Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A response to modesty

Harper's Bazaar, 1900
In response to FMH and related Facebook discussions of modesty for swimwear worn by young women at summer camps:

LDS.org defines a modest person as one who “avoids excesses and pretensions.”1 Wearing excessive jewelry is immodest. Eating large meals is immodest. Wearing a conservative prom dress to church the day after prom is immodest. Owning a large home is immodest. Driving an expensive car is immodest. Using language to create pretensions of intelligence or ignorance, or creating excesses of profanity is immodest. (I wish we could spend more time discussing modesty in a non-sexual context so we could be less pharisaical.)

God sent us into the world naked, and in our immodesty we’ve covered ourselves with all sorts of fancy apparel. Most clothing is inherently immodest in that it is used by us and interpreted by others to convey pretensions of personal "goodness" (or lack of "goodness"). I like Mark Twain’s statement on the subject:

“Modesty antedates clothes and will be resumed when clothes are no more.
Modesty died when clothes were born.”

Notwithstanding the "For the Strength of Youth" pamphlet3 with it's Euro-Victorian principles, the rules of what constitutes “modest” are culturally bound, not a universal gospel principle, as evidenced by the shifting sands of “modesty” as each generation passes (for example: see this article regarding church attitudes about leggings), and as cultures from various parts of the world live lifestyles that differ from each other. “Modesty” guidelines for LDS Young Women would be immodest in some cultures today (e.g., Islamic or indigenous socieies), could get you sent home from 1940 church activities, and might have resulted in your being shunned in 1880.

A Tapirape girl has her body painted

To require young women to partially cover a swimsuit with a t-shirt is immodest, in that it is an excess. The t-shirt accomplishes nothing in terms of facilitating the swimming act -- indeed it is an impediment to the swimming act. The argument that the t-shirt is for the health of the swimmer is absurd also in that an appropriate sun block lotion can do more good than a t-shirt.

Women and girls in minimal clothing may be far more modest than purportedly upstanding young women who are covered up from neck to ankle. I know many disagree with me (nothing new) but I believe we’d be better off with no clothes than debating what quantity of clothes constitutes “modesty” in apparel.
...I would as soon see a squaw go through the streets with a very little on, as to see clothing piled up until it reaches, perhaps, the top of the hedge or fence its wearer is passing... [People who wear excessive clothing] are positively ridiculous, they are so useless and unbecoming. (Brigham Young JOD 161, emphasis added)
It’s the same argument for dressing in all white in the temple – with no clothing difference between us we are theoretically modest in our presentation to others (though those who have been to the temple can easily identify who the rich are by the qualities of their white dresses, shirts, etc.).

I would imagine (though I have no personal experience to support this opinion) that modesty is greater in a naturist community than in any BYU-standards-based ward or stake (with the obvious exceptions of "militant nudists" who use their clothing-free lifestyle to advocate).

Modesty is a state of mind, not a state of dress/undress. A person who dresses in next to nothing in order to attract attention of others is immodest. The same person dressed in next to nothing with no intention or desire to attract the attention of others IS modest. The only difference is the state of mind. That's why public breastfeeding of an infant is not immodest -- it's almost always done to accomplish feeding of a child, not to create pretensions. That's why a child can wear a sleeveless dress and still be modest -- despite what Hannah thought (probably the most offensive article I've ever read in the Friend magazine).
Is not nakedness indecent? No, not inherently. It is your thought, your sophistication, your fear, your respectability, that is indecent. There come moods when these clothes of ours are not only too irksome to wear, but are themselves indecent. (Walt Whitman, A Sun-bathed Nakedness)
Modesty is NOT determined by what the onlooker thinks, only by what the individual thinks of themselves.

(End Note: although this blog posting is about modesty, we cannot separate modesty from respect for others. Modesty is culturally bound, and therefore respect for others in a culture demands certain behaviors and public performances.)

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