BYU-I Paper’s Modesty Editorial Gets It Half-Right

It was a surprising week at BYU-Idaho, modesty-wise: On-campus paper Scroll posted an editorial headlined “Why my knees shouldn’t be distracting,” in which author Elise Forbes made an insightful argument for viewing modesty through a lens other than our responsibility for the actions of others.

Forbes makes a great point that for all its teachings about people’s worthiness coming from within, it’s strange that teachings about modesty (and modesty culture) are predicated on the idea that modesty is something we do for others, not for ourselves. This is the most true thing I’ve read all day:

However, teaching girls that they are responsible for the thoughts and actions of others is damaging. This spin on the modesty discussion causes young girls to feel sexualized and less confident. …

This harmful way of teaching instills in girls a sense of responsibility for the actions of men — an especially harmful mindset in cases of sexual assault.

I was at BYU during the BYU-I skinny jeans debacle of 2011, when a student was turned away from the testing center because of the tightness of her pants — and I wrote an unfortunately naive story for the off-campus Student Review when word got out that our stickler brothers and sisters to the north were somehow managing to make Provo look like a liberal haven.

The end of my story really shows where I was as a woman and Mormon in 2011:

Despite the alleged craziness, Cooper said he has come to accept the strict dress and grooming standards. “It’s nice that everyone is dressing relatively nice,” he said. “At first I was rebellious … but I’ve adjusted and come to accept it. It’s not really a burden anymore.”

In fact, it can be helpful at times.

“Some girls are trying to wear skinny jeans three sizes too small — it’s a good idea to not wear them at all,” Taylor said.

If I could time travel, I would go back to 2011 and tell my very conservative, very Mormon self that adjusting to oppression does not remove the burden of oppression, and that we often tear other women down because we’ve been conditioned to believe that all women should dress according to the standards a patriarchal society has set for us.

In this week’s BYU-I editorial, Forbes wants modesty to be encouraged as a way to “honor ourselves and God,” which is where my opinion diverges from that of the author. I fail to see how a woman judging her commitment to God, if she believes in one, by the length of her sleeves is the answer to the church’s problematic relationship with modesty. Wearing a tank top or short shorts has zero impact on your individual worth and spirituality, and wearing sleeves doesn’t make you a better person.

The editorial isn’t quite where I’d like it to be, but it’s a step in the right direction; I can’t imagine something similar being allowed to go to print in my time in the Church Educational System. Undoing decades of teaching women that we dress for men, that men can’t control themselves around bare shoulders and above-the-knee clothing and that it’s our fault if a man is inappropriate while we’re wearing a tank top … that’s going to take a lot of work.

Hopefully, this editorial will lead to a few more women realizing they aren’t to blame for men’s actions and aren’t responsible for men’s eternal salvation — and then we can get to work on disassembling the notion that our clothing choices impact our inherent worth.

 

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