Friday, April 5, 2013

Modesty: What's Your Policy?

Sure, hemlines are in the right
place. But is it modest?

You can't be modest and fashionable.


Now that the screams of protest have hopefully faded a bit, I'm going to share a few thoughts that I have been mulling around over the last several months.

I have a daughter about six years old. Despite my initial attempts to keep Barbie out of the house, after I decided to change my tactics and let the dolls into the home, she has developed a fascination with Barbies. I have also purchased several Barbie movies, which both of my daughters love. They're not as bad as you'd think. But, predictably, fashion plays a part in all of the stories. Several months ago, she expressed a desire to be a fashionista/model/rock star when she grows up. (The exact title changes, but the idea is the same.) I had a problem with this, but couldn't put my finger on exactly why. At first.

Who wants to waste time
tugging at hemlines?

When I was a teen I rolled my skirt tops like most girls whose parents didn't let them wear whatever they wanted, but relatively speaking I have always been fairly modest and largely unconcerned with fashion. As long as the colors don't clash and the clothes are comfortable, I'm good. It hasn't hurt that I have never been anything close to runway model material, nor that I always had tomboy tendencies. I rarely have a desire to wear anything that requires maintenance. Never having really challenged the LDS standards of modesty, I didn't have an informed testimony of it, just a trusting one. Knowing I'd have to present a good case to my daughters, I decided it was about time I developed one.

Enter Beauty Redefined. Lindsay and Lexie, the founders of BR, conducted a training study in which I volunteered to take part. I wanted to gain some tools to teach my daughters to love their bodies for what they can do, not for what they look like. And I wasn't sure how. The principles of BR are values that I have gravitated towards over the years. I didn't think it would change how I feel about the objectification problem, or that participating in the study would impact me as much as it has.

One of the exercises involved writing down something difficult I had to go through and how I dealt with it. Naturally, I picked the biggest recent-but-not-too-recent event: my divorce. The end of my marriage rarely affects my emotions any more. Sometimes I get concerned with some of the challenges my daughters have to handle, and how I can help them, but I feel little about the situation but regret that I made such a bad decision as to marry someone who saw me as his appendage and was willing to do anything to make me function properly. So I thought it was safe.

As I wrote the very short few paragraphs, I became aware of a growing tension. Tears were running down my face. I considered not submitting my response at all, but decided to be honest and send it along, despite the vulnerabilities in me that it exposed. It wasn't until several days of thinking that I realized where my frustration was coming from. And that's when it erupted into anger.

My divorce was only the tip of the iceberg. Since then, I have dated a scant handful of men of quite different types. Each of them, in their own way, saw me as a tool for their purposes. To one, I didn't inspire enough righteousness in him. To others, their fantasies of our life together blinded them to listening to me about anything or getting to know anything REAL about me. What none of them realized, even the "good guy" ones, is that I had been placed on a pedestal before. When I met my ex-husband, I was his salvation. And I discovered for myself how hard it hurts when a man suddenly decides you are no longer right for the pedestal he has built for you. I want nothing to do with another situation remotely like that.

Standing on a pedestal keeps
you from exercising your
power to heal others.

So you might ask what that overly long diatribe has to do with modesty. As I have learned through Beauty Redefined about the methods the media use to teach women to objectify themselves, I realized that what I had previously attributed to the natural inclinations of men to visualize were vastly exacerbated by strict, rigorous social training. Yes, it was no accident that the majority of men see women as objects-to-be-acted-upon.

Marketers benefit most easily by gendering feelings of inadequacy, especially when those feelings are grounded in one of the most powerful human urges. But it's not really all their fault (as a marketer myself, I know most of us are just trying to do our jobs.) It's ours for being susceptible to it. It is so ingrained into almost everything we say, all the jokes we make and things we spend our time doing, that we don't even question it any more. Even the LDS culture has built huge non-doctrinal practices around this foundational assumption that women are to be appendages to their men, tools for their purpose. Our stereotypically feminine desires to help and lift up others have been exploited just as thoroughly as my abusive ex-husband exploited my desires to be a good wife.

Our entire culture is one HUGE abusive entity, and we are all a part of it.

What's more, it is taken so thoroughly as an unquestionable basis, we ridicule people who don't comply with the cultural boundaries we have set up around the practice. As part of those boundaries, the popular concept of modesty (skirt lengths and sleeves) plays its own role. By obsessing so much about what we wear, we are STILL focusing far too much on how we look. This is the exact opposite of being modest.

When you worry about what
you put on, you don't worry as
much about what you can do.

Fashion, even modest fashion, requires that you pay attention to how you look. Hours are spent on every detail of your body, from your clothes, shoes, and accessories to how your body rolls are smoothed out by Spanx and your eyes are highlighted with the right makeup and hairstyle. Ideally, you could craft this perfect creative look and then walk out of the bathroom or put down the magazine and forget about it as you go about your day. But that is utterly unrealistic. When you spend hours thinking about how you look, you have already lost the battle of self-objectification.

Of course there is a balance. And a continuum. A few minutes throwing on some makeup and putting together an outfit isn't going to dominate your thoughts the way hours poring over magazines and listening to fashion advice in advertisements is going to. And dressing nicely makes us feel good about ourselves. But like all good things, it must be kept within strict boundaries or it overtakes all the other good things. "Dressing nicely" and being "fashionable" must by necessity be on vastly different ends of the spectrum of how we spend our time.

Modesty is so much more than your hemlines and the length of your sleeves or depth of your cleavage. Modesty is about thinking about OTHERS much more than we think about OURSELVES. And, as we spend hours and hours of time designing how we look, we are allowing thoughts about ourselves to dominate our energy. Modesty leaves no room for attracting attention to our bodies, or any of our other attributes. Being modest means we have to stop selling ourselves. Just STOP. Instead, we should forget whether or not we are impressing people and focus on the work of the Lord, trying to connect them to their Father in Heaven.

You can do amazing things with
your body. Why waste your time
worrying about what it looks like?

It is quite impossible to be embroiled in the world of fashion, where we fixate on details, accessorizing and making up our faces and bodies, and still be primarily concerned about others. We should value our bodies for what they DO, not for what they look like.

It doesn't matter WHERE your hemline is. In this sense, you cannot be obsessed about how you look (whether that entails worrying that it isn't good enough, being satisfied that you look great, or constantly tugging clothing into place) and keep a mind clear for the thoughts of God.

There are other reasons to watch hemlines, of course. And there are other reasons to reject the concept of being fashionable. But that's a start.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing. You have expressed what I have felt but couldn't (or hadn't) put into words. This has given me much food for thought. I so appreciate your willingness to bare your soul and share some deeps thoughts.

  2. Looking back on it, I cannot recall ever teaching my children about modesty per se. I remember teaching them that their bodies are temples and that they were children of our Heavenly Father.

    Other than that, my wives and I have always let our own examples do the teaching.



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