Modesty and Shame

We’ve had a few teasingly warm days in the last few weeks, and so my children are starting to want to be as scantily clad as possible. I’ve been horrified as I’ve shopped for summer clothes for my 5-year-old daughter–everything is spandex and mini and halter-topped and sex-kitten sandals *in size 5!* It’s awful.

On the other hand, I scandalized my visiting teacher last year, when she was kind enough to visit teach me at the beach (because it’s the only place my children can play by themselves for 15 or 20 minutes and not end up bleeding), by letting the above-mentioned daughter change her clothes on the beach without any elaborate towel-draping subterfuge.

So I’ve been thinking about the relationship between modesty and shame, and how to teach one with as little of the other as appropriate.

In Genesis, we go pretty quickly and without a lot of explanation from Satan making Adam and Eve aware of their nakedness to God clothing them with a coat of skins. Is it faithful to the text to call what Satan introduced “shame,” and what the Lord intends “modesty”? What makes them different? How does the negative, Satan-taught shame morph into the virtue of modesty?

Not surprisingly, I’m also interested in the gender angle–the scene in the Garden of Eden portrays Adam and Eve as pretty equally in need of modesty. But it seems to me that modesty has been, for many centuries now, differentially taught to and required of women. Is that a Pauline phenomenon (head covering writ large?)? Or is it earlier than that? Is it because there is some essentially alluring quality in the nature of women? [look Adam, I’m acknowledging the possibility of essential differences! :)] Or is it cultural prejudice that views women’s sexuality as more dangerous and vicious, or perhaps shameful (after all, an old term for women’s genitals was “pudendum”–that of which one is to be ashamed) than men’s, and therefore more in need of societal regulation?

How is modesty in dress related to modesty in behavior? There was a time when “modesty” meant not just decency in covering the body, but also a certain seemliness about how one lived–the opposite of conspicuous consumption. I think that this sense of the word needs to be rehabilitated, and perhaps linked to the virtue of modesty in dress. Lavishness and ostentatiousness in adorning/revealing the body seem linked to the kind of self-definition by shopping that plagues affluent moderns, both in and out of the church.

Finally, how do we navigate these questions as parents? I want my children to view their bodies as glorious, excellent, and beautiful creations, which are meant to render service, but also to give and receive pleasure. How should I appropriately teach them about what is private and why? These questions seem especially difficult in relation to my daughter, partly because of my own experience–I grew up horribly ashamed of my body, not at all because of fear of sexiness, but because I loathed my body–saw it as fat and ugly. Of course, now that I’ve had three babies and understand what fat and ugly really are, I can recognize how pathological that belief was. But I wonder a lot where it came from, and whether it was in part derived from subtle messages about the essential shamefulness of women’s bodies. I want my daughter to believe that her body is beautiful *and* I want her to cover it well! And, of course I want my sons to value modesty, and to be modest themselves. Somehow it seems less complicated for guys, but maybe that’s just because I’ve never lived in a guy’s head.

So tell me, what’s a mother to do?

87 comments for “Modesty and Shame

  1. Greg
    May 25, 2004 at 10:16 pm

    Blogger Hugo Schwyzer has made some interesting arguments here with respect to modesty and feminism in a post entitled “Sisterhood is Easier in Winter” (good comments too).

  2. Julie in Austin
    May 25, 2004 at 10:22 pm

    Excellent post, Kristine. I can’t address all of it, but two thoughts:

    (1) it is interesting that garments impose identical modesty restrictions on men and women, whereas culturally, men’s bare chests don’t quite rate with women’s bare chests (unless, of course, you are in Berkeley). This is why I don’t allow my boys to be shirtless or wear muscle shirts (‘wife beaters’, my Italian relatives call them) out of the house. (In the house, they never wear clothes. I don’t know why.) I don’t think LDS can justify a ‘gender angle’ on modesty, because of garments. Like chastity, we’re talking about something equally incumbent on men and women. While I do think most men are more visually-oriented in their sexual response than most women are, I don’t think that justifies men dressing ‘less modestly.’ The point isn’t that we are avoiding turning other people on, the point is that we are showing respect for the sacredness of our bodies.

    (2) it surprises me when I see LDS parents letting even tiny girls wear sleeveless dresses. The thought always occurs to me: at what point will they not allow this anymore? Answer: probably around puberty. Which line of reasoning seems that it would likely lead to the kind of shame you talk about, where the need for modesty is somehow linked to puberty (because now you want to do ‘bad stuff’ with your body?) instead of modesty being inherent. While I am not convinced it is *inherently* immodest for little girls to be sleeveless, I think you are headed down an awkward road if you allow that. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that you would want to train your children from toddlerhood on to wear clothes compatible with wearing garments.

  3. May 25, 2004 at 11:05 pm

    I think modesty is much more about behavior than about body covering. It’s just that body covering is also a behavior, and one that is relatively easy to teach, and lends itself fairly easily to simple definition. And modesty is also very much culturally defined. What many of us consider modest may have been considered shockingly immodest in, say, the early 1800s (girls wearing shorts, and asking boys out on dates!!).

    I think the problem we run into is that we use shame to enforce our rules of modesty, and so shame and modesty can become confused. Immodesty, being so culturally influenced, leads to labeling and stigmatizing (again, shame as an enforcer). But it seems to me that as our American culture seeks to eliminate the negative uses of shame, we are also losing the value of modesty. Shame can be an effective and positive tool if used appropriately, and we can teach our children to distinguish between shame and modesty.

    (I think Orson Scott Card has some good ideas about the positive uses of shame (in two parts) at:


    I think the key to teaching our children about modesty is to emphasize the glory and sacredness of our bodies, and to teach that it is in part because of this sacredness that we cover them, not because they are something to be ashamed of. We might use an example of something special to us, say, a delicate Christmas ornament or a special figurine and point out that we protect it and put it away because it is so special that we don’t want it to be damaged, and we only take it out when necessary and on special occasions, and that it is more special because it is something that we use in a certain way on particular occasions, not like our “everyday dishes”, so to speak.

  4. cooper
    May 25, 2004 at 11:06 pm

    Excellent thread Kristine! We have read recently about the women in other parts of the world being regulated in dress because of religiosity. I have heard the argument and found it to be skewed at best. It is also a way Satan has taken a truth and used it against believers.

    How? Well, in the muslim world women are expected to wear a burqa when in public. It is not a commandment in the Qur’an. It is the rule of man that has been placed on their society so there will be no temptation by the female when in the presence of men. It is worn as a protection from “impertinent eyes”. So – it is deemed better to remove the temptation than it is to be tempted and choose to turn away. The use of this form of “protection” removes the agency of all parties and places it squarely where Satan would have it.

    We raised three daughters. It has been an interesting journey. We have taught them to respect themselves above all others. Like Julie we decided not ot have the ambiguity argument in their teens so they never wore tops without sleeves or short shorts. The mad dash a day before the wedding to buy a new wardrobe did not have to take place. I sat with a friend in the dressing room of the garment center on the day before her wedding in 1975. She was weeping, her life as she knew it, was over. She had been raised in the church – primary, mutual, all the trimmings. How sad it was that she had not been taught the importance of wardrobe. We also did not follow fashion in magazines. We tried desparately to teach them what looked good on them – not everyone else. It was the same with make-up. Rules were applied – then when each one got to the marked age – off we went to the cosmetic counter at Nordstrom. They were taught what colors looked good for their skin tones and how to apply make-up. It saved us all a lot of grief. And “What Not to Wear” has proven out some of our clothing selections(it’s a great book for the not-fashion saavy).

    Decide in advance how you want to approach each of these steps before you get to it. It is not difficult to find proper clothes and make-up. You just need to allow for enough time to obtain your needs. It’s the last minute dash that’ll get you if you don’t plan ahead.

  5. May 25, 2004 at 11:07 pm

    “it is interesting that garments impose identical modesty restrictions on men and women”

    What?? Did my wife get a bad batch or something? Her garments barely cover her shoulders and allow for the almost-sleeveless look many women like. Not to mention that her garment neckline is much lower than even the smiley-face men’s. I’ve often wondered about this and its possible implications. Your first point doesn’t seem to work quite as well once “identical modesty” is removed.

    “It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that you would want to train your children from toddlerhood on to wear clothes compatible with wearing garments.”

    My only problem with this is the Mormon mentality that arises as a result. You know, the outrageously judgmental finger pointing. “Eight-year-old Sally wears sleeveless shirts, therefore her mother isn’t doing a very good job.” When, in fact, her mother could be a better mother than the mother pointing the finger.

    Sorry, Kristine, for the tangent. I do really like your latest post.

  6. Ben S.
    May 25, 2004 at 11:20 pm

    “Well, in the muslim world women are expected to wear a burqa when in public. It is not a commandment in the Qur’an.”

    Women are expected to wear a head-covering, which is different from a burqa. This is based on Surah 24:31, which reads in part, “say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands”.

    Now, you may quibble with the interpretation, but it is traditionally based on the text. I learned a great deal from a class I took called “Jewish practices and biblical texts” in which the Jewish professor taught how Jews have derived many of their practices from biblical texts. Each tradition has its own authoritative interpretations of their own texts.

  7. Julie in Austin
    May 25, 2004 at 11:46 pm


    Hmm, I think you may be splitting hairs here. Or maybe I shouldn’t have said ‘identical’ but very similar. I stand by my basic point that men’s tummies, chests, and shoulders need to be covered. (Sidenote: most women I know don’t like the shortish sleeves on their garments because they can chafe.)

    Although I am collecting additions to ‘the talk I’ve never given’ and I may mention this as evidence of the wickedness of men’s biceps. Someone also mentioned the Metal Chairs of Discomfort the men always get. And I was also thinking about the fact that older men are prohibited from serving missions without a woman to chaperone them.

    Your point about being judgemental is interesting. I sometimes people watch at storytime at the library. I stopped judging the women in short shorts when it occured to me that the women in burqas might be doing the same thing to me in my capris and short-sleeved shirts.

  8. cooper
    May 25, 2004 at 11:51 pm

    Ben, I don’t quibble at all. It’s just that in modern times the burqa has come to represent an all to different thing than what that scripture is referring. The veil that most women wear is much different than the burqa the Taliban forces women to wear. Many women veiled will tell you it is a sign of their devotion to their God. That is a chosen agency. The burqa represented by the Taliban is agency removed.

  9. greenfrog
    May 26, 2004 at 12:02 am

    I’m rather suspicious of equilibrating clothing styles (including those pertinent to garments, which have changed significantly during my lifetime) with divinely-established virtues.

    There are enough cultures available in the world to suggest to us that there is nothing innately immodest about breasts, male or female.

    There is, however, something pretty important to virtue (IMO) to the idea of accessing the forbidden, whether it’s a nipple or an ankle.

    That said, there is virtue to considering the cultural context in which we operate, and doing (or mis-doing) within it conscious of the impact of our deeds and misdeeds.

  10. Ben Huff
    May 26, 2004 at 1:13 am

    Greenfrog, there are also a lot of cultures with abominable, abusive habits regarding sex and women. There are also head-hunting cannibals, though human sacrifice has recently become a bit more unusual than it used to be. If it is reasonable to consider the Taliban’s norms immoral, it is reasonable to suppose that some of the opposite extremes are also wrong. I do think some things are culture-relative, such as women asking men on dates, and hemlines in a certain range for instance. I also think that modesty calls for different clothing in different company (e.g. members of your family vs. not, members of your village vs. not). But basically I don’t buy your point about women’s breasts.

    I really like how the Qur’an talks about treasures, like “don’t cast your pearls before swine”. It’s hard for me to think about my own body in terms of treasures, but I think it’s a good place to start, and it seems more fitting for young girls.

    It was a bit of a surprise to me when I found that my sense of modesty changed after I’d been wearing garments for a while. I used to go running without a shirt all the time before my mission. Now I really agree about the roughly equal norms for modesty for men and women. But I do think modesty is much more urgent for women because let’s face it, women experience more serious problems due to being sexually objectified. In the deserts of Arabia beautiful women were likely to be kidnapped and never seen again; men, not so much. Nowadays things have toned down a little bit, but the fact that someone is a sexual being is much more likely to lead to him/her to experience ill treatment if she’s a woman than if he’s a man. If I go on a date with some woman and she puts her hand somewhere I don’t want it, that is unwelcome and disappointing, but it is not scary because there is no question whether it will go on; it won’t. And I’m not just talking about violence. Look at the magazine racks, etc.

    I think shame should not be primary, if at all possible, but shame is the flip side of modesty in situations where you are underempowered. If I feel like some married woman is paying too much attention to me, but for whatever reason I have to be around her anyway, I feel something like shame; it makes me want to wear ugly glasses and act like a dweeb. Shame is (akin to?) a species of fear, and while fear is an unwelcome feeling, it is important to fear the right things, because some things really are dangerous. Maybe modesty (like caution) is what you do to stay just far enough away from real problems that you don’t actually have to feel fear or shame.

  11. May 26, 2004 at 9:41 am

    “But basically I don’t buy your point about women’s breasts”

    Ben, I’m loathe to open this thread up to anything which smacks of the theorization of the body (mostly because I find such theorizing tedious), but I think your rejection of Greenfrog’s perfectly obviously observation (at least, obvious to me and presumably anyone who has, for example, taken their family to a public swimming pool in Germany) runs smack into one of the concerns which Kristine brought up in the original post. She asked, among other things, whether modesty has been “differently taught to and required of women,” and if so why. I think one very obvious reason why this is so is the simple fact that, at some point in European history, the female breast became sexualized, thereby becoming both fetishized and something to be hidden, whereas the male torso never was, at least not in the same way. Hence literally more of a woman’s body has become subject to the sort of objectification which you decry than is the case with men. Perhaps there is also some scriptural or natural reason for this, but even if that is the case, it doesn’t render meaningless the unequal burdens in terms of sexual framings that we’ve inherited from out culture. And of course, this particular fetishization is still with us, though inconsistently: people argue over whether breast-feeding a baby in public is appropriate or not, and under what circumstances; toplessness is pretty much standard at the beach or pool in a lot of Western Europe, but from what I observed that hadn’t changed the local nature of pornography itself; etc.

    None of this is to argue against the (mostly) similar standards which garments impose on men and women (I think Julie’s observation holds), nor to deny your equally obvious point that “modesty calls for different clothing in different company” (or in different places, or among different ages, as I think Kristine’s example of letting–quite properly, I think–her child just change clothes on the beach “without any elaborate towel-draping subterfuge” implicitly demonstrates). Melissa and I have three girls, the oldest is almost 8, and we work hard to find what we consider to be appropriate play and school clothes (no spaghetti straps, t-shirts which cover her tummy, etc.) for her. Like Cooper suggested, our aim is to teach our children modesty early. (Incidentally Cooper, Melissa is also a huge fan of “What Not To Wear”; she thinks it teaches good, practical, role-appropriate, fashion advice.) But it’s one thing to inculcate into your child a culturally and regionally (we live in the South) responsive standard of modesty; it’s another thing to assume that the female breast forms some sort of instictive baseline.

  12. May 26, 2004 at 10:11 am

    I’m just curious if we’ve had this conversation before and it’s no longer interesting or why the differences in garment styles between men and women is left at “(mostly) similar standards” and/or Bob splitting hairs.

    To me, it seems intriguing that many have mentioned that women seem to have the greatest negative consequences from being “immodest” (whatever that means). But why does that translate into women being given more leeway with their garments? Is it just my wife and I that notice that women’s garments allow outfits which show cleavage? This isn’t just a hypothetical, we’ve seen it at Church many times. How does that tie into modesty? Interestingly enough, men, in contrast to women, rarely seem to take full advantage of their smiley faces.

  13. May 26, 2004 at 10:45 am

    Russell, what are you insisting is obvious? That some societies think it’s no big deal for women to be topless in public? Uh, I never suggested otherwise. That this is merely a matter of convention, to which no objective norms apply? Sorry, that ain’t obvious.

    I never said it was fair that women carry a heavier burden than men as far as modesty goes. Nor did I say that’s the way it should be, but we live in a world of sin, and we have to deal with it.

  14. May 26, 2004 at 11:17 am

    I’m interested in how we have come to the feeling that covered garments equals modesty. I think it’s perfectly possible to be immodest while wearing covered garments, and modest while wearing clothes that may not completely cover garments.

    I think that covering garments and modesty are relatively correlated, but I don’t think that we can use one as a definition for the other.

    Remember that garments used to cover much more of our bodies than they do now. Even if they changed largely to accomodate changing standards of modesty, I really don’t have much confidence in the Church staying completely up to date with standards of modesty — I’m sure there’s tons of lag.

    So I’m just saying that while it is probably good to teach our children to cover garments, I don’t think it’s the same thing as teaching them modesty.

  15. kaimi
    May 26, 2004 at 11:41 am

    Logan, I agree that we can’t just equate garments with modesty.

    And Bob, you’re certainly correct in noting that women’s garments are a lot less covering than men’s garmnents.

    As for the Ben / Frog / Russell debate about breasts, it seems like a number of different arguments are available:

    1. Women just have more private areas than men. Breasts are sex objects and always have been. Women need to just deal with it. Societies that de-emphasize the breast’s sexual nature are just fooling themselves. (Is this Ben’s argument?)

    2. Breasts are the same for men and women. We should accept topless women just as we would accept topless men. Sexualization of the breast is societal and has no basis in anything other than our own weird societal quirks. (Is this Greenfrog’s argument?)

    3. Modesty means avoiding sexualized images, whether they are eternal or societally induced. Maybe we should avoid toplessness in the United States because it conveys a sexualized image, but it is okay to be topless in Germany where it does not convey the same sexual meaning. (Is this Russell’s argument?)

    Possibility number three leaves the door open for society to redefine modesty as appropriate, as long as it doesn’t cross over certain thresholds (whatever those are).

  16. May 26, 2004 at 11:43 am

    “I think it’s perfectly possible to be immodest while wearing covered garments, and modest while wearing clothes that may not completely cover garments.”

    Logan, I like your thinking here, but I have a question or two. Why do you think garments cover what they cover then? If your statement above holds true (which I think it does), then why does the Church bother with making garments cover more if that doesn’t equal some sort of modesty? I’ve been to the temple and understand some of the sacredness associated with garments, but thinking back, it doesn’t seem that any of that sacredness is based on “length” or “coverage”. So I’m just curious what the reason for “length” or “coverage” is, if not sacredness or modesty.

  17. May 26, 2004 at 12:06 pm

    I’m with Ben Huff on this one. The fact that breasts are exposed without scandalizing anyone in some parts of the world says nothing to me about whether the Lord prefers that they remain covered or not.

    I think it’s a mistake to think of modesty a relative, constantly-changing value. In my view, there’s some platonic ideal of modesty recorded somewhere up in heaven (perhaps there’s chart in a library somewhere up there, with a silhouette drawing of the male and female bodies, pointing out exactly which areas must be covered to be modest). The Lord knows exactly what “modest” is, and our attempts to dilute the concept because of cultural variations assume that he’s happy to change the standard as frequently as we are.

    This is not to say that Australian aborigines and frequenters of German swimming pools are all certainly condemned for their physical indiscretion. It only means that, as with all commandments, God has a standard, hopes we will obey it, but holds us accountable under that standard only inasmuch as it has been taught to us.

    Would God prefer that those naked aborigines and humanistic Germans cover up? I think it’s clear he would, regardless of cultural mores. But are they all to be condemned for their nakedness? Only if they’ve been taught the correct principle and rejected it.

  18. May 26, 2004 at 12:08 pm

    Well Bob, I thought I touched on that question a little in my comment, but I’m happy to be clearer.

    I imagine that because covering garments and modesty are largely correlated, the Church takes standards of modesty into consideration when detrmining garment shapes and sizes. The current shapes and sizes may indeed have been an attempt to define modesty. But even if Ben is right that there is a certain objective standard of modesty, I don’t think that covering garments is necessarily that standard. To some degree, cultural standards do determine modesty, and having one set of garments for every culture in the Church couldn’t possibly suffice. Also, standards of modesty can change, and the Church is unlikely (in my opinion) to be on the cutting edge of determine what those standards are and keeping up with them.

    So garments may indeed be the shape they are in an attempt to define modesty (although I don’t know), and as I’ve admitted, garments and modesty are largely correlated (I don’t want to act as though I don’t think that). But for garments to equal modesty, we would have to assume that (a) when they were designed they were in fact perfectly modest, and (b) that modesty is the exact same thing as it was then. I think it’s too much to ask for garment designs to meet those assumptions.

    I don’t think we’d necessarily want the Church to consult fashion designers, psychologists, and others to determine exactly what modesty is every season, and try to keep up with trends. I don’t think that the Brethren or whoever designs garments would disagree with my statement that you quoted either. They may say that it is meant to be a helpful guide, but I don’t think that garments are, in fact, designed to be the be all and end all of modesty.

  19. Kristine
    May 26, 2004 at 12:16 pm

    Ryan, if ” there’s some platonic ideal of modesty recorded somewhere up in heaven,” why were Adam and Eve not instructed to cover themselves until *after* the Fall? It seems equally likely to me that God’s ideal would be more like the, er, Platonic one–men and women able to be unashamedly naked. Modesty is necessary in a fallen world, but it is not an eternal virtue?

  20. May 26, 2004 at 12:21 pm

    The big modesty question that often comes up in our house is about ear pearcing. My wife had her ears pierced three times prior to the announcement of the Church’s position that women should only have one piercing (if any at all). She was obviously not happy to suddenly learn that she was the bearer of immodest ears, but she was equally unhappy with the idea of giving up her three little holes that she had beautified so nicely.

    I should add that my wife wears very tiny earrings. The entire mass of earring in her three holes most certainly does not equal the earring mass of other women’s one earring. A lot of people don’t even notice that she has more than one piercing. She continues to wear them because, frankly, she and I don’t consider her piercings to be immodest or outrageous in any way.

    Our predicament is, however, that we have a little daughter who will soon be of the age to notice that mom has three holes. I’m not certain how I’m going to deal with this. I suppose I could just tell her something vague and probably erroneous like, ‘Mom obeys the spirit of the law.’ Still, I’d like to come to a more satisfactory understanding of the piercings and modesty. If I could understand the principle behind it, I would probably be able to teach it better to my children.

  21. May 26, 2004 at 12:26 pm

    Good point Kristine. Something that I think we miss sometimes about the fall is that in the most important ways, it actually made Adam and Eve more like God, rather than less like God. The way I read it, modesty was introduced to two people who just became aware that they had the option of choosing good and evil. So, yes, it was only necessary after they had fallen, but it is not only necessary in a fallen world– it may be necessary in any instance where individuals understand good and evil, and have agency to choose between them. If that’s true, it is eternal, in the sense that we will be expected to exercise modesty in the eternities– an idea that somehow makes intuitive sense to me. Do you believe otherwise?

    (If we’re perfect beings… then we won’t be tempted by the veiwing of others’ bodies? But if modesty is about more than the avoidance of tempting others, that doesn’t work. I think modesty’s about respecting a sacred, divine creation, and that should hold doubly for a body that has attained a new level of resurrected glory, right?)

  22. Julie in Austin
    May 26, 2004 at 12:31 pm


    very interesting.

    My thoughts:

    (1) I am not sure that I would automatically equate multi piercings with immodesty. I supopse the case could be made, but it isn’t automatic

    (2) I think the earring thing is nothing more than a test of obedience. I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with it, except the very crucial factor than the prophet said not to. Why? I can’t remember him giving a reason. I don’t think he did. Why? Because it is a test of obedience with no rational reason for following it (note: that isn’t a criticism. If it had a rational reason, it wouldn’t be about obedience.)

    This is just my opinion.

  23. May 26, 2004 at 1:30 pm

    For some views at the extreme opposite that some of you are arguing, see the Latter-Day Saint Skinny-Dipper Connection. There are no nude images on this site, in case you were worried.

    I don’t recall how I stumbled across that one. They really do have everything on the internet. ;)

  24. Gary Lee
    May 26, 2004 at 1:41 pm

    Modesty is a principle of behavior and attitude that is reflected in the way we dress. It is not defined by the way we dress. The principle of modesty requires that we dress appropriately for the context in which we find ourselves. A bathing suit at the beach is fine, but is immodest at church. A negligee in the bedroom is fine, but not such a good idea at the office. The point is that we should not dress in ways that tend to convey sexual images where such thoughts or images are inappropriate. However, we make a mistake when we lose sight of the general principle and try to impose a rigid dress code. All young women possessed of a modicum of common sense that imitating Britney Spears is not modest. They know when they are dressing in a way that is designed to call inappropriate attention to their bodies in an effort to look sexy. But when we try to tell them that sleeveless dresses are always immodest, or that two sets of earrings are immodest, or that exposed knees are immodest, there is a disconnect. In the world in which we and they live, the vast majority of people do not consider these fashions to be sexually provocative at all. When we try to tell our young women otherwise, one of two things will happen. Either we lose credibility and they ignore us, or they absorb unhealthy attitudes about their bodies and men. Exposed shoulders become evil. Women’s bodies become tools of the devil to lure men into sin, because men are incapable of looking at those parts of their bodies without being consumed by lust. None of this is true and it contributes to destructive attitudes. I believe that if we teach our daughters the correct principle and let them govern themselves accordingly, they will be much better off than they are when we try to rigidly define how much of what parts of their bodies can be exposed in any given circumstance.

  25. M.J. Pritchett
    May 26, 2004 at 4:01 pm

    As the parent of 3 teenagers (and former Bishop and 15-year veteran of various youth related callings), one thing I have realized is that until children are about twelve, in their parents’ minds they are all going to be modest, obedient, chaste, live the word of wisdom, shun tatoos and multiple piercings, and go to Harvard and play in the major leagues. However, by age 12 sufficient contrary evidence has begun to accumulate that even the parents come to realize that at least some of these things just aren’t going to happen. As they get older this only becomes clearer. Being a parent of a teenager is almost as much of a transition as being a teenager.

    So, enjoy your Primary age children, and your child rearing theories, while you can.

    Don’t get me wrong, most children will turn out far better than we fear when they are teenagers, but few will turn out as well as we hope when they are toddlers. Our hopes are endless and eternal, and our children are mortal.

  26. Julie in Austin
    May 26, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    Bishop Pritchett–

    Nice to see you at T & S. I remember a fireside you did in Berkeley (maybe, technically, Oakland), one of the best I have ever been to.

  27. Julie in Austin
    May 26, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    Bishop Pritchett–

    Nice to see you at T & S. I remember a fireside you did in Berkeley (maybe, technically, Oakland), one of the best I have ever been to.

  28. mjpritchett
    May 26, 2004 at 5:12 pm

    I’ll never forget my daughter’s argument for her first two piece swim suit when she was about 12: I know I’ll become too ashamed of my body to wear a two piece suit soon enough, I’m going to wear a two piece now while I can.

  29. William Morris
    May 26, 2004 at 5:27 pm

    So I understand that no reason has been given about the multiple piercings thing, but is there some sort of Utah-centric cultural context that could suggest why this first came on the Brethren’s radar?

    And alternately: any speculation as to why the earring thing would be chosen as a “test of obedience” since it doesn’t seem to be a modesty thing?

    And: Hi, MJ. The East Bay T&S contingent grows!

  30. Greg
    May 26, 2004 at 6:25 pm

    I’m not sure I buy the test of obedience thing. I certainly don’t think the prophet would say “there’s no real reason behind our earring stand — it’s just a test of obedience.” The teaching is probably tied to some notion of the sanctity of the body, as with teachings about tattoos. (Or perhaps avoiding worldly fashions, like long hair for BYU men.) The fact that *our* generation’s ideas about the sanctity of the body are perfectly compatible with multiple piercings does not make it a mere “test of obedience.” Seems to me that calling some policy a test of obedience is just proxy for saying that we disagree with the reasons underlying the policy. Why not just acknowledge disagreement (if only to ourselves)?

  31. dp
    May 26, 2004 at 6:32 pm

    Regards the 2 piece swimsuit.
    While visiting Utah a couple of years ago, my wife and I noticed some girls around the pool on Sunday morning. They were sunbathing, and wearing very skimpy bikinis. What I found the funniest, was that one of them was reading “The Work and the Glory”. Only in Utah.

  32. Julie in Austin
    May 26, 2004 at 6:34 pm


    Maybe I’m falling to the ‘obedience test’ theory because nothing else seems reasonable. I can’t buy the sanctity of the body theory, unless all earrings were prohibited: it either does or does not defile a body to poke holes in it. I can’t see how one earring preserves the sanctity of the body but two destroys it. How can an earring in a woman’s ear be OK, while one in a man’s destory the sanctity of his body?

    I can’t, as you suggest, acknowldge disagreemnt with the rationale for the policy, because I don’t know the rationale. Anyone?

    Interesting, the earring rule is under ‘modesty’ in True to the Faith.

  33. May 26, 2004 at 6:44 pm

    Julie – I’m sure there’s a principle too, but I’m not sure that I like it. ;) Thanks for the help on that one Greg.

    I think that TTF says that earrings, in any form, are discouraged, but if you insist on wearing earrings only wear one pair. Something like that. Is this evidence that general authorities are aware of some of the generational lag in standards of modesty? Re earrings and modesty: I still think it’s a modesty issue because it refers to the way that we treat our bodies. I don’t buy the notion that modesty is necessarily tied to sexuality.

  34. Gary Lee
    May 26, 2004 at 6:53 pm

    How do we make sense of the earring thing? I don’t. It is much easier for me to just admit that I can’t make sense of it. I just plain don’t believe that there is anything wrong with two or more earrings. Life is much simpler when I don’t try too hard to make sense of arbitrary rules. Nor is it helpful to me turn it into a test of obedience. I have trouble believing that God imposes these kinds of arbitrary rules upon us just to see if we will obey them. I think it is much more likely that this rule reflects the cultural biases of some of the brethren who perceive multiple earrings to be an act of rebellion against societal norms.

  35. Greg Call
    May 26, 2004 at 6:56 pm


    The rationale is right there in True to the Faith:

    [Under “Modesty]”In addition to avoiding clothing that is revealing, you should avoid extremes in clothing, appearance, and hairstyle. * * * Do not disfigure yourself with tattoos or body piercings. If you are a woman and you desire to have your ears pierced, wear only one pair of modest earrings.”

    This is most reasonably read to mean that more than one pair of earrings is “extreme” and therefore immodest. Some of us probably disagree to some extent that an extra earring is necessarily extreme, but there *is* a reason given.

  36. Julie in Austin
    May 26, 2004 at 7:01 pm


    That’s a reasonable reading. You win.

  37. Greg Call
    May 26, 2004 at 7:09 pm

    I tend to agree with Gary. I remember as a kid reading Joseph F. Smith’s railing against billiards as recreation and thinking that there just can’t be some eternal moral principle that would prohibit billiards; it must be that in those particular times, billiards and immorality to some seemed to go hand in hand.

  38. mjpritchett
    May 26, 2004 at 7:24 pm

    What is immodest is at least some degree culturally determined. Thus within a specific group and setting there is a range of clothing options, some which draw attention to a person because they are on the wild, “immodest” end of the spectrum, some in the middle which are appropriate and unremarkable and some which again draw attention to the wearer because they are on the geeky, uncool end of the spectrum, of which “immodesty” is just one possible characteristic. Teenagers (who are the ones who struggle the most with this problem) view the appropriate middle ground as quite narrow. This is as true as to brands and colors as it is to “modesty”.

    Many teenagers feel that the Especially for Youth Standards would push them out of the mainstream middle and into noticibly uncool area. Most Mormon teenagers don’t desire be on the immodest end of the spectrum, but rather to just be in the middle–neither too immodest and wild nor too modest and weird. Ironically, for most Mormon teenagers it is not a desire to call attention to themselves, but rather a desire to to avoid unwanted attention, that causes them to want to dress less modestly.

  39. William Morris
    May 26, 2004 at 7:27 pm

    That all makes a lot of sense to me.

    But I still would be interesting in hearing evidence [anecdotal] or observations regarding the whole only-one-pair thing. Perhaps it’s just the Bay Area [where I’ve lived the past 15 years], but in high school and college, I never came across a second or third pair of earrings as a statement of rebellion or the perception that it was an extreme act in anyway.

    The Mormon kids who pierced-as-rebellion got nose, eyebrow, or lip rings.

    Was there some sort of Utah-centered wave of women getting second sets of earrings?

  40. Greg
    May 26, 2004 at 7:34 pm

    Well put, MJ. And evidence that you have the rare ability to both listen to and understand teenagers (as far as that is possible, of course).

  41. mjpritchett
    May 26, 2004 at 7:35 pm

    In my last post, I meant to say “too much modesty” and not “immodesty” that is on the geeky end of the spectrum. Sorry.

  42. May 26, 2004 at 7:43 pm

    The whole extra earring and even tatoo bit took a lot of people by surprise. Even a lot of conservative molly mormon like women had a small tatoo and most had multiple earrings. I think that there may have been a bit of a generation gap where people from the 60’s thought that these things had the same meaning they did 30 years ago. They don’t. They are all pretty mainstream.

    Still I was impressed at how many people changed their behaviors. I even new one woman who had her tatoo removed. (A rather painful process that looked horrible and nasty for a month)

    I think though that one can be in the middle far easier than M J suggests. After all I don’t think one has to wear floral dresses and the like or look like a geek. Even women who love low cut jeans and baring their navels don’t do it all the time.

    Even if the suggestions and rules turn out to be misunderstandings or the like, let’s be honest. Following them isn’t going to make life that much harder.

  43. mjpritchett
    May 26, 2004 at 8:04 pm


    I agree that it’s not that hard to be modest. In fact, that’s what I keep telling my daughters. Maybe you could come over next Monday night for FHE and you could help me convince them.

  44. William Morris
    May 26, 2004 at 8:20 pm

    This reminds me.

    How come the modest clothes marketed to Mormons are so unhip and untailored?

    I suppose if that’s what the demographic wants…

    But my wife would kill [okay, wrong verb choice] for a line of clothing that is modern, modest, tailored, somewhat cosmopolitan and minimalist [i.e. neutral and jewel tones, no lace collars] and inexpensive [this is the big caveat and market barrier I guess — those women who demand the modern but modest look are probably working professionals who need it for the office and can pay for it and justify the expense].

    I’ve been shopping with her. Most of the stuff is either immodest [albeit sometimes only slightly so, it’s not like we’re cruising Wet Seal — sleeves a tad too short, shirt or skirt doesn’t hang quite long enough, collar is a little too low] or straight out of frumpy housewife central.

  45. Kristine
    May 26, 2004 at 8:24 pm

    MJ, you have to be careful with Family Home Evenings like that–your daughters might end up starting a new Auxiliary : )

    [Actually, having them read a copy of the resolutions on modesty that BY’s daughters came up with might make them feel better about what they’re asked to do now–after all, nobody’s asking them not to wear “disgusting short skirts that show the foot and ankle”!]

  46. mjpritchett
    May 26, 2004 at 9:12 pm


    Thanks for the suggestion. The Brigham Young reading sounds great to me. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it would only confirm my status as a Mormon history geek and my being a geek (in a number of ways, not just Mormon history) is one of the things that has convinced my daughters that I couldn’t possibly have the foggiest idea about what would be perceived as modest or immodest at their schools. (I tell them, “Once a 13-year old boy, always a 13-year old boy”, but they don’t want to listen.) On the other hand, they are willing to take my advice about what would be appropriate to wear to Ward Christmas dinners and funerals for elderly ward members (and probably to Mormon History Association meetings for that matter, though that, admittedly, has never come up), venues where they are willing to acknowledge my sartorial expertise.

  47. Michelle
    May 26, 2004 at 9:31 pm

    Kristine –

    I know I said I wasn’t going to do this, but I’m interested in this thread, and thought I would tentatively dip my big toe into the waters of the blogosphere (avert your eyes, men-virtual exposed toe!)

    Have you ever read “A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue” by Wendy Shalit? It’s kind of a strange but fascinating book, written by a Philosophy major from Williams College when she was only 23, I think. She was raised in a non-religious but culturally Jewish home, went off to college and decided something was decidedly out of whack with the culture of immodesty. She refers to modesty not only to mean apparel, but sexual mores in general. She jumps back and forth, almost frenetically, from quotes by Kant, Kierkegaard, Hume, Rousseau, to Cosmo, Elle, Seventeen, and Mary Pipher, Carol Gilligan, Camille Paglia, Andrea Dworkin (mostly only to disagree with the latter two), in her exploration of this issue. (Lots of this was over my head). She also includes lots and lots of personal anecdotes from her own life and various friends and acquaintances. Lots to disagree with (I think she might give an overly rose-colored view of the way in which women were treated in the Victorian era, for ex.), but definitely fun reading, if questions of feminism, modesty/chastity, philosophy, and pop culture are of interest to you. The author definitely sees men and women as very different creatures, and this is, in her mind, I think, the very reason that carefully crafted rules governing this arena are so crucial.

    Never having done this before, I’m not sure about blogging etiquette and apologize if this is too much of a tangent to be inserted at this point in the thread, or too long. Anyway, thanks for the interesting post!

    Side note (Just to be more tangential and long): I brought my girls (ages 3 & 5) to a portrait studio the other day, and they saw pictures of naked babies on the walls, and cried, “Ew, disgusting!” A nearby mother responded that some people think they’re kind of cute (and I agree). My girls repeated their opinion – Disgusting! And she said, “Well, you girls are certainly modest.” Her tone of voice indicated this was not exactly a compliment. I left embarrassed to have raised such prudes, but also wondering, at which age would such photos no longer be cute, but suspect, or even criminal? Why can naked baby photographs be considered cute, paintings of naked adults beautiful art, but images of naked 5 year olds really out of bounds? Or am I wrong about this?


  48. Kristine
    May 26, 2004 at 9:59 pm

    Michelle, I had a huge fight with my brother Rich over Wendy Shallit’s book, but for the life of me can’t recall much of the substance (of either the book or the argument). I’ll have to reread it now that I’m older (and, dare I hope, slightly wiser).

    I think it’s interesting that your daughters didn’t like naked babies. My kids seem to come with at least some of their own ideas on this. My oldest really can’t be bothered to close the door to the bathroom; my daughter usually does, and is embarrassed at school if pulling off her snowpants reveals a little bit of her underwear; and my youngest son is super modest (at least by my standards). Potty training was tricky with him because he wouldn’t let me help him *at all*–he’d say “MOM! I need PIRACY!”

    And hey, welcome to the bloggernacle–a lovely toe you have, my dear!

  49. Kaimi
    May 26, 2004 at 10:10 pm

    As the father of two exhibitionist young boys (ages five and three) I can relate. (I was at the park with the kids just two days ago when I heard a familiar cry from another parent — “Who’s that little boy peeing on the trash can?!?” Yep, it was my second, with his pants around his ankles; this is, alas, not all that unusual of an occurence around these guys.)

    As for naked children in art, well, a number of cupids in art look more-or-less like naked five-year-olds. The unfortunate rise of child porn means that many such images may be considered suspect nowadays. Which reticence is unfortunate in some ways as well. Based on my experience, a realistic five-year-old or four-year-old is one who spends a quarter of the day in some state of undress, and who invariably walks into the room naked when you’ve got company over for dinner, to complain that the toilet paper is all gone.

  50. Michelle
    May 27, 2004 at 11:22 am

    Kristine –

    Thanks for your kind words of welcome. I hope that if you were, hypothetically, to reread the Wendy Shalit book, and if, hypothetically, even in your current old and wise state :), you were to find it offensive, inaccurate, illogical, or whatever, that you would tell me your honest opinion and your reasons for it. I’m not really suggesting that you reread it. I’m just saying, isn’t that what’s fun about being part of this type of community? You get to hear a wide range of opinions on all kinds of things. And if someone disagrees with me, it’s a chance for me to reflect and reevaluate, change my mind, refine my opinion, look for additional support for my own opinion, etc. I have, in reading through these threads, found people to be able to disagree in a respectful manner, and that’s part of the appeal.

    What I basically liked about the book was that she comes to the same basic conclusion that I have: a modest and chaste society is a better society for women. I came at it from a religious viewpoint; she didn’t have that, but had an instinctual feeling that something was wrong with all this co-ed bathroom living, and casual sex that was rampant on campus. And she looked to a broad range of writers to give her some support for her gut feeling on the matter. There are definitely things about her book that I would criticize, but I thought it made for fun and thought-provoking reading.

    And to Kaimi: I can relate to your depiction of family life. My little girls, who apparently found the naked baby pictures disgusting, seem to have no similar qualms about walking in on their mother while in the bathroom, and I think I can state authoritatively that I am far less cute than those babies. Go figure.


  51. michelle
    May 27, 2004 at 11:26 am

    Kristine –

    Thanks for your kind words of welcome. I hope that if you were, hypothetically, to reread the Wendy Shalit book, and if, hypothetically, even (or especially) in your current old and wise state :), you were to find it offensive, inaccurate, illogical, or whatever, that you would tell me your honest opinion and your reasons for it. I’m not really suggesting that you reread it. I’m just saying, isn’t that what’s fun about being part of this type of community? You get to hear a wide range of opinions on all kinds of things. And if someone disagrees with me, it’s a chance for me to reflect and reevaluate, change my mind, refine my opinion, look for additional support for my own opinion, etc. I have, in reading through these threads, found people to be able to disagree in a respectful manner, and that’s part of the appeal.

    What I basically liked about the book was that she comes to the same basic conclusion that I have: a modest and chaste society is a better society for women. I came at it from a religious viewpoint; she didn’t have that, but had an instinctual feeling that something was wrong with all this co-ed bathroom living, and casual sex that was rampant on campus. And she looked to a broad range of writers to give her some support for her gut feeling on the matter. There are definitely things about her book that I would criticize, but I thought it made for fun and thought-provoking reading.

    And to Kaimi: I can relate to your depiction of family life. My little girls, who apparently found the naked baby pictures disgusting, seem to have no similar qualms about walking in on their mother while in the bathroom, and I think I can state authoritatively that I am far less cute than those babies. Go figure.


  52. michelle
    May 27, 2004 at 11:29 am

    whoops – sorry


  53. Gary Cooper
    May 27, 2004 at 11:40 am

    Well, I have been following this discussion with great interest, as a father of two little girls (ages 6 and 3), who for the longest time just insisted, as soon as they’d get a new doll or Barbie, in disrobing the poor toy and losing the clothes. My youngest’s standard attire when she’s indoors is to where only her panties (“it’s hot in here, daddy!”).

    This brings up an interesting point—often the reason some people don’t where as much clothing as we might think appropriate is because of their metabolism. For those who are “warm-natured”, what one person would feel is modest would seem to the “warm-natured” as stiflingly uncomfortable and warm, and unfortunately there isn’t much in our society to teach why it’s wrong to show so much skin. My youngest daughter just hates to be hot, and she probably gets it from me, because when I am alone in the house I’m perfectly comfortable just sitting around in my garments. I think the extremely casual nature of American culture (which drives my Latin-American wife nuts, as her culture is more formal) dictates a lot of the “immodesty” we see in dress; basically, we think our own physical comfort is paramount, and we just don’t think about the effect we have on others with our dress styles.

    Modesty, genuine modesty, actually does seem to involve an element of sacrifice and unselfishness. For some, dressing modestly means saying to one’s self :”Yes, this dress seems awfully warm, but I’ll wear it because there are other issues more important than my own physical comfort.”

    One other point, which to me is a postive aspect to modesty, particularly modest dress, that we don’t always consider. Is it just me, or does anyone else notice that immodest clothing, speech, etc., tends to *dull* sexuality? What I mean is, doesn’t the Lord intend for sexuality, within legal marriage of course, to be an intensely pleasurable and joyful aspect of our lives, and aren’t we *numbing* our ability to enjoy this, when we see it all the time?

    In earlier times, when a woman’s body was much more covered in public, the mere sight of a woman’s ankles could be an erotic experience for a man. Such being the case, wouldn’t the sexual experience in marriage be greatly enhanced? On the other hand, if a man in our society today is “used” to seeing legs, cleavage, etc. all the time, wouldn’t that affect his abilty to respond normally in an appropriate marital relationship?

    I remember all the years I was dating different LDS girls, who dressed modestly, and how on those rare occasions when I might see them in a church-standard bathing suit, or catch a glimpse of their shoulder if they were speaking to me from the other side of their door while they were getting dressed, that such affected me far more powerfully than the standard stuff I would see every day with non-members at work, on TV, etc. In other words, “Modesty is Sexy” would NEVER be slogan the church would approve of, but it does seem to state a truism. (Another example: when I see Muslim women at the supermarket, etc. wearing a vail, the nature of such clothing is to draw a man’s attention to the woman’s eyes, which are often the beautiful almond or dark brown color common to Northern Aftrica and south Asia; you come away naturally thinking of those women as beautiful, even though only the eyes are to be seen.)

    Sorry, one more point. Isn’t another reason for modesty in dress to enforce a sort of “Gospel equality”? Because of the tactile and photographic nature of male sexuality, when a man meets a woman he *naturally* is drawn to “look the woman over” head to toe, and a man has to train himself to do otherwise. By dressing modestly, so that the figure is not emphasized, a woman draws a man’s attention to her FACE, and holds it there. There is almost the unspoken message, “Yes, I am a woman, but my name is —-, and I’m important not because of my sex, but because of my personality, because I am ME. Don’t look at my body—Look at ME!” My wife and I are certainly trying to teach this principle to our daughters, as they grow; that they are important because they are individual daughters of God and of Abraham, and that men should look them in the face. Their bodies are sacred, and in the marital relationship will be a source of delight to their marriage, even more so *because* of their modesty and chastity, not *in spite of* it.

  54. May 27, 2004 at 11:43 am

    Regarding photos of naked babies: as Nate (and I presume also Jim) will be able to attest, male babies in Korea are often photographed by their proud parents in a sitting position, facing forward, legs spread apart. Some portrait studios specialized in that sort of photography–walking down the street, you’d pass by a window and be confronted by a large display picture of a fat, happy Korean boy baby, with the penis proudly exposed. Sometimes these photos were rather ceremonial. Never saw one of girl baby similarly photographed. Again, culture rules.

  55. Kristine
    May 27, 2004 at 12:23 pm

    “they are individual daughters of God and of Abraham”

    …and Sarah!!

  56. Kaimi
    May 27, 2004 at 12:35 pm

    Unless they’re daughters of Hagar.

    Maybe that’s why we say “children of Israel” — it’s easier than “children of Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah.” :)

  57. michelle
    May 27, 2004 at 12:46 pm

    Wow – good stuff! I absolutely agree! As far as the numbing of sexuality due to overexposure, this seems very true. And this seems tied into the prophets’ warnings about pornography, especially its escalating nature, as the threshold for titillation seems to continually move a little further.

    Shalit talks a lot about the added “twinkle in the eye” of her orthodox Jewish friends who refused to touch before marriage, versus the ennui that surrounded the topic of sex on the part of her promiscuous friends. A series of one night stands had deadened their senses, and she saw them as missing out on the anticipation, romance, flirting, and fun that hovered over those waiting (or had waited) until marriage.

    I feel like the commandment to be modest is a great gift from God to women. In the face of a culture that increasingly objectifies women, how empowering to know that I don’t have to win approval points based on my ability to resemble a scantily-clad cover model that stares at me with pouty lips while I wait to pay for my groceries. (Would my attitude on the topic change if I did, in fact, resemble those women? Alas, we will never know. :) )

    When I worked in the YW, I always thought of Modesty as a fabulous “Girl Power” lesson – to give these girls a sense of their intrinsic worth as daughters of God, to love and respect their bodies, to cover up, and expect to be respected for their mind and character. Could we counter the current trend of eating disorders, self-loathing, competition, envy, depression, etc. on the part of young women if they all dressed modestly? I think it might help. I wouldn’t teach this lesson so much along the lines of, “Men are naughty and can’t control their thoughts, so it’s up to you to cover up and be the good ones.” (Although this may be true to an extent, and was pretty much how I was taught this as a teen). My emphasis is more about our own sense of self-respect.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments.

    And I think that perhaps I will not imitate the Korean traditional pose for my next family portrait. It is interesting to note that these things are definitely linked with cultural sensibilities.


  58. Julien
    May 27, 2004 at 12:55 pm

    Beautiful post, Gary, I could sign that one 100%. You’re just better at putting it in words than I would be… ;)

  59. Grey Ghost
    May 27, 2004 at 1:05 pm

    Greenfrog writes: “There are enough cultures available in the world to suggest to us that there is nothing innately immodest about breasts, male or female.”

    I can’t speak to some, but someone else mentioned bare-breastedness at the beach in Germany. I served my mission in Italy, and toplessness is pretty prevalent there on the beaches as well (or so I’ve heard; going there was breaking a mission rule and punishable by slow beheading) but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t provocative. It may seem odd to us that a woman who would never lift her shirt on the street will nonetheless leave it home at the beach, but then there are women in the States who would wear skimpy bikinis to the beach but never walk around in undershorts on the street.

    But I digress. I know that one of the most difficult things for the young men in the LDS branches I attended in Sicily was the thoughts and mental images they got when going to the beach and observing toplessness. Just because it was prevalent (not only there, but in mainstream magazine advertisements, billboards, etc.) didn’t mean that it didn’t get these guys thinking about sex. And that wasn’t just American missionaries; it was the natives who had lived with it all their lives. It really made me think that whenever I hear the “cultures differ” line about bare-breastedness, no offense to greenfrog, I think someone’s making excuses and too many of us are buying into it.

    As the father of two daughters, finding clothing that doesn’t make them look like Little Britneysluts is tough. They wear a lot of sweat suits. And the wife and I have agreed that the kids, all of them (3 boys, 2 girls) will dress by temple garment standards in public.

  60. Matt Jacobsen
    May 27, 2004 at 4:35 pm

    A few years ago I lived in a ward where our weekly pickup basketball games were always played shirts and skins. There were usually about a dozen elders and we would occasionally have members watch us after their various meetings. I lived in this ward for four years, and never once did I hear an objection to playing without a shirt on grounds of modesty. We might complain because some us were white or fat.

    I didn’t think much of it at the time. But at the two wards I’ve played in since, going shirts and skins is met with the most shocked of looks.

    Sports are an interesting thing. Some guys insist on wearing garments during basketall, some don’t care. It seems like there are so many exceptions to the garment-modesty-in-public rule. What do people do about swimming or gymnastics or dance or sports where uniforms are not up to standards? If you make exceptions for these occassions, doesn’t that tell our kids, “It’s only okay if everyone else is doing it?” If it’s okay to wear a swimming suit to swim and waterski, is it okay to wear the suit all day long while you’re at the lake? If the tank top is okay for a basketball uniform, why can’t I wear a tank top to shoot hoops in the driveway?

    I’ve got daughters ages 5 and 3, very interested in wearing leotards and swimming suits all day. We’re pretty relaxed about modesty and nudity among family and it is starting to leak into our public life — we’re still trying to figure out our public relations policy.

  61. Matt Jacobsen
    May 27, 2004 at 4:42 pm

    I should note that my ward just finished the baketball region tournament. We have our own jerseys, and they are tank tops. Those that wore just the jerseys without a t-shirt underneath were not reprimanded in any way. The shirt did have to be tucked in though.

  62. mjpritchett
    May 27, 2004 at 9:00 pm

    Grey Ghost:

    If you think sweatsuits look good to you now, just wait until your daughters are teenagers. Unfortunately, at that point they will be the ones choosing what they will wear. So now that you and your wife have agreed, you need to figure out what you need to do to increase the chances that your children will make good choices themselves. One hint, about the time they understand what “little Britneyslut” means the fact that it drives you crazy will only make dressing like one more desireable to them. Also, ask yourself, what could I do during my children’s teenage years that could make going to the temple and wearing garments seem especially unattractive to them. One possibility that comes to mind is to fight with them regularly about what they wear and constantly remind them that it is garments that keep them from dressing like a normal kid.

  63. mjpritchett
    May 27, 2004 at 11:25 pm

    I think that the basic principle behind the prohibition on tatoos (and to a lesser degree multiple piercing) is that it is associated with wild, worldly, primitive and lower class lifestyles. In addition, I think there is another underlying principle, to which Greg alluded, which is the sanctity of the body.

    A common reason people get tatoos today is to take “ownership” of their bodies. This is one reason that tatoos are so popular in prison where people can own so little else and have so little control over their bodies.

    Ironically, one reason tatoos are a symbol of “self ownership” is that in the past they were often used as markers of ownership by others (slaves, prisoners, Roman soldiers). This is a little like the gay pride movement’s adoption of the the Nazi pink triangle as symbol of gay pride.

    Think of your body as a house. If you only rent it, you can’t paint the walls red or tear out a wall without the permission of the landlord. The glory of home ownership is the freedom to remodel to your own taste. (This is, of course, way overrated, as anyone who has actually remodeled knows.) Tatoos are the same principle applied to the body.

    One possible expression of the sanctity of the body is the idea that we don’t own our bodies. They are sacred temples owned by God. We are merely stewards.

    Remember the conference talk about a tatoo as grafitti on the wall of the temple. Even if you disagree with the grafitti vs. art part of the metaphor (either because you think grafitti can be art or because tatoos can be beautiful), you still have to deal with the steward vs. owner part of the metaphor, i.e., you can’t put even “good” art on the wall of the temple, since you don’t own it, God does. Same goes for your body.

    There is, obviously, a huge debate about whether this is a good or bad attitude to have toward your body, which I will leave to others, but I do think this idea is one of the underlying reasons for the current prohibition on tatoos.

  64. greenfrog
    May 28, 2004 at 11:26 am

    Is using make-up and hair coloring immodest?

  65. wendy
    May 28, 2004 at 12:27 pm

    Better yet, are breast implants immodest? If so, many Mormons are guilty. The fact that there have not been any prophetic pronouncements about cosmetic surgery like that leads me to believe that the basic principle is “avoid extremes of appearance”, rather than “preserve the sanctity of the body”. Which, as some have pointed out, leads to the question “extreme to who — 90 year old men, or 20 year old women?”

  66. mjpritchett
    May 28, 2004 at 1:11 pm

    Greenfrog: You need to be more regular in your attendance at Young Women. You would know the answer to that question.

    Wendy: I agree that avoiding extremes is the basic principle, and your question about whose extreme is a good one.

    I think you would find few church members who would argue that breast implants are modest. Breast reduction surgery, on the other hand, I think is a harder question.

  67. May 28, 2004 at 1:28 pm

    uh, wendy, first think about how people who have tattoos and hadn’t heard them forbidden over the pulpit before felt when they heard that. next think of how people who were anxious about their bodies before, had cosmetic surgery, and suddenly heard it condemned over the pulpit like graffitti on the temple of the lord. now, how do they feel about their bodies? is this constructive?

    perhaps if we address the unhealthy attitudes about our bodies in other ways first — clothing is a safer area since clothes have to be replaced over time anyway, so does hair — and develop a rich sense of the sanctity of our bodies (and a strong resistance to the culture of over-sexualization), then we can address the cosmetic surgery issue a little more sensitively and constructively, which in this case i think means, in part, less publicly.

  68. May 28, 2004 at 1:33 pm

    This post sure is getting a lot of comments! Let me add one more.

    I don’t know that breast implants are necessarily immodest. I know a few women who got implants after having several children in order to return their breasts to pre-breast feeding form. What’s wrong with that?

  69. Julie in Austin
    May 28, 2004 at 1:37 pm


    You may or may not be pleased to know that I have addressed the immorality of breast implants as a guest speaker with YW. (I’m sure that was a first.)

    To *me*, hair color, make-up, and, yes, shaving my legs (I know: Too much information!) would feel immodest, but I promise that I do not judge others, for I feel that their inspiration might be different. I think that if I were to spend X minutes every morning working on personal apppearance, that would be a sin when I am constantly pleading in prayer for time and energy to get done what I want/need to get done.

  70. wendy
    May 28, 2004 at 2:07 pm


    I didn’t say that there was anything wrong with breast implants. I said that the fact that they aren’t forbidden (at least for now) indicates to me that the forceful counsel against piercings on guys, piercings on women except for a single, tasteful set of earrings, and tattoos does not strike me as being motivated by concern for “sanctity of the body”, as some on the thread have postulated. Filling the breasts with silicone messes with the body way more than putting a small hole in a guy’s ear, no? Both are vain, both scar the body. The prophet (and by implication God) want Mormons to look clean-cut. Tattoos not okay, perky breasts okay. Mustaches and beards on temple workers not okay. Etc.

  71. Michelle
    May 28, 2004 at 2:49 pm

    Here’s a quote from a flyer I got at a recent stake women’s conference:

    “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaimin…”Wow! What a ride!”

    Wouldn’t it be awesome if we actually believed that? And if after giving birth to and nursing, say, four children for at least 14 months apiece, we could look at ourselves, and say “Wow! How thrilled I am to have used this body God has given me to be part of something miraculous!”, rather than saying, “Oh, dear, how much money would it cost to restore my pre-pregnancy perkiness?”

  72. Kaimi
    May 28, 2004 at 3:04 pm


    Ideally, we might be in a world of that sort. However, in the fallen world we’re in, it’s my impression that women feel a need to have make-up or breast implants or plastic surgery, because they think that if they don’t, their husband or boyfriend might trade them in for someone more attractive.

  73. mjpritchett
    May 28, 2004 at 3:30 pm

    I think the reason there is no policy on breast implants is because it is not viewed in Salt Lake church circles as a common occurance, not because church leaders are not opposed to the practice. I suspect if you asked most any church leader he (or she) would say it is a bad idea and “sanctity of the body” would be one of the reasons given. Likewise, if you had any sort of discussion about tatoos, “sanctity of the body” would show up, not as the primary reason, but in second or third place.

  74. Michelle
    May 28, 2004 at 3:34 pm


    Yes, sadly, there are also many 13 year old girls who sleep with their boyfriends for fear of being dumped in favor of the girl that “puts out”. Sadly, too, there are many girls who develop an eating disorder in order to try to attain the unattainable body ideal of our culture. There is a long list of sad and sorry things we could proclaim about our fallen world. But aren’t we trying to get closer to eternal principles and away from the fallen, worldy aspsects of our existence to the extent that we are able?

    This is not to say that I, myself, have achieved the ideal. I am wracked with insecurities of all kinds. I am also not fundamentally opposed to make-up, leg-shaving, exercise, etc. But I do think our culture is becoming increasingly hostile to women by promoting cosmetic surgery as, for example, seen in recent reality shows. The message seems to be that women should be profoundly dissatisfied with their life if they do not look like super-models. And that the solution is to go under the knife, morph into someone completely unrecognizable, and become someone now worthy of self-love (and of course, the love and approval of others). I find this trend really disturbing and dangerous.


  75. Gary Lee
    May 28, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    I am not sure that thinking of ourselves as stewards or renters rather than owners of our bodies is helpful. First of all, I am not sure that it is true. After all, isn’t our body an essential part of our selves? We are not renters of these bodies—they are intended to be eternal. I will never leave this body for it to be inhabited by somebody else as I do if I am renting a house. More importantly however, to say that we are stewards doesn’t tell me much. We are stewards of the earth also, but does that mean that we never cut down a tree, landscape a barren part of the land, dig a hole or extract minerals? If I am a steward of my body, it means that I should use it in the service of God and my fellow human beings. That tells me nothing meaningful about whether or not I should decorate it with two sets of earrings, or have a tattoo because I don’t see any connection at all between those acts and serving God.

    I think we make a mistake when we impose a rigid dress code on our youth because usually those dress codes are not connected to a recognizable moral principle. Wearing two earrings is not immoral, scandalous or rebellious any more than wearing pink socks with green pants. In my experience, at least, it is better to focus on correct principles. We do not dress in ways that are intended to call undue attention to ourselves. We should not overtly “sexualize” ourselves in the way we dress. We should not be provocative or offensive. Reasonable people know what that means and they can govern themselves. But when we tell our twelve year olds that they should always dress as if they were wearing garments, or that a second pair of earrings is akin to defacing the temple of God, or that an exposed upper arm or shoulder is sinful and drives boys to lust we create artificial standards of morality and are asking for trouble.

  76. wendy
    May 28, 2004 at 5:18 pm

    Modest, garment-compatible swimwear, for anyone interested:

  77. Kaimi
    May 28, 2004 at 5:23 pm


    Yikes! Those have “drowning at the beach” written all over them. There’s a good reason that people usually don’t go swimming in tents!

  78. Kaimi
    May 28, 2004 at 6:01 pm

    Added quick notes:

    1. Gordon has written a little bit about plastic surgery previously (and there was some interesting discussion in the comments). See .

    2. I do think it’s more cultural than we sometimes believe. In Guatemala, breastfeeding is the norm, and it happens in public. All the time. In a ward or branch of any size, there will be at least two or three women breast feeding their kids during sacrament and during classes. You get it when you visit members, when you teach discussions, when you’re on the bus.

    States missionaries typically take a few months to get used to it. (My first reaction was to avert my eyes and look at the floor — a normal reaction for a greenie). Seasoned elders ignore it, just like you ignore the chickens that walk around the inside of the house as you give the charla. Missionaries made jokes about it.

    The point is, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a woman breast feeding in church or in discussions. I’ve seen it done a lot, it takes a short while for a U.S.-cultured person to adapt to, but it’s how the kids are kept fed, and it’s not inappropriate. The world doesn’t end. You can still feel the Spirit at those meetings; I’ve baptized lots of women who breast-fed in church both before and after baptism. It wasn’t a big sexualized deal. There were no inappropriate “flashbacks” (as people have mentioned in the other thread) — I certainly wasn’t thinking “I’m baptizing a woman whose breasts I’ve seen!” It was just a spiritual occasion, and I was baptizing an individual who had found the gospel.

  79. Kingsley
    May 28, 2004 at 6:31 pm

    Kaimi: Any number of things that might offend a given culture are merely “cultural,” e.g. the F word etc. as Clark mentioned. My brother served in a part of Europe where all-out nudity in commercials for shampoo etc. is the norm & not a “big sexualized deal” to the Saints there; but it’d certainly be a distraction to U.S. Saints. You really think it’d take only a “short while” for deacon Jimmy to become accustomed to Sister Jones’s breasts in Sacrament Meeting?

  80. Michelle
    May 28, 2004 at 6:33 pm

    Kaimi –

    Thanks for directing me to the thread on plastic surgery. I see this topic has already been addressed (before I stumbled on to this website), and there were lots of great comments there.


  81. Kristine
    May 28, 2004 at 7:10 pm

    I regularly nursed my firstborn in Sacrament Meeting. (By the time I had the second, I was only too happy to escape to the comfy chair in the “Mother’s Lounge” and let my husband deal with the wiggly toddler). If I’m going to listen to people talk about the divinity, etc. of motherhood over the pulpit on a regular basis, then I think they can be asked to put up with the somewhat unglamorous reality of mothering in the pews.

    The only place anyone has ever actually said anything unkind about a nursing baby to me was in *Relief Society.* Go figure.

  82. Julie in Austin
    May 28, 2004 at 11:19 pm

    Hmm, for the first time, I am grateful for all the lawyers around here. Question: in states where breastfeeding is legally protected, would that extend to Church? In other words, do women have a legal right to nurse in sacrament meeting?

    Just curious.

  83. Susan
    May 29, 2004 at 1:32 am

    What a thread! Cultural context, two memories float to the surface.

    Number 1: The “Pardon Me” campaign at BYU in the 60s (yes, I date myself once again): be prepared to kneel and demonstrate that your skirts touch the ground–or find yourself judged and found wanting. And no pants, whatsoever, on campus, ever! That was the BYU I knew and at the time loved.

    Number 2: My confrontation with my double (one of the truly transforming experiences of my life): a male historian working for his church, married with children, writing about Ellen White, the Seventh Day Adventist prophetess. Such a relief. He (and his world) had to feel guilty about dancing, piercing (even one) and bacon on the spinach salad. What a relief!

  84. Roy, AK
    May 26, 2005 at 8:04 am

    I find this discussion interesting coming from a different and definitely more conservative society. Please take my comments as my limited perspective. On the one hand, I am hearing some people hear calling for modesty. But where do we draw the line, let alone the question of modesty being behavior or dress?
    Is immodesty defined as bare breasts or exposure of very private parts? And everything else is exempt? If so, I would like to know why Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is such a hot item. Evidently, there is a huge sex element in it without the taboo of a nakedly explicit magazine such as playboy or penthouse. So does this mean that the models are being immodest?
    If you agree, then where do we draw the line on swimsuits or bikinis? How tiny can they get or what shapes are permissible before they are declared immodest?
    If you do not think the sexual element in SISS edition does not constitute immodesty, then why would some think that bare breasts constitute immodesty (because some of the models bare almost everything stopping just at the point where it might be called a pornographic issue)?

    I realize that many of those who commented here do not necessarily subscribe to modesty or traditional views of modesty. Nevertheless, I am a little confused by all this since this is not the first time I heard the modesty debate in various forms. Personally I do not find nudity offensive unless it is explicitly intended to offend. But from a societal view point, I am not able to appreciate the discussion I am afraid.

  85. annegb
    May 26, 2005 at 11:41 am

    There is something about this topic that makes me want to go out and pose nude for Playboy. Not that they’d want me.

    I think everybody should mind their own business. If you don’t want your little two year old tempting boys with their sexy little arms, don’t dress them that way. But it’s none of anybody’s business if I put my two year old in a bikini.

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