Guest Post: Revealing Our Dignity


“Modesty” by Willliam-Adolphe Bouguereau

by Leslee

By now you’ve all probably seen the pro-modesty, anti-bikini video that’s flooding Mormon facebook profiles all over the world. If you’re one of the two or three Mormons left on earth who haven’t seen it yet, here it is:

The first thing that struck me when I watched the video was how black and white the issue was (according to Jessica Rey). Men who look at women wearing bikinis saw them as objects. Period. According to some study.

Red flags always go up for me when someone cites studies to prove their point…not that it’s a bad thing to cite studies. In fact, it’s perfect way to make an intelligent, grounded argument. But when the conclusion made by the presenter is entirely one-dimensional, I begin to suspect some convenient interpolation of the facts. And that’s exactly what we have here.

Luckily for me, Rah at Feminine Mormon Housewives has already done the heavy lifting on this and has posted a great analysis of the study in question. I encourage you to go read his post.

Instead of taking apart the video and pointing out the misleading claims therein, I want to address a few of my thoughts regarding the modesty question. First off, I want to say that I think modest dress is great. Nothing wrong with it at all, in fact, my own experience is that it’s easier for me to feel comfortable with my body and less concerned about what other’s are thinking about me when I am covered. But this video is a black-and-white argument that tells us that dressing a certain way automatically turns the men around us into misogynistic pigs ready to see and use women like tools. And it went viral. Fast. I’m concerned about what that says about us.

In case you didn’t have a chance to read the analysis on FMH (and you should, it’s really good), the study concluded that the only group of people to objectify women in bikinis were men who already had high levels of hostile sexism against women. Men who were benevolently sexist (putting women on a pedestal. Sound familiar?) and those who were not sexist at all had no such reaction. Arousal? Sure, but the same reaction would most likely apply to women in one-piece suits, little black dresses, or a picture of their own wives or girlfriends. Objectification? Nope. Just good old-fashioned attraction. Only the men who are already hostile misogynists reacted by objectifying the women.

To paraphrase one line from the video, Jessica Rey says that modesty is not about covering our bodies, it’s about revealing our dignity. I couldn’t agree more. But I think the question of what is on our bodies should then be a moot point. Dignity comes from within. It’s about how we think of ourselves, how we think of and relate to the people around us. It’s completely possible to be dignified and stark naked. Our cultural concept of modesty is defined by hundreds of years of tradition and socialization. Are the men and women of aboriginal cultures across the world who wear next to nothing undignified? Not at all. They are not ashamed of their bodies and nothing about what is or is not covered changes the sexual balance (for good or ill) between the men and women of those cultures.

What bothers me most about the video has nothing to do with men, actually. It’s all to do with how we women see each other. In my extended family, modesty has become a delicate issue. My mom, sisters and myself tend to be pretty relaxed about it. I grew up wearing sleeveless shirts and shorts well above the knee. My mom was a dancer and my dad is a physician’s assistant, so I feel like there was a healthy appreciation of the beauty of the human body in our household. My brother’s wives however, have a different approach to teaching modesty to their children. Their little girls always wear tee-shirts under their sundresses, dressing, even as babies, according to the standard of the garment-line. It’s not a bad thing and their girls look cute and fun. But when we mingle, I’m always a little nervous about what my sister-in-laws think of my underdressed little heathens. I wonder if they go home and remind their children that just because their cousins are dressed that way doesn’t mean it’s appropriate.

I often think back to a moment when I was in high school and hanging out with a few of my own cousins. They began to gossip about another of our cousins and the strapless (gasp) dress that she showed up to prom in. I immediately felt self-conscious about my own dress, which had been sleek and black with spaghetti straps. Very Va Va Voom (and the one my mom helped me pick out!), but I had felt completely modest in it, and my date had been a complete gentlemen (I certainly didn’t sense any objectification there). Now I don’t really care what my cousins or my in-laws think, but I do care about how divisive and malicious these talks can become. When we as women pick each other apart or believe that our worth really depends upon the length of our sleeves or the style of our swimsuit, when we’re getting out the measuring tape to count the inches of skin below the hemline, we don’t have time to look into each others eyes to find the dignity that really resides inside.

LesPurpleHeadshotLeslee is a full-time stay-at-home mom of three young children and a part-time professional musician who makes her home on the dusty plains of northern Kansas.


  1. “When we as women pick each other apart or believe that our worth really depends upon the length of our sleeves or the style of our swimsuit, when we’re getting out the measuring tape to count the inches of skin below the hemline, we don’t have time to look into each others eyes to find the dignity that really resides inside.”

    Beautifully said, Leslee. There’s been way too heavy a focus on modest dress in LDS culture in recent years, I think. As Amelia pointed out in one of her posts, heavy emphasis on covering up women is just as objectifying as portrayals of scantily clad women. With both emphases, people are still not seeing women as real people.

  2. I know it’s something we’ve all heard from birth — but I think it’s really true that people who criticize others feel a lack of something in themselves. I think the modesty furor that has swept the women of the church in the last several years is hiding a general dissatisfaction and frustration about how little power we have in the organization itself. And that makes me sad.

  3. I liked the video when I first saw it. Quite some time ago I had read -or seen a video- about the study she referenced and with that background I didn’t pick up on the problem with her simplistic application of some aspects of the study. I understood she was doing this as a marketing tactic. But it really was a problem because of the reasons you explain here. I agree that she should have just left it at what modesty means or can mean for individual women. Why bring the man-stuff in at all?

    On the other hand, because we are biological creatures and because men tend to be more readily aroused by visual stimuli, I’m not entirely in the camp of, “That’s their problem and it has nothing to do with me or any other woman.” I think there is a place where we can embrace the realities of biologic differences and be respectful of those things as men and women in this world. But without a lot of hubbub. And certainly without the puritanical modesty rhetoric that seems to have overtaken the religious landscape in the last couple of decades.

    This is true: “Our cultural concept of modesty is defined by hundreds of years of tradition and socialization. Are the men and women of aboriginal cultures across the world who wear next to nothing undignified? Not at all.” Yes! Let’s relax about all of it and get on with the business of loving our neighbors, rather than concerning ourselves with what they are or are not wearing.

    Libby’s comment is very interesting to me too, about “. . .a general dissatisfaction and frustration about how little power we have in the organization . . .” That’s something to think about.

    Thanks for taking time to write and share this. Well done.

  4. Thank you for posting about this. I’ve been struggling with modesty a lot, mostly because I personally care less and less how people dress, but at the same time I’m a garment wearer and therefore am pretty limited in my own choices. However, I’m also serving in the YW and I’m not really sure what to say. I don’t much care when our girls wear shorter shorts or sleeveless tops on summer days. Somehow, however, I was saddened by revealing prom dresses. My general policy is not to say anything, or to emphasize the many meanings of modesty in addition to hemlines. Anyway, I appreciate you taking the time to write this.

  5. I related to your concern about the divisive and malicious nature of the judging. We’re admonished not to judge, lest we be judged accordingly. Maybe those men and women who are judging others based on their perceived immodesty, are hoping to be judged and found worthy based solely on their clothing choices? What a shallow way to judge others. My response would be to look at Romans 14:13, “Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no wo/man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in her/his sister’s/brother’s way.” When we let manner of dress affect how we see another person’s humanity, we lose a little of our own divinity.

  6. Leslee,

    This is lovely, and very timely. My ward had a fashion show a few months ago- I did not attend. All of the advertisements for it were aimed at how women could become more beautiful for men… I want to look nice and feel good for me, not for men or otherwise.

    For me, this leads into your idea of women picking each other apart. I recall a decade or so ago, after my cousin asked me why I was looking happier than usual, when I confessed to her that I sometimes took my garments off. After struggling to feel happy with my body, the encumbered garments began to trigger some very real frustration, depression and even self-loathing (as a woman with a full cup size in the days before the seamless “g” fronts, I was uncomfortable and angry that the seam that was supposed to run under my bust always went straight across my nipples. And being short waisted, I could literally pull my bottom “g’s” up over my breasts!) Tired of feeling like my body was freakish, I opted to liberate myself from garments on days when I needed to do so for sanity. In doing this, I felt peace, and — I often felt the spirit *return* to me because I had become so negative as a result of the very ill fitting garments. I received a proper lecture from my cousin, ensuring me I was wicked every whit. And yet, a few years later, she sent a general email to everyone in the family defending her choice to wear a bikini. The bikini email was not sought, nor did I know its reason for existing- it was sent “because of *some* people…” I think this, like most modesty-related rhetoric, highlights that each of us does have an internal compass and an internal position on what modesty is and what it means. I am happy to leave that with the individual. When we, as a group, sexualize shoulders as immodest because g’s normally cover them, we do the same as sexualizing the ankles of our great-grandmothers. None of it makes sense. And all of it hurts.

    Thank you for highlighting this important issue.

  7. Leslee,

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. We’ve had problems in our family with a 4-year-old granddaughter being raised with strict Mormon values loudly referring to her non-Mormon aunt’s spaghetti-strap wedding dress as immodest. Teaching a preschooler that only garment-standard clothes are modest can create embarrassingly intolerant public comments.

  8. The modesty question is bothersome for me because I can’t think of a way to really define modesty. And I guess I like defining things. I could look at clothing and quickly give an up/down as to whether I find it modest. But I’d have a hard time coming up with rules. Which may be telling me something… That modesty isn’t about square inches of exposed skin, but more to do with respect and dignity for yourself and others. I wish we could just teach the respect and dignity and stop talking about sleeves.

    I don’t get the Friend because I don’t want my kids reading articles about how sundresses are “immodest” on a 5 year old. There have been too many of those articles lately, and I they strongly activate my ick reflex.

  9. Leslee, thanks so much for this timely post. I feel like both sides of the modesty spectrum (“wear what you want! show as much skin! feel sexy!” to “everyone is watching and you are responsible for their thoughts”) are both ways of controlling girls and women. It’s much easier to dictate what others should wear than to teach them how to feel confident and have high self-esteem.

  10. I am so glad this was addressed. That video about ‘modesty’ made me nauseous. I love how men get a free pass to reveal their bare chests and stomachs but it’s immodest for women?! Non-sense! And modesty changes vastly over time and culture. Jessica’s top would be frowned upon in LDS churches, but I guarantee she thinks she’s being more than modest. I’m so tired of it being WOMEN’S responsibility to be modest, never, not even a little bit, men’s responsibility. Rant, over 🙂

  11. This is a hot topic and I’m glad you brought it up. I think we need to keep discussing. Thanks for your words and thoughts.


  12. Leslee, I really appreciate your emphasis on dignity (especially dignity’s inwardness).

    This may be because when I shared this response article ( on my fbook after seeing the original video posted a few too many times, several of the woman who shared the video commented that they didn’t get the negative things out of the video, just the dignity part. I want to believe them, I do. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t want them to read your follow up–that that dignity means that the clothes part is not the most important part, etc.

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