Pithy Phrase

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a woman, I put away childish things.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Modest Proposal

I think I'm going to start posting regular gender-related anecdotes from my life.  Heaven knows, I have a lot of them now that I'm back in good ol' Provo.

The other day in concert choir, our conductor suddenly insisted that all the men evacuate the rehearsal hall.  This is highly unusual; we never get out early.  She did not explain why she had decided to do this, or what we women were going to do once the boys were gone.  She shooed them out hurriedly and hollered at the few men who lingered.  It was clear that she did not want any man to be present for the unannounced proceedings.  Once she was sure there was no man within hearing distance, she proceeded to give us The Talk.  No, not that talk.  She informed us that a few men in concert choir had come to her and complained about the attire of the concert choir women.  They had claimed that they felt the need to avert their eyes at times to keep their thoughts clean.  Our conductor then laid down the law as to what manner of dress was appropriate and what was inappropriate; let's just say the words "cleavage" and "well endowed" were used frequently.  She assured us that she did not believe any of us were dressing immodestly on purpose; we just need to be sure that the clothes we choose will not shift and expose . . . things . . . as we progress through the day.  She insisted that the boys need us to dress modestly so they can fully contribute to concert choir.  She brought it home with a plea for us to remember that our musical messages can only be conveyed through the Spirit, and that immodest dressing can detract from that because the boys are less focused and less able to feel that Spirit.

At this point I raised my hand.  I said I don't like the idea that our motivation for dressing modestly should be to "help the men"; we all have agency, and the thought that I am the guilty party for another person's sins doesn't sit well in my brain.  I then gave my reason for dressing modestly: self-respect.  Our conductor agreed with me partly, but still stood by her assertion that the men need our cooperation.  I left the hall a bit disgruntled, uncomfortable, and hurt.  A strong, thoughtful, accomplished woman I admire had just committed a cardinal sin in my book.  She had aligned herself (whether consciously or unconsciously) with the phrase "boys will be boys".  That men have certain characteristics that cannot be helped.  Needless to say, I was rather disappointed.

The memory of this event festered in my mind all week.  The more I've thought about it, the more outraged I've become.  I'm not so much angry at our conductor, or even at the men who complained.  I'm angry at the prevalence of this misguided viewpoint.  It is not a woman's responsibility to keep the men around her from thinking bad thoughts.  I realized that when men gripe about the terrible women who don't dress modestly, they are admitting that they objectify the female body.  They are essentially saying that when certain physical lines are crossed, a woman inevitably becomes a sex object, and they then hold little responsibility for their unclean thoughts.  Herein lies the real problem: the human body is hyper-sexualized.  I once heard the tale of a particularly horrifying achievement days modesty activity. During this activity, adult leaders actually drew garment lines on pre-pubescent girls.  As if to say, "these are the magic lines that, when crossed, automatically turn you (a child) into an object of lust."  What does this tell young girls about their worth and purpose?  This also debases men, and robs them of their agency.

Living in Germany was enlightening.  The human body is viewed quite differently there.  They espouse the Freikörperkultur, or Free Body Culture (Husband and I wanted to participate, but sadly never had the opportunity).  Nudity is tolerated in many public places.  It is so different from America.  It is rare to see a clothed child at a waterfront venue, and many adult men and women also walk around in the buff.  The best part is that no one cares.  The ones who bare it all do not have "ideal" bodies (because the "ideal" does not exist), but they are not embarrassed.  No one is viewing them as sex objects.  The general consensus is "hey, we all have one".  The human body is fantastic and useful in a number of ways, but for some reason, we here in America focus heavily on only one of those numerous capabilities (even in children, which I believe feeds the pedophilia epidemic).

We in the church are not immune to this mindset.  When we insist that women dress a certain way so boys don't have inappropriate thoughts, we are treating the symptoms, but not the cause.  I view Zion as a place where every person dresses modestly out of self-respect and practicality, so that modesty need not have such concrete lines associated with it.  But more so, I see Zion as a place where respect and equality reign supreme; where, even when someone bares their body, it doesn't matter because no one sees that body as a tool to use for their own gratification.  I guess we don't live in Zion.  Is it impossible to teach ourselves not to objectify ourselves or others?  Are we so fallen that there is no hope of escaping the tendency to hyper-sexualize?  Can we not put off this aspect of the natural man?  I believe that if we teach modesty to both sexes from this point of view, we can begin to combat one of the wiliest tricks of the adversary and better appreciate our full worth as the children of God.


Jessica Arnold said...

Jenna, thanks so much for saying this. I agree completely.

olof21 said...

I have to say that using Germany or Europe in general is probably not the best idea. Considering the general lack of faith, and other not so wonderful things, it probably isn't the best control group to base this article off of. I'm not saying I agree or disagree, just that Germany isn't the best example.

Kevin Dolan said...

I'm trying to imagine the kind of guy whose inner sexual world is so disturbing to him that he would complain about it to a teacher. It doesn't really surprise me--there's a lot of weird, repressed stuff lurking around the HFAC in general--but it does surprise me that the teacher would seriously entertain that kind of nonsense.

Knew an elder on the mission who thought the Ensign was apostate because the girls were immodest and giving him impure thoughts... says a lot more about the guy in question than it does about the girls.

Mhana said...

I hope you took the teacher aside and told her that you were overcome by lust because some men had slightly tighter jeans and you were unable to feel the spirit as a result.

I'm glad you spoke up. I had to teach the chastity lesson last month and I likewise emphasized the self respect identity as a daughter of God aspect. It is absolutely not a woman's fault if a man has dirty thoughts. You can look ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE ENTIRE SCOPE OF VISION if you're having a problem. Or you could stop thinking of strangers sexually. So you saw part of her breast. They're for feeding babies, not primarily for pleasuring you. To me it is a short skip from "she made me think dirty thoughts" to "she had it coming. She was asking for it." Rape culture, rape culture, rape culture.

Europe may not be a super faithy area, but they have much lower teen pregnancy rates than the extra faithy parts of the United States. We can learn a lot from Europeans even if they aren't actively religious.

olof21 said...

Mhana, I agree with most of your post. However, saying that we should learn from Europe on modest because they have lower teen-pregnancy is a logical fallacy. Those two things are not directly linked because we do not know if European youth are less sexually active, if they were less sexually active if this comes from their freedom of modesty or any of the other assumptions needed to make this a logical statement.

At the other side of the argument, we are taught and make covenants that we will be modest according to the bounds the Lord has set in covering our garments. I feel like that is an absolute that the Lord has set and it is not up for negotiation but instead we can accept or reject it. In my opinion this standard has been given by God, not by man. I do agree, however, that if a man is having dirty thoughts about a woman it is his fault for having those thoughts. At the same time, however, I don't feel like it is a horrible thing to say that a person can help another person keep the commandments. At the end of all this, I must admit that as a man I am looking at the issue in a different light than a woman does and my understanding is much different than yours so I hope I do not offend or hurt anyone with my opinion (especially if I said something stupid above which is highly likely). Just my two cents

Ryceejo said...

YES, YES, and YES. Thank you for this post, Jenna. Please keep it on cyerspace forever.

It's the same for all standards of the church. Don't teach abstinence because sex is "wrong" or you'll get STDs, yadda yadda. You teach the true principle. Don't teach modesty to avoid distracting/offending others but because of self-respect.

My lectures from Gender Psych about hostile and benevolent sexism keep coming back to me like acid reflux, especially with Mhana's comment (which was really good, btw).

Lori said...

Hmmmm, I was on the BYU Campus last week. Whilst waiting at a red light a group of BYU track men ran in front of my car. No shirts. VERY short shorts. I suppose I could have lusted after them and blamed it on THEM. Darn, another missed opportunity to sin without fault....

D. said...

Clicked over here from fmh ...

I think it is so great that you spoke up. It's sad that she ever thought she needed to speak to you all in the first place. What, I wonder, did she say to the boys who confessed that they were objectifying the women in the choir and staring down their shirts? I mean, you are being immodest if your modest clothing shifts at some point to allow someone from some angle to see something "more"? That's absurd.

Motion DeSmiths said...

Oy vey. Good thing I don't know of any law students who are in concert choir. They would have made a federal case of this. That's AB.SURD.

Soooo glad I'm not in Provo. And this reminds me that I need to get around to posting my hilarious BYU signage.

AES said...

Hi Jenna,

I came to your post via Rycee Jo's blog and found it very interesting. As a mother of six daughters and a former YW president, I have thought about this a lot.

I completely agree the number one reason we should dress modestly is out of respect. First, respect for our Heavenly Father, who, as Rycee pointed out, gave us these wonderful bodies and also, as you have so eloquently said, out of respect for ourselves.

Additionally, I think we should dress modestly out of respect for others, not to be responsible for their thoughts or actions, but to be thoughtful and kind. It is selfish to say that we are not going to consider the affect our actions or words or dress have on others. Why should women expect men to be responsible for their actions (lustfulness) but are not willing to be responsible for their own actions (dressing modestly).

Men often have an immediate, physical response to seeing a pretty woman, immodestly dressed or not, and yes, they are 100% responsible for whether they dwell on it, and what thoughts or actions follow. Men and women biologically respond differently to visual cues and it is not something a woman automatically understands without being taught, which (maybe?) was what your conductor was trying to do, albeit in a clumsy, benevolently sexist way.

By the way, I understand not everyone has the same idea of modesty that I do (nude Germans and burkas testify to this) but to ignore the societal norms of wherever you currently are can possibly be unkind, disrespectful or selfish depending on your knowledge of them and motivation for breaking them.

Thanks for the thoughtful post. I really love your last paragraph, especially.

AES said...

Sorry for the awful last sentence! I was too tired at that point :)

OrbitingOrion626 said...

Thank you AES!! So well-put!

I'd like to give a few insights from a guy's perspective. I would say that both sexes are at fault in this regard. Especially on BYU campus, I can't believe some of the things girls AND guys wear.
Anyway...as a guy, if I ever mention modesty as an issue, there are two parts to it. The first is the most important (and applicable to both genders): those who honor, love, and respect the Lord choose to honor His authorized servants (the general authorities), who have requested that ALL dress modestly (see For the Strength of Youth for specifics). Dressing modestly shows that we understand who we are as children of God, and also that we respect the bodies He sacrificed/sacrifices so much to give us. Seeing anyone dressing below that standard makes me sad because it usually demonstrates a lack of understanding and/or obedience on his/her part, both of which cause some offense to the Spirit (I won't say to what extent—merely that it does! The leaders of the church have talked about this multiple times). This isn't something limited to modesty, though--any disobedience, whether through ignorance or conscious choice, is something that those who are filled with the pure love of Christ wish to point out not for personal gratification but rather for the benefit of the individual in question (and please don't think I'm saying that I'm always full of charity! I'm only saying that I have felt that deeply from time to time, particularly around those who are most important to me). For those who are endowed, it becomes much more serious—we break our covenants when we improperly wear or expose the garment, and this can entail serious consequences if not resolved. Just something to keep in mind.

The other part does concern girls a bit more (though it’s not entirely limited to females—it just tends to apply more to them because it’s a little harder for guys to be immodest). As a male, it's EXTREMELY difficult to turn our eyes away from things of this nature. Of course we shouldn't sexually objectify women! Of course we shouldn't let our thoughts dwell on something inappropriate! But it's hard. That doesn't make it impossible to turn away, nor does it even make girls responsible for it. However, those who do say something about a girl dressing immodestly most likely are trying to avert the temptation to dwell on such when possible. The best way to avoid getting drunk in a bar is to avoid the bar, right? Alma put it this way: “But that ye would humble yourselves before the Lord, and call on his holy name, and watch and pray continually, that ye may not be tempted above that which ye can bear (Alma 13:28)”. The word “that” just before “ye may not be tempted” assumes the actions of the previous statements are first sought after—humility, prayer, and watchfulness. I think it’s fair to assume that the vast majority of men who want girls to be more modest (and say so) do so because they are trying to watch their own thoughts and actions. Yes, it is a weakness—every time we ask girls to be more modest we admit that. But we are trying to avoid that bar so we don’t harm you, ourselves, or those we care about. It is of course contrary to the nature of God for a girl to take responsibility for a guy choosing to dwell on inappropriate thoughts, but it IS her responsibility to avoid the presentation of a temptation to others as much as possible. As AES said (and this goes for all), it’s good to be mindful of societal norms so we can respect others. To put it scripturally, may I quote Cain’s quip when the Lord inquired about Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer for every Christian should be a resounding yes! Dressing modestly shows respect for others because you show them that you desire their salvation, and we need not discuss that as a righteous desire. Jenny, you’re right—we shouldn’t dress modestly JUST to keep someone’s thoughts in the right place. But yes,

OrbitingOrion626 said...

we SHOULD be mindful of what’s difficult for others, and we should be dressing modestly for the Lord (and the honor code, which all BYU students have signed) anyway. And again, I stress that this is also important for guys as well. We should be just as mindful in terms of modesty and respect for the divine calling of each woman (particularly in what we say and how we act, both in circumstances where they are around and in circumstances when they’re not).

OrbitingOrion626 said...

I hope no one takes offense at anything I’ve written! Please understand that I have the highest respect for women. The issues on campus with modesty this past year especially, however, have left me very disappointed with what has become acceptable to wear. Of course it’s understandable that accidents happen and sometimes things are seen that shouldn’t be (and it’s nobody’s fault), but the effort to minimize those incidents really makes a difference. Thank you so much to those women who choose to dress modestly! Despite how cliché it is, modest really is hottest because that means we can take you to the temple and be sealed forever :) Let’s all commit to looking in the mirror each morning and making sure that we’re doing our best to live up to our standards. Hurrah for the modest!

Lisa and Bennett said...

Mormon Modesty -

Because it's easier to make women dress as shapeless adolescents than to ask men to be decent human beings.

Can you imagine what would go through someone's head if a women stood up and said that some man's pants were tight and she could see penis and balls, and please don't wear tight pants because she LOVED what she was looking at nomnomnom?

Yet it's perfectly accepted to shame women for having breasts just because men love them. 2 inches up or down doesn't change anything. It shouldn't be a shame thing - it's a, "hey, we all have them" thing!


Vera said...

Thank you for this post!
My boyfriend's family is LDS - and this is an aspect I am really struggling to understand. (Guess that's why I enjoy reading fmh)

As a German I might "have the general lack of faith and other not so wonderful things", but I think I grew up with a healthy body image.

Sorry for another random comment!

C Roemmich said...

Please read my thoughts on this

Christy Watkins said...

I love this post, Jenna. I do think we as women prevent some temptation in the first place by dressing modestly, but even in the face of the worst temptation, a man should be expected to think with a clear brain and have the right attitude toward women. If men did not have an attitude of objectification, these problems would not exist. Whether a woman is fully clothed or naked, a man should not assume that she exists for his pleasure. Show the woman some respect. From a gospel perspective, every man has a duty and responsibility to develop a mature enough attitude to always show this respect and never use her as an object in his mind. I don't know about going Europe on the issue, but men's attitudes are definitely the biggest problem in keeping their own thoughts clean.