I have two daughters.   I am concerned with the messages they will receive once they enter the Young Women’s organization of the LDS church.  At the top of my concerns is how, traditionally, modesty has been taught within our LDS culture.   I am concerned with the pedagogy of modesty.  Others are concerned as well. The reason? The prevailing method used in the church is to teach that girls should dress modestly so boys don’t have “impure” thoughts and boys should dress modestly so they don’t look like slobs.

In looking at the on-line discussions regarding the pedagogy of modesty, it is obvious that there is resistance to teach it differently;  why should we if the truth is, boys get “turned-on” by girls dressing immodestly?    The two things I have found lacking in the discussions are:

  1. Using quotes from LDS General Authorities affirming that modesty can be, and should be taught differently than what is commonly done in LDS culture.
  2. A pedagogy for modesty  for teenage boys and girls.
  3. Affirming that, yes, boys get turned on by girls, but there is a better way to teach modesty

As I thought about it, I decided to develop an approach using a different model than “don’t turn on the boys”.    Here are my notes from a three week lesson I gave to my Priest Quorum  in my ward;  I am the Young Men’s President. The young men loved it.  One even e-mailed me later asking some questions about the etymology of words.  It opened up a great discussion.    My notes are very rough and I would appreciate any insight into how to make it better. It will be obvious that many of the quotes will need to be redacted depending on whom you are teaching.

One more thing.  I want to acknowledge that many of the quotes used here came from a wonderful four-part post done by “Starfoxy”.  She blogs at Feminist Mormon Housewives(FmH) and The Exponent.   Other quotes come from  the Beautyredefined blog, a FmH interview with Brad Kramer, and from a wonderful book by Elder Bednar entitled, Increase by Learning: Spiritual Patterns for Obtaining Your Own Answers.  When possible, I will provide links to the web-sites from which I the different quotes come.  Let me know what you think.

The Pedagogy of Modesty:  An Approach

At the top of the classroom board write: MODESTY

The reason for the following definitions is to later show how our popular Mormon culture has narrowed the definition of what it means to be modest. Share these definitions later:


  1. having or showing a moderate orhumble estimate of one’s merits,importance, etc.; free from vanity,egotism, boastfulness, or greatpretensions.
  2. free from ostentation or showyextravagance: a modest house.
  3. having or showing regard for thedecencies of behavior, speech, dress,etc.; decent: a modest neckline on adress.
  4. limited or moderate in amount,extent, etc.: a modest increase in salary.

Some more definitions:

  1. having or expressing a humble opinionof oneself or one’s accomplishments orabilities
  2. reserved or shy: modest behavior
  3. not ostentatious or pretentious
  4. not extreme or excessive; moderate
  5. decorous or decent



What does it mean for a girl to be modest? Assume that the answer is going to go straight to how a girl dresses. Write down their answers on the right side of the board with the label “GIRLS” at the top. Expect to hear things such as:

  • not too short of shorts
  • shoulders covered
  • no tank tops
  • no bikinis
  • so spagetti strap tops
  • not too short of skirts

Then ask: What does it mean for a boy to be modest? There will probably be a pause. Write down the answers on the left side of the board with “BOYS” written at the top and a line dividing the boy’s from the girl’s side. Answers may include:

  • Not too shaggy of hair
  • no holes in jeans
  • pants aren’t showing underwear

Ask why a girl should dress modestly. Answers will probably include:
To help boys control their thoughts

Then ask why a boy should dress modestly. Their probably will be silence but you might get something like:
So you don’t look like a slob.



  1. the function or work of a teacher;teaching.
  2. the art or science of teaching;education; instructional methods.

First, make it very clear that modest dress is important. But it needs to be done for the correct reasons.  Here are three problems with how modesty is presently taught in our LDS communities:

1)We as a Mormon culture have narrowed the definition of what it means to be modest:

Now give the definition of modest.
Explain that it also applies to the way we speak, spend our money, cars we drive, etc.

So what does God have to say about our clothes? If you look in the scriptures they say quite a bit about clothes. Oddly enough most of what the scriptures do say about clothes has more to do with the cost of the clothing than the coverage they provide. For example Jacob 2:13 (Starfoxy, FmH, part 2)

And the hand of providence hath smiled upon you most pleasingly, that you have obtained many riches; and because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they. (Starfoxy, FmH, part 2)

“We can use our clothing to communicate all sorts of things about ourselves. We can make statements about our wealth, about our tastes in music, or art, or humor. If one is to be modest in dress as well as actions we must ask ourselves if our clothing is saying things for us that we would never say with words. For instance most people would be appalled if someone started a conversation with “I have a six figure income.” Yet someone may be effectively saying just that through their choice of clothing and accessories” (Starfoxy, FmH, part 3)

2) The women carry the onus of controlling their thoughts as well as the thoughts of boys:

Point out that with the way in which modesty is normally approached, as it applies to girls, we are asking the girls to control their own sexual impulses as well as those of the boys.

Ask: With modest dress as it applies to boys, are we asking the boys to help control the thoughts of girls?
Do girls get “turned on” and have “unclean thoughts” when boys have long hair, holes in their jeans, etc?

“[Girls/women] have very little control of what other people think when they look at us. If we are teaching the girls in our lives that the primary objective of modesty is to keep themselves covered so boys and men don’t think sexual thoughts about them, then we are teaching girls they are responsible for other peoples’ thoughts and they are primarily sexual objects in need of covering. No girl or woman’s body is sinful, and no one should be taught that. Modesty, as an ideal, can be about so much more than shaming females into covering up”(beautyredefined.net)

3)It objectifies women:

What does it mean to objectify something?

Objectify: to present as an object, especially of sight, touch, or other physical sense; make objective; externalize.

If our culture objectifies girls. What does that mean?
It means to treat them as objects, especially of sight, touch, or other physical sense.


Is there a difference between purposefully dressing in a way to provoke a sexual response and dressing in a way to avoid doing that?
The former, most will agree, is the women purposefully objectifying herself and is generally frowned upon. The latter is also objectifying a women, though the women may not realize that is in fact what she is doing. Boys will be boys.

“Many discussions of modesty, from diverse cultural or religious perspectives, revolve around the idea of keeping sinful and unholy female bodies and body parts from the gaze of others — particularly men. This privileges the male gaze, in a backward sort of way, and puts females at a disadvantage for being the ones in control of what others think or feel when seeing their bodies. When we speak of modesty strictly in terms of covering our bodies from the sexual gaze of others, we are keeping the level of discourse at the shallow waters of women and girls as bodies alone”(beautyredefined.net)

“If modesty is a concept you subscribe to, there is great power in changing the modesty conversation from what you LOOK like to others to what you FEEL like inside. Studies on the epidemic of self-objectification show us that “clothing represents an important contributor to the body and emotional experience of contemporary young women” because body-bearing clothing leads to greater states of self-objectification, body shame, body dissatisfaction, and negative mood (the latest study of this kind was just published in May 2012’s Sex Roles academic journal). What this tells us (and what our own experience living in female bodies tells us is a no-brainer) is that when we wear clothing that is revealing or emphasizing our parts, we become very self-aware of those parts that are being looked at. We self-objectify and are in a near-constant state of adjusting our clothing, fixating on what we look like, and looking at other people looking at us. It’s OK to like being looked at, and even to like attention from others for our looks, but if it’s getting in the way of progress, happiness, and health — as so much research confirms that it is — we’ve got to move on to being more than an object to be looked at. Research shows a level of modesty can be an important tool in safe-guarding ourselves and our daughters from being in a constant state of self-objectification…….when we fixate on the inches showing we are missing the point. When we judge girls and women for the skin they are or are not showing, we are minimizing them to their bodies and repeating the same lies that females are only bodies in need of judgment and fixing. We are even perpetuating the shame-inducing belief that female bodies are sinful and impure, and must be covered to protect boys and men who can’t be held responsible for their thoughts or actions”(beautyredefined.net)

“But, the problem is that – so on the one hand I see the impulse to tell Mormon girls to be different – that’s an impulse I sympathize with. The problem is that we tell them to be different in a way that concedes what is happening. In other words, the larger culture is telling women and increasingly young girls, “Your bodies are primarily sexual; they are about desirability and desire; they are about the effect; the most important thing your body does is the effect it has on men; that your bodies are inherently pornographic.” And what we do as a church right now is we tell girls to cover up. So we tell our women and we tell our young women and increasingly young girls to cover up. But we tell them to do that in a way that reenforces the idea that to cover up because they are pornography. Right?

“In other words our modesty discourse – the way we talk about the importance of dressing with self-respect – is we do it in a way that actually reinforces and deepens and magnifies and distorts the already presence of sexualization of girls’ bodies – rather than in a way that undermines it. I mean, ideally, the way is, as I see it, ideally what we want, is for our girls to choose not to dress in a highly provocative manner, to dress in a manner that denotes self-respect, and that more than anything else, reflects a choice on their part not to use their bodies as objects of sexual power.

“Nothing, in my mind, better encapsulates everything that is wrong with Mormon culture, when it comes to gender and sexuality than the fact that, hands to God, in Salt Lake City there is a store called ‘Sexy Modest Boutique’. But, on some level it would be surprising if such an establishment didn’t exist because these two sort of points of tension in our culture intersect perfectly around this idea of being sexy and hot but also covering up your body. It’s the specter of walking pornography that underlies all of this….The idea that you run the risk becoming “pornography” as a girl or a women if you don’t cover up enough of your body, because by itself, your body is pornography; it just permeates. You can go to BYU’s website and go to their EFY program website and these testimonial videos from kids that attend and you see these teenage girls in these videos talking about the dress standards and testifying about how important the dress standards are because they don’t want to make themselves into the reason why the boys can’t go on a mission. It’s so horrible.

“So, it’s like we are pin-pointing the problem, the big picture, we see the problem in the world, and we are trying to solve it in the most counter-productive that way we can. I do want my daughters, when they become capable of having that effect on other men, I do want them to choose not to exercise that – to choose not to take advantage of that. I want them to treat their bodies and make wardrobe choices that reflect respect for their bodies. But, I want them to do that because….In other words, I want their choice of dress to reflect the fact that their bodies are not pornographic, rather than to reflect the idea that they are…You have to acknowledge and you have to own the fact as a parent and as an advocate for you children that it is not immodest for little girls to dress a certain way because they are little girls.” (Brad Kramer, FmH Podcast, Episode 16, 28:29 )

4)It makes boys/men out to be dumb, stupid Neanderthals that cannot control themselves:

You have little control over what thoughts enter your mind, however you have full control with what you will do with those thoughts.

2 Nephi 2:16 “…Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself….”

2 Nephi 2:26 “…to act for themselves and not to be acted upon…”

Helaman 14:30 “….for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves…”

“Nor should I be encouraging, pleading, or demanding that other people be perfect so that it will be easier for me to be nice to them. They have perfectly good reasons to try and be perfect, and my ability to be kind is not one of them. I have the duty to learn to be kind to everyone, even and especially when they are imperfect. So too, do Mormon boys have the duty to learn to respect, and not judge all women, especially the ones dressed immodestly”(Starfoxy, FmH, part 3).

Correct Pedagogy:

A young David Bednar

My bishop,Bishop Wallace, recommended a book written by Elder Bednar entitled, Increase in Learning: Spiritual patterns for obtaining your own answers”. Chapter four of that book is called Doctrine, Principles, and Applications: A Framework for Gospel Learning. It is this chapter that provides a more powerful pedagogy for modesty:

1)Doctrine: “A gospel doctrine is a truth – a truth of salvation revealed by a loving Heavenly father. Gospel doctrines are eternal, do not change, and pertain to the eternal progression and exaltation of Heavenly Father’s sons and daughters. Doctrines such as the nature of the Godhead, the plan of happiness, and the Atonement of Jesus Christ are foundational, fundamental, and comprehensive. The core doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ are relatively few in number.”

“Gospel doctrines answer the question of “why?” For example, the doctrine of the plan of happiness answers the question of why we are here upon the earth…The doctrine of the Godhead helps us understand why we are to become perfect even as our Father in heaven and His Son Jesus Christ are perfect” (pg. 115, Nook version).

Elder Packer has said:

“True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. Preoccupation with unworthy behavior can lead to unworthy behavior. That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel” (“Little Children”, 17)

2)Principles: “A gospel principle is a doctrinally based guideline for the righteous exercise of moral agency. Principles are subsets or components of broader gospel…Correct principles always are based upon and arise from doctrines, do not change, and answer the question of “what?”….A principle is not a behavior or a specific action. Rather, principles provide basic guidelines for behavior and action…the fourth article of faith states:

‘We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ…..”

“The Atonement explains why, and the principles focus upon the what. Thus, the principles of faith in Christ and repentance provide the necessary guidance so the Atonement can become efficacious in our lives…(pg. 117, Nook version).

He then goes on to quote Elder Oaks:

‘I will not suggest detailed rules, since the circumstances in various wards and branches in our worldwide Church are so different that a specific rule that seems required in one setting may be inappropriate in another. Rather, I will suggest a principle based on the doctrines. If all understand this principle and act in harmony with it, there should be little need for rules'(The Aaronic Priesthood and the Sacrament,” 39).

3)Applications: “Applications are the actual behaviors, action steps, practices, or procedures by which gospel doctrines and principles are enacted in our lives. Whereas doctrines and principles do not change, applications appropriately can vary according to needs and circumstances. Applications answer the question of “how.”

Elder Bednar then goes on to give the example of Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as the principle, and the actions would include:

  • study the scriptures
  • pay tithes and offerings
  • attend church meetings
  • partake worthily of the sacrament
  • accept and magnify Church callings

(pg. 118, Nook version)

How can we apply this to the issue of modesty?

1) Doctrine (why): The plan of happiness teaches why we are here on earth and why we are to become like God. It is because we existed as spirits with our Heavenly Parents who are literally the parents of our spirits and we are created in their image. We are here to learn that, through the Atonement, we can control the bodies our earthly parents have provided for us.

2)Principle (what): What should we do? We should respect ourselves because we are literally children of Heavenly Parents.

3)Application (how): How are we to show respect for ourselves? My acting modestly in our thoughts, speech, actions, and dress.

“The clothes I wear can effect the way I think about myself, and the way I treat myself- and God cares very much about what I think about myself. God also cares about what we wear because we are created in His image and the way we treat and think of our bodies can change the way we think about God, and God cares what we think about Him too” (Starfoxy, FmH, part 4)

“…modesty “isn’t a line on your arm, it’s a line in your heart” (Starfoxy, FmH, part 4)

“Modesty can be a powerful concept when we believe we are more than bodies. And when you believe you are more than a body – that you are capable of more than being looked at and you can do more than work on perfecting your parts – then you might dress differently than someone who perceives her value comes from her appearance, or the amount of attention she gets from men. Someone who sees herself as a capable and powerful person with a body that can help her achieve great things might act differently than someone who exists solely to look “hot.” She’ll treat her body differently and think about it differently. If you believe your power comes from your words, your unique contributions, your mind, your service, then you don’t need to seek attention and power by emphasizing your parts and minimizing yourself to your body” (www.beautyredefined.net)

Read Moses 1:39

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”

“Anything that stands in the way of that is His business. If the way [a girl or boy]dresses [her/him]self leads to be filled with fear and shame, then He cares. If [her/his] clothes lead to vanity, and selfishness, and other sorts of sins, He cares. But He can teach me how to cover myself, both body and mind, in a way that will protect me from those and other sins”(Starfoxy, FmH, part 3)

“It is very tempting to compare clothes to a form of communication. Clothes are like words that you wear! And this is true, but only to a certain point. First lets talk about the way that this is an apt comparison.

Clothing does communicate things to people around us.

Let me read the following story:

“My sister is a police officer and when she is in her uniform everyone knows that she is an officer of the law, and they treat her differently because of that. I once met her for lunch while she was on duty and people were reluctant to meet her gaze, yet stared at her when they thought she wasn’t looking. She said, “people don’t see you, they see the uniform.”

Another way that clothing can be a form of language is that the same way we can’t arbitrarily redefine words, and declare them to mean whatever we feel like (cough cough preside cough), we don’t get to pick what certain ways of dressing mean within our culture. Pocket protectors are nerdy. Sweaters slung over shoulders are preppy. Birkenstocks are for hippies. Cowboy boots are for hicks, etc etc. Knowing the language of clothing is an important part of being able to function effectively within a society” (Starfoxy, FmH, part3).

Here is another way to approach it:

1)Doctrine: Read Timothy 2:5; Doctrine and Covenants 45:3. “The doctrine of the Atonement explains why Jesus Christ is our mediator and advocate with the Father” (page 115, Nook version).

2)Principle: Repentance. “The principles of faith and repentance can provide the necessary guidance so the Atonement can become efficacious in our lives” (pg. 117, Nook version).

3)Application: We are to love and forgive others since we all need the atonement

Read D&C 64:10 “....but of you it is required to forgive all men.”

Read Matthew 22:36-40 “....love thy neighbor as thyself…”

Read John 13:34, 35 “...ye love one another; as I have loved you.…”

Yet another way to teach:

1) Doctrine: Fall of Adam and Eve tells us why we can choose

2)Principle: What can we do? Agency tells us we can freely choose how we can act and whether or not to take advantage of the Atonement.

3)Applications: You boys are not dumb Neanderthals.  You have agency and can control your thoughts and should do so.

Read: 2 Nephi 2:26 “…to act for themselves and not to be acted upon…”

“Does that love for others include [a girl] covering herself up so that boys and men aren’t tempted by [her]? I don’t think so, and I have a few reasons why. One: There are other, better reasons [for a girl] to cover [her]self up that have nothing to do the needs of those around [her] and everything to do with [her] own needs, and [her] own salvation. We aren’t hurting for good reasons to dress modestly, so we don’t even have to go there. Reaching for that reasoning makes it sound like there aren’t good reasons to dress modestly for one’s self. And Two: “Going there” includes sending a message to the boys and men that they don’t *really* have to love others as Christ would, and learn to ignore how they look. They learn that as long as the girls are ‘being good’ in that particular way then they don’t *have* to learn how ‘be good’ for themselves- they can coast along on the righteousness of others rather than confronting and conquering- through the atonement- their own imperfections.

“Think of it like this, it would be so much easier to be kind and non-judgmental of other people if they were all perfect. Unfortunately other people are not perfect, and I cannot blame my lack of kindness towards them on their imperfections. Their imperfections may explain it, but explanations are not excuses especially in God’s eyes. Nor should I be encouraging, pleading, or demanding that other people be perfect so that it will be easier for me to be nice to them. They have perfectly good reasons to try and be perfect, and my ability to be kind is not one of them. I have the duty to learn to be kind to everyone, even and especially when they are imperfect. So too, do Mormon boys have the duty to learn to respect, and not judge all women, especially the ones dressed immodestly(Starfoxy, FmH, part 3).


Elder Bednar then goes on to give a social criticism of our popular Mormon culture:

“…the spiritual power and protection that come from “yielding [our] hearts unto God” (Helaman 3:35) cannot be obtained merely by performing and checking off all of the gospel things we are supposed to do. Consistently completing the various tasks without experiencing the mighty change of heart and becoming more devoted disciples will not produce the spiritual strength we need to withstand the evils and opposition of the latter days” (pg. 120, Nook version)

He then continues (ASK THE BOYS THIS QUESTION) I modified the original to fit the lesson:

“Consider the following question – and answer it honestly and candidly. Please do not quickly give the obviously appropriate answer to the response you think you should give. Take a few moments to reflect on “things as they really are” (Jacob 4:3).

“In your living of the gospel of Jesus Christ (specifically as it applies to modesty) and in your serving and teaching both at home and in the Church, have you focused primarily on doctrines, on principles, or on applications?

“I have asked this question of tens of thousands of members of the Church, including priesthood and auxiliary leaders all over the world. The consistency of their answers is stunning. My posing of the question typically engenders a few moments of awkward silence. And then heads begin to nod and with knowing smiles come the responses, nearly always “applications.” It is interesting to me how reluctant members usually are to acknowledge the actual answer to this question – even though the answer almost always is recognized immediately.

“Now please ponder the additional questions.

“Why? Why do many members tend typically to focus on applications more than on doctrines and principles?”

“Here is a sample of some of the answers I have received to this follow-up question:

  • Focussing upon applications is easier
  • Applications are more tangible
  • I can control applications
  • I can accomplish things quicker by focusing on applications
  • My profesional experience has taught me to get things done and make things happen – so I gravitate to applications
  • I am not comfortable teaching doctrine
  • I do not know the doctrine well enough to teach it with confidence

Elder Bednar continues his critique of our popular LDS culture:

“Somehow we seem to be drawn to applications as the primary way to “fix” things, to make life better, to be “doers of the word,” to achieve desired outcomes, and to help the Church operate effectively. And far too often we emphasize applications without the necessary understanding and divorced from the doctrinal context.

“We may focus on applications because we like to believe and feel like we are in control, because we have confidence in our own experience and expertise, or because we are only doing what we have seen others teachers and leaders do….I find it both noteworthy and troubling that in the dispensation of the fulness of times, a season in the history of the world during which all things are to be gathered together in one in Christ, many members are exasperatingly engaged in creating ever longer lists of detailed and disconnected gospel applications.

“Whatever the reasons, emphasizing applications to the exclusion of fundamental doctrines and principles does not produce spiritual power, protection, and direction….I am suggesting that applications, such as some of those presented earlier as items of lenghty “to do” lists of many members, tend to receive disproportionate and excessive attention” (pg. 123, Nook version).

Miguel is a Guatemalan-American Mormon living in the Northwest with his family. He is one of the proprietors of the Rational Faiths blog.

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