My Mansplaining About Modesty

There are few issues in the Church as touchy as modesty. Every society has their lines for what is considered in poor taste on the revealing side or conversely too demure in the other direction, while the Church is consistently a few clicks to one direction on that continuum, making this one of those issues that puts us at slight tension with the background environment, even though the tension here is minor compared to, say, our exotic family forms of yore. A common response about our slightly more restrictive norms is to smirk about the difference between the Church and broader society. “Oh, those silly uptight conservatives.” 

Ironically, this attitude is a mirror image of the conservatives that think that modesty lines are eternally drawn by God across time and space. However, in this case instead of acknowledging, respecting and contextualizing cultural differences like one would if they were, say, in an Amish community or a Muslim holy site, the sort of chiding about Latter-day Saint differences (typically by members themselves) ironically kind of presupposes that the metaphysical ideal written in the sky for the balance between too little and too much modesty happens to be right where 2024 America is.

“Appropriateness” is by definition relative. Virtually all non-hunter gatherer cultures would find somebody walking down the street completely naked a little jarring (even if legal), and unless you’re fine with that then you too have your lines in the sand, it’s just a matter of where. 

I’m fine with the Church exhibiting some additional distinctiveness by being a few degrees to the conservative side of the broader society on the modesty continuum. People love to have fun with early Church manuals and talks that place modesty lines at places that would be considered extreme today, but the fact is that our norms are anchored to society at large, and while we’ve been changing, so too has society. Joseph Fielding Smith wasn’t operating in a vacuum. 

Not that modesty is all about sexuality, but it’s not completely orthogonal either, and much of what is considered sexual is also relative. If you are in a community where women do not show their natural hair in public, then for a husband to find it titillating when his wife takes off her head covering at the end of the day or shows her ankle doesn’t mean he has a weird fetish (although I’m surprised at how much fetish-shaming happens from supposed liberals when the target is conservatives; see C.S. Lewis’ youthful BDSM for exhibit A), but it’s simply a natural consequence of being in a society where that is the part reserved for the close family members, and to smirk at that, or to sort of imply that the husband is sexually unwell for his response, as if he should only be sexually responsive to the level of graphic sexuality we’ve become accustomed to in the developed, secular world, is precisely the kind of line-drawing absolutism that the conservatives are often accused of. And maybe society being so saturated with graphic sexuality that nothing stuns, where there is no such spousal response at the end of the day, isn’t the ideal. Maybe it’s okay for a culture/community to keep things in reserve and manage boundaries as long they aren’t totalitarian about it. 

On the other hand I’m not a complete relativist. Of course comfort is important, and there are often gender rights issues at play (as a speedo-wearing high school competitive swimmer I was bemused at the fact that speedos are the one item where the gendered double standard went in the other direction, with something seen as weird and inappropriate for men viewed as appropriate for women). On a meta-level I think that men and women’s fashion should be functional wherever one’s culture falls on that modesty continuum, but I also think, again on a meta-level, that there should be things reserved for one’s intimate partner, locker rooms, and such. It’s not a false dichotomy between nude beaches or burkas. 

Finally, another complexity at play here is that in the Latter-day Saint case modesty is largely institutionally mandated via garment design, making it easy for people to frame this as the proverbial hegemonic conservative church telling people what to do, whereas in (some) other traditions the additional modesty requirements are more opt-in, leading to, for example, Jewish Orthodox or Trad Catholic influencers that paradoxically make the idea of modesty more punk-rock. (One online vendor of lace mantillas that conservative Catholics wear to Mass stated that “the veil is meant to be an external sign of a woman’s interior desire.” Sounds familiar. Also, word on the street is that there is a niche in the wedding dressmaking industry that serves both Orthodox Jewish and Latter-day Saint clientele).  

Again, the point of the OP isn’t to argue for a particular line here or there, but rather to point out that recognizing that modesty is relative is a sword that cuts both ways.

8 comments for “My Mansplaining About Modesty

  1. I’m my years teaching youth and adult classes in the church, I’ve found a valuable starting point in modesty discussions is to ask “explain modesty outside the context of clothing.” The discussion will eventually include clothing, of course, but it’s helpful to define and discuss the principle in other contexts first. For instance, why is it improper for a better team to run up the score on an inferior? Is it improper to drive an expensive car to church meetings in an impoverished area?

  2. When I was an editor at the Ensign, we received an angry letter from a woman who found one of our photos too risqué. It was a photo of a youngish woman in a not-too-tight sweater. This letter-writer claimed that she had to go through the magazine every month and black out several photos with a magic marker before she would allow her husband to read it. We wondered if she ever let him walk down the street or go to a grocery store without putting blinders on him. Obviously, modesty is in the eye of the beholder, but there are certainly extreme views. I have to wonder where they really originate.

  3. rkt,

    Was that (1) protecting her husband; or (2) unrighteous dominion? I tend towards (2).

    I understand the magazine cannot make everyone happy.

  4. The real question I have is why is all (or at least the vast majority of) the “modesty” instruction geared towards women?

  5. @Gregg Sharp: I noted in the post that modesty isn’t all about sexuality, but some of it is, and at times (less now I think, but more in the past) it’s clear that many fashions are designed or at least influenced by the heterosexual male gaze. It’s hard to think of a counterpart for men’s fashion cowtowing to the high-sociosexuality, heterosexual female gaze (maybe tight jeans?). Men just don’t go to black tie balls with slits up our pant leg or our low-cut shirts showing off our lower traps, so just the way society and fashion is structured the actual use cases of modesty are going to be dealing disproportionately with female attire. I don’t make the rules, but that’s just kind of the on-the-ground reality.

  6. I think it’s a mistake to treat modesty as one concept, when we use it to mean several different things. Being humble and avoiding self-promotion is one thing that goes by the name of “modesty,” and there are various norms for it. And avoiding clothing styles that are coded for sexual forwardness is another concept that goes by the same name. Neither of these are peculiar LDS usages – they’re all in the dictionary, unfortunately under the same heading. So we argue about what modesty really is, when it’s really multiple things that are mostly unrelated.

  7. Todays modesty in dress is yesterdays porn.

    rkt’s comment says it all. Members overdoing it like usual. There was a time many years ago that women in the church where I live were getting all worked up about tight fitting clothes (on the women) at church. It got way out of hand. The clothes and the shaming.

    I was in Utah from 5th grade to my mission and I wore tank tops and booty shorts all the time and thought nothing of it. (late 70s early 80s) I could have been bucking the church then but I dont recall feeling that way at the time. (lots of jack-mormons then so maybe that’s who I was fitting in with?) It was a very big deal when we got endowed because we had to change our wardrobe, not just get use to the new underwear. The way I dressed everyday after the temple experience reminded me I was a new person or made a new commitment to God. Huge change for me.

    Today kids dont experience that change as they are required to wear temple length clothing even though they have not chosen to be endowed. Somehow wearing anything less is now considered a sin. That is unfortunate.

    I knew we went too far as a church when I was visiting a friend of mine going to BYU. This was 1984. She said she had to take care of some payment thing and it might take a while but she would try and hurry. She came back pretty quick so I made the comment that it was faster than she thought. She then told me that it was fast because they would not help here because her shorts were too short. She had not been through the temple yet but the shorts she was wearing were maybe a half inch shorter than the knee.


    That’s when I knew I could never go to BYU…

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