I've seen a few people in my internet feminist community start writing about modesty this week, so I thought I'd join in. I think my experiences on the matter are especially appropriate, given that I grew up in a culture that highly emphasized modesty, and, whether or not they meant to, pushed some sexist thinking on us because of it.
All of the hype has started because of a modesty club in South Pasadena (an area I actually have family in, so I'm really not surprised) that has gotten big enough to start a modesty week at their high school. It's also not surprising considering that the 15-year-old girl who started the club is a relative of Orrin Hatch, the incumbent Utah senator who shot down sex education in Utah public schools. She also has a brother who started a no cussing club at that same high school, but currently goes to BYU.
Of course, feminists do not want to tell women what to wear. I see absolutely no problem with women who feel more empowered and comfortable with their body when they are dressing modestly. I come from a family of extremely busty women (the kind of busty that creates cleavage even in a turtleneck), and also, sometimes I do not want eyes drawn to my body parts, so I completely understand. I do believe that it can, in fact, be very empowering.
But the problem seems to come in with the rhetoric of how modesty is taught in the Mormon church. At least, in my experience (though I'm sure my experience is not unique).
As a teenage girl in the LDS church, I was taught modesty a lot. I was told stories about girls wearing strapless dresses to prom, which made their Mormon dates uncomfortable because they didn't know where to put their hands. Certainly even their bare shoulders are too erotic for such a thing!
I was shown pictures of girls in full-out goth getup and told about how your clothing reflects on you, and allows other people to judge you, so you should dress modestly.
Above all, I was taught that I needed to be modest for other people.
All of that built character or whatever, so I'm not complaining about that. I'm upset with this phrase because it compares girls who make a spiritual choice to be modest to other girls and tries to put them above those girls who do not make that choice. Being modest should never be about being better than people who choose not to be modest. I believe this phrase was invented by some adult somewhere who was trying to convince teenagers that modesty is "cool." But really, they just succeeded in furthering the whole I'm-religious-and-judging-you attitude.
If a woman chooses to be modest for her own spiritual enhancement, this phrase or attitude should have nothing to do with how they feel about it. I hope I don't offend anyone here, but let's take girls with Muslim beliefs as an example. Many of them choose to don clothing that is not mainstream in American culture for the purpose of enhancing their personal spirituality (as I understand it). Although I have not known many Muslim girls, the ones I did never really cared if other people chose to be modest too. They never had expressions like this. For them, modesty had absolutely nothing to do with other people (at least as far as I know).
I was also taught quite a bit that I needed to be modest for the Young Men in my ward and stake. I was taught that men are weaker in that they cannot resist sexual temptations the way that women can. At the time, I liked this, because I liked thinking that this was some kind of sacred responsibility and that women are on a pedestal.
All of that is complete bullshit. No matter what I wore to stake dances, there would be a dude who "accidentally" had his hand on my ass while we were slow dancing because he was "awkward" with girls. I totally fell for that bit more than once (to be fair, Mormon guys can be really awkward around girls). It is never a girl's responsibility to try to protect men from sexual temptations, and nor should we coddle them like that. Men are perfectly capable of resisting if they want to (even horny and hormonal teenage boys), and believing otherwise contributes to rape culture. Also, we should be teaching teenage boys that there is nothing wrong with being "turned-on," and that sexual interest is a natural and good thing, no matter what your religion teaches about sexual actions. That can be a topic for another post, though, so I won't delve deeper.
While some of the Young Men in my ward did eventually give in to sexual temptations, so did I. And I probably beat them to it, too. Because GIRLS WANT SEX JUST AS MUCH AS GUYS DO. Despite what movies and TV shows depict, or what my parents and church leaders wanted to believe, that is the truth.
So if I ever end up teaching Sunday School or Young Women's lessons, I would never say a word about needing to be modest so that you can be better than other girls, or needing to be modest so that men can better resist you. I would tell them that modesty is something that has nothing to do with their parents, their peers, the boys the have crushes on, or their church leaders, or even me. Modesty is absolutely a personal, private choice.