Sunday, June 23, 2013

Modest is Hottest: Modesty About More Than Clothes

A decade ago I worked at a swimming pool supply store with a good friend. Winters and cloudy days could be slow for business, which for us meant we had time to grab a pizza and talk about whatever came up. Most of those conversations turned to sports, politics or the gospel.

In one discussion, which probably started with my married friend asking me how the dating scene was going, we drifted somehow into a discussion of women's fashion. More specifically, we both agreed that the way a girl dressed changed how we thought about them. Though sexy styles that showed off a lot of a girl's body seemed fun and could get our hormones on high alert, somehow the girls that were fashionable but covered were cuter, more confident, deeper, and more mature.

What we recognized from our experiences was confirmed in a 2009 study conducted by Susan Fiske at Princeton University. Perhaps too briefly summarized, Fiske used brain scans to effectively show that men use the 'tools' part of their brains when they see scantily clad women. She concluded that women that show a lot of their bodies are seen more as objects to be used in the male brain, rather than a person to relate with and connect to emotionally. Fiske's study did not make value judgments or comment on how this reaction in the male brain may be influenced by genetics versus environment, but her revelation on the mental objectification of women has inspired both renewed calls for modesty and at least one emphatic rebuttal that have received significant media coverage for an issue of that has taken so many turns in the spotlight over the last hundred years and more.

The gospel of Jesus Christ does have something to say in the discussion on modesty-- and it may not be what you think you've heard before. As modesty critics have said, the gospel teaches that each of us has our agency (2 Nephi 2:27) and 'men [and women] will be punished for their own sins' (Articles of Faith 1:2). Men are responsible for their own thoughts and actions; a woman's dress (or lack thereof) does not justify inappropriate thoughts or behavior whatsoever.

That hardly lets women off the hook, however. Paul taught the Romans that there should, 'no man [or woman] put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother's [or sister's] way' (Romans 14:13). He gave the example to the people of Corinth that 'if meat causes my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother falter' (1 Corinthians 8:13).

At the end of the day, the secular battle over modesty misses the point. Modesty isn't just about how we dress, it is an attitude of humility and decency that applies equally to men and women. It is a willingness to 'glorify God in your body, and in your spirit' rather than seeking undue attention to yourself (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). It applies to how we dress, how we groom ourselves, the language we use and the choices we make about how we will act.

For every lesson we have about women's clothes, there is a lesson to be taught about men shaving and keeping their hair trimmed, a point to be made about the size of our homes or volumes of our vehicles, and still more we should learn about using positive, uplifting language that brings happiness to those around you. Our efforts to be modest will be reflected in our outward appearance and actions, leading to increased guidance and comfort from the Holy Ghost. Extreme or inappropriate behavior in any aspect of our lives, including our thoughts, impairs our ability to receive those quiet promptings.

Modesty is something that we are in our hearts before it is reflected in our appearance. Elder Packer has taught that 'true doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the Gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. Preoccupation with unworthy behavior can lead to unworthy behavior. That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the Gospel' (CR, October 1986, p. 20). An attitude that is selfless, grateful and modest is one of the natural consequences of frequent gospel study and coming closer to our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. It is an indication of a broken heart and contrite spirit, a clue that we are becoming not just convinced but also converted to the gospel. If we are modest in our hearts things that are immodest will lose their appeal. We will find ourselves drawn to modest homes, modest fashions, and modest behaviors.

Our bodies are sacred gifts from our Heavenly Father. They are created in His image. Paul taught that they are temples for our spirits and of the Holy Ghost, which we have of God... 'For [we] are bought with a price [through the Atonement of Christ]; therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's' (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We are not our own, nor have we the right, regardless of our gender, to covet a body that is not ours nor entice others with something that is only God's to give.

Respect for ourselves, and others' respect for us, begins with modesty. Modesty is anchored in a knowledge of our divine heritage. It endures as we keep the Lord's law of chastity, including chastity in the thoughts and desires of our hearts, and as we strive to have virtue and humility in our conversation and appearance. It is required of men and women alike, and it rewards us with happier lives and a more constant companionship of the Holy Ghost.

Going on ten years since my conversation in the pool supply store, I'm grateful to have met and married a modest woman. She is gorgeous and challenges me to be a little better every day. More often than not I'm the one that is too lazy or sloppy to shave or get out of my sweat pants. The chance to study and write about modesty has encouraged my own efforts to be well groomed,  use uplifting language and respect the divinity in myself and those around me with my thoughts and actions. I know the Lord will expand my ability to have joy and communion with his Spirit as I become consistent in my efforts. He keeps all His promises.

For more on the Church's teachings about modesty, including more specific guidelines for dress and grooming, follow these links to True to the Faith and For the Strength of Youth.


  1. Two quotes I've found in the last week:

    "Modesty in dress is a quality of mind and heart, born of respect for oneself, one's fellowmen, and the Creator of us all. Modesty reflects an attitude of humility, decency, and propriety. Consistent with these principles and guided by the Holy Spirit, let parents, teachers, and youth discuss the particulars of dress, grooming, and personal appearance, and with free agency accept responsibility and choose the right." - Elder N. Eldon Tanner

    "A simplified life that brings spiritual blessings requires the wearing of simple and modest clothing. Our dress and grooming send a message to others about who we are, and they also affect the way we act around others. When we are modestly dressed, we also invite the Spirit of the Lord to be a shield and a protection to us.

    "Worldly trends in women's fashion seem always to be pushing the extremes. With their latest styles, many fashion designers appear to be trying to make two or three dresses out of the amount of fabric necessary for one. Mostly, they are taking too much off the top and too much off the bottom of women's clothing, and occasionally they scrimp in the middle, too. Men's fashions are also adopting extreme styles. In my day, they would have been called sloppy and inappropriate. I believe very casual dress is almost always followed by very casual manners.

    "Many of you are trying too hard to be unique in your dress and grooming to attract what the Lord would consider the wrong kind of attention. In the Book of Mormon story of the tree of life, it was the people whose 'manner of dress was exceedingly fine' who mocked those who partook of the fruot of the tree. It is sobering to realize that the fashion-conscious mockers in the great and spacious building were responsible for embarrassing many, and those who were ashamed 'fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.'" -Elder L. Tom Perry, "Family Ties", p.48-49.

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