SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) When Mormon leaders sense a decline of moral standards in the world, they roll out sermons on modesty.

When Mormon leaders sense a decline of moral standards in the world, they roll out sermons on modesty. Illustration by Amy Lewis | The Salt Lake Tribune

When Mormon leaders sense a decline of moral standards in the world, they roll out sermons on modesty. Illustration by Amy Lewis | The Salt Lake Tribune


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In the 1960s and early ’70s, they preached against miniskirts and hot pants; in today’s sex-drenched society, it’s spaghetti straps, bare midriffs and skinny jeans.

The message remains largely the same: Cover up, lest you cause the males around you to sin.

It’s often couched in the rhetoric of “virtue” and usually aimed at young women, even girls.

“Modesty is the foundation stone of chastity,” former Young Women leader Elaine S. Dalton said in the May 2007 Liahona, an international LDS magazine. “Just as one does not hike trails inhabited by rattlesnakes barefoot, similarly in today’s world it is essential to our very safety to be modest.”

The next year, the Utah-based faith’s Young Women program added “virtue” as one of the values to which Mormon girls ages 12- 17 should strive, but it was defined chiefly as sexual purity or chastity.

This concern has reached down to girls as young as 4.

Two issues of the Friend, the church’s magazine for children, carried stories about girls who were advised to choose shirts or dresses with sleeves to be modest. One of them tells of little Hannah, who wanted to wear to the zoo a red-and-white sundress that her grandma had given her, but she noticed it didn’t have any sleeves. So her mother put a T-shirt under it. “Now I am ready to go to the zoo,” said the child.

Bare shoulders, even on children, are off-limits in LDS Church publications. An illustration in the December 2011 Ensign, the official magazine for adult Mormons, even added sleeves to female angels in one of painter Carl Bloch’s masterpieces.

“If there’s one thing Mormons are good at, it’s making sure other Mormons are ‘measuring’ up,” said Mormon writer and blogger Emily Jensen.

Modesty matters, Jensen says, but “the way we teach it matters even more.”

“The current discourse on modesty undermines women’s relationship to themselves, to their sexuality, and to men,” LDS sex therapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife writes in the most recent issue of Exponent II. “Far from protecting females from seeking male approval, the rhetoric on modesty unwittingly reinforces it. At the same time we are taught that pleasing men through sexual availability is not necessary, we are taught to please men and God by covering and suppressing our sexuality.”

Either way, women are sexual objects.

Elder Tad R. Callister, of the church’s Presidency of the Seventy, discussed what he says is “The Lord’s Standard of Morality” in this month’s Ensign.

Among other issues he addressed in a speech at Brigham Young University-Idaho, Callister takes up the question of modesty.

“The dress of a woman has a powerful impact upon the minds and passions of men. If it is too low or too high or too tight, it may prompt improper thoughts, even in the mind of a young man who is striving to be pure,” the LDS leader said.

He was echoing sentiments expressed by many other LDS leaders.

Julie M. Smith, a Mormon writer in Austin, Texas, doesn’t mind the idea of women’s clothing having an effect on men being among the reasons to dress modestly, just not the main one.

Current LDS modesty discourse “doesn’t focus on modesty as something that is important to the woman herself, but rather as something that is important to other people in her life,” Smith wrote in a blog post at timesandseasons.org. “(It) tells women that they, of themselves, do not matter … (and) contributes to the objectification of women.”

Some suggest Callister and Dalton’s approach is damaging.

“I have heard all my life that it is the young woman who has to assume the responsibility for controlling the limits of intimacy in courtship because a young man cannot,” Jeffrey R. Holland, then-president of LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University and now an LDS apostle, said in a 1988 school devotional.

A “sorry drugstore psychology” would suggest that such a man is helpless before such attractions, his “glands have complete control over his life — his mind, his will, his entire future,” Holland said. “To say that a young woman in such a relationship has to bear her responsibility and that of the young man’s, too, is the least fair assertion I can imagine.”

Jana Riess, a popular LDS blogger, comments on this double standard in a recent satirical post for Religion News Service in which she urged young Mormon men to be mindful of what they wear to keep young women from straying to “lustful thoughts.”

“Away with shoulder-baring tank tops during your pickup basketball games in the church gym,” she wrote. “Away with low-slung jeans that drive girls crazy wondering by what defiance of physics your pants don’t drop to your ankles.”

Then, in a twist on Callister’s speech, Riess reminded Mormon men that they will marry “the type of woman you dress for.”

Brad Kramer, a Utah-based anthropologist who studies the effects of language on Mormon communities, argued that there is a distinction between thoughts and actions.

Mormon males “feel a degree of guilt when any sexual desire is triggered by someone other than their wife, and they partially blame and resent the girl/woman in question if modesty rhetoric has given them a pretext for judging their dress as inappropriate,” Kramer said. “You see this play out especially strongly in the mission field, where young men feel the strongest pressure to completely suppress desire. You encounter an awful lot of resentment and sometimes vivid hostility in male missionaries toward local girls and women who trigger sexual desire or attraction.”

The church’s modesty mantra creates deep anxiety about human sexuality, Finlayson-Fife wrote, and “does women (and men) a deep disservice.”

Such anxiety “robs women of self-knowledge, as well as ownership of and confidence in their sexuality.”

Mormon doctrine posits that women are “sexual beings … [with] beautiful, curvaceous bodies,” the therapist writes. True modesty, then, includes honoring womanly sexuality — “neither flaunting it nor masking it.”

(Peggy Fletcher-Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)

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26 Comments

  1. Michael Reddford

    Burkhas for everyone! Wars and genocide and murder have resulted from the effects of the power/influence that women exert over men. Women may by&large be physically weaker that men but they make up for that in other ways… Girl Power!

  2. Modesty in Mormon culture includes the men.

    “Cover up, lest you cause the males around you to sin.” is spin and focuses away from the wider problem, especially in our current society:

    Cover up, lest you cause the **everyone** around you to sin. A male “stud” is tempting to both men and women and leads to sin just as tight jeans on women is tempting to both sexes these days.

    Come on people, don’t be so stereo-typical and unfair.

    • So where are the articles aimed at boys and men? Where are the lectures for them to cover their shoulders? 99.9% of this message in the church is directed at women and girls. While other reasons are discussed almost every single time it is also made clear that this level of modesty is to keep men from lusting after our flesh. How many basketball games have I seen in cultural halls where guys take their shirts off or show up in tank tops and go totally unchallenged? I have seen youth leaders literally use a ruler to measure girls sleeves and hemlines before allowing them to go into a dance! This is an issue completely aimed at women with only a cursory knod at the men.

  3. In Ms. Fletcher-Stack’s article, she quotes church leader Jeffrey Holland, but it seems only enough to make her negative point without revealing the context of his message.

    Here is some of what was missing, starting with the sentence that she did quote:

    “I have heard all my life … because a young man cannot. What an unacceptable response to such a serious issue! What kind of man is he, [who can do many great things], but yet does not have the mental capacity or the moral will to say, “I will not do that thing”?”

    In the next paragraph he says, “… I lay the burden squarely on the shoulders of the young man…”

    Read the talk at: http://www.familylifeeducation.org/gilliland/procgroup/Souls.htm

    The author of this article seems to be practicing biased reporting to support her own viewpoint, regardless of the facts.

  4. The author of this article quotes various sources attempting to show particular doctrines regarding modesty in dress, suggesting that these are damaging girls and women. But she hasn’t shown any evidence to support that claim.

    While how we teach children about modesty and sex certainly requires great care, the church’s teachings aren’t a major source (if any) of girl’s and women’s image issues etc. Let’s try looking at our culture that glamorizes and idolizes girls and women who are unhealthily skinny and sexually impure. These images and “teachings” are more prevalent than the little bit that girls hear at church or even from parents about modest and chastity.

    Because the influences outside the home are becoming more opposed to decency regarding sexuality, it’s not surprising that the church would also raise a stronger voice against things that are opposed to decency and purity.

    Perhaps we need to do more, not less, to help girls understand the natural biological differences between boys and girls that lead guys to struggle more with images of girls than girls do with guys’ images.

  5. Modesty in dress is hardly a new or uniquely LDS idea. Catholics and other Christians promote modesty in dress. Jews and Muslims also strive for modest dress.

    In fact, it is in Genesis 3:21 that we read the first account of Adam and Eve being clothed for modesty. Other Old Testament verses mention the shame of seeing someone’s nakedness. Of course this brings up the question of how little or how much can be revealed before we are seeing nakedness.

    I think this leads to the debate about modesty: no one seems to be able to define the line regarding what is too much or too little. For us more conservative people, it seems that the lines keep shifting toward revealing more nakedness. How far will people go before they finally say, “okay, that’s too much, we need to start covering up”? Will we eventually dress like people in the jungles of Africa? Some women’s swimsuits just about achieve that.

  6. Women are usually considered exploited when they are viewed as sex objects. Exploiting women in this way usually involves immodesty of dress and/or pornography and/or presenting an exaggerated atypical image of women in magazines, art, movies, and other media. This is done by showing actresses with breast implants and/or other body enhancements or air brushed photos etc… These images don’t represent the average woman and they emphasize physical appearance and de-emphasize other traits such as talents, ability, intelligence and other areas that make women of great worth. This actually belittles most women and sends the message that if you don’t look like the image you are less of a woman.

    Therefore, it is so ironic that when God’s Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, protects and defends women by upholding God’s standard of modesty and when the Church emphasizes the other traits of women that make them precious and of great worth, the Church is accused of exploiting women??????? That’s just propaganda.

  7. The mormon obsession with dressing modestly really gets to me. I don’t wear short things or show my shoulders but I am shall you say well endowed. So while not having cleavage it is still quite obvious, I am one of those girls. If a guy finds me attractive in a t-shirt it must be immodest. Its rediculus. I would like to go to church without feeling I have to wear a jacket.

  8. Let me get this straight. Is there a feeling in the church that men are not inherently ethical enough to control their desires? But – women are expected to?
    If so why are men given the leadership positions? Why are men allowed to propose how women should conduct themselves. Do the men have an obligation to behave respectfully, ethically as women are expected to? Why would any self respecting woman seek the attention a a man who cannot control himself?

  9. Frank, I think you have a misunderstanding about the definition of objectification. To objectify someone is to act towards them as if they were a “thing”, and not a human being with feeling and depth. It is not possible for someone to objectify themselves. Objectification is something that one person does to another.

    A big part of taking responsibility for one’s own feelings and actions is to accept them as their own and not deflect them onto other people. If you objectify a woman because of her clothing, then that is your responsibility alone. Other people are not responsible for your thoughts, neither are they responsible for how you act upon your feelings. Begin to control yourself and stop trying to control others.

  10. Other people may not be responsible for my thoughts but they can influence them. A woman can still be very attractive without being immodest. Usually, I can look away if a woman walks into church dressed immodestly. But if she sits down next to me and then it’s distracting and I don’t appreciate it. If women don’t want men to look at them like “objects” then stop dressing like one. I thought my wife was beautiful the first time I saw her but I didn’t think she was sexy, It was her brains, education, refinement, spirituality that I fell in love with.

  11. In your last sentence, it sounds like you want to control others too. We all have to recognize that our own actions can affect other people. In that sense, what you do or say may be my business.

    I suppose it is typical logic in an individualist nation like ours to think that all that matters is the individual. If the individual fails, it’s his fault. If someone can’t make enough money to live, well nobody needs to help him. And if I dress or act in a way that I know may stir sexual feelings in other people, well it’s their problem if they don’t want to feel that, not mine.

    A higher moral standard would consider how our actions affect ourselves as well as others. A higher moral standard would lead me to want to help you rather than ignore or discount you.

  12. I agree with Frank, obviously. If a woman wears clothes that even hint at the fact that she has a body, she is reducing herself to a sex object.

    I think the healthiest thing a woman can do is wear sweaters and sweatpants, year-round. Anything less than that, and, boom, sex object.

  13. This is part of the problem. Women in the church who dare to wear a sleeveless top are treated as though they are flouting themselves sexually. Exposing shoulders and knees will get women scorned, ridiculed, gossiped about and labeled as ‘slutty’ in LDS culture. Frank’s comment perfectly illustrates this mindset. A woman showing a shoulder or a knee is ‘asking for it’? What about men who fetish a woman’s throat, ankles or even her hair? Why not cover those up too … lest we put ourselves out there as ‘sexual objects’? I can’t take my modestly dressed 15 year old daughter anywhere without adult men gawking at her because she is gorgeous with flowing wavy hair down her back. Maybe we shouldn’t allow our girls out of the house at all … or even cover them up from head to toe in burkah’s. Maybe shave their heads? Where does it stop?

  14. Curt, they just need to make sure their sweater and sweat pants are at at least 2 sizes too big for them so that none of their figure is ascertainable under there. Any hint of a curve or ‘bump’ of any kind and … sex object. These women really do need to be more careful.

  15. You claimed, ” If they are too form fitting, a woman is still making herself a sex object.”

    It is not that any woman, nor is it that any attire (or any amount of attire) that any woman wears (or does not wear) “makes” any woman a sexual object, but is – instead – the IMAGINATION of whomever sexually objectifies any woman that ONLY SEEMINGLY makes her little to nothing other than a sex object.

  1. […] Does Mormon modesty mantra reduce girls to intercourse objects? “The recent discourse on modesty undermines ladies&#39s relationship to on their own, to their sexuality, and to gentlemen,” LDS sex therapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife writes in the most recent issue of Exponent II. “Far from protecting ladies from looking for male&nbsp… Read a lot more on Faith News Services […]

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