I’ve written on this topic before, taking different approaches but generally coming down in favor of “modesty” — by which I mean the collection of social norms and teachings that regulate LDS dress and grooming. Sure, I sometimes object to the way it is taught or the emphasis it receives in our teachings, but overall I believe that LDS modesty standards can be constructive and humane elements of our gender culture. Even though I would prefer that we take a more expansive understanding of the concept and direct it toward both women and men, I am still willing to defend the narrow, hem-and-sleeve-lines approach that is directed overwhelmingly toward women and girls.
I am going to make that defense again today, but I want to do so much more intimately than I have in the past. I want to write about how I have personally experienced modesty standards, and how they shape not only my behavior but my sense of self. I don’t expect to convert anybody to my point of view, but maybe I’ll begin to articulate how it can be that some women experience modesty as a kind of security and power. It feels risky to write this, because I will no doubt show myself to be not only flawed but flatly ridiculous in my vanity and delusion. But here goes.
These thoughts were initially spurred by a couple of articles I read recently, the kind of articles designed to send parents of middle-school girls into utter panic. I am that parent, and the articles did send me into a turmoil of anxiety for my own daughter and grief for the girls described. They also filled me with a mix of gratitude and survivor’s guilt that I escaped such a destructive scene as a 13-year-old girl. There are a million cultural differences between 1988 and 2013, and they’re all relevant — the amplification of pornography and rape culture made possible by the internet, the rise of the prank video, the proliferation of instant communication platforms and the ubiquity of visual images.
At the center of it all for me, though, was the way that I displayed my body in clothing. While the fashions have changed since 1988, the centrality of clothing as status and sex symbols in teen-girl culture has remained the same. My relationship to my own body was typically vexed. I was tormented by the terrible acne scarring my cheeks; other girls by their too-large or too-small breasts, chunky thighs, whatever. I was preoccupied with my appearance at the same time that I hated it. I craved affirmation that I was beautiful. Almost nothing felt as sweet as believing that I looked good that day.
Clothing and make-up were the most important ways I mediated my relationship to my body. Thus the act of choosing clothing, getting dressed, and surveying my reflection in the mirror was an unwholesome cocktail of dread, fantasy, desire, and despair. I loved my clothing, I wanted more of it and more fashionable styles. I fetishized my favorite outfits, the ones I believed made me look fashionable and skinny. The fantasy of recreating the outfits I saw in magazines, displaying myself in them, and attracting the envious gaze of other girls and desiring gaze of boys was powerful.
In virtually every respect, I had it all going for me as a teenage girl: I had a strong and loving family, low-drama friends, a strong self-image rooted in academics and music, and world of opportunity waiting in my future. I knew that the encouragement I received for my academic success was healthier and more powerful than any imagined attention for my appearance. Though I couldn’t have articulated it, I recognized the different pleasures to be found in being a subject — a live, choosing person — and feeling like an object, even a beautiful object, to be displayed and admired. And yet every day I was tempted to seek the lower pleasure, the shortcut to the gratification of being looked at and desired.
Modesty standards gave me a way to discipline that desire. Sleeveless dresses, in particular, became a kind of austerity test for me. In my household, modesty was expected but not harshly enforced. I knew that my mother did not like me to wear sleeveless outfits, but she did not forbid me from wearing them. Thus when I dressed I faced a moment of choice, an encounter with my desire to inhabit a particular image: I could choose to gratify the desire, or to decline it. Sometimes I wore the outfits, sometimes I didn’t. The decision did not feel portentous — I didn’t feel like a terrible sinner when I wore the sleeveless outfits — but nevertheless it gave me an opportunity to practice observing and disciplining an emerging sexual desire.
No doubt this seems ridiculous to many. The thought that my wearing a sleeveless dress would draw the admiring stares of boys in the hallways is laughable: these were sleeveless jumpers, after all! But whether or not the outfits actually drew the desiring male gaze is entirely beside the point. The point is that in wearing them, I was feeding a fantasy of and for myself. I was gratifying the temptation to turn myself into images that lived in my mind, a temptation I knew was not good for me, was false to the deepest sources of my identity and power.
I wish that I could say everything has changed for me in the last 25 years. Some things have changed, surely: my self-image is situated more securely in my relationships and identity as a mother, and I am proud of my accomplishments and efforts in the world as an adult. But the same desires that competed within me at age 15 are still alive in me today. I suppose here is where I risk looking ridiculous. I am a middle-aged mother of four, and exceedingly unlikely to turn heads on the street. As I write this I am sporting a greasy ponytail, two-day-old jeans, and no makeup. I realize that there is no risk of my provoking admiring gazes at preschool drop-off. Yet the desire to colonize my mind with images and to identify deeply with those images is still real — often transferred onto my home or my children. I still call up modesty standards to help me make sense of and gently discipline those desires.
And I still love sleeveless shirts. I bought an adorable polka-dot sleeveless top with a navy-blue peter-pan collar at Target last week. These is nothing inherently suggestive about it. It would look great on me. I see it in my closet every morning. I haven’t worn it. Modesty wakes me from my own fantasies of myself.