Mormon blogs and websites have been hopping for several months now about modesty standards, a storm that began in early December with a controversy about a male BYU-Idaho student refusing to allow a female student into the testing center because she was wearing “skinny jeans.” Most recently it has included a discussion on the Facebook page of Feminist Mormon Housewives about the ridiculousness of infants being regarded as immodest for wearing sleeveless sundresses. In between, there’s also been the fallout of a February chastisement in which another male BYU student (this time in Provo) saw fit to censure the dress choices of a woman studying in the university library. And on it goes.
We are living in a world in which women are sexual objects as never before, when a man like Rush Limbaugh feels it is his right to hurl epithets like “slut” at a woman who dares to assert ownership of her body. It is also a world, apparently, in which some male students feel it their God-given duty to police the clothing of female peers, even going beyond their schools’ own stated modesty guidelines to do so (in both cases, the women were not in violation of any official school policies).
There’s nothing wrong with modesty; as the parent of a teenage girl, I’m generally for it. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and who wants to dress God’s spirit in F-me red stilettos? So with my daughter, the basic rules are: no short shorts, no miniskirts, no plunging necklines, no strapless dresses, and no jeans that show one’s butt crack a la Sid the Plumber.
But some of the new “standards” being touted by individual Mormons (and—interestingly—not always by the institutional church) have stepped up the modesty game to include the following:
- No peep-toe shoes or flip-flops
- No sleeveless dresses or rompers for babies or young girls (see this bizarre article from The Friend)
- No flutter sleeves
- No two-piece bathing suits, even midriff-concealing tankinis
- No going without pantyhose when wearing a dress
- No Capri pants or knee-length shorts at Girls’ Camp – long pants only
Undoubtedly, this is an overreaction to the wider culture’s tendency to sexualize girls’ clothing at ever-younger ages. In a 2011 Kenyon College study of tween (ages 7 to 12) clothing, researchers found that fully one-third of the clothing being marketed was sexualized. Abercrombie Kids, for example, pitched one pair of jeans as having “a little stretch for a sexy look to give you the perfect butt.” Its parent company was also widely criticized for producing a push-up padded bikini top for the under-ten set.
This phenomenon is engagingly and persuasively documented in Peggy Orenstein’s recent bestseller Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, which investigates everything from Toddlers & Tiaras to Walmart’s marketing of a “Sassy Vampire” Halloween bustier in sizes 4 to 6X. She calls such sexualization of girls a “Sesame Street Walker” dilemma: how can our daughters “enjoy pop culture without becoming pop tarts”? Good question.
So yes, there are some revolting trends in the wider culture. But many Mormons are overreacting in a way that concerns me. Until at least the 1970s, it was not considered immodest in LDS culture for unendowed Mormon women to wear sleeveless dresses, let alone children. One BYU alumna commented on a modesty blog post by looking back at 20th-century history:
When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s in Salt Lake City, all the un-endowed women and girls I knew wore sleeveless dresses in the summer. My senior prom dress was sleeveless (my sister’s, nine years earlier, had spaghetti straps) and I am wearing a sleeveless sweater in my BYU ID picture (taken in 1969). The skirt I had on that day was also about an inch above my knees.
In a Dialogue article tracing the development of modesty rhetoric and standards in Mormonism from 1951 to 2008, Katie Clark Blakesley argues that with the exception of permitting knee-length shorts at BYU, Mormon dress codes have become more conservative over time, not less. A crucible time period in this conservatism was the late 1960s and early 1970s, when miniskirts and bell-bottom pants became de rigueur in youth culture and Mormon leaders wanted to clearly differentiate “God’s peculiar people” from the hippies. New standards arose, with the inaugural For the Strength of Youth pamphlet in 1965 clarifying that strapless dresses and spaghetti straps were not appropriate and that skirts should cover the knees. In the fall of 1971, BYU adopted its first mandatory dress code (which included, on the men’s side, the admonition that “beards and long hair are associated with protest, revolution, and rebellion against authority”—a clear rejection of the hippie culture).
We seem to be living through another crucible moment right now, as the LDS Church and individual Mormons strive to remain wholesome. There are two problems with the current modesty fetish, however.
- Instead of combating the host culture’s disturbing emphasis on young girls’ bodies as contested sites of sexualization, Mormons are contributing to it. There is something twisted about seeing sexual temptation in the bare shoulders of a four-year-old girl. Mormons need to stop this now. Children’s innocence is a sacred thing. They should not be learning to view themselves as dangerous objects of temptation.
- What many Mormons now refer to as “modesty” is a pale and materialistic impersonation of the actual thing, which has little to do with clothing and everything to do with one’s way of being in the world (check out this great post by Tracy McKay). For example, how is it that no one sees the irony of a “modest” prom dress that costs $650? Or that Mormon fashionistas would drop $250 on suede pumps when 26,000 children are going to starve to death today? Let’s get a little perspective, people. When did modesty—an attitude of unassuming moderation in all things—become an anemic code word for conservative dress?