Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Exponent: Modesty

This is an old post on The Exponent, but I just read it. This is EXACTLY what I have tried to say, but never quite succeeded. The topic is modesty and the sexualization of women.

"The problem is much more radical—radical meaning a problem of roots. The underlying, root cause of the sexualization of today’s girls is the same underlying, root problem of their mother’s alleged promiscuity and inability to talk to their daughters about appropriate dress and sexual behavior.
And since I am Mormon and this is a feminist Mormon forum, I’m focusing on the Mormon aspect of this problem: that our culture of hypermodesty contributes to the sexualization of young girls as much as a culture of absent modesty does.
It’s very easy to fixate on the extreme of young girls and young women getting all dolled up like little prostitutes and then to scream foul at irresponsible parents and the terrible media and the evil feminists, but our own emphasis on the externalities of modesty sends the same message: females are first and foremost sexual beings, meant to attract the sexual interest of men in order to reproduce, which is, after all, the divinely sanctioned role for women (if you believe the contemporary Mormon church, anyway). Both extremes (the extreme cover up and the extreme exposure) reduce girls to their bodies—their sexual bodies and the capacity of those bodies to attract the male gaze and set off a process that ultimately leads to sex and reproduction. The fact that the Mormon version ends up with sex and reproduction within marriage does not change the fact that that is how we define women. And the fact that we think sex and reproduction within marriage is a Good does not change that defining women in such a limited fashion is Not Good.
The Mormon emphasis on external, clothing-oriented modesty is just another form of sexualization. We attempt to negate the sexualization of young girls’ and women’s bodies by covering them up and locking them behind the door called Chastity. But when the female body is taboo because of its inherent sexuality (a sexuality so powerful that a woman literally turns herself into pornography for some men by dressing immodestly, according to that canard advanced by Dallin Oaks), and when women are celebrated almost exclusively because of their potential as breeders and nurturers of children, then we successfully sexualize the female body every bit as much as pushing heels, padded bras, plunging necklines, and miniskirts for pre-teens does. The invisibility of the female body, or of the attributes of the female body that stand for Sex, does not mean we have refused to grant the female body a sexualized status."
(Emphasis mine. I had a hard time picking what quotes I wanted to highlight, so I copied a lot, but there's still a lot more good stuff.. Go read the whole thing at the Exponent.)

I'm not against teaching girls to love and respect their bodies. In fact, PLEASE teach that... Just understand that by telling a woman it is respectful to HIDE her body, or that she is responsible for men's thoughts about her, or that if she wears a tanktop she is "asking for it" does NOT teach love and respect. I learned to hate my body: the teachings on modesty combined with my life experience created a deep hatred for everything about my body. I tried to hide it, shrink it to nothingness, kill it, avoid it, until one day... I just had to do it differently.

I liked Amelia's final proposal:
"I have a radical proposal: the church and Mormon parents should teach girls that they have value without connecting that value to the sexiness of their bodies, their attractiveness to men, their capacity to make babies.
I guarantee that if we prepare our daughters to be successful, well-rounded individuals rather than spending so much effort to prepare them to fill a preconceived concept of “wife and mother,” then we’ll have a sure way to get away from both ends—extreme cover up and extreme exposure—of the sexualization spectrum. When we do so, we will see women and girls as human beings with enormous worth and potential, with wonderful things to offer the world."


  1. I completely agree with you.

    And, I think it is absolutely asinine to think that women are "literally turning themselves into pornography for some men by dressing immodestly". That relieves those "some men" of any responsibility for their behavior and actions.

    And, it makes me so angry that women are getting beaten, raped, and hurt, among other things, because men think they can do whatever they want, justifying it, IF they think about it at all, with "she was asking for it because of how she dressed". NO ONE "deserves" to be mistreated in ANY way because of how they dress.

  2. This reminds me of a study. The study involved comparing the diaries of teenage girls from the 1950s, with the diaries of teenage girls from more recent times.

    Both groups wrote in their diaries about improving themselves. However, the improvements they wanted were different.

    The 1950s girls wanted to make themselves kinder, more compassionate, smarter, and so forth.

    The contemporary girls wanted to be thinner, better looking, sexier, and so forth.

    Pretty sad, really.

  3. I have so many thoughts about this post.

    I think a good middle ground would be teaching respect.
    What do I need to do or how do I need to dress so I am comfortable and respectful of myself and what I want to be.
    We should respect our bodies and be grateful for what we can do with them and in so doing we will be able to do what we need to do to be healthy, body and mind. They are so connected.
    I've always felt my approach to this with my kids has been a little different than the norm around here.
    I don't know, maybe not.

    I've always thought modesty is subjective and very rarely have I used the words modesty or even thin/skinny.
    Jen, did you know I struggled with an eating dissorder as a teenager?
    And I would say I'm still not in a healthy place with food.

    I don't think I'm getting my thoughts out very well about this but I have some pretty strong ones too.

  4. Macha - thanks!
    Duck - agreed.
    Paul - It IS sad, and although my diary never said I wanted to be thinner... Mine always talked about being kinder - my idea of kindness was to be completely self-sacrificing. I still get caught up in that desire.

    Carol - I've always thought your approach to your kids is not the norm. If I were to be a mom, I'd want to be like you in a lot of ways.

    And no, I didn't know. I'm going to email you, because I want to know more... if you feel up to sharing.

    I like strong thoughts. If you couldn't tell, I have a lot of my own. :)

  5. So as someone who's been a teenage boy, immodest dress is very easily turned into pornography on a daily basis. For someone who has struggled with that kind of think their entire life when a girl made conscious effort to dress completely modestly only then was it not an effort to treat them like a normal human being. I know that sounds horrible. IT IS horrible. The fact that those girls would dress modestly because the church obsesses about it was so very helpful to me. I know, it's not their fault that that's something I struggle with. I do appreciate it their help with it though. Girls call me a gentleman but I only act that way because I have to condition myself daily to cherish them so that my natural self doesn't objectify them completely and utterly. In the end I both agree and disagree with her article, by teaching this in the way they do I was helped, but girls/women do need to recognize all they are worth outside of their bodies.