It felt like this summer should have been called the summer of the modesty post. It started with a video of a women who it turns out was selling "modest" bathing suits, then a response to her, then a response to that, then another response, and so on. It seemed like for weeks all my friends were posting new post they'd stumbled across. It was somewhere reading maybe the fifth one of these where the poster posted a picture of an outfit she was wearing and said something to the affect of "Look how attractive I look dressed in this modest outfit" that I threw my hands up in despair. Modesty is a big deal in my church. Women and men once endowed (after they have gone to the temple) are expected to wear garments which cover their shoulders and go down to their knees. When you go to our Church school you expected to dress as if you had already been endowed. We talk to our youth about dressing modestly and we have even started to talk to our children about it. From The Friend, our magazine that we publish for our children under 12, here is a modestly checklist.
Then they had this poster you could print off to hang in your room. Notice the under dress leggings and dress top. Notice the carpi pants. Notice even the dogs are not showing cleavage. The last few years it has felt like more and more articles on modesty are being directed toward my children and even lessons in sharing time are being taught about it. Within my community there is also a huge market for "modest" clothing. Lots of Mormon women wear shirts under or cardigans over their sleeveless dresses or shirts. Capris in the summer are a Mormon girl's best friend. Leggings under "too short" dresses or skirts have become all the rage. When I was working in Young Women's (teaching the 12-18 year old girls in my church) we talked about modesty a lot. In fact it went beyond just lessons or for the Strength of Youth, but actually one of our leaders felt the need to tell our girls if she felt their clothing wasn't modest enough. In fact sometimes she would tell me if she felt my clothing wasn't modest enough. Our Stake had also decided to take a stand on our young women's modesty. For our youth conferences they have decided to ban leggings, even under dresses. Then with girls camp last summer they sent out a memo that if a girl wore a swimsuit that was a two piece she would have to wear a t-shirt over it, this included tankinis. I actually said out loud at the moment they read the memo, "Um, are they kidding." Because first off we are talking about a place that is for girls where the only men there are leaders who are suppose to be there for safety, and I don't see why they'd have to hang out by the pool. Secondly there wasn't a women leader in that room who doesn't wear a two piece. In fact almost all the Mormon women I know chose to wear tankinis. Personally I chose to wear one because the fit is better and my tankini top goes lower and covers more of my tummy and buns then any one piece bathing suit I've ever owned has. The results, for the first time in my life I haven't felt like I needed to wear a shirt over the bathing suit I was wearing. Oh the irony.
Personally there is a certain level of clothing I feel comfortable with and I've made a covenant to wear garments and that means that I have committed to cover those parts of my body that they cover. The same was true when I went to BYU. I knew what the standard was before I went to school there and I agreed to that. But I do not feel comfortable with the aggressive manner my children are being targeted on the topic of modesty. Mainly because I'm not entirely comfortable with the way the topic is taught. Sometimes it feels like when it is taught we are given a checklist of do this and be good, do that and be bad. More then I care to admit I've seen people look down on others who don't dress to our standard even if they have no reason to live the covenant we've made and that includes judging children who are wearing sleeveless dress. Sometimes I put my daughters in sleeveless dress. It really says more about me then it does about them and what is says about me is that I think my daughters are children and I don't have a problem with them occasionally wearing sleeveless summer dresses. I also don't have a problem with them wearing leggings under their dresses to help them stay warm or to cover their underwear when they're trying to do flips in their dress, and I also buy my daughters two piece swim suits. One, it is a lot easier to take them to the bathroom. Two my oldest is WHITE, WHITE, WHITE! And so to save her beautiful shoulders from the pounding sun at the pool I buy her a swim shirt and bikini bottoms. This is sort of how I see clothing. I see it as protection. I see it as a way to cover our private parts because we belong to a culture and a religion that ask use to do so. I see it as a way to express our individuality or our conformity if that is what we want. I want my girls to feel comfortable in what they wear. My mother was fairly lose with our clothing choices as as children. She didn't insist that we only wear shorts that went to our knees or that our shoulders were always covered. Instead she made sure we were dressed appropriate to the event we were doing. She would occasionally x out a particular piece of clothing if she felt like it wasn't appropriate but for the most part she really just made sure we were comfortable and dressed according. The results are, when it was time for me to choose to go to the Temple, I still did it even if it meant giving up all my shorts and it wasn't a hard decision for me. As for my siblings, even the ones who are not currently active in the church still dress nicely and appropriate to the jobs they hold as grown women. They may occasionally wear something that is sleeveless or doesn't reach the knee but they always look professional and age appropriate.
Sometimes when I'm in a meeting and I'm listening to someone go off about the rising generation and how they aren't modest, I get a little frustrated because the truth is, we are not that modest. I mean don't get me wrong. I really appreciate being able to wear short sleeved shirts, or capris in the summer, or swimsuits, but I recognize that those behaviors for much of my own church's history wouldn't have been considered modest. In fact the garment was changed to be shorter, which allows us to wear a whole host of things we wouldn't have been able to before and fit in more with regularly society. Also in the broader scheme of the world we are not the most modest group. Our own break off fundamentalist church stays much closer to our past by having their women only wear dresses that go to their wrist and down the floor. Other fundamental Christian and Jewish groups stick to very similar modesty rules, having women stay in dresses, keep their hair covered, and really shun modern fashion. But if there was to be a modesty contest the true winners would be the Muslim world, and within that culture where women stay almost entirely covered the modesty debate still rages on.
When Captain E was 2 years old we went to the Middle East for the summer. We primarily stayed in Amman, Jordan although we also spent some time in Egypt. While there, I had a couple of experiences with modesty that really gave me some perspective on the culture of modesty in which I was raised. The first happened while a group of the wives were walking home from a swim date. After we left our friend's house we had to walk up a huge hill surrounded by a bunch of apartment buildings that were under construction to get to a bigger road where we could catch a taxi. Most of the wives had worn long skirts or pants and long sleeved shirts but one girl, a newlywed in our group, was wearing a skirt that went to her knees and a short sleeved shirt. It was an outfit that would have been entirely appropriate at the school that we were from or in any of our church meetings, but on this day as we walked up the hill with the wind blowing it was enough to bring men out of the buildings by the tens. They lined the street we were walking on and actually seemed to be coming out of buildings in front of us making me wonder if a message was being sent by phone. "Hey come out and see these American girls." It made me exceptionally uncomfortable and I was relieved when we finally got into a taxi at the top of the street.
Another thing from my trip that struck me, in the Middle East many people consider it not modest to have your hair showing so many girls wear headscarves. One time we went over to visit a family and the teenage girls asked me to come back into their room so they could talk to me and see Captain E without having to be around Dr. J, because being around men who are not from their family made them really uncomfortable. The girls and I were just hanging out, it was the sister of one of Dr. J's friends and her cousin, when all of the sudden the brother walked into the room. The cousin sort of gave a little scream and quickly pulled her headscarf on because she considered it immodest for any non immediate member of her family to see her without it. He was her cousin, but that was still far enough removed to make her uncomfortable.
Another thing I found interesting about the Middle East was that we would see really stylish Muslim girls all the time who were totally covered but still looked adorable. This is a stock photo because I can't get on my Jordan blog when I'm on this blog but this is pretty typical of what you'd see on the college campus. Girls would wear long lose tunics but maybe skinny jeans, or slimmer skirts. They might wear leggings and boots. They'd have cute shoes on, colorful scarves and cute purses. I fell in love with their style, found it totally adorable and recognized that it not only met my standards of modesty but blew them out of the water. Which is why when a few months ago my friend Bridget (oh isn't she such a rebel rouser) posted some Muslim hi-jab memes I was a little in shock. Turns out that there is actually a kick back against these kinds of girls, that they are not modest enough.
This one gave me a little laugh because it reminded me of that summer in Jordan. There we are BYU approved girls, at number two.
Here is the style I love so much. Guess it isn't cutting it.
Or even this one telling girls how they are not covering enough of their hair or chest area.
It was illuminating. The thing is, what is considered modest varies depending on your culture, your country of origin, your religion, or even just personal preference and opinion. What one person might consider modest other people might see as completely revealing. I'm not saying throw all you expectations out, but I do think we need to be a little more understanding. People who don't dress to our standard are not necessarily bad people. People who do dress to our standard are not necessarily good people (I'm thinking about you mean girl in my sister's old ward). Each person is unique and has their own history and own standards. In my case I've made a covenant that ask me to dress a specific way but it doesn't make me better than anyone else, and I certainly don't have the right to use my personal life as a standard to judge others, because let's face it, I'd rather not be judged as lacking by those who dress more covered then I do. I respect everyone's opinions and their right's to dress themselves or their children according to what they think it appropriate but I just wanted to point out that our "absolute standard" has actually changed and so maybe we can leave this topic a little bit more to families to decide what they feel is appropriate rather then telling six years girls that they are immodest in a dress their mother put them in.