Notes on Modesty, Shame, and Humility

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A navy blue knee-length pencil skirt.

A long sleeve button-down blouse with purple and white stripes, sleeves rolled up a bit for style.

A white camisole underneath to account for any perceived sheerness.

That's what I was wearing one August day when I walked into my then-bishop's office to renew my temple recommend. I answered all the questions with all the confidence of a woman of 21 years. I scooted to the edge of my chair to be ready to sign my new recommend when the bishop looked at me and said in his grandfatherly voice,

"I'm sorry Sister Parker, but I am unable to issue you a recommend at this time. When we conduct recommend interviews, we ask that Sunday dress be worn. We also ask that the clothing be modest and cover the garment. You are welcome to come back next week to repeat the interview, after you have taken these guidelines into account."

My eyes welled with tears and my face grew hot and red. Shame bulldozed me into silence. "Okay, thank you," was all I could muster in response. I rose from the red cushioned chair, shook the bishop's hand, and turned to the door behind me.

I walked home instead of waiting for my husband to finish his interview and drive home together. "What just happened?" I thought to myself. I was wearing my garments. They were fully covered. I had answered the interview questions right. I still walked away empty handed.

"Its probably my ginormous boobs," I thought. "They always make my clothes look immodest." I looked down at my chest. I thought the camisole I had worn underneath my blouse covered what would have been considered inappropriate. I was wrong.

I got home and went through every item of clothing I owned. I donated all the v-necks, camisoles, the tight shirts and dresses, and pencil skirts. Tank tops with cute prints or sequins went too, even though they'd be perfectly modest with a cardigan on top. I wanted there to be no question of my commitment to modesty or to a temple recommend. I took $50 and went to DownEast Outfitters warehouse, the ultimate destination for modest apparel. I bought as many fugly floral print dresses, work shirts, slacks, and bermuda shorts as I could. I even stayed away from the cap sleeve layering tees, modest as they were. I was the picture of Molly Mormon perfection.

I returned for a repeat interview the next week in one of my new floral numbers and walked away victorious.

I share this story with you not to shame that particular bishop. I share it with the intent that it serve as a stepping stone into a conversation about modesty. Different personal experiences and the stories from other LDS women suggest to me that my experience was not a random fluke. I am of the opinion that there are aspects of the modesty narrative within the LDS church and community that require our thoughtful, collective consideration.

Tackling a topic such as modesty is tricky. I think the difficulty stems from the fact that modesty has become subjective in LDS culture. Adding to this, there are conflicting messages about what modesty really is. My hope is to add some depth and insight to this conversation while also examining the current stories heard and told about modesty.

Conflicting Interpretations of Modesty in an LDS Context

The "For the Strength of Youth" pamphlet defines the standard of modesty as:

"Immodest clothing is any clothing that is tight, sheer, or revealing in any other manner. Young women should avoid short shorts and short skirts, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders or is low-cut in the front or back. Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance. Young men and young women should be neat and clean and avoid being extreme or inappropriately casual in clothing, hairstyle, and behavior. They should choose appropriately modest apparel when participating in sports. The fashions of the world will change, but the Lord's standards will not change."

This is the standard of modesty given to all members of the Church of Jesus Christ. The standard is clear and measurable. Modesty is cleanliness and neatness. Modesty is not tattoos, piercings, short skirts, crop tops, bikinis, etc.

The LDS Guide to the Scriptures defines modesty as:

"Behavior or appearance that is humble, moderate, and decent. A modest person avoids excesses and pretensions."

If you look up the word "modesty" in the Topical Guide, you will find nothing. No scriptures explicitly mention the word "modesty". Instead, any references alluding to modesty fall into two categories in the Bible Dictionary:

  • "apparel" contains references to descriptive phrases about an article of clothing someone was wearing (such as Joseph's coat of many colors), or
  •  it is referencing an attitude, most often "humility."
These definitions vary because they are pixels of a gradient image. The For the Strength of Youth pamphlet presents a picture of modesty that is very black and white. The Guide to the Scriptures lends itself to a more flexible definition of modesty, making it about appearance and behavior. The Bible Dictionary gives the most nuanced and complex understanding by suggesting modesty as an attitude of humility.

None of these interpretations are bad or wrong, but I wonder if some are more helpful and healing than others.

Is Focusing on Physical Modesty Helpful?

I believe that a strong focus on modesty of the physical body is not helpful or healthy.

I realize this opinion may be distasteful to some. That's okay. You don't have to change your mind. We can still be friends.

When we focus on physical modesty, we are placing value and attention on outward appearance. While this is a natural tendency, it is also an attitude that tends to be less forgiving. Outward appearance is a quick and easy way to identify whether or not someone is "modest," therefore allowing us to make judgments about someone without knowing their character. This is directly contradictory to the commandment to "love our neighbor" and "be one."

Our brains are wired for social connection. We tend to gravitate toward those that share our values. Our clothing can be an indication of our individual values, beliefs, and personality. Physical modesty has the potential to become a kind of sorting tool, allowing us to know who is "in" our pool of shared values and who is not.

The most unsettling aspect of a focus on physical modesty is the contribution it makes to the shame-judgement cycle. When we have been or are afraid of being excluded by our community because of our physical appearance, we move into a place of shame and fear. Shame is toxic. Just ask Brene Brown. It doesn't feel good. We want to pass it on to others, and we often do - as judgement. So we contribute to judging and shaming others, who threaten to judge and shame us in return. Yuck.

Sometimes in order to avoid judgement from others, we learn to take on shame for ourselves. Shame about our shoulders, our legs, our breasts. We cover them, sometimes to excess. We may become afraid to show them at all, when swimming at girls camp, or maybe even to our spouse during intimacy, or when giving birth, or when feeding our babies. I feel so sad when I think about this. I've carried that shame. Its heavy.

Looking at the potential damaging effects both individual and communally, I am convinced that a focus on physical modesty is neither helpful nor healthy.

Wearing an Attitude of Humility

Humility is defined as "having a modest view of one's own importance." To me, humility is the recognition and practice of being in loving relationship with the people and the world around you. It is not to forget oneself entirely, but to see oneself as part of a much larger sphere. You are yourself, you are part of your closer family, a community, a land, a larger human family, an ecosystem, an earth family. An attitude of humility is a posture of deference to the communities you find yourself in. It is an attitude of equality - one void of privilege and oppression.

 What is considered modest clothing? A shirt that covers the shoulders and the navel? Shorts that cover the knees? Something fairly or moderately priced?

When shopping, do you consider what the clothing is made of? Is the fabric made of natural or synthetic fibers? What process did the fabric go through before it landed in the well-lit store you find yourself in? Is that process kind and healthful to the earth? Are the dyes poisoning rivers? Will those butter-soft leggings sheds micro plastic fibers into the water for unsuspecting fish to eat every time you wash them? If these things matter less when dressing than making sure shoulders are covered, I submit that our clothing is not modest.

Do you consider who made your clothing? The clothing label gives you many clues as to what hands cut, sewed, printed, and finished your garment. Did those hands receive a fair wage? Does that person work in a safe place? Do they work reasonable hours? More often than not, "Made in Developing Country" means the answer to all these questions are "no." Who profits from the work of those hands? An attitude of humility requires us to examine the role we play. What do we purchase with a $10 short-sleeve tee - modesty or costly apparel?

Physical modesty becomes a stumbling block when it prevents us from acting in loving relationship with those around us. When physical modesty indicates social standing within our communities to the point of judgement and exclusion, or when it takes advantage of our human family across land and sea, it is not an attitude of humility. It is one of pride.

I am not telling you that physical modesty is inherently evil. Its not. But as with everything, actions carry intent. If our clothing covers the shoulders, is made ethically and sustainably, and does not contribute to the social judgement and shaming of others or ourselves, at that point I feel we could comfortably claim we are a peculiarly modest people. Its a big ask, I know. But I think these are important things to consider.

"Men Are That They Might Have Joy" - An Invitation To Presence, Not Transcendance of Mortality

2 Nephi 2:25 is a short scripture in the Book of Mormon, but it presents a powerful perspective of mortality.

In the LDS church, there is a strong focus on going through the motions of covenant-making and then living out the remainder of our lives with the sole intent of "enduring to the end." If we make it to the end, our heaven-mansion prize will be waiting for us. Yay! Treasures in heaven!

But something deep inside me wonders if when we get to the finish line, God will want to hear about our adventures. We will tell him about our trials, our families, our jobs, our good deeds and probably our bad ones too. And I just imagine, with all the love in the universe, God will smile and hug us,

and ask "Did you dance?
Did you taste the salt on the spray of the sea?
Did you lie with your back on the sun-baked sand of the desert at sunset?
Did you sing with a pack of coyotes or speak to the moon?
Did you climb a sequioa tree, even in your dreams?
Did you drink from a well in the ground?
Did you chase a deer just for the thrill of running alongside, then behind it?
Did you sleep in a cave or under the stars?
Did you breathe?
Did you rest?
Did you see?"

What if our physical bodies, this physical, mortal world, is not a place given to us just for learning, but is a gift itself? What are we missing if we are constantly focused on managing, improving, even bridling body and earth?

What if the body is not a prison?
What if the earth is not a school?

What if we are here for joy
in the body,
because of the body?

I can't help but feel the policing of bodies with a strict code of physical modesty makes it harder to make and feel joy. Its awfully hard to feel the coolness of lake water on your neck when you're swimming in the required shirt-over-swimsuit at girl's camp. You'll never feel the warm kiss of the sun on your shoulder if its always covered.

God is not policing us, not waiting to dole out punishments or prizes based on our false sense of earned worth. He's not waiting to make sure we are injured in an accident because we aren't wearing certain clothing. He's not there with angry eyes when we walk in the door in a tank top and ripped jeans.

God is waiting with a warm plate of cookies
"Did you love with abandon today?"
and when our answer is no,
the reply is always
"I will teach you how
and we can try again

So bake brownies and bring them to your neighbor in shortie or bermuda shorts. Weed your garden and whisper to your tomatoes in a tank or tee. Wear your nose ring to church and serve your heart out. Spread your arms wide and hug the ocean as if you haven't seen her in forever, and let her hug you back. She doesn't care if you're in a tankini or a bikini. Rescue a puppy wandering the streets. Invite someone in. Say yes. Show up. Be you.
© Channing B. Parker. Design by FCD.