The Mormon Misconception of “Modesty”: how false scriptural traditions have festered a shame culture within the LDS church
As part of a series of articles I’m writing on modern false traditions within the Utah-based LDS (or “Mormon”) church, it felt imperative to get quickly to the topic of modesty.
Before I begin, it needs to be said that this issue (in practice) will affect men and women differently, which it should; men and women are fundamentally different. However, the underlying concept or spirit of the law should be sought equally by both sexes.
Now, as always, in order to come to the most accurate doctrinal understanding we can, we will be going to the scriptures, the word of God, to base ourselves upon a firm foundation.
But first, let’s have a look at what the LDS church’s website says about dress/clothing.
Okay, so we’re off to a good start; we’ve started with a bible verse. And not even one that mentions modesty specifically. Awesome. It appears that we’re at least attempting to teach teens and pre-teens about the spirit of the law. Let’s see what comes next.
I don’t have a lot of qualms with the first two sentences. Again, we’re starting from a place of broad fundamental truths.
However, once we hit sentence three, I do think there is an inherent problem with encouraging children to “show” anything at all in terms of dress and appearance. It’s starting from a position of pride.
But I do also understand that a normally media-indoctrinated child will already have either unconscious or conscious desires to “show” off their bodies or clothing in other more worldly ways, so they are trying to channel that pride in a more positive direction, it’s just catering to the masses without leaving room for a more spirit-of-the-law approach.
The final sentence is also very ambiguous. Presumably we’re about to find our what the church thinks, but what does it actually mean to show Jesus we love and follow him by the way we dress?
He created our bodies, they are made in his image and he pronounced them “good”. Does that mean we should always be naked? Or perhaps the intention is to only wear clothing that the church’s leadership wear? Or should we be taking pains to only wear clothing in public with more blatant Christian imagery, ie. wearing a cross around our necks as Joseph Smith did? (Yes, he did.)
Any assumed joking aside, if you’re not considering all of these as possible interpretations, you’re probably too close-minded about this topic.
(On a side note, with the amount of scripture we have on this topic, I really think the church is short-changing the youth here. It would be of greater value to quote a dozen scriptures first, before getting preachy about any specifics.)
Alright, this is where the foundation is laid for the false traditions or interpretations of man.
Prophets of God have continually counseled His children to dress modestly.
Well, technically yes, Peter did. Paul did. There’s supporting evidence from at least Moses, Isaiah, David and Solomon in the Old Testament, from Nephi, Jacob, Alma, Helaman and Moroni in the Book of Mormon, and even from the Lord himself in the Doctrine and Covenants. But I still have two issues with this statement.
First, they haven’t yet explained, correctly or incorrectly, what modesty is in the first place. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Secondly, by using the term prophets of God, they lump the entire former and current LDS church leadership in with all the writers of scripture when it should be apparent that if any of the church presidents or apostles besides Joseph Smith are indeed “prophets”, then they are in a very different category of prophet than the writers of scripture.
(I’m not going to derail this article by arguing this point here and now. You can find more information about it in my article: Don’t Just Follow The Prophet)
My problem here is that they are implying a claimed authority equivalent with the writers of scripture when, as we will see, they are making a very different claim about what modest dress and grooming is than we get from a study of scripture.
This is problematic because we’re actually teaching children contrary to the word of God and giving them a sandy foundation to build upon. And anyone who has seen the negative fruits of the body-shaming, image-shaming or “modesty”-shaming culture within the LDS church can testify of this personally.
When you are well groomed and modestly dressed, you invite the companionship of the Spirit and you can be a good influence on others. Your dress and grooming influence the way you and others act.
So, in other words, the LDS church is claiming here that if you’re not well groomed or modestly dressed, regardless of your behavior, thoughts, words, actions, or your internal mental and emotional resonance (the energy or vibe you put out to others), that you will turn away the Spirit of God from your body temple and you can’t be a good influence on others.
What an utter load of crap.
Yes, outward appearance can be a metric by which to ascertain an inner state of being, but it is an effect of what is inside, not the cause.
What the LDS church is teaching the youth by implication here is that your outward appearance affects not only your own righteousness, but everyone else around you as well, including God’s ability to come unto you. That if you can just look right, then you’ll do right and be right as well.
It’s an incredibly vain way of thinking.
And more than that, it’s particularly mentally and emotionally harmful for victims of sexual assault. This is especially true for children because they lack the maturity and capacity to appropriately balance blame and self-responsibility against what is obviously a predator.
Boy, this is getting murkier and more hypocritical for the youth every single paragraph!
This idea of never lowering your standard of dress implies to youth that there is just one standard for every occasion and audience; that what you wear in a backyard pool with your family should reflect the same standard as what you wear to church on Sunday.
Now, in a spirit-of-the-law sense, that is a true concept, because what is appropriate for the audience and the occasion is very different in those two instances. It can be equally modest to be half-naked with your family as it is to be fully covered up at church.
But in practice this idea leaves many youth (young women especially) feeling like their body is somehow shameful, and that wearing less clothing at home with family is like a loophole or double standard.
This sort of internal friction can become so insidious in fact that many youth will rebel, turn away from the church and abandon all standards whatsoever because there is no internally consistent logic for them. Others that don’t turn away may grow to hate their bodies to further justify these confusing and contradictory body image doctrines.
What is worst still about this paragraph is that the church hasn’t yet defined modesty or immodesty. They are just propagating and perpetuating the idea that immodesty, whatever that means, will incur the displeasure of God, and that you’re only doing it to get attention and approval…
…which is why you need to dress modestly and be “well groomed”, to get the right kind of attention and approval(!)
Wouldn’t want anyone to think you don’t care about what anyone thinks about the way you dress now, would you?
That would be humility, and this is modesty we’re talking about. It’s completely different!
Whoa, boy. Here we go. This is what we’ve been leading up to.
We may have to tackle this one sentence-by-sentence.
Immodest clothing is any clothing that is tight, sheer or revealing in any other manner.
So, in case you missed it, the LDS leadership have just spent a couple of paragraphs creating this black-and-white duality of modest=good and immodest=bad as though your value as a living man or woman and child of God is dependent upon the way you dress.
And now, instead of giving examples of how certain clothing may or may not be modest in different scenarios with different people, or turning to scripture so that the youth might better understand what modesty is as Peter and Paul understood it when they mentioned it specifically, the LDS church has unilaterally defined modest dress as clothing that is not tight, sheer or revealing in any other manner.
Hate to break it to you, LDS church, but all clothing is revealing in some manner.
And even if you are wearing a head-to-toe potato sack, it still reveals something about your personality.
You have just created a standard that is literally impossible for anyone to live up to.
Even with your newfound love of mask-wearing to silence the voices of all the potential critics in the pews, they’re still all failing your arbitrary standard by revealing their eyes and ears and hands and hair.
But sure, let’s get more specific so we really give those young women a body complex and trust issues.
Young women should avoid short shorts and short skirts, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders or is low-cut in the front or the back.
What do any of these hemline issues have to do with modesty?
Literally everyone else outside the church has a different understanding of what modesty is, and here you are brainwashing millions of men and women to think that modesty is solely about how covered up a woman is.
Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance.
Oh really, how so? Do you care to elaborate? Where are the modest male hemlines to be found? Can they be shirtless? Why or why not?
I’m not even claiming there’s anything wrong in being specific about your standards, or even having different standards for men and women. I have a problem with you being quite specific about what’s inappropriate for women and completely vague about men.
Young men and young women should be neat and clean and avoid being extreme or inappropriately casual in clothing, hairstyle, and behavior.
Okay, so no hemlines for men, just bathe regularly and avoid being either too extreme or too casual. Whatever that means. Oh, and of course avoid the tight, sheer or in-any-way-revealing clothing too.
They should choose appropriately modest apparel when participating in sports.
Wait, wait, wait. LDS church, are you saying that it’s not appropriate to wear a bathing suit that clings to the body to swim for leisure, but if you’re participating in sports it is okay but only if the bathing suit is considered more covered up that the normal bathing suits that other people wear in that particular sport?
So there ARE some loopholes to your unilateral standards after all.
What if we gathered together the youth for a rousing game of strip-tease lawn-bowls, but we just make sure their last item of clothing doesn’t come off fully but ends up around their ankles, so that they’re generally showing less skin than normal people would be after removing all their clothing for that particular sport I just made up?
Surely that would be considered appropriately modest for the sport, according to the terms and conditions you’ve set forth?
The fashions of the world will change, but the Lord’s standards will not change.
Is that so?
What about the several times already that the hemlines of the temple garments have been altered (made shorter or more revealing) to fit newer modes of fashion and cultural dress over the past hundred years?
Did the Lord’s standards change then?
Or was the old standard just a hemline over-reaction because of the antiquated traditions of men?
If so, how is the new standard any different? Who’s to say that temple garments fifty years from now won’t more accurately be described as a singlet and briefs?
And why stop there? Do you claim that God is against belly buttons? That they somehow offend him the way that the term “Mormon” does, according to President Nelson?
Well, that’s still going to sound like a nonsensical and arbitrary distinction because according to Joseph Smith, when the angel Moroni visited him, he wore a white robe that was open right down to his navel, and Joseph could see enough to tell that he was obviously naked underneath it all.
So from what, by LDS standards, is considered a scriptural account, we have no reason to believe that anyone in heaven wears garments at all. Perhaps some sort of apron or loincloth, maybe some sort of loose and revealing robe, but that’s it.
Nothing so far in this instruction to the youth is either logically consistent or describes actual scriptural modesty of dress.
Now, this is something, from a biblical perspective, that is a little more clear and accurate. The church once again does a disservice to the youth by not quoting more scripture here.
Scripturally speaking, tattoos and piercings are clear no-no’s, and jewelry is essentially always associated with pride, vanity, worldliness, etc.
In fact, the body is an electrochemical machine, and any metal through layers of skin or flesh actually disrupts some of the body’s natural energy pathways.
If, as some have theorized, the Holy Ghost does interact with our physical bodies through electromagnetic frequencies, then body piercings (and the heavy metals used to color tattoo ink) could literally inhibit our ability to feel the Spirit unrestrained.
So one must wonder… why then, LDS church, are any earrings at all permissible to the Lord?
Why just a single pair? What’s the logic there? Leviticus says not to cut the flesh at all.
Sounds a bit like you’re saying that the Lord will justify in committing a little sin and other false, vain and foolish doctrines. I’m not going to quote the rest of 2 Nephi 28, but, boy, does it sound damning to you. (You can read it at the church website here.)
LDS church, you also seem to have a bit of a mixed relationship with tattoos.
Because of the inability to properly remove them as you might remove a piercing which would heal, they are had by many converts to the faith, and Mormons who got one or more tattoos during a “wayward period”, and even lifelong faithful Mormons from other cultures where tattoos are considered very tribally important and take precedence for them over church standards.
Ironically, this makes it something that rebellious young adults deem as a more permissible rebellion, even though they’ll be stuck with it all their days. No baptism or repentance will remove that ink in this mortal life.
So, you’re stuck telling the youth that tattoos are bad, but that it’s really okay, don’t judge anyone for having them (which obviously you shouldn’t).
The problem comes, LDS church, because your entire attitude towards dress and appearance comes from a place of pride. You have put yourself on a pedestal, instead of level-ground, all-have-sinned-and-fall-short-of-the-glory-of-God humility, and you’re teaching the youth to do it too.
It would be incredibly cool if, instead of having Lesbian youth leaders sending out mixed messages at the BYU women’s conference, you had a convert (or even a lifelong church member) there with a bunch of tattoos, and being real and open and honest about what in hindsight they deem as poor choices, but how everyone is equally tattooed before God, and equally clean through Jesus’ atonement.
It’s both fascinating and a little underhanded-seeming that the church leadership has only now played the “appropriate” card, and only specifically in regards to church attendance.
Why shouldn’t you just dress as you deem it appropriate all the time for all situations, based upon the spirit of the law as outlined in scripture?
There’s also a lot here that is unsaid. Young men should dress with dignity. Well, dignity is self-respect. That’s twice that it’s mentioned in this paragraph.
Self-respect is a personal attitude based upon the individual’s self-perception.
However, a church culture based around the traditions of men regarding what is and isn’t appropriate to wear to church enforces an arbitrary set of unwritten standards to this paragraph that most youth will read into it, even though the standards have obviously changed and evolved over the past few decades, not necessarily for the better, into this unscriptural concept of “Sunday best”.
In fact, the wicked Zoramites in the Book of Mormon specifically forbad the poor from attending churches they’d built with their own hands because they didn’t have any “Sunday best” to wear, and the prophet Alma washed his hands of the rich and praised the poor for their humility.
And again, who’s to say that what is deemed appropriate in an LDS church now won’t be vastly different in fifty years, especially with how rapidly the culture seems to be changing?
Once again, we have this element of enforced confusion here in which, instead of being instructed to search the scriptures, it’s described as “study the words of the prophets”, which at best will lead to a great division of youth.
Some will have studied the prophets in scripture and some will have only studied those they consider to be modern prophets (who have written no scripture) and both will end up with very different understandings of God’s will in this case.
This in turn will lead to lack of unity and fellowship in some of the places that need it most.
It is somewhat positive at least that (in addition to searching the words of prophets) prayer and the asking of both parents and leaders are mentioned as resources.
Even though the majority of parents and leaders will likely pass along some false information and hypocrisy, there is a greater opportunity for those with a little more wisdom and reason and perspective to appropriately encourage the youth to question inconsistencies and arrive at a better, more coherent understanding of the Lord’s will.
As for preparing your dress standards now for making temple covenants, we already discussed the ways certain temple standards regarding dress have changed with the times, so it’s a little disingenuous for the church leadership to affix ideas of particular hemlines as standards for the youth who haven’t made such covenants yet, especially when they will likely change again in the decades to come.
And finally, the whole piece finishes on what perhaps should have been the opening line: Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?
Of course, in light of the tone and content of the whole article, they’ve in effect been “leading the witness” to feel uncomfortable in the Savior’s presence regardless of what they wear because immodesty is bad and offends Jesus, and literally everything is immodest.
What instead the youth should be realizing by asking this question is that Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed before God, and pronounced good, and that their nakedness before Him only became an issue because of their sin, which at that time they had no means of repenting.
God did make them coats of skins, yes (this is one way in which the Fall brought death into the world), but we have no photographs or descriptions of the clothing God made.
For all we know, and based in part upon the description of the angel Moroni, Adam’s and Eve’s coats of skins could have been ordinary fur coats that hung completely open but provided them some protection from the elements, not to mention warmth and softness at night. They could have also been apron-style loin cloths.
We have no logical reason to assume they would conform with the modern LDS church’s definition of “modesty”.
Therefore, if the youth are reconciled to God through repentance and the atonement of Christ, there is no reason they shouldn’t be perfectly comfortable being naked in the Lord’s presence.
Now, What Do The Scriptures Actually Say?
Isaiah 3:16–24 Gileadi- Jehovah says, moreover, Because the women of Zion are haughty and put on airs, painting their eyes, ever flirting when they walk and clacking with their feet, my Lord will afflict the scalps of the women of Zion with baldness; Jehovah will expose their private parts. In that day my Lord will strip away their finery — the anklets, head ornaments and crescents, the pendants, chains and scarves, tiaras, bracelets and ribbons, zodiac signs and charm amulets, the rings, the noselets, the elegant dress, the shawl, the kerchief and the purse, hosiery, sheer linen, millinery, and cloaks. And instead of perfume there shall be a stench, instead of the girdle, a piece of twine, instead of the coiffure, baldness, instead of the festive dress, a loincloth of burlap; for in place of beauty there shall be ignominy.
1 Timothy 2:9–10 ESV- Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness — with good works.
1 Peter 3:3–4 ESV- Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear — but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.
1 Peter 5:5–6 KJV- Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time:
Jacob 2:13- ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they.
Alma 1:27- And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely.
Helaman 13:27–28- But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth — and if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him, and say that he is a prophet. Yea, ye will lift him up, and ye will give unto him of your substance; ye will give unto him of your gold, and of your silver, and ye will clothe him with costly apparel; and because he speaketh flattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well, then ye will not find fault with him.
D&C 42:40- And again, thou shalt not be proud in thy heart; let all thy garments be plain, and their beauty the beauty of the work of thine own hands;
If you haven’t already clued in because you’ve been brainwashed by the false traditions of men all your life, modesty is the opposite of vanity in the same way that humility is the opposite of pride. It is to be unassuming, not self-aggrandizing or self-seeking.
If I drank a modest amount of alcohol, it would be a small amount. So what then if I wore a modest amount of clothing?
It would probably be some simple cloth wrap around my body.
The consistent theme in all scripture in regards to clothing is that the wearing of fine, very fine or costly apparel/clothing, with or without many trinkets and jewelry, is always condemned as a sign of pride, vanity and the disregard of the poor and the needy.
Whereas to be modest in one’s dress is to not be self-seeking. To be humble and teachable.
So, in that sense of the word, some well-meaning LDS apostle sixty-odd years ago likely called out certain trends in shifting hemlines in feminine dress as a form of immodest attention-seeking, because it was in the culture at that time a self-seeking, self-aggrandizing vanity.
And somehow this term was repeated often enough over the following decades that all of Mormonism has somehow come to erroneously believe that modesty actually means to be overly fixated on your clothing and grooming, that it fits this arbitrary Sunday-best, particular-hemline standard that will continue to get shorter (as long as it’s a few decades behind the world’s standard to thus maintain the church’s apparent traditionalism in contrast to the world).
And sadly, many women who have attempted to harmonize these two contradictory definitions have been led to falsely assume pride, vanity, haughtiness, etc., in any woman who is comfortable showing more skin than they are.
In reality, a scripturally-based application of modesty has no innate connection to how much or how little clothes you wear.
It’s about an internal state of submissiveness to God.
Seeking His will, not your own status.