Modesty: For Better or Worse

Aug 26, 13 Modesty: For Better or Worse

At the start of the Summer, my FB feed lit up with links to different videos and articles regarding modesty. Being a mom of two little ones, a boy and a girl, I was very curious to learn more about the direction our collective discussions on modesty were heading, so I read with great interest. There were a few messages I felt were spot on but on the whole I felt a lot of what was being discussed fell flat. Most of the articles focused more on the do’s and don’ts of modest dress. During a discussion on modesty a friend mentioned that his daughter’s Girls’ Camp swimming rules included the rule that, while swimming, all girls must wear shorts and a shirt over their one-piece swimsuit. I had never heard that rule before and it gave me pause. It seems we are leaning more towards a Mosaic Law approach with how we apply the principle of modesty. Gospel principles are always much more than do’s or don’ts. I believe we need to start focusing on why modesty is important to God and the principle behind modesty. Modesty encompasses so much more than how a girl dresses. When you study modesty as a whole, you quickly realize that modesty is learning how to become humble before God and man. A modest person seeks to please God rather than man or self. You don’t become a modest person simply by wearing a “modest” dress.

Christ, when He was on the earth, was asked which of the commandments were the greatest. He responded by saying that the greatest commandment of all was to love the Lord thy God and then to love your neighbor as yourself. He then went on to teach something very profound about all other commandments. He taught that on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40) In that one verse He has given us the way to discern whether a commandment is from God or not, a sort of litmus test for commandments.

Every commandment, every doctrine is given by God to support the two greatest commandments. When we study a specific commandment we need to weigh it against the two greatest commandments. Does the commandment bring us closer to loving our God, our neighbor and ourselves? When we hold up each commandment to that litmus test, we begin to understand God’s true nature, which motivates us to change our hearts and love with pure intent. So how does modesty pass the litmus test? How does it bring us closer to loving our Heavenly Father and His children?

LDS.org defines modesty as “an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If we are modest, we do not draw undue attention to ourselves. Instead, we seek to “glorify God in [our] body, and in [our] spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:2) When we seek to glorify God in our body and our spirit we seek to become modest or, in other words, humble, lowly, and meek towards our neighbors. We don’t seek to build ourselves up. We avoid being conceited, egotistical, haughty, lofty, pompous, pretentious, and prideful. This is how modest dress should be measured, along with modest speech and conduct. Do we seek to avoid flaunting ourselves out of respect for the feelings of others? Modesty requires sensitivity and tact.

Modesty puts us in a place where we do not seek out opportunities to place ourselves above other people, because we seek to glorify our God. As we seek to glorify God we open our hearts to the Spirit and something miraculous happens. The atonement starts to take effect. I believe that if we focus on the correct definition of modesty and put it through the litmus test, we can gently persuade a change in our youth’s appearance without teaching specifics ad nauseum.

I believe this to be true because I witnessed it in my own life. Many years ago I was an EFY (a Mormon summer youth camp) counselor for one session in Colorado. There were two best friends in my group. I could tell their parents forced them to come to EFY. Their body language was a dead give away, and they were dressed in a way that challenged the dress code. I knew I had a challenge on my hands. I decided to not harp on them about their dress and I asked other counselors to back off when they might otherwise make an issue of it.

By the end of the week I saw an incredible change occur in these two girls and it had absolutely nothing to do with what they were wearing. If I had shamed them at the beginning of the week into wearing clothes that covered them up, I strongly believe the outcome would have been disastrous.

Brené Brown, a shame researcher, teaches, “you cannot shame or belittle a person into changing behavior.” These young women experienced a beautiful change of heart. The Spirit had a much more profound effect on those two girls than any of us could have had. During that week I watched as the Spirit slowly worked its way into their hearts and by the end their countenance was bright and beautiful. Isn’t that what we are seeking with our youth? For every person to experience a change of heart that allows them to be influenced by the Spirit so that they can move closer to their Savior? So that they feel God’s love and in return seek to love with a greater capacity?

If we focus on just our clothes and the effects bare shoulders have on the “weak” young men, we have missed the mark completely. When we continue to add new rules with the intent to cover up more of our daughters’ bodies, we risk losing the purpose of the doctrine. One day all these rules will become “extremely burdensome” and the law will become so altered that it will have “lost much of its spiritual meaning.” (LDS Bible Dictionary, Law of Moses) When we focus on the application of the law and not the purpose, we set each other up to judge one another. The unintended results will be shame and pride, which are opposite of the doctrine behind modesty. We need to stop talking about our girls’ physical bodies in the context of modesty and start teaching the principle. We need to trust that through our children’s understanding of the doctrine they will be motivated, by the Spirit, to become humble, which in turn will result in appropriate and desirable actions.

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Jamie Gilbert

Jamie Gilbert grew up in Colorado by way of Utah and California. She took a hiatus from college to serve a mission in the Uruguay Montevideo Mission. After graduating from BYU, she headed to Washington, DC to put her Public Health degree to good use. After spending a few years trying to do her part to save the world, she settled down and got married. She now resides in the Blugrass State and is a mother to two sweet children. She stays at home, doing her best to raise them properly, but she will completely understand if they seek counseling down the road. She currently serves in her ward's Primary Presidency, although she was demoted from first counselor to second last year.

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22 Comments

  1. Bonnie Flint /

    Now that was brilliant. Thank you.

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  2. Garrett /

    Modesty as taught by the church and it’s leaders….one of the worst obsessions that there is. If these guys are really in touch with god on a regular basis I would hope god would help them focus their efforts on more important eternal issues.

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  3. I don’t intend to lower down the worth of this article but I keep on coming across very good articles like yours that pinpoint what is important about modesty, the meaning of it.
    It does not seem to help a bit in my opinion.
    I have seen loving and caring and smart parents teaching “modesty” to their three years old daughter in a way that will only lead to more “modesty” when she is a teenager and an adult because they are teaching her in a very loving and caring way to be ashamed of her body. How could she reject this teaching?

    3 years old girls need to be three years old, time will come to cover up her body (as long as she is not walking around butt naked of course!!! ).

    Those who like your article are people who are already convinced this is the right way to envision the notion of modesty and the others just won’t read it or worse: won’t get it.

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    • Jamie Gilbert
      Jamie Gilbert /

      Thanks for your comment, Gwennaelle. I agree that the rhetoric is strong but my hope is the more we talk about modesty in the correct light, using correct definitions, we can start making progress in the right direction. Maybe I’m naive to think this though. I guess time will tell. :)

      There have been some beautiful modesty posts lately that address the issue of teaching modesty using correct language. I say let’s continue to flood the internet with these messages and maybe, just maybe, we can make a difference.

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  4. Heather /

    the best way to learn Modesty is to have great examples…..I appreciate all the fine women who have taught me to be modest I know I have a lot to learn but I am on my way thanks to them showing me the way not telling me!

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  5. Claudia /

    I wise loving dad once explained to his daughter: “Never advertise something you are not selling.It sends the wrong message”

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    • Garrett /

      This comment from the wise loving dad exemplifies so much why rape culture is so rampant in our society. The assumption is made that if a woman isn’t dressed as “modestly” as you feel she should that she is advertising her body as something for sale. I am actually appalled at that statement and hope that at some point…. sooner than later….that this mentality goes the way of the dodo bird and becomes extinct. So many women have negatively been affected by similar statements….and it puts the blame on them for actions that happened to them. Please stop this rhetoric

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      • Alison Udall /

        I agree.

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      • Julie /

        Exactly, Garrett. I was showing my father pictures I took of my beautiful teenage daughter on stage at a concert, and all he had to say was “You need to tell her to wear longer shorts. She’s giving men ideas. I know.” That completely creeped me out, to say the least. Men need to learn to take responsibility for their own responses and their own behaviors.

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      • Jamie Gilbert
        Jamie Gilbert /

        Thanks Garrett. We need to make sure we are holding the right person accountable. Sadly, most of the responsibility is placed upon the girls. This doesn’t give a girl license to be indecent, but it doesn’t let the guy off the hook either. We all need to rise above the rhetoric.

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  6. LDSDPer /

    I’m going to send this to someone who will appreciate it. Good job–

    especially the part about the ineffectiveness of shaming–

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    • Jamie Gilbert
      Jamie Gilbert /

      Thank LDSPER. I hope your friend enjoyed it. :) Brene Brown is my go-to for shame research. If you haven’t read her stuff I highly recommend it.

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  7. Great Article Jamie.

    I wondered if I could share it with my audience on http://www.TeenStyleU.com. I think you did a really nice job of explaining the “why” behind modesty and the way to judge whether or not we are being effective with our modesty.

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    • jamie /

      Sandy, thanks for the kind words. I would love it if you posted it on your blog. Just make sure to add a note at the top that it was originally posted on rationalfaiths.com and have a link to our home page or to the original post.

      Thanks!!

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  8. Alison Udall /

    Love this thought.

    “When we focus on the application of the law and not the purpose, we set each other up to judge one another. The unintended results will be shame and pride, which are opposite of the doctrine behind modesty. We need to stop talking about our girls’ physical bodies in the context of modesty and start teaching the principle.”

    I’m sad to watch how we are teaching this currently and the extreme focus we are placing on how much skin is showing and what should be covered up. It completely misses the mark on the entire concept and their worth as an entire person.

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    • Jamie Gilbert
      Jamie Gilbert /

      Thanks Alison. I agree with your comment 100%. The shaming language we use in our modesty/sexual purity lessons needs to be eradicated. We miss the mark every time when we use fear tactics to teach gospel principles.

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  9. Very well done. Much appreciated

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  10. I wish my whole congregation/ward would read this. Thanks.

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  11. Steve Florman /

    Jamie, this is fantastic. This post needs a “headdesk” button for comments! I have a lovely daughter who was written up last semester by her Pharisee RA at BYU for wearing noncompliant shorts to the bathroom in an all-women’s dorm at night. (I told her I was proud of her. She has her own apartment next year.)

    Although I agree that women’s attire has an effect on men, the idea that women are somehow responsible for the way men feel and react is simply ludicrous. Women who are determined to attract the attention of men can do so in a sweatsuit and parka, and men who want to be tempted will find a way to be tempted. Modest is modest even in a swimsuit – even, dare I say it, if one’s navel is showing.

    The power of the Spirit to effect more change faster and more permanently than we can with shaming is an important lesson for all of us. May it go to work on those who would try to control our thoughts and desires by putting our wives and daughters in burqas! It’s too bad that we focus so much on the outward appearance. Thank you for writing this.

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