I've had the sensation that an issue is supposed to be mulled over by me. Mostly because lately I seem to stumble upon it all over the place. Renders me incapable of NOT mulling it over.
That issue is modesty, or rather how it is defined and promoted by conservative religions; and mine in particular. I am not opposed to what is being promoted, but the approach that nearly everyone takes to this topic always leaves me wanting to back WAY up.
So, along that trajectory, the first paradigm-shifting read I encountered was by the incomparable Tracy, way back in July (read it here - no really, do. I cannot sum it up justly). And I was intently reminded that modesty is very narrowly and incompletely defined when it is reduced to a discussion about clothing.
About a week after I encountered that marvelous essay, I found myself visiting Mr Renn's grandparents, sitting next to his grandmother in her ward's relief society, when a lesson about mothering took a wrong turn and became a discussion about what one ought to "allow" one's daughters to wear. I was unable to contain myself (this happens often in relief society meetings), and raised my hand and shared a passionate and lengthy plea to think about modesty as more than an issue of dress. That if their daughters developed a firm testimony of their divine identity, and a sense of modesty and humility in spirit, that it would affect the way they dressed far more effectively than detailed and explicit rules. Rules only matter while you have the children living with you. If they haven't internalized the principle behind it, it cannot benefit them one whit once they are out on their own.
Subsequently, a member of my Stake Presidency, whom I have sustained and pray for, went on a passionate tangent in our September Stake Conference about what girls ought not to wear. It was clearly a topic he feels strongly about, but I was not surprised when I spoke to him later and he mentioned that a lot of women had been offended by his words. Were I inclined to offense, I would have taken it too. The talk included lots of specific lines being drawn about what was and was not appropriate. There was not a word of counsel to the males present about how modesty related to them, and it drew some lines in the sand that, while I am not personally tempted to cross them, I also do not find their content to be doctrinally sound.
When we had our ward conference with stake leaders a few weeks ago, I was not thrilled to see that he chose to again iterate this same point and with no change in context or approach. He even went so far as to contend that LDS parents ought to dress their children only in clothing compatible with wearing temple garments (the covering of which, culturally, has come to define "modesty" to most Mormons). This is a point I emphatically disagree with. While I don't dress my children in anything that is contrary to this advice, I think a cultural rationale such as this takes away a lot of opportunities to treat temple covenants as sacred, and as monumental. If you treat your children as though the actions and choices associated with a covenant are simply expected and par for the course, then there's a great danger that you'll be unhealthily disappointed if they don't choose to make those covenants and perhaps not adequately elated if they do. Children who have not made these covenants should not be held to the standard of them. Children should be dressed in a way that shows respect to them, but a little girl with bare shoulders does not a sinner make.
And so this festered with me for a few days. I realized, that I agree with this man about the importance of modesty, and I am equally concerned with him about the dangers that come into play when immodest dress (and behaviors) are exhibited. But ultimately, I see the solution as being an attempt to change the source of the behavior, rather than the behavior itself.
Fueling my thoughts have been a number of great discussions across the interwebs. While yes, I was made aware of the embarrassing letter-passing incident at BYU, I've been more provoked by discussions such as this one; debating how much of the responsibility for modesty lies on women and how they dress verses men and how they respond to how women dress. And I loved the essay by Rosalynd Welch on this subject so much that I actually passed a copy of it on to my stake offices, in hopes it would fall into the right hands. But I was frustrated that nobody was talking about what doctrines and beliefs cause and lead to modest behavior.
My issue is that nobody is really defining modesty, and nobody is addressing the "why" as much as the "how/what". The doctrine behind this desired behavior gets lost. What motivates modesty, and why have we been asked to exhibit it? So runs my brain and contemplation.
Interestingly, as I was asked to do flowers for stake conference this coming Sunday, I found my thoughts returning to this place.
Perhaps I am unnecessarily complicating my life, but figuring out the best approach for this assignment was troubling for me. The flowers I did last time were beautiful up close, but the fluorescent lighting wasn't very kind to them, and from the very back of the congregation they were kind of just a muddy blur. I felt I needed to go for brighter colors and higher contrast, but once I was consulting with myself inside the wholesaler's cooler, I found I was very much afraid of going too bright and too punchy. The worst thing that could happen would be that my flowers would be so showy that they would become more interesting than the faces and words of the people who speak in the conference. My flowers have the job of creating an attractive and lovely framework for the content of the conference. Once they detract from that content they are no longer doing their job. So the dichotomy is that I want it to look lovely, but not so lovely as to distract from the speaker. That's actually a horrifyingly difficult balance to get right.
The issues that come into play here are how bright is too bright? Too bright from 5 feet away is probably about right from 400 yards away. (The scope of the congregation for this event) How much contrast can manage to show distinct shapes from the back of the room without being garish up close? And how showy of a flower is appropriate for the setting? I couldn't bring myself to even consider the bright row of gerberas. They are just too "look at me!" And this, you see, makes it what I would call an immodest flower. Modesty, if properly defined, becomes more about being conscientious about not drawing undue attention to one's self, or spending undue resources on one's self. A flower's job, botanically speaking, IS to draw attention to itself. Quite the conundrum. I hope I managed a decent compromise.
If we're consciencious, we're battling to balance in that same way with our presentation of self. In this way modesty is not exclusively about sexuality, it's about trying to be attractive without being distracting. Distracting from what? The content of our souls; the holy spirit; the Light of Christ. Who we really are as whole persons with divine origins, messy lives, spiritual gifts, and ever so much to offer the world. It is painfully obvious to me that overtly sexual and revealing dress would distract from these things, and THAT is what motivates my modesty.
This the what leads me backwards as I try to backtrack and figure out what the doctrine is or ought to be behind the plea for modesty of any sort, and I think I find it here. A person with a solid conception and understanding of their relationship with God, and of God's relationship to them, will hardly be able to help living a modest life. They will "fear God more than man".
And if we taught that doctrine as ferociously as we preach "modesty in dress". If "modesty in spirit" were the clarion call, maybe we'd actually have success teaching correct doctrine and letting them govern themselves. Something along the lines of true doctrine, understood, changing attitudes and behavior.
Because the way anyone dresses, but perhaps especially women and girls, is a direct reflection of how they value themselves and perceive their source of worth. This is why, as Rosalynde Welch pointed out; when the message of flirting and sexual interest becomes universal instead of focused (via dress), it is the poorest and most disadvantaged who suffer the worst consequences. They are statistically and situationally the most likely to begin with a warped and diminished sense of self-worth in the first place.
So I think the solution is love more than damnation. Less talk about hemlines and sleeves, and more talk about love and unimaginable potential. Teach the "sluts and the whores" that they are daughters of God. Treat them as divine and with unlimited potential. Encourage them to become their best selves. How can modesty not increase?
Am I going all Don Quixote on you? Is this an impossible dream?