Monday, May 25, 2015

Understanding Modesty

Has anyone else noticed that modesty has become a regular topic on the internet, social media in particular? It’s such a great thing, really, to hear discussion about such a moral issue in everyday chatter.

I love how, in multiple articles I've read or skimmed, the emphasis is on the broader meaning of “modesty."  Though the word “modesty” usually brings to mind clothing choices, it really has a more comprehensive meaning. One definition I like best is that modesty is an attitude of humility and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. “Modesty,” said Susan W. Tanner in this talk, “is more than a matter of avoiding revealing attire. It describes not only the altitude of hemlines and necklines but the attitude of our hearts."

How true. As I've reflected on the current social dialogue and my own feelings about how I should have “decency and propriety … in thought, language, dress, and behavior,” I've pondered about a few attitudes I want to have in my heart (in Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 5 vols. [1992], 2:932).

First, I want to consider how I dress. Elder L. Tom Perry said that “our dress and grooming send a message to others about who we are, and they also affect the way we act around others.” I have noticed that my own behavior varies depending on what I wear. My oh my oh my, motherhood has certainly brought some tired days! It is wildly tempting for me to wear my comfy PJs and push back getting ready for the day until 10…or 11… or 12, really. Yet those pajama days tend to be slower, less productive ones, and I sometimes feel frustrated at the end of the day, wondering why I couldn't accomplish more.

Yet the same is true when I dress up. If I stay in my “Sunday best” all day on Sunday, I tend to treat the whole day as the Lord ’s Day. When I put extra effort into looking my best for a date with my honey, the occasion feels more special, and it reminds me to be more considerate of him. Therefore? I want to dress appropriate to the occasion. I want to remember that “very casual dress is almost always followed by very casual manners” (L. Tom Perry,  Let Him Do With Simplicity).

So apart from my dress affecting how I act, what about the message I’m sending to others? As much as I want people to see the attitude of my heart, the first thing they see is the physical me. I would love to have my outward appearance draw people in, making people comfortable and curious to know me better. I know many people who have such a quality. Now, one of my favorite quotes ever comes from Sheri Dew when she said that “no amount of time in front of the mirror will make you as attractive as having the Holy Ghost with you," and I truly believe it.

Yet this inner, modest attitude that invites the Holy Ghost might not shine through if my attire sends attention elsewhere. Somehow, it has become very untrendy to suggest that revealing clothing is, well, suggestive. “Men (and women) should be able to control their own thoughts!” is the cry, and they are right. We all have the obligation to keep our thoughts clean and pure.

However, we are our brother’s keepers. I want to be, at least. Though I hope those around me are keeping their thoughts and feelings in check, I certainly don’t want to make it harder on them.  

Further, I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and I believe that living prophets have set forth some guidelines to help me dress in a way that befits a follower of Jesus Christ. No, that doesn't mean I should judge others who dress differently than me, but yes, now I have a specific standard to which I will adhere. After all, I believe my body is God’s sacred creation and a gift from Him. And I promised when I was baptized to keep all of God’s commandments, including modern revelation relating to dress and grooming.

So what is the standard for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? I believe the easiest place to look for prophetic counsel specific to our day is the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. In fact, Elin and I were discussing a modesty question a few weeks ago. As we debated about a particular attire in a particular instance, I realize now that if we had referred to this booklet, we would have had our answer.

So hooray for the expanded focus on modesty! How wonderful for our society to have a spark of interest in shifting away from materialism, pride, and extremism towards moderation, humility, and unpretentiousness. Yet as we embrace this truth, let's not exclude dress and grooming as a real place for application of this principle. And for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, God has graciously given us specific counsel in this area.

In October 2006 General Conference, Larry W. Gibbons quotes Rabbi Harold S. Kushner as saying the following: 

“I’m a traditional Jew, and I observe the biblical dietary laws. … I suspect most of you assume I go around all day saying to myself, ‘Boy, would I love to eat pork chops, but that mean old God won’t let me.’ Not so. The fact … is, I go around all day saying, ‘Isn’t it incredible? There are five billion people on this planet and God cares what I have for lunch [and] what kind of language I use.’

“… I am not diminished by being told there are certain things I may not do because they are wrong. Rather, it enhances me.”

That's how I feel about modesty standards. Isn't it incredible? God cares about me and how I dress; we have "guideposts from an all-wise Heavenly Father to keep us out of trouble, to bring us a fulness of happiness in this life, and to bring us safely back home to Him" (Gibbons).

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