By Emily W. Jensen
I’m eight—singing loud and proud in our Primary program practice. I can see the Primary leaders pointing at me. They must love it! I sing louder. Finally one of them sidles up to me and whispers, “You need to cross your legs, dear. Everyone down here can see your underwear.”
My face still burns 30 years later at this memory. Apparently it wasn’t about my song. It was about my underwear.
“As soon as she was born, we made sure to get her dressed in something modest.”
My head whips up and I stare up at the speaker. Did he really just say that about his newborn daughter? Was her innocent nakedness really something to be immediately covered?
And then I wonder: did they do it with fig leaves?
Have you ever stopped to watch leaves fluttering in the breeze? Natural, beautiful, and unencumbered by anything but a small stem that connects them to the larger branch—dancing to the ground when the stem breaks. What caused us to turn leaves into a symbol for coverage—one that makes its awkward appearance over Adam and Eve’s naked bits in so much classical and religious art? Is it because they’re easily accessible, moderately opaque, broad? Why did we denude trees to unnude ourselves? Why did we strip the natural to cover the au naturel?
With three of my daughters currently in the Young Women’s program, I have a stake in this modesty game.
They’ve heard their Young Women leaders quoting from Ted A. Callister’s 2013 BYU-I speech:
“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. Elder Matthew Cowley once commented on the long flowing dresses of the Native American Indians—as I recall he said, “How beautiful—how modest—they leave everything to the imagination.” Men and women can dress sharp, they can be fashionable, yet they can also be modest. Women particularly can leave a lot to the imagination 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.”
My brow always furrows when I hear those words. Really? In the same breath, we commend women for dressing modestly and men for imagining what is underneath those women’s clothing?
My daughters are often exposed to modesty rules at church—because modesty is so easily measured. How much of a shoulder can see the sun? How much of one’s chest might frame a necklace? How naked can one’s knees be? These questions can be settled with a ruler.
But there are also the rules that change depending on which males are nearby. Elaine S. Dalton has said: “ . . . 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’ . . . Well, it is! We have to take responsibility for one another.” And by “take responsibility for one another” Dalton seems to mean, “Girls have to take responsibility for the boys’ thoughts and actions, and boys must take responsibility for letting a girl know when she has failed.” Does that extend to blaming girls for the boy’s wrong actions?
I’m not anti-modesty. I actually think it’s quite liberating to wear something that fits me well, that doesn’t constrict my movement, that asks for minimal attention from me and others. I like to wear clothing that is kind—kind to those who created its materials, kind to those who manufactured it, kind to the environment I find myself in. I like to feel that my clothing respects my self, my cultural surroundings, and God. For me, modesty is working at its best when you aren’t even aware of how it is helping you.
But the LDS modesty drumbeat has focused pretty much exclusively on the measurement of clothing and the shaming of sexuality. That’s our culture talking, though, not our doctrine. Mormonism is unique in its teaching that physical bodies are going to be a part of us in the next life. A body is not merely for something we dress and paint up like a paper doll then discard; we need it for our exaltation.
When resurrected, our bodies will no longer be tied to cultural or social expectations. Consider the lack of a garment line under Moroni’s shift when he visited with Joseph Smith. Is the reason heavenly beings wear robes during their earthly visits that they are so easy to take on and off? Was C.S. Lewis right when he portrayed the angels in The Great Divide as going nude more often than not? Things in heaven are not as they are on earth—even when it comes to dress. But Mormons seem completely oblivious to that. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we idolize our dress code. We certainly sacrifice our children’s emotional and sexual health to it. And that idol worship may be one of the things that stand in the way of our transcending this world.
Though I am hiking in an unfamiliar place, I stride up the path with purpose, feeling light. My feet are not callused enough to tread on the rocks and branches strewn in my path, so I am wearing socks and shoes. Breezes ripple through the trees and caress my skin. The gurgle of streams tickles my ears. I see sunlight streaming through the trees, illuminating the trail ahead. It’s my own Garden of Eden and like our first parents, I’m undressed to impress no one but myself.
And among these leaves falling and fluttering all around me, I am modest, but more importantly I am me.