When my mother was at BYU in the 70’s, her bishop came into Relief Society and explained to the college-aged women that they were not dressing modestly enough. Why? Because their knee-length and calf-length skirts were baring their ankles and making it difficult for the men in their ward to control their thoughts. I’m talking about the 1970’s, not the 1870’s.
If you’re Mormon, or simply know Mormons, you’ve probably heard a lot about modesty and the way it’s taught. And if you’re like me, you’re probably sick of rehashing the same points again and again. But this topic keeps coming up because current Mormon culture holds women responsible for things they are not doctrinally responsible for, while encouraging us to judge women who dress “immodestly.” While I’ve never heard advice as extreme as in my mother’s story, I have heard counsel and firsthand anecdotes that paint just as unfair a depiction of male agency and female responsibility for male sexuality. Here are just a few:
An ex-boyfriend chided me when I bent over and my shirt rode up, revealing part of my lower back. He said I’d made it hard to control his thoughts and that if I’d been endowed I’d have been disrespecting the temple garment. He asked me to wear long tank tops underneath my shirts. I pointed out that he always let the neckline of his garments show. To which he replied, “I’m not wearing an undershirt over my garments. That would be ridiculous.”
In a lesson I attended on modesty, a woman said that if men could so much as make out the outline of a bra strap through the fabric of her shirt, they wouldn’t be capable of hearing a word a woman said.
A woman I know was told she could not go over to a friend’s house while that friend’s 19-year-old brother was home. Why? The brother was fighting a pornography addiction, so he couldn’t see real-life women he found attractive, no matter how they dressed.
Clearly, we have a long way to go. There are already many posts and articles in the bloggernacle that effectively break down the problems inherent to our current approach to modesty. But at the end of the day, my fellow feminist writers have not convinced all men, boys, and parents of boys, that their thoughts toward attractive women are their own responsibility.
So, with all respect for those pieces, I’m going to take a different approach. I’m going to describe my own struggles with the way that others’ attire at church impacts me and the steps I take to manage that impact. You see, I have allergy-induced asthma. In the past, my asthma has occasionally been an issue at church, for instance when overzealous relief society sisters all wore buckets of perfume. But it really became an issue when I moved into a congregation with high baptism rates. Every week, there are investigators. Some of them come to church smelling very strongly of cigarette smoke, strong enough that it sets off my asthma.
Few things set off my asthma like fresh or stale cigarette smoke. When my asthma is set off, things get rough. Fortunately it’s not life-threatening in my case, but it is miserable. Just sitting near someone who has recently been smoking causes my nasal passages to swell shut and the airway muscles to contract, leaving me with little oxygen. I get dizzy, I get lightheaded, I struggle to focus. And the symptoms continue for hours after that exposure.
So I know what it’s like to have a problem that interferes with your life and distracts you everywhere you turn. I walk into a room with lots of perfume, and I immediately feel my airway passage constrict. I walk down the street, and car fumes get to me. And it’s tough to go to church, one place where I’ve usually been able to stay away from cigarette fumes, and have this issue to deal with. How can I teach a lesson when I can’t breathe or focus? How can I be a good member missionary when I can’t sit anywhere near a smoker investigating the church, or a member who has faith but is fighting a smoking addiction?
But at the end of the day, I would never dream of approaching someone and telling them not to come to church without scrubbing away that smell. Why not? Because their salvation is important, and I refuse to interfere with it. And I have no idea what those investigators’ situations are. Maybe they live with others who smoke in the house, and that’s the smoke I smell. Maybe they’re trying to quit and attending church is helping them. Maybe smoking is one area of their life they haven’t decided to change (and we all have an area like that, even if it’s not one that shows up in temple recommend interviews), but they’re still drawn to the truth in the Gospel of Christ. Whatever the reason, I don’t want to drive them away from the church.
But I’m still affected by their actions, just as many faithful members feel impacted by how others dress. So I take responsibility for my own body and do what I need to in order to minimize the way others’ smoky attire impacts me: I take my allergy medication; I bring gum to church, which helps minimize mild allergy symptoms; I keep my inhaler on hand so that I can use it if I need to. And no, I don’t generally sit right next to someone who smells strongly of smoke. And if I really, truly need to, I leave the building for a bit to get some fresh air. But I do all of this without criticizing others, either to their face or behind their back.
Why would I criticize someone who doesn’t seem to follow the standards I was raised in? I’d rather rejoice that they want to take part in the Gospel.
If you’re attracted to women and you’ve spent years in the church, then I understand that seeing a woman’s bare shoulders or a bit of cleavage (or a bit of her lower back) may feel shocking enough that you struggle to control your thoughts. And I recognize that psychological struggles can be just as challenging as physical ones. So I’m not going to dismiss you as a pervert for struggling. Instead, I’m asking of you the same thing I ask of myself when someone’s attire interferes with my ability to breathe: take precautions to care for yourself, without judging the person whose attire is impacting you.