Mormon Culture: Modesty and Bikinis

Mormon Culture: Modesty and Bikinis

Here’s a message I got the other day from a friend: “I just really don’t understand why my midriff causes so much uproar from other people. It’s like my belly button is somehow so much more inappropriate or sexual than some guy’s belly button.”

What do you think of that? I personally don’t think there’s anything sexy about a bellybutton, but maybe other people do? Comment and let me know so I can get the facts straight.

Scott Gordon, the President of FairMormon, a non-profit “dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of LDS doctrine, belief and practice,” told me in an email, “Bare midriff for men or women is the same.” In regards to modesty, he said, “I think you are correct to note that the focus on modesty seems to be our young women. One can argue that is because they have the most difficulties with it, but I suspect much comes from cultural bias.”

About a year ago, I read an article by an LDS mother who said teaching modesty is sometimes done in a way that’s harmful. And recently I read one called “Stop Teaching Your Daughter to be Modest” by Baily Suzio.

In Suzio’s article, she said “Measuring skirt length and tank top straps will not free girls from being objects of lust but it will make them self-conscious.”

She goes on to say “causing them to want to hide their bodies and to blame themselves for another’s sin, that is not honoring the image of God in each and every woman.” This comment comes from the idea that women who dress revealingly cause men to sin in their thoughts or actions. And it’s a problem that society — and people in the church — use as reason to tell young women to dress a certain way.

Editorial moment by me: If a woman is dressed in something “revealing,” she is not asking to be raped. And men who use a woman’s dress as an excuse for raping her need to spend time in prison. So society, do not teach your boys that women are the problem. Teach your boys to respect women no matter what they wear.

Back to non-opinon …

While the teaching to be modest has been in the For the Strength of Youth since it was first introduced, with different times and fads, the church has modified the dress standards in the pamphlet. You can read the differences over the years in the links below:

  • Here’s the current version of the For the Strength of Youth
  • Here’s the 2012 version of the For the Strength of Youth
  • Here’s the 1990 version of the For the Strength of Youth
  • Here’s the 1972 version of the For the Strength of Youth
  • Here’s the 1965 version of the For the Strength of Youth

An interesting change that’s happened over time is the reference of swim suits in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. The early versions didn’t mention swim suits, but the 1972 version says not to wear bathing suits that show a bare midriff. But the 1990 version doesn’t mention it. The 1990 version mentions that you shouldn’t wear an immodest bathing suit, but doesn’t specify what that means. The 2001 and 2012 versions don’t even mention swim suits. So which “rule” are people to follow when it comes to swim suits? I guess we have to figure it out on our own.

But just a story first. I was with some people and someone we knew posted a photo of herself kayaking with friends, and she was wearing a bikini. Someone who I was with said something like, “Oh, but she was such a good missionary.” Last time I checked, wearing a bikini doesn’t mean you were a bad missionary, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I think people are  too often too quick to judge people’s righteousness on what people are wearing. Is that okay?

The For the Strength of Youth says the following of modesty: “Prophets of God have continually counseled His children to dress modestly. When you are well groomed and modestly dressed, you invite the companionship of the Spirit and you can be a good influence on others. Your dress and grooming influence the way you and others act.”

Scholar Rosemary Avance did a study on the interpretation of modesty in the LDS church. She says the body has been sexualized, and so modesty is sometimes seen as “tool for aiding in the control of lustful desires.” She then says that this thought leads immodesty to be treated as a “sexual, female sin,” which makes women responsible for the purity of both women and men.

In a New Era article from 2006, nothing is mentioned of the young men’s dress; however, the authors say the following to young women: “As you dress and behave modestly, you can have a great impact on young men. Your modest actions and dress will help them control their thoughts and focus on virtue and that which is wholesome.”

Now, I want you to consider this question. Is it okay to tell women that they are at fault if men can’t “control their thoughts”? Just saying.

On the other hand, Avance makes an interesting point: that in saying this, church members are also saying men don’t have the ability to exercise self-control. So not only are we blaming women if a man can’t control his thoughts, but we are also saying men aren’t able to exert self-control. Is that a good thing?

Yes, the church has always counseled people to dress modestly, but the way each person chooses to dress modestly is their choice, and it’s not anyone’s place to judge how someone chooses to dress modestly.

Some questions to consider

  • Do I judge people on what they wear rather focusing on who they are?
  • Am I teaching about modesty in a way that’s about respecting our bodies or in a way that makes people feel ashamed of their bodies?

another opinon

After telling my friend about this Mormon culture blog I was writing, he sent me a Facebook post written by a member of the church. It had over 12,000 reactions, over 9,000 shares, and over 1,800 comments. As you read it, remember that it doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, but it might make you ask yourself some new questions about how you assess modesty and judge others.


12 thoughts on “Mormon Culture: Modesty and Bikinis”

  • Hey Jesse! I think you make a lot of great points and I definitely agree that we shouldn’t shame women based on how they dress or blame them for the thoughts or actions of men. However, it does state in the current pamphlet that shirts should cover the midriff so I would interpret that to cover all tops, including swim tops. The objective is to be as modest as we can be so that we can invite he spirit and follow God’s commands. So of course we shouldn’t judge others’ choices but I always look to myself and ask “how can I make the choice to be modest?” Even if that means wearing a modest one-piece swimsuit or tankini that covers the stomach completely, or wearing Bermuda shorts to cover up instead of short shorts. There are specific guidelines and we should try to follow them as best we can. Anyway, that’s just what I think! And I love that Bishop’s post as well! Everyone should feel welcome and invited!

  • Oh and I also wanted to add that modesty and covering the midriff applies to men as well. Meaning that men probably shouldn’t be walking around half-naked unless they are swimming, etc. I feel there is often a double-standard that women are held more highly to.

    • It’s interesting that you mention the frequent presence of a double standard while also putting forth a double standard that hold women to s higher standard. You state that men shouldn’t be going around half naked unless they are swimming but that the standard that shirts should cover the midriff applies to women’s swim wear. It’s perfectly fine for you to have that standard for yourself but it is still an interpretation of the rule and not universally applicable.

  • Great points. Many times people bring their own view and bias to church function and cause them to become a standard. My girls were shamed by their achievement day leader because shirts rode up if arms were raised. They were embarrassed by her and the the girls who ganged up on them. At 8 yrs old they didnt want to go back. Likewise at YW pool parties they have been required to wear a shirt in the pool. At an all girls party, in one price suits! Sometimes people get rediculous. Stop body shaming my daughters!

  • This is such an important dialogue in our culture. You offer some really great points, especially concerning rape, etc. It is not any person’s responsibility to make sure another person is responsible with his/her thoughts. I think an interesting thing to consider though is what is the real answer to your friend’s question? Does seeing a woman’s stomach affect a (straight)man more than seeing a man’s stomach affects a (straight) woman? And why is showing more of one’s body more desirable than covering up in the first place? Because if they affect each other equally, then people who believe women should cover up should expect men to cover up as well. I was raised to believe that men are more affected by seeing a woman’s body than women are by seeing a man’s body, but I don’t know if that is necessarily true. Sometimes I wonder if we perpetuate the sexualization of women (as well as minimize their sexuality!) by saying things like that. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do think that we could benefit from talking about modesty in church and with our children more as a way of being for BOTH genders, and less about the length of sleeves on a girl.

  • I’ve been thinking on this subject, and I believe the author is missing the point. I don’t believe I realized until the last few years how predatory men (and women) can be. Especially now with the rampant plague of porn, people’s minds and hearts are already thinking impurely, probably more than ever.

    I want my children and myself to be modest FOR THEIR PERSONAL PROTECTION! I think this article misses the point of modesty.

    • Thank you Gina for your comments. I love that you see modesty as a form of personal protection. I actually have not taken a stance on the issue in this post, but I think it’s more important to get the dialog going about how people judge others’ character and “righteousness” based on what people are wearing. And I think a lot of people have questioned how they treat others based on clothing choices, and that’s all I’m hoping to do. But I do appreciate your comments. I realize there are “predatory” thoughts, but that wasn’t the sole purpose of this blog post. I hope you can find something helpful in my post whether or not you agree with some of the things I included.

      • A quote from my husband to me regarding males: “I don’t think you realize how strong testosterone is, the drive is unbelievable. ” while everyone is responsible for their own choices, surely showing Christ-like love for one another is a matter of dressing modestly.

  • Great post. I think that the bikini question is simply a cultural one. Some pockets of mormonism would have us believe that a bikini is sinful and against the standards of the church. However other areas of the church e.g. Hawaii, France, Germany, Florida, and the Caribbean would be culturally ok with Bikinis, and in Europe, Speedos for men. Some of it boils down to the activity. A young man on a swim team or diving team does not wear board shorts or long swimming trunks, they wear a speedo. Likewise an LDS female surfer or boogie boarder would not at some beaches be in a one piece. She would have a sandy problem that would be very difficult to extricate. A two piece swimsuit is much easier to get the sand out of.

    I think Elder Uchtdorf, if swimming in Germany would wear a much different suit than in Utah. He would have his tight speedo on in Dusseldorf.

    Culturally the Mormon Bible belt running from Arizona to Southern Alberta is not accepting of the bikini. My wife wears a one piece for the most part, but has several 2 piece bikinis that she wears on holidays, or on occasion to the pool in our hometown.

    Modesty is as much or more in how you act, rather than what you wear. You can act immodestly in a one piece or a two piece, likewise you can be modest in either as well.

    The church cannot come out and say no bikini’s because it doesn’t work culturally. Interestingly at the Polynesian cultural center, YSA young men pose for pics with no shirts on, and young YSA women dance the hula in strapless tube type tops. —-It’s cultural. None of them are wearing garments, because they are performing, and they are portraying culture. I still found them to be modest.

  • What’s most important to me is that we love and accept one another. That’s the point. I have 3 teenage girl who have occasionally been shamed got their voices that are not related to doctor, but culture. My daughter has stated that she’s not”Mormon enough for the Mormons,” there’s something wrong. Church should be a place where we all fit in, not feel cast out.
    I find it as that some men blame their unrighteous does on the way women are dressed. I do believe that women should dress modestly, but not too prevent men from having your feelings, but to feel good about ourselves and our bodies. I also find it as that many girls are so ashamed of their bodies that they want to hide them – like wearing a large t-shirt over a swimming suit, or wearing baggy clothes all the time.

  • When we have “modesty talks” with my kids, it usually starts from this messaging: “What we wear and how we groom ourselves sends messages to other people, whether we want it to or not.” Functionality is my main clothing concern (Can I discretely breastfeed in this outfit? Are these shoes comfortable for walking around the city all day?). That said, I also think seriously about the intentional and unintentional messages I send with my clothing and try to carefully craft my message based on my audience and situation (is this a Church gathering? a playdate with my Muslim friends? Going to a party with my husband’s coworkers? A confrontational meeting where I need to communicate power? ). My clothing becomes a potent tool of nonverbal communication and often a form of armor. My most frequent messages: “Hey, I’m part of your group!” or “I’m not a threat.” or “Don’t mess with me. I’m put together and on top of things.”

    I don’t personally have an issue with bikinis, but I choose not to wear them myself because it’s not part of the narrative I’m trying to construct (which, yes, does include an element of communicating to culturally LDS friends and family that, “Look! I’m conservative like you. I fit in here.”). But I don’t find them offensive on someone else. It just means that they’re either intentionally sending a message (“I am strong and sassy and beautiful” or “I am so happy with my new look/body” or “I am daring and pushing the envelope.”) or they have no idea that they’re sending a message. Either option is fine with me. But I do want my kids to know that dress is a potent form of communication and I hope they will take advantage of that medium– while simultaneously accepting that others may choose to send different messages or might misinterpret the signals we put out.

    • To be clear, I think that you are spot on about not blaming women’s clothing when they are raped. It’s ridiculous to try to justify the violence of rape by saying, essentially, “Her clothes made me do it.” False. I think in this case clothing tends to become the target because it’s visible and therefore much easier to police than the inherently invisible thoughts and actions leading up to a rape.

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