Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Metaphysics of Modesty

Modesty of dress, that is.

I saw the Evolution of the Swimsuit and thought Jessica Rey was a nice gal who understands that men have sexual appetites and doesn't like the idea of being objectified. I don't like being objectified either, but what she said wasn't earth-shattering. I came away wondering why it is women feel they need scientific justification for what they wear.

I read Mrs. Hall's letter to teenaged girls on modesty and thought she is a woman who believes the chastity of her sons' thoughts are controlled by girls. I was a tad angry, I'll admit.

I saw a YouTube video "Virtue Makes you Beautiful" featuring a group of young men telling girls that they are lovely with clothes on. They "need" our modesty. Please. Let's GIVE them our modesty. We're more beautiful that way. Furthermore, their clever lyrics implied that "virtue" and "clothing" are synonymous. They're cute boys. Well-intentioned. Just misguided. I want to pinch their cheeks and wag a finger at them at the same time.

immodest manure
So you're saying that my clothes will win me a good man. Every girl's dream is a man that likes her for her clothes...

The more I read/see/hear on this modesty issue, the more I feel like Goldilocks trying to decide which version of modesty is "just right." There seem to be too many extremes.

I like to strut my 30-year old self that's born 4 children and still turns my husband on in a fitted sweater dress complete with boots with four-inch heels out on the town because it makes me feel good to be admired. It makes me feel powerful to embrace what I know is a beautiful body by sharing it.

Yet at the same time I recognize that everything ought to have bounds. I need to recognize that the intent I have when I get dressed matters. Do I want to encourage a man to have indecent thoughts? No. Do I want men to admire me? Sure as shootin'. And women, too! I'm beautiful. I have something beautiful: this body. We all want to share the beautiful things of life. There is nothing wrong with that. When we adorn ourselves, desiring to be admired, we are giving away part of ourselves. This isn't wrong. It's a gift we have to give. It's our right to give it. Humans have the natural and divine desire to share what is beautiful. But how much giving is too much? How will we know?

How do I live as a sexual being that is also beautiful where sexuality and beauty so often cross paths?

I have a six-year old girl who already feels uncomfortable discussing her body. I don't know if it's because of something she learned or that she just came out that way, but the word "vagina" makes her crawl under a table. Something in her intrinsically knows about sexuality and she is already shaping her view of it before we've ever even had "the talk." She also knows about and follows the same modesty guidelines now that I will expect when she is older. I don't want modesty standards to change just because she hits puberty. Doing so further confuses the modesty/sexuality problem. But we have yet to get into the whys of modesty. Someday soon I will have to explain all the things she can do with her body. And I will have to differentiate sexuality from modesty for her.

How do I do that?

What IS modesty really? How in Hades do clothes have any connection to worth? And WHY, if God made women exquisitely beautiful creatures that men just LOVE to look at, is it WRONG to reveal our beauty as much as we want? How can we separate objectification and control from admiration and loveliness?

I struggle. I don't like the sinking feeling in my heart when my daughter refuses to talk to me about her body or to spell out why she feels the way she does. I don't like that my cleavage makes me feel inappropriate and always has made me self-conscious. I don't like scrutinizing what I wear based on worries over the reactions of others. I want confidence in myself enough that I don't desire lascivious attention but rather want to be beautiful because it brings joy. It's hard, if not impossible though, to differentiate proper feelings from improper ones.

The other day I was looking through a clothing catalog with Brad. He likes to buy me clothes. He likes to dress me up and take me out for people to admire. I dress him up, too. Because I like showing off his manliness. We like to revere each other that way. But let's just say that I often think his choices are inappropriate. A skin-tight red dress? Are you serious? And I also think that he overlooks clothing that doesn't "do it for him" even though I think it flatters. A shirt that doesn't mold my breasts can still be beautiful.
We crossed a page of a woman wearing an off-the-shoulder loose sweater. He thought it was dumb the way that sweater only covered one shoulder. It looked like a poncho hanging on her body like that, I guess.
I thought it was flattering. "I think shoulders are graceful. They are one of the most attractive things on a woman," I told him.
He wrinkled his nose. Didn't get it.
The problem of modesty struck me again. How we can see the features of the female body so differently... How modesty, sexuality, objectification, and beauty are all wound up and tangled together... It's impossible for us to make a determination about what should be appropriate. What's okay to feel as a woman when we put on an article of clothing. What reaction should we want to get from our clothes?

Oh my, so many impossible questions. How can I expect to explain modesty to my daughter if I can't even explain it to myself?

Girls come into the world with a sense of what is beautiful before boys ever even get the meaning of the word. But we are notorious for beating ourselves up. We are never happy with what we are. We are never as pretty as the next girl. We are never as interesting as we'd like. We're never as talented. We doubt ourselves. Constantly. This is what makes the modesty/virtue connection so dangerous. To shame ourselves while at the same time having our choice of dress be shamed due to it's "effects" on others compounds the problem.

When I became a member of the LDS church, I accepted the standards of dress because it didn't bother me to do so, not because I felt any certain conviction about the importance. But even so, self-consciousness of my cleavage hasn't left me. And I still question, all the time, what to wear, gauging my decisions on what I anticipate the reaction will be. I question my intent. I question the appropriateness of dressing up at all. Where is the balance in this most complex problem?

So I took a step back and stopped looking at modesty in relation to others. What is the true purpose of modesty?

Well what is the purpose of any standard? To set limits. Self-control.

-I don't drink coffee, tea, alcohol or do drugs because abstinence is easier than moderation when it comes to these things. If given a choice I eat seasonally. I eat whole foods. Because these things bring my body health. And health brings with it a clarity of mind.

     Drinking iced tea is not, in and of itself, sinful.

-I attend my meetings because it takes effort and because it sets the example for my kids. Routine is key when it comes to children. I attend my meetings because it tells Jesus I care. It tells me that I care.

     Skipping church is not, in and of itself, sinful.

-I read my scriptures regularly because it takes effort. It causes me to set an expectation for myself. And I do it because to question is to grow. And reading scriptures gives me a LOT of questions.  

     Not reading my scriptures every day is not, in and of itself, sinful.

-I do family home evening every Monday despite the raging circus it always is because it sets a routine for my kids, and talking about spiritual things on a regular basis instills them with it's importance.  

     Not having family home evening is not, in and of itself, sinful.

-I execute my callings. Because the structure of the church needs me to. Because it teaches me how to deal with people. Because primary kids are far less frustrating than adults. Because it gives me a chance to serve. Because it gives me a chance to return and report.

    Not accepting a calling is not, in and of itself, sinful.

-I refrain from foul language because it sounds ugly. And it's unimaginative. And it's trendy (I hate trends). But I do like the word 'badass'. :-)

     Using the word 'badass' is not, in and of itself, sinful.

-I will raise my children to honor sexual monogamy. I will encourage them to bind sexual appetite within marriage. Because sex is a gift. Because it binds two people in spiritual ways that I still don't fully comprehend but have experienced. Because it requires the deepest level of trust to truly appreciate. Trust comes from commitment.

     Sex, outside of marriage, is not, in and of itself, sinful.

-I wear clothes according to standards set by my leaders because it's easier than trying to figure out how much is too much.

     To wear "less" is not, in and of itself, sinful.

There are a slew of more nuanced reasons for the above standards I impose on myself. The benefits of following them are mine alone because the "blessings" of such standards are different for everyone. You cannot quantify standards. There is no consistent cause and effect when it comes to mastering the spiritual self.

But I agreed to the rules. I figured they'd better me. I wanted to be better. The missionaries said it would help me be better. So I did it. And I tried hard.

And guess what? Now I'm better.

I'm better than better. I now understand what all those rules were for. They were to help me control myself. We are only ever frightened, unsure, anxious, or suffering when we fail to have that control. What people do to us cannot take away what we do with our minds. These bodies are magnificent things. What I put in, on, and what I allow to come out of mine will determine whether I control myself. When I control myself, my spirit can shine through and I begin to get why I'm so important to Divinity.

Standards allow me to mold myself rather than be molded.

Modesty of dress is just another way to mold myself. To control some nuance of my body.

It's not about clothes themselves. It never has been and it never should be. A modesty lesson should never be aligned with a sexuality lesson. If we accept a standard of modesty, that standard should apply equally to boys. Virtue and modesty (of clothes) should never be thought of as co-dependent. Sure, all of the above have ties that bind them. Every principle of the Gospel and of life is interconnected and cannot possibly be fully separated. WE cannot properly be separated from each other. But virtue, true virtue, is learned through temperance of self. How we choose to temper ourselves is our choice because we should be the makers of our own spirits. We should not temper ourselves based on the actions/reactions of others. Because then we put the making of ourselves in their hands instead of our own.