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?
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.