Monday, March 3, 2014

Modesty: What is it and Where Do We Draw the Lines?

There I was sitting in my Spanish class doing a bell ringer, or some quiz as other students filtered in and sat down. I remember feeling hot and flushed after huffing it across campus. I had a light jacket on because I'd expected the weather to be a little cooler. I slid out of the jacket as I continued to work. Once I was done I waited for class to officially start and casually chatted with classmates. It was about this time when my teacher (some grad student) asked if I could step outside and talk with him. I immediately assumed he must want me to join in some secret game or activity to help the class learn more conjugations, or Spanish phrases. I definitely was not expecting to hear what he had to say.

No. He definitely didn't want to talk to me about verbs, or anything else having to do with class. Instead, he spent a good portion of time pointing out that my clothing didn't meet the honor code (or set of rules) I'd signed and agreed to follow. I was confused that he hadn't referred me to the honor code office like he should have since he thought I wasn't in compliance. However, he never mentioned the honor code again. Instead, he continued to passionately tell me why he believed my clothing was so distasteful. I tried seeing what was inappropriate about my clothing. I knew we weren't supposed to show cleavage, midruff, shoulders, and shorts and skirts were to come to the knee. I also knew that we weren't supposed to wear tight form fitting clothing. I looked down at my shirt and jeans in shock as I tried to figure out which of these rules I had inadvertently broken.

I stood there in the hallway for a couple of minutes while my teacher literally yelled at me. I felt humiliated, especially when students or faculty were in the halls. Yet, nothing could dissuade him from his rant about how wrong I was to wear such a shirt, how my "boobs" looked and why that made it difficult for him as "a married man" to have to be around "girls like me." I remember feeling mortified and trying to convince him I tried very hard not to be "one of those girls"...that I made a huge effort to dress modestly. I apologized which sent him back to lecturing me and criticizing me, but there was no way I could completely persuade him that I wouldn't have worn the shirt had I known it would have been seen in that light. He said that if I really wanted to dress modestly then I should buy shirts that were a size or two bigger than I'd normally wear. He said his wife did just that. Ironically, I'd received the shirt from my mom and hadn't thought it was too tight.

That's because it really wasn't too tight. After he was done explicitly pointing out the reasons he felt my clothing was immodest, I was sent back into the classroom to "put back on that jacket." As I walked back in he called another girl outside. I remember looking at her outfit and asking myself, "What is wrong with what she's wearing? is it her shirt? Maybe her pants?" I wasn't sure. Then, I noticed other girls had shirts that were similar to the one I was wearing. Yet, nobody else was called outside. Why had I been selected to receive such criticism when others wearing similar clothing were ignored. The girl sitting near me asked, "What did he want?" I shrugged and said, "I guess you'll find out" hoping she'd think it had all been about Spanish. Looking back I wonder if she heard him yelling, or if they noticed how long I'd been gone. I sat through the rest of class embarrassed and stifling hot under the added layer of my jacket.

The next couple of days I tried to understand why I was attacked for my clothing. I asked the guy I was dating at the time whether or not he'd thought my shirt was too tight and if I had anything else he thought was too fitting. He tried to be helpful and judge what clothing might be too sexy or attractive. I went through my closet and tried to get rid of anything that looked similar, not just because I wanted to follow the rules, but because I wanted to be modest. After hours of shifting through clothing I felt like I hadn't gotten anywhere. It was through this process that I began to really think about modesty. It began as a quest to see where the lines and limits were so I could stay away from them. To know what was too short, too low, too tight etc.What I ended up learning was so much more.

Perhaps, that's why I was interested in the hype that came after this months Ensign (a magazine that members of the Church read). In case you haven't followed, Elder Callister stirred the pot for a blogger and a couple of therapists who felt that the Ensign was perpetuating a rape culture which got some people talking.

The buzz started after one blogger names Natasha ripped Elder Callister's talk apart. While she had many points, it seems the only one that really got people's attention was his thoughts about modesty. In part this is because Natasha's other points seem to be based on her opinion. She criticized past leaders of the church and she seemed to think she trumped them because of her occupation as a therapist. However, she did raise some great points I believe all Mormons and everyone else should consider about modesty.

I have to admit that I feel a little bad for Elder Callister. His words received a lot more attention and push back than is normal for a talk published in our Church magazine. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if he hasn't heard about it. If he has, I have enough respect for him to believe he would likely admit to some of the negative messages hidden in the short paragraph on modesty. I don't think he put them there purposefully. As with many things, I believe the good message he was trying to share was mixed in with common misconceptions held by our culture at large. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt. If the misunderstandings were explained to him I think he'd readily agree to change how he discussed modesty.

So let's discuss what he said, and then talk about modesty... Here's the controversial quote,

"Our dress affects not only our thoughts and actions, but also the thoughts and actions of others...The dress of a woman has a powerful impact on 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...Women particularly can dress modestly 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."
I have to admit, I didn't read the article until after I heard about the push back. As I read it there were a couple of spots where I cringed a bit. Yet, there is also plenty of truth to what he said.

Studies have shown that the way we dress affects our thoughts and actions. There is a reason many schools now have school uniforms. One study (From agents to objects: Sexist attitudes and neural response to sexualized targets, in the Journal of Cognitive Nueroscience) got a lot of attention from the media, (especially after Jessica Rey mentioned it in her speech that went viral among religious circles). It showed that how a woman dresses (modestly vs. scantily clad) affects the way they are perceived. I'd already read the article before Jessica's video surfaced, and I was aware that the study she quoted was blown out of proportion by the media (there were no screwdrivers involved and the results weren't as conclusive as all the media hype made it out to be). However, it did show that participants who looked at scantily clad women had brain activity in different areas of the brain compared to when they looked at modestly clothed women. It is possible then that the theory plays out that people see women as objects when they wear revealing clothing.

I think most of us already know this to some degree. Actually, this was one of the reasons I was so upset when I was verbally attacked by my Spanish teacher. I'd already gone through a phase where I'd dressed somewhat immodestly. I wore immodest clothing because it made me feel attractive and frankly, as a boy crazy teen I liked the attention I received. It wasn't until after I heard a couple of drunk men discussing my body in detail that I realized, a lot of the attention I received was sexual and I didn't want to be seen as a "thing" to have sex with.

Because I consciously made the decision to wear modest clothing, I felt confident and beautiful in what I wore. I already knew it was more difficult to obtain respect when I wore revealing clothing. The point I'm trying to make here is that: Modesty is about Respect! It's respecting our own body. It's moving past our cultures norms of objectifying people, both men and women. To put it more bluntly, it's realizing that we as women are not just a pair of legs, breasts, and genitals. It's also invites others to respect us as well.

Here's where we move into the next point, and where Elder Callister, my Spanish teacher, and many others get confused. While studies have shown that dressing immodestly can affect the way we and others perceive ourselves, the reason we should dress modestly isn't to protect men and others from having lustful or impure thoughts about us. However, it is important that women learn that men are much more visually stimulated then we are, meaning they become sexually aroused just by looking at an attractive woman. It's important women understand that because in general we aren't as easily aroused.

Still, no matter how much you cover up there will always be plenty of men who will see you as a sex object. There will always be men who won't respect women no matter how fully clothed they are (or aren't). And there never will be a universally accepted limit or line when it comes to modesty. In my Spanish teacher's mind I wasn't modestly dressed. In other men's minds unless I'm covered completely and only have my eyes showing I am inappropriately dressed. It becomes wrong when they reject me as a human being because of the way that I am dressed. We need to always see other people as human beings and recognize they are worthy of respect no matter how they are dressed. Men, you can hope women won't objectify themselves, you can wish that women cover themselves up so you aren't sexually aroused "even though [you're] married...,"but it becomes wrong when you look down on them for their lack of clothing.

AND...It is wrong to expect that women are responsible for your thoughts and actions. We shouldn't ever look at a woman as "one of those girls." And if men feel uncomfortable looking at women who are showing cleavage, that's not a bad thing. The fact that they're uncomfortable is a good thing (especially if they're married). Why? Because they don't want to see that woman as a sex object. Yet, while it may be uncomfortable, men can't control how women dress. Instead, they need to have enough respect for women to master their thoughts.

This is where Natasha was right. The idea that women's clothing, or actions are responsible for men's thoughts, actions, or moral purity is supportive of a rape culture. What I mean by rape culture is the ideas, myths, and misconceptions that our culture teaches that support rapists in justifying themselves and help perpetuate rape, sexual assault, and violence while blaming the victim. I have read several intense research articles discussing how rape victims who aren't dressed modestly are often blamed for their rape/assault.  This mentality isn't alright. Does any person deserve to be raped? No! Another rape myth that ties into this idea is that men can't control their sexual urges.

So if we were to look at Callister's words, in my opinion he has many valid points mixed in with rape myth messages. "Our dress affects not only our thoughts and actions, but also the thoughts and actions of others..." This is true. The way we dress does affect the way we are perceived. "The dress of a woman has a powerful impact on the minds and passions of men." This is true until he adds passions (depending on how you define it). Men are more than capable of controlling their thoughts. Yes, they may notice a woman is sexually attractive, but they can decide to stop those thoughts from turning to "passion" and actions... "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..." This is true. He goes on, "Women particularly, can dress modestly and in the process contribute to their own self-respect and to the moral purity of men." This is also true. Though I believe women shouldn't be expected to dress to contribute to men's moral purity sine men are responsible for their own purity. After all even if we're just wearing a shirt and jeans, some of us just can't help looking good. Finally, "In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for." This is the sentence where I really cringe. I don't believe any women dresses to get a man who disrespects her. At the same time, I know from experience that the more revealing the clothing a woman wears, the more jerks she'll tend to attract. This sentence just really needed to be re-worded, or omitted all together.

So what is modesty? To me, dressing modesty is about self-respect. It's dressing in a way that doesn't objectify (or make one seem less then human) yet, makes you feel confident, and beautiful.

Why should we dress modestly? So we as women can recognize that we have value beyond our looks and the men who desire us. It's about self-respect and recognizing who we really are.

I wish I could rewind that confrontation with my Spanish teacher. If that were possible I'd certainly let him know that his degrading approach wasn't acceptable. In fact, had I reported our conversation he would have been cited for sexual harassment. Luckily, most people who attended BYU don't have such a negative encounter, but it isn't unheard of...I was sad to read Molina had a similar experience. Hopefully, in time that will change...

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