Friday, June 6, 2014

Nine facts, and a bunch of rambling, on modesty

Fact #1 There are too many blog posts about modesty. Too many! Yet, here I am, adding my own voice to the fray. Because sometimes it's better to talk to myself on my corner of the internet than to blabber all over all the other corners of the internet.

Fact #2. Modesty is a virtue, one closely related to humility. Because of this, female clothing is only a small part of modesty. It is not the whole picture.

Fact #3. Modesty cannot be controlled by dress codes (because of fact #2).

Fact #4. Even when women do abide by a modest dress codes, the men around them are still capable of impure thoughts. This is similar to what many of the teenage girls in Malaysia wore to school:

Please don't tell me that because their neckline, legs and feminine shape are covered, you honestly believe the teenage boys who shared a classroom with them never had impure thoughts about a girl he was crushing on.

Fact #5. Hormones and lack of self control are to blame for impure thoughts, not clothing (see fact #3 and #4 as proof).

Fact #6. There is opposition in all things. Because of this opposition we will all battle a few impure thoughts. It is only through this battle that we can learn to control them.

Fact #7. Curiosity about the human body is a natural part of childhood, tween, and teenage development.

Fact #8. Impure thoughts about the human body cannot be blamed solely on others. Individuals are responsible for finding healthy ways around impure thoughts and feelings (my favorite, sing a hymn!).

Fact #9. We are all responsible for helping others make good choices, but we cannot put the blame of our bad choices on someone else.

In fact, I'd argue that putting the blame of young boys' thoughts on girls who behave immodestly is detrimental to our young boys. But this is where I start to get into opinion and personal experience. I cannot label this paragraph's opening sentence as fact because there isn't enough research to prove so. Below I'll detail why I believe it is indeed true. And why several of the other facts are true, and why conservative christian modesty culture can be toxic for both girls and boys, and why we should stop shaming all the thoughts we have about the human body.

Whew! Let's go in chronological order, shall we?

When I was rather young, somewhere between seven and nine, I remember noticing a new mother at Church. Her baby was snuggled up against her boobs. "Boobs. Hmmm, I wonder if that baby breastfeeds?" was my next thought. "What does that look like? How do babies do that?" my thoughts continued. Within a minute or two of these naturally curious questions I immediately felt guilt. Here I was, sitting in a sacrament meeting at Church, thinking about an other woman's boobs. Oh the shame, I avoided this woman (subconsciously) for the rest of my growing years. I always remembered that she was the woman who made me wonder about fully developed breasts. I had sat on a Church pew and wondered about her breasts. As a tween, I honestly wondered if I needed to confess these thoughts to my Bishop.

Whoa, let's step back and realize that it is 100% normal and healthy for a young child to wonder about everything, including breastfeeding. Like everyone, I had impure thoughts as a kid, but this moment was not one of them. Obviously, I was old enough to know the human body was sacred and I was to treat it with respect (thus the guilt), but I wasn't old enough to realize it was a natural part of pre-pubescence to wonder what my body would become. And therefore totally natural to notice the shapes and curves of fully developed women. None of the thoughts I had were sinful. They were developmentally appropriate. But the modesty culture of conservative Christians had me stewing in my own guilt for years, years, because of this random moment at Church.

Juxtapose this experience with another aspect of my upbringing, where seeing one of my three brothers with nothing but a towel around his waste was a monthly occurrence. We weren't a super private family, because you can't be when six of you share one bathroom. I often took a shower while one of my siblings or parents used the mirror or toilet (I know, so why did I wonder about boobs, I'm certain I'd seen my mom's plenty of times). As I matured there were girl-times in the bathroom and boy-times, but during our younger years we weren't so gender specific with our bathroom use. Pre-teen-years there were plenty of times when four or more of us were in the bathroom together. Two at the mirror, one on the toilet, one in the shower. This exposure to the human body honestly taught me not to sexualize the male torso and chest.

I remember, as a teen, watching some peers play basketball shirts vs skins when several of my friends started commenting on certain boys' appeal. I'd completed puberty. I was a teen. And until these girls started talking about so and so's muscles it had never dawned on me to check a guy out because he had his shirt off. I had seen plenty of shirtless male bodies before and they were not attractive to me. They were my annoying brothers (who, coincidentally many of my teenage friends found very attractive). If anything I was upset that my friends were defining one particular boy as sexy based on his topless body. I'd found this young boy attractive for years ... and it had nothing to do with what was under his shirt.

Contrasting these two situations I realize something. We need to teach our kids about the human body. If we want them to respect the body as sacred, they need to be exposed to it. Not as the media would expose them, but as a basic 8th grade anatomy book would expose them. For me, this issue goes even beyond modesty, and into body image (but that's a post for another day). Young men and women need to know that the average human body has love handles. They need to know babies suckle at a woman's breast and that there is nothing sexual about that. They need to know they are in control of their own bodies, and those bodies will change as they mature.

Also, they need to decide for themselves, not for others, what is modest.

Which leads me to a few more personal experiences that have been stuck in my brain as I've pondered modesty. So let's discuss sports uniforms. To prove that measuring modesty by clothing is ridiculous, let it be known I felt totally modest in this:
Those shorts are, without a doubt, the shortest material to ever grace my legs. But I felt modest in them. I knew they were short and wearing them as casual wear was inappropriate, but that volleyball uniform was just that, a uniform. Like a swimsuit, that uniform showed more of my body than I'd normally be comfortable showing in public, but swimming in knee length shorts and a tee shirt isn't comfortable for other reasons. But to the point, at the end of the (Freshman) season those uniforms were retired because the Varsity team got new uniforms. Ones that looked like this:
Aug. 30, 2012 -- (From left) Phoenix Horizon High volleyball players Jensen Cunningham (6-feet-4), Christine Johnson (6-4), Nikki Hess (6-0), coach Valorie McKenzie, Sierra Nobley (6-1) and Tess Clark (6-4).
And there was no way in H-E-double-L I was ever going to wear something like that while playing volleyball in front of strangers and my peers. So I didn't try out for the team my Sophomore year, or ever again. Sure, my deep love for Basketball and the fact that I wasn't the star of the volleyball team helped smooth the blow of my decision. But, my decision not to continue on the Volleyball team was based on those skin tight spandex uniforms. It was based on my measure for modesty. My measure of comfort.

I used Basketball as my excuse, because even at the young age of 15 I knew it wasn't my place to make others feel guilty because they didn't abide by my measure for modesty. The discomfort I would have felt wearing those uniforms was my problem, no one else's. To that measure, I *didn't attended my High School wrestling matches. Wrestling was hands down the most popular sport at my school and I'm certain the meets were great social events. And I was a social butterfly. But I was not going into a gym where I could easily see a bulge on my male peers. Not doing it. My discomfort with singlets was my line to draw. It would have been absurd to boycott volleyball, cheer leading, or wrestling based on my standards of modesty. I could not blame the wrestlers for my noticing their bulge. That was on me, and so I stayed home while all my friends socialized together (yes, I realize you can usually see the outline of a cup in baseball and football uniforms as well, but I also saw helmets and shoulder pads, and mitts and bats ... so it was much easier for me to not notice the bulge on football and baseball players).  The boys who wrestled for my high school team were not responsible for my thoughts. I was, and I knew that as young as 14-years-old. And I chose to control my behavior as a result of it. The girls who chose to play volleyball or be on the cheer squad were not immodest. Wearing those uniforms would have made me uncomfortable, but that does not mean they are by their very nature immodest.


Most my mom friends here in Wisconsin are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints (Mormon or LDS), and therefore they do not wear the same symbols I do. They have not made the same promises to God that I have made. They do wear sleeveless shirts and shorts that don't quite reach the knees. And they are all modest inside and out. They are beautiful, modest women regardless of their necklines and their short length. I wear sleeves and long shorts not because it is modest, but because it is a promise I made to God. If we teach Later Day Saint girls that the only reason they should abide by this same dress code is because it is modest, we discredit the promises we've made in Holy Temples and the symbols we wear as a result of those covenants.

If we teach our boys that immodest girls are to blame for their impure thoughts, we teach them it is okay to think impure thoughts ... because it isn't their fault anyway.

What kind of messages are these?

Horrible ones. Which is why I 100% agree with Ami @ bunkersdown.com. The modesty police are hurting our sons and our daughters. Enough with the shame and the guilt surrounded by measured rules of modesty or natural thoughts about the human body. As Ami says, puke all over the idea that we dress modestly to protect the males around us. Let's start teaching our children to be modest for themselves! Let's talk about the wonder that is the human body. Let's show them what it really looks like, in a respectful, scientific way. And when the media and the world around them shows them in a disrespectful, unscientific way, let's make sure they know they have the power to walk away and leave their impure thoughts behind.

* I must confess I did attend one High School wrestling match my Senior year, because I started dating a boy on the team and he was kind enough to sit through almost all my Basketball games. I was open with him about why I didn't like going to wrestling matches, but I promised to show support by going to one, and much to my pleasant surprise, I was able to look past his uniform and really watch the sport. That moment was a moral victory for me, as it proved I had control over my thoughts and wrestling, with it's strange uniform and body movements, didn't. But I was 18 by then, and much more mature and educated than I had been at 14. At 14/15/16 it really was wise to sit the meets out. 

3 comments:

Mortensen's said...

There ARE too many modesty posts out there, but we, apparently, needed one more. This is great, Liz! Thank you for your insight, honesty, and personal experience. I've thought long and hard about this virtue, which we have tried hard to instill in our children. I feel a strong prompting to shift the emphasis from WHAT we wear to WHY we wear what we wear. More importantly, I want to teach my children the state of mind that is at the heart of true modesty. I like this definition:1)freedom from conceit or vanity 2) propriety in dress, speech, or conduct.

Athelia said...

Liz, thanks for sharing. This is articulate and well thought-out. I appreciate how much you have thought about the topic and how clearly you see truth in the matter. Great post.

Tiff said...

I agree. I get so annoyed when we talk about modesty in terms of girls covering up for boys. I also get annoyed when we harp on the YW about it and yet the YM come to mutual in tank tops. If a YW did that (coming from an established family in the ward) they would most likely pull her aside. I don't like the double standard.

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