Friday, August 17, 2012

On Modesty

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(Fair warning, dear friends, this blog post plagiarizes from various Facebook statuses and comments I’ve posted over the last year or so.)


A couple of weeks ago, my ten year old daughter came home from Primary with a printed copy of this June 2011 article from The Friend (a LDS magazine for children), in which four year old Hannah learns about the immodesty of sundresses and the importance of covering up her shoulders.  


(I still don't understand why her Grandma sent her that sundress.  Doesn't she know four year olds shouldn't dress like harlots?) 

I have been boiling ever since.

Because I do not want my girls learning at church that it is inappropriate for a four year old to show her shoulders.  A four year old’s shoulder is not a sexual object.  And that is precisely what we are teaching our children when we hyper-focus on modesty in this way. We are sexualizing our little girls, in the name of teaching them correct principles.

(I know some people think that Mormon children should abide by Mormon adult modesty standards because someday, as adults, if they choose to wear garments, they will need to cover their shoulders.  This, they believe, avoids any future confusion over changing standards.  I'm personally not on board with that.  I don’t believe changing the standards of what is appropriate to wear at various ages is confusing or difficult for children.  Different ages come with different responsibilities. We don't make five year old girls wear bras because someday they will have breasts and we don't want them to struggle with that. They wear bras when it is appropriate to wear them.  Our children are not simple minded, they can grasp that concept. But I know that's a common feeling, and hey, different strokes. But age appropriateness is not what bothers me the most about all of this.

I am really tired of the way in which we try to make women responsible, through their clothing choices, for the behavior, thoughts, and spirituality of men. 

Last month a friend in my old Highland ward told me that the YW in her ward decided that they should all wear shorts and t-shirts over their swimming suits at girls camp, EVEN WHILE SWIMMING, WHILE ENGAGING IN AN ATHLETIC ACTIVITY, so that they would not "tempt" the adult priesthood men in attendance.  

Read that again.  They are so worried about tempting the fathers of their peers, that they felt uncomfortable, AT GIRLS CAMP, wearing swimsuits while swimming. 

This is what we've taught them, that men are unable to control themselves, that the sight of girlish shoulders and thighs will present such a great temptation that even stalwart men will be tempted beyond all imagination. 

And that this is the responsibility of the young women.

Most of you probably heard about the BYU Idaho testing center skinny jeans debacle and about the incident where a random guy at BYU  walked up to a girl (dressed in a perfectly modest outfit) he didn’t know and handed her a note explaining that he felt she should rethink her outfit because it was basically a spiritual hardship for him to have to see her. We are teaching our young men that it is acceptable for them to police the clothing choices of our young women.

To quote one of my FB friends, "My issue is that there are guys who think it's fine (even a righteous duty) to go up to a woman they don't even know and harass them about their clothing choice." We are teaching them that it is acceptable to blame young women for their own sexual (and normal) thoughts.

Maybe these young men need to be taught not to leer at young women in public. Maybe they need to be taught to mind their own business. Maybe they need to be taught that they actually do have control over themselves and are responsible for their own thoughts and actions. 

Because how on earth are these guys going to function out in the real world? Because, guess what, they WILL encounter attractive, shapely young women out in the world and will have to find some way to deal with it. It reminds me of the recent incident where a group of Orthodox Jewish men in Israel spit on an 8 year old as she was walking to school because they felt her uniform wasn't modest enough. 

I think this is the natural result of spending so many years emphasizing hyper-modesty (instead of actual modesty in thought and action), dress, and appearance. We've now hypersexualized our young women to the point that a young girl wearing a perfectly acceptable and non-sexual outfit gets harassed at a church school. What's next, burkas for everyone? 

Guess what guys, if your son can't control himself when he sees my daughter's SHOULDER, that's on your son, not my daughter.

As my Uncle Alan said, “The irony of this fixation on modesty is that it only heightens sexual tension and desire.  The more of the body you cover in the name of modesty, the more area of the body you sexualize.  Why did Victorian men “swoon” when they happened to see a bit of ankle or wrist?  Only because it was hidden.  I think it was Mark Twain who wrote that nothing was ever made less tempting by forbidding it.”

And you know what?  If my sons are aroused by attractive young women, well – that just means they are NORMAL.  They are biologically SUPPOSED TO BE.  Isn’t almost EVERYTHING arousing to teenage boys at one point or another?  They have to learn to deal with it.  We can’t build up a whole institution of body shaming designed to help boys avoid lustful thoughts and adolescent erections.

All of this modesty fixation makes me want to grab my 9 and 10 year old daughters and run screaming into the wilderness. Because this is not what I want them to learn. 

If we go to church at all (and for this and a wide variety of other reasons I am starting to wonder if we should) I want her to learn about service, and honesty, and loving others, and goodness. I do not want them to learn a cute little head, shoulders, knees and toes activity they can do to ensure they are appropriately dressed.  

(I kid you not, I witnessed this in primary last year - it consisted of “touch your head – is anything showing?  Touch your toes, is anything showing?”  I wanted to blurt out “do a cartwheel IS ANYTHING SHOWING? FOR SHAME FOR SHAME”). 

I do not want them bringing home articles about sundresses.  I do not want them learning that they are walking pornography.

I want our religion to strengthen them, not shame them.

And I do not feel like that is too much to ask.

For now, I preview the primary lessons online. And when the lessons teach them to be ashamed of their shoulders, we go hiking in the mountains, in shorts, and flex our muscles and feel strong. When they come home feeling guilty about tank tops, we talk about how some people have silly ideas about shoulders, but God doesn’t actually care if your shoulders are showing.  He made your shoulders for holding up your arms and there is nothing shameful or sexual about them. 

And then I go in my room and stomp around and shake my head and ponder whether or not I want my kids learning this fundamentalist craziness.

And I wear tank tops around the neighborhood, out of spite.

(I KNOW.  THE DEVIL CLEARLY HAS ME IN HIS HOT FIERY GRIP.  You don’t need to leave a comment clarifying that.)

PS:  Please do not tell me to pray about this.  If you think I haven't done that already, you are crazy.  The fact that my answers don’t match up with the answers you expect me to get doesn’t mean I’m doing it wrong, or that I’m full of sin.  I know that is hard for some of you to wrap your mind around.  You can go ahead and believe that, I don’t mind.  Or you can pray for me, that won’t hurt my feelings either.  You just can’t comment about it here.  Also, please don’t tell me that this isn’t a significant issue.  It is significant to ME.  

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