Sunday, July 10, 2011

Modesty

When I was in Young Women, modesty was easily one of the biggest things that leaders emphasized. The church has pretty specific standards for clothing, especially for girls. The church's handbook for youth, For the Strength of Youth, says this:


Immodest clothing includes short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and other revealing attire. Young women should wear clothing that covers the shoulder and avoid clothing that is low-cut in the front or the back or revealing in any other manner. Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance. All should avoid extremes in clothing, appearance, and hairstyle. Always be neat and clean and avoid being sloppy or inappropriately casual in dress, grooming, and manners. Ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?”
...
Do not disfigure yourself with tattoos or body piercings. If girls or women desire to have their ears pierced, they are encouraged to wear only one pair of modest earrings. [Source] 
As a teenager, I was meticulous in following these standards. I always made sure that my clothes had sleeves, that my necklines weren't too low, that my skirts and shorts came at least to my knees and that no skin showed between my neck and my knees.

If you noticed, the most stringent standards in the quoted paragraph apply to young women. The young men have standards as well, but they are very different. For example, the young men in my ward often took their shirts off to play basketball in the gym. On the other hand, though, they didn't get to wear earrings, so I guess it came out even.

The way I see it now, these standards are primarily a mechanism of control. They are arbitrary. I point to the earrings standards as a perfect example. Why are multiple sets of earrings bad? Why are men not allowed to have any? Is it because punching holes in your earlobes is bad? Why, then are women allowed to have them at all? On the other hand, if it's okay to punch holes in your ears, why on earth does it matter how many you have?

Turns out I'm right. In the spring of 2005, David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles related the following story in a BYU devotional, which was subsequently published in the Ensign:


Sister Bednar and I are acquainted with a returned missionary who had dated a special young woman for a period of time. He cared for her very much, and he was desirous of making his relationship with her more serious. He was considering and hoping for engagement and marriage. This relationship was developing during the time that President Hinckley counseled the Relief Society sisters and young women of the Church to wear only one earring in each ear. 
The young man waited patiently over a period of time for the young woman to remove her extra earrings, but she did not take them out. This was a valuable piece of information for this young man, and he felt unsettled about her nonresponsiveness to a prophet’s pleading. For this and other reasons, he ultimately stopped dating the young woman, because he was looking for an eternal companion who had the courage to promptly and quietly obey the counsel of the prophet in all things and at all times. The young man was quick to observe that the young woman was not quick to observe. 
I presume that some of you might have difficulty with my last example. You may believe the young man was too judgmental or that basing an eternally important decision, even in part, upon such a supposedly minor issue is silly or fanatical. Perhaps you are bothered because the example focuses upon a young woman who failed to respond to prophetic counsel instead of upon a young man. I simply invite you to consider and ponder the power of being quick to observe and what was actually observed in the case I just described. The issue was not earrings! [Source]

Let me repeat that last sentence. The issue was not earrings. The issue was obedience. Setting aside the fact that this man wanted an obedient wife makes me see red, Elder Bednar has here plainly admitted that the standards of the church with respect to personal appearance don't exist for moral or even practical reasons, but for the sake of obedience. The important thing is not to think and make rational decisions, but to follow the "counsel" of church leaders.

Another dimension of the modesty issue that I find bothersome is the fact that it's so repressive. It is one element of a wide variety of aspects of Mormonism that repress sexuality in both men and women. Like it or not, human beings are sexual creatures. That's how we reproduce, and it's a pretty important part of what makes us human. Mormonism in general has a very unhealthy attitude towards sex. It's considered to be a good thing if you're married, but evil and bad if you're not. So it's very important for members to keep their sexuality within carefully prescribed boundaries. Modesty is a part of that. In my own case, it created a strange distance between myself and my own body. Just like I tried my hardest--and generally successfully--never to think about sex or anything sex-related, I was very good at ignoring the sexual dimension of my own body. I think that is very harmful.

A final thing that bothers me about the Mormon concept of modesty is the fact that, yet again, it takes control and autonomy away from the individual and replaces it with blind trust in authority, even if that authority issues arbitrary rules that make no real sense (like the earring example that Bednar so eloquently illustrated). This is one of the most harmful aspects of Mormonism in my view. They claim that agency and choice are fundamental aspects of their religion, but it really boils down to choice between being obedient and thinking for yourself, with the only "right" choice being obedience. The way I see it, that isn't really a choice at all.

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