Is there a line?
In Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove there is a scene where the main antagonist, a hideous old woman named Yzma, confronts the protagonists. She begins lifting the end of her long black dress up, revealing more and more of her aged flesh clinging to her malnourished bones. Everyone else in the room begins to cover their eyes and look away in revulsion. At last Yzma’s dress is pulled up high enough to reveal a dagger strapped to her thigh, which she retrieves to threaten the protagonists. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief, which is, of course, hilarious because the audience understands that having some unsightly and decrepit woman pulling up her dress is undesirable. And everyone intuitively understands, without examining any data points, statistics, interviews of assault victims, or anything else, that when it comes to modesty there is a line.
The same impulse that causes mothers to cover up and ask their toddlers to leave if they knock on the door of the shower, the same instinct that causes teenage boys to cover up in embarrassment when some other boy yanks their shorts down in PE as a prank, the same sick feeling that comes when an overweight plumber’s pants are not pulled up… they are common to almost everyone, with or without a sexual component. We all benefit from a societal convention of insisting that people cover up.
Why so defensive?
Frequently, bringing up the topic of modesty elicits a surprising reaction from some, which include accusations of victim blaming.
Of course, modesty, as demonstrated above, is not necessarily tied to anything sexual, let alone sexual assault.
In spite of this, before any additional points are made, this type of reaction necessitates the following statement:
SEXUAL ASSAULT IS THE FAULT OF THE PERPETRATOR, NOT THE VICTIM, REGARDLESS OF DRESS.
Okay, that having been said, if someone encourages modest dress standards, instead of pretending that their mind and motivations can be divined (or otherwise pre-judging them), consider the possibility that the argument is there is a line. If there are disagreements about where the line is, a far more civil conversation can be had about where the line should be rather than arguing whether the line exists.
What does suggesting a different line imply?
I have seen individuals claim that bare shoulders should be acceptable, even though leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ have frequently encouraged covering the shoulders. Opponents of the covered-shoulder-standard have accused proponents that they are “sexualizing shoulders.” If this is true, then insisting on covered shoulders for young girls might be problematic.
On the other hand, opponents of the covered-shoulder-standard may feel compelled to portray it in this light because they are advocating young girls wear more revealing clothing.
Perhaps it is a legitimate difference of opinion. I have not seen charged accusations against the recent Sports Illustrated photographs of a model, Halima Aden, in a burkini, which covers the hair and ears of the wearer. Does such a line indicate the sexualization of ears, elbows, shins, or hair?
The Amish have strict standards for dress and appearance that affect men and women. Is this group of Orthodox Christians sexualizing their people by drawing a line in a different place than others? Obviously not.
While some people are perfectly comfortable with a line that allows bare shoulders, others are not, and these differences of opinion can be entirely independent of sexual reasons.
But there are sexual reasons for the line, right?
There can and should be sexual reasons for some elements of modesty. Men are affected by the appearance of women and this tendency has been used for thousands of years to part men from their money. Most prostitution is a direct result of this. To a lesser degree, advertisers selling body spray, hamburgers, and website domains have used it. Professional show producers increase their audience sizes and interest in their programming by using it. Amateur YouTube and Twitch streamers increase their views and subscriptions with it. Pretending this tendency does not exist is not a good way to inform any decisions, including where modesty lines should be.
The difficulty is finding a good balance between the wide range of clothing styles and the wide range of attitudes in others. Further complicating the situation is the appearance of the wearer. Some people can be completely covered in moderate loose-fitting clothing, and will still provoke a sexual reaction. Others could be… well… like Yzma.
A basic understanding and reasonable efforts go a long way, in either direction. God appreciates when his children help one another keep his statutes: whether it is offering kind words, covering ourselves in a modest manner, or performing acts of selfless service – being helpful to our neighbors is a good thing. Consider how Esther used her beauty to save her people. In the other direction, we find a person like the daughter of Jared in the Book of Mormon. Knowing that she was fair, she danced before Akish, the son of Kimnor, and manipulated him into creating a murderous conspiracy by using her sexual appeal. While Akish was responsible for the secret combinations and murders, the daughter of Jared certainly did not encourage him to choose the right.
What should we do?
If you’re a man, act like a son of God. Treat people with dignity and respect, and do what is necessary to protect your ability to keep the commandments. Responsibility for your actions cannot be pushed off to anyone else. Jesus taught, “if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” (Matthew 5:29)
If you’re a woman, act like a daughter of God. Use your gifts to inspire goodness in those around you. Beauty can lead people to do well or ill. Seek the wisdom to know where the line that divides these things is for you and walk on the side where your Father in Heaven would have you – to your own benefit.
If you’re still confused, the teachings of prophets and apostles can help you. In that great and last day, some will cry with regret, wishing that they had believed the prophets and repented. No one will regret having stayed on the right side of the line or think themselves a victim of modesty.
“Careful Versus Casual” -Sister Becky Craven, April 2019