I remember where I was the first time I saw the phrase "Modest is Hottest!" It was on a hand-made t-shirt a girl at a church camp was wearing. "Awesome!" I thought. After growing up in an area where my religious beliefs were by far the minority, it was novel to have someone proclaim what I believed was true too. Bodies are meant to be appropriately covered! You tell them, stranger!
When I went to college I worked for the IT Department helping people fix their internet and other computer problems over the phone. We could work on homework after a while if call volume was low, but for the first half hour we were supposed to review documentation we needed to know and also to familiarize ourself with current campus events by reading the school paper (which was still a paper. Funny how fast things change.)
My favorite section to read was the Opinion section because there was guaranteed to be some crazy in there at least once a week demanding something totally ridiculous, like the bookstore needing to take down their Halloween decorations because Halloween is evil or that the cheerleaders were crazy immodest and needed to cover up or whatever.
The funny thing is, the longer I read the paper and the longer I attended BYU, the more often I heard comments about the cheerleading uniforms being inappropriate. It always seemed centered there, and occasionally on the gymnasts. It was never on the track and field uniforms or the swimming uniforms. Something kind of tweaked in my head - what is it about modesty that is so completely and thoroughly centered around women alone? I thought that maybe people just saw cheerleading as superfluous and unnecessary and therefore a waste of "compromising standards". Fortunately as I talked with the people I was around, most of them agreed that those people who were annoyed with the uniforms were ridiculous and that people need to wear clothing appropriate for the activity they are doing.
The more culturally aware I've become, however, I've started having some serious problems with the way modesty is discussed. Here are some of the things I have observed that I have issue with:
1. Discussions of modesty are culturally centered around how it makes you more physically beautiful.
(As if the only way to con girls into covering their shoulders and knees is to train them from birth to believe that their shoulders and knees are ugly or evil or bad because they are enticing in the wrong way, so you need to cover them and then you are enticing in the right way, because, by the way, that's the most important thing you can do.)
2. Discussions of modesty are centered almost completely around women and women's clothing choices.
(As if it was impossible for men to be immodest. And I'm not just talking about wearing your pants around your knees or having long hair. I'm talking about how tired I am of teaching our girls and boys to focus on the "errors" in fashion choices instead of, you know, actually getting to know the person they are with.)
3. Discussions of modesty often focus on the relationship between clothing trends and the statement that God's standards never change.
(The simple response to this is that garment lengths and styles have changed significantly since the 1850s, so if you believe that God's standards never change, and I do, then you have to believe that modesty isn't a principle that revolves entirely around clothing and that there is a greater truth we are missing out on.)
I would like to submit that that melding the discussion of modesty only to fashion is a red herring to what modesty really is.
Modesty is not a principle that excludes clothing choices, but it is not a principle dominated by them either. If it was, then the church would be calling for women to wear burqas. Current discussions (like this one here) or the recent issue with the school editing what girls' pictures looked like for the yearbook can only lead in the "girls must cover everything because their bodies are dangerous" train of thought. I could go on and on here about how much I hate that girls are led to believe that they control the thoughts of men with their hemline, hate that men are claimed as being incapable of controlling their own thoughts, hate that the intense focus on a woman's clothing choices encourages rape culture; but that discussion has happened elsewhere and better than I can do it here (it's tech week for my show. My brain. My brain!)
What I want to say instead is this:
Modesty is a principle of respect for yourself and respect for others. This can manifest itself in many ways. It includes dressing appropriately for the activities you are doing. It involves being kind and encouraging to the self image of others, and to your views of yourself. It means accepting no for an answer when a person denies you the chance to kiss them, hug them, hold hands with them, touch them in any way that they do not want. It means speaking honestly about what you see and hear and giving a fair evaluation.
Modesty is historically associated with the principle of moderation. Unfortunately, it is also historically associated with the clothing of women and very closely linked with the word "shame" in Old English. So it isn't as though the rhetoric we are using is new - blaming women for the actions of men and focusing on women as objects to be carefully covered until the appropriate time comes to uncover them goes back centuries. Isn't that sad? It does make it somewhat easier to sympathize with how hard it is to change the trends of discussion. But those discussions need to happen, and change needs to come or we are totally selling ourselves short. So instead of focussing on a negative value, let us instead focus our discussions on the true positive aspects of being modest. Let's focus on presenting ourselves well in our clothing choices, yes, but also in how we respect and honor others. Let us remember that the Lord doesn't look on the outward appearance, He looks on the heart - and it is our job to be strong enough and smart enough to see past the exterior foibles of people and to see them. Really see them.