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.