Any time Mormon leaders sense a decline of moral standards in the world, they roll out sermons on modesty.
In the 1960s and early ’70s, they preached against miniskirts and hot pants; in today’s sex-drenched society, it’s spaghetti straps, bare midriffs and skinny jeans.
The message remains largely the same: Cover up, you female members, lest you cause the males around you to sin.
It’s often couched in the rhetoric of “virtue” and usually aimed at young women, even girls.
“Modesty is the foundation stone of chastity,” former Young Women leader Elaine S. Dalton says in the May 2007 Liahona, an international LDS magazine. “Just as one does not hike trails inhabited by rattlesnakes barefoot, similarly in today’s world it is essential to our very safety to be modest.”
The next year, the Utah-based faith’s Young Women program added “virtue” as one of the values for which Mormon girls ages 12 through 17 strive, but it was defined chiefly as sexual purity or chastity.
Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints points to a booklet called “For the Strength of Youth,” which spells out guidelines for teen behavior.
“When you dress immodestly,” the booklet says, “you send a message that is contrary to your identity as a son or daughter of God. You also send the message that you are using your body to get attention and approval.”
This concern has reached down to girls as young as 4.
Two issues of the Friend, the church’s magazine for children, carried stories about young girls who were advised to choose shirts or dresses with sleeves to be modest. One of them tells of little Hannah, who wanted to wear to the zoo a red-and-white sundress that her grandma had given her, but she noticed it didn’t have any sleeves. So her mother put a T-shirt under it. “Now I am ready to go to the zoo,” said the child.
Bare shoulders, even on children, are off-limits in LDS Church publications. An illustration in the December 2011 Ensign, the official magazine for adult Mormons, even added sleeves to female angels in one of painter Carl Bloch’s masterpieces.
“I always laugh a bit when people say that the modesty discourse, especially toward Mormon women, is not that pervasive, because it saturates our culture,” says Mormon writer and blogger Emily Jensen. “If there’s one thing Mormons are good at, it’s making sure other Mormons are ‘measuring’ up.”
Modesty matters, Jensen says, but “the way we teach it matters even more.”
“The current discourse on modesty undermines women’s relationship to themselves, to their sexuality, and to men,” LDS sex therapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife writes in the most recent issue of Exponent II. “Far from protecting females from seeking male approval, the rhetoric on modesty unwittingly reinforces it. At the same time we are taught that pleasing men through sexual availability is not necessary, we are taught to please men and God by covering and suppressing our sexuality.”
Either way, women are sexual objects.
Beware the consequences » Elder Tad R. Callister, of the church’s Presidency of the Seventy, discusses what he says is “The Lord’s Standard of Morality” in this month’s Ensign.
Among other issues he addressed in a speech at Brigham Young University-Idaho, Callister takes up the question of modesty.
“The dress of a woman has a powerful impact upon the minds and passions of men. If it is too low or too high or too tight, it may prompt improper thoughts, even in the mind of a young man who is striving to be pure,” the LDS leader says. “Men and women can look sharp and be fashionable, yet they can also be modest. Women particularly can dress modestly and in the process contribute to their own self respect and to the moral purity of men. In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.”
The Mormon general authority was echoing sentiments expressed by many other LDS leaders.
“It’s very important for us to continue to talk standards, to teach them, and to encourage them, young men and young women, to be guardians of virtue, their own virtue and others because there are so many who say, ‘It is not a young women’s problem if a boy is doing something wrong. If she is immodest, it’s not her problem if the boy does something wrong.’?” Dalton, the former Young Women leader, said at a leadership training meeting last year. “Well, it is! We have to take responsibility for one another, we have to help one another.”