body, and we are asked to cover up because “the priesthood leaders are coming.” Suddenly we have labeled the priesthood leaders as pedophilic and dangerous. Yes, we should be aware that our church is not an exception to sexual predators. Yes, there have been situations where bishops or mission presidents have sexually abused our sisters. However, teaching that every adult man, including the ones in leadership positions, are stimulated by a 12-year-old? Yikes.
If it be some other way it is not of God. Members of the Church are familiar with the doctrine that the Spirit can only testify of truth. The Spirit cannot validate any doctrine that has been twisted or is incorrect. Likewise, the Spirit cannot reside in a lesson where leaders are teaching false doctrines and principles to the youth.
In Doctrine and Covenants 50, Joseph Smith commands the elders of the Church to teach by the Spirit. In verses 17-20, we read the following:
17 Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?
18 And if it be by some other way it is not of God.
19 And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?
20 If it be some other way it is not of God.
We were motivated by fear to be modest, not because we understood our divine identity or the sacredness of our body. There is someone who thrives off of inflicting anxiety and fear on the members of the Church. Unfortunately, we have allowed him to turn modesty into a topic that evokes unaccountability for sinful behavior, pedophilic church leaders, and shame. The destroyer is pleased when we allow false doctrine to creep into our church meetings.
How do we know if we are teaching modesty correctly? Let it be known that no one is perfect. The Lord does not require us to be experts in scripture. He knows that learning the gospel will take more than a lifetime to achieve. However, teachers do need to be held accountable for preparing lessons that are free from false doctrine. Fortunately, the Lord has given us all of the resources that we need to teach correctly and effectively.
Hartman Rector, Jr. was the President of the Seventy and gave the talk You Shall Receive the Spirit in 1974. He said the following (with added emphasis):
The Lord specifically spells out what he wants preached and taught—the principles of the gospel—and further what he wants his servants to use as source materials—the standard works of the Church...
From this it is plain that we are not called to preach the philosophies of men mingled with scripture or our own ideas or the mysteries of the kingdom, nor are we called to bring forth new doctrine. The president of the Church will do that. But we are to stick to the basic fundamental principles of the gospel.
Hartman Rector, Jr. encourages us to teach the basic principles that are found within the standard works of the Church. According to lds.org, the term “standard works” is defined as volumes of scripture that are officially accepted by the Church. These volumes include the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Members must turn to the scriptures to verify the truthfulness of a doctrine or principle. If a claim cannot be supported by scripture, or perhaps a recent general conference talk: don’t teach it.
Learning about modesty should be seen as an opportunity for members to feel empowered. The Spirit testifies to us that we are children of God and that we have a divine identity. We represent the Savior in the way that we dress, think, and behave. Modesty teaches us who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. There is something special when young men and young women hear their leaders testifying of true, eternal principles. Somewhere along the way, the simple but fundamental principles of modesty have been demoted to “the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.” Consequently, our lessons have taught the youth that women are responsible for men’s impure thoughts, that modesty was a commandment exclusively for women, that the priesthood leaders are pedophilic, and that we must dress code one another.
Women of the church are still being negatively affected by modesty lessons that had been taught to them in their youth. I know that we must recognize how far off these incorrect principles are or there will be no change. As simple as it sounds, I firmly believe that learning true doctrine will decrease the spread of false doctrine. Change starts with us learning how to tactfully and lovingly make necessary corrections. I encourage men and women to testify and to bring modesty back to its Christ-centered roots. I encourage men and women to speak up and out about what it truly means to be modest.
“I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
– Joseph Smith