I want to reveal a poisonous issue within the culture of our church, one that causes shame and judgment to come down upon those who encounter life struggles and the ensuing guilt felt when we as individuals don’t measure up to the standards. We have adopted, as a church, very strict modesty standards for girls…not guys. I’m all about modesty, but in our culture we have left Crazy Town on this issue and headed straight for Absolutely Ridiculous-ville. In fact, I’m going to flat out say that this standard is more than just unrealistic. It has actually become harmful, even dangerous in many ways, including teaching our children to judge one another. Allow me to explain.
In our culture, moral accountability is placed on the girl and her choices with modesty. Church talks, youth lessons, New Era articles written by authorities, all place the ownership on the girls to make modest choices in their clothing in order for both male and female youth to maintain their morals and standards. I cannot tell you how many times throughout my life I’ve heard leaders explain to young women that how they dress might send the wrong message to the boys, put impure thoughts into the boys’ heads, or show a lack of respect for one’s self.
Now I can accept two of those as actual wisdom, for the most part, except we aren’t speaking of short skirts and crop tops. These warnings are for sleeveless shirts or dresses that show the tops of shoulders, leggings worn with tunics and boots, and bikinis and tankinis. But primarily it’s that second statement that truly grinds me to my core: “You don’t want to put impure thoughts into the boys’ heads.”
How is that considered a safe teaching to tell anyone, boy or girl? When are the boys taught that they should be able to stand in front of a girl who doesn’t have our same modesty standards and be accountable for and in control of their own thoughts? I have a son that has grown up in the church and the only one teaching him this is me, his mother. My girls, on the other hand, are constantly receiving counter-teaching by me to negate the shaming they receive from leaders and other youth.
As examples of the well-meaning, turned absurd practice of modesty, our culture of course has taken it to unhealthy levels (it’s what we do):
- Some girl youth camps (only girls attend) not only require one piece swimsuits (which we all know that tankinis can actually cover more than most one pieces), they also require the girls to swim with a t-shirt and shorts over the one piece as added modest protection. Yet at Scout camps (all boys), boys actively swim shirtless and aren’t made to feel as though they need to over-cover their bodies. This practice teaches young women in our culture that their bodies are things that should be covered and hidden, breeding a feeling of shame and guilt if we don’t, while the boys get to be boys and are maintaining their moral thoughts only because our girls are protecting them from seeing a shoulder.
- Also at these young women camps the girls are encouraged to come up with skits on various topics including modesty. I’ve personally witnessed these skits making fun of girls who might not dress like LDS teens do and suggest that anything outside of LDS youth standards is considered too provocative and basically wrong. The problem with this is that there are quite often non-LDS youth attending these camps who don’t have our standards and yet witness the skits making fun of their personal choices. Another problem is that this encourages our LDS youth to judge their non-LDS friends and family for their choices. I’ve personally heard LDS youth use friends as examples when speaking about poor choices in modesty in the world.
- There is a clear divide between many LDS girls and we as leaders are encouraging this divide without meaning to. We hold an activity called a Modest Fashion Show where girls bring modest examples and demonstrate to other girls how to dress modestly at school, church, and even dances and special events. The divide comes from LDS youth who are raised in partial member homes or who struggle with social status and fitting in with friends. This fashion show is intended to encourage modesty but I’ve seen the more “Molly” girls take pride in showing off their modest choices, and judgement and resentment overshadows encouragement.
The emphasis in a church that claims to be the literal restored church of Jesus Christ ought to be on the Christlike attribute of love and acceptance. When we use any gospel standard or cultural practice to shame, judge and otherwise belittle those among and around us, we need to take a hard look at ourselves. That is blatant misuse of the gospel and proof that we may have a beam in our individual eye as well as in our collective cultural eye. These sometimes absurd standards can lead to the literal destruction of our spiritual selves.
When we cause youth to feel uncomfortable and judged at church, church activities, and among fellow church members we are destroying our next generation of strong LDS leaders. Isn’t religion for sinners? Since when did religion become a place for the “already exalted” and the “perfect?” Let’s worry a little less about how much shoulder someone is showing and a little more about how much love we’re showing.
Let’s embrace the true example of the Savior and obsess less over the letter of the man-made laws that are destroying us from the inside out, and have more concern and love for the worth of the individual soul.