Our ward primary program is coming up and my six-year-old daughter wants to wear her favorite “fluffy” dress to this special occasion. The dress is white and red with ribbons and tulle … and it’s also sleeveless. I’ve gotten weird looks before when I’ve let her wear sleeveless dresses to church, and I’m afraid that if I let her wear this sleeveless dress in front of the whole congregation, I’ll never hear the end of it. Or feel the end of it! That sense of disapproval I feel from other moms makes me not want to dress my baby in any of her cute sundresses, even when it’s 90 degrees. Then I ask myself why I even care what they think?
Lone Star Mommy
Dear Lone Star Mommy,
Almost nothing gets Mormons more excited (especially on the Internet) than discussions about modesty. From modest fashion bloggers to people who helpfully suggest extra-special super rules to add on to the For The Strength of Youth dress standards (No jeans, ever! Sunday dress for mid-week activities will increase reverence!) to feminists who decry the barrage of messages given to our young women, and increasingly our children – modesty is a hot topic.
With all the attention we give to women’s bodies and what we should or shouldn’t put on them, it’s no wonder that the issue is so fraught and confusing. The practical necessity of getting dressed every day is constantly bumping up against our strong feelings and ideals about modesty and sexualization (i.e. SEX), gender and balancing the needs of the group against individual freedom. That’s a heavy burden to place on such tiny shoulders. And yet every modesty battle is fought on these seemingly small battle grounds. There is always someone who can say — “They are just shoulders, who cares?!” Or, “We have to teach them when they are young, is it really such a big deal to put a t-shirt underneath a dress and make it modest?” Every battle, every choice, is both everything and nothing all at once.
Here’s the everything part – the way we talk and think about modesty is rooted in sexism. It’s rooted in what I believe are false notions about men, women and sex. Men are not simple creatures that can’t control themselves if they see some flesh. Sexual arousal is natural, a biological fact, for men and women. Both men and women are visually stimulated (although our culture is, and has been for most of recorded history, focused on stimulating men). Arousal, in of itself, is not immoral, only our actions can be ethical or unethical. Women’s bodies, and their ability to procreate, are not dangerous. The connections made between sexual violence against women and the clothes they wear are spurious and damaging. Sadly, we live in a world where women can be attacked no matter what they are wearing. One of the most poignant things to come out of the SlutWalks was seeing women walk in the clothes they had been raped in – sweatpants, jeans, bulky winter coats – no piece of clothing or glimpse of skin ever causes sexual violence. Before puberty, children are not really capable of being modest or immodest. We cover them to keep them warm and protected from the elements, but suggesting that a young girl’s shoulders are somehow immodest is on par with putting her in a padded bra or high-heeled boots, it sexualizes her too young.
We teach our girls from a very young age to constantly be aware of how others will perceive them and this is really at the heart of your question. Mothers and grandmothers are most often the gatekeepers and enforcers of modesty rules, passing them on to children who wouldn’t even begin to worry about wearing a sleeveless dress unless someone told them it was wrong. Of course, the morality of modesty aside, a very pragmatic argument can be made that every culture has rules about getting dressed and we have to prepare our daughters to function within society. They will run into people who will judge them for what they wear or don’t wear. They will encounter dress codes in their schools and future workplaces. It’s our duty as parents to prepare our children for these realities, but it is not more important than how our children feel about themselves.
I’m a big believer in getting to grips with what we really believe and trying to act in a way that honors our truest values and intentions. Although modesty is ostensibly an external practice, I believe the best modesty lessons teach our children to think about who they are and what they want to convey through their clothing and then give them the freedom to own those choices. Some critical thought about getting dressed is a necessity for women in a world of mixed messages. However, at this time in your daughter’s life, the best lesson might be to say nothing, to allow her some respite from being constantly aware of how her looks or dress might impact others. The best lesson might be to brave the disapproving looks and comments from other mothers and teach your daughter that sometimes we get judged for the choices we make, but it doesn’t matter as long as we know why we are making them and that people all over the world have different ideas about the right way to get dressed. The best lesson might be that there is nothing shameful about her precious little body and covering up her favorite dress won’t make her more holy because holiness is something that comes from the inside.
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