In Defense of “The Orange Shirt”

[ 29 ] Comments

by Paul

friend-2013-mayI’m still an avid reader of The Friend, even though my youngest graduated Primary last year, and when I read this month’s issue, the story “The Orange Shirt”  caught my attention. I am aware that there are plenty in the blogosphere who object to stories that teach dress standards to children, and I imagined there would be a bit of a dustup over this one, as well.

I was right. Last week, BCC chimed in with its response: Children Can’t Dress Immodestly.
I hope to respond to a couple of thoughts in the BCC post and general concerns of those who oppose teaching modesty to Primary children, and a few observations about what I think the latest Friend story does quite well.

Madagascar Kids 1

It its first paragraph, the BCC post claims that children cannot dress immodestly for the same reason seven year olds cannot sin. I’m intrigued by that notion. On the one hand, I agree that the natural innocence of small children does shield them from sin, and yet we still teach them not to lie, not to steal, to be kind to one another. In other words, the absence of ability to sin – or at least accountability for sin – does not keep us from teaching them the commandments and proper behavior. Indeed even small children can lie; they can steal; they can treat one another without kindness.

Similarly, the natural innocence of children also shields them from being immodest. I agree with that idea. When my oldest was nearly two, he regularly stripped down to nothing and ran out into the front yard. He knew nothing about modesty or immodesty. I just knew he preferred to wear no clothes. (Now in his thirties he’s more socially acceptable – he wears clothes but goes without shoes as often as he can.) Nevertheless, his mother and I taught him to wear clothes because in our society, wearing clothes – even for little children – is important.

One of the real concerns of those who oppose teaching modesty to Primary children is that the way we teach modesty tends to sexualize those whom we are teaching. And the sexualization of Primary children is wrong. The suggestion is that if we teach young women that they must dress modestly to avoid stirring up sexual fantasies in young men, then we are sexualizing the young women in the process. I agree with that line of reasoning, and for that very reason, I did not teach my daughters to dress modestly to avoid tempting young men. And I taught my sons that they are the keepers of their thoughts, not the young women around them.

It does seem the church has taken some significant steps in the direction of teaching modesty in dress at earlier and earlier ages. Especially noted are the changing of pictures in the gospel art kit to put sleeves on sleeveless dresses in the last few years.

Another concern among the don’t-teach-modesty adherents is that the teaching of a particular dress code leads us to judge those who don’t adhere to the dress code. While I share the valid concern that as Mormons we are way to judgmental of one another and of those who are not of our faith, I don’t quite understand the notion that we should not teach standards to our children for fear of judging one another.

Can’t we do both – teach the standards, and teach how to love one another? Isn’t that what the Savior modeled for us? When He forgave the adulteress, He was clear: He loved her enough to prevent her being stoned, but He also expected her to forsake her sin. Don’t we have a similar problem if we teach the Word of Wisdom? I think many children from good LDS families are surprised to learn when they become adults that not everyone who drinks alcohol is a raging drunk. But that does not change the truth that our modern prophets have taught that we should abstain from alcohol. There is a natural process for those who learn standards also to learn over time that those who have different standards may still be fine upstanding people who happen to have different standards.

In the BCC post, Mathew puts the Friend’s tagline “based on a true story” in quotation marks. I don’t know if that’s because he’s quoting the Friend, or because he wonders if it really is based on a true story. Some of the commenters seemed to question that the article is based on a true story. In fact, in this case, it is based on a true story. I know because I chatted with the author of the article, and she described to me the actual incident from her own life. Very similar to what happened in the story.

Before I say any more about the story itself, I have this thought about why this issue is important to the church. I attended a regional leadership meeting years ago when I served as bishop. Members of the general auxiliary presidencies where there, including the Primary, and we were taught that there was concern even then – over a decade ago – that what we once might have taught in Young Womens or in Aaronic Priesthood quorums we now needed to teach at an earlier age because of the earlier grip of society on our children.

As a father, I’ve seen the same thing. Television shows aimed at “tweens” are far more provocative now than I remember their being when my older children were younger. And physical maturation of children seems to come earlier than it did. So it is no surprise to me that there is an effort to teach certain age-appropriate lessons at an earlier age.

Have we got it completely right? Maybe not. But it does not mean we should not look for the best way to teach the best things.

Which brings me to “The Orange Shirt.”

There are a couple of things I thought were awesome in the story. First, Stacey is in a position to make her own choice. Our children need opportunities to make choices in order to learn to make choices. So it’s good for parents to read about children who are in that position. Second, Stacey is required to choose. She has the opinion of the cool older sister Lexie, and she has the positive peer pressure of her friend Amanda.

The issue with the shirt itself is almost secondary to me, but I note that it is not just that it’s a sleeveless shirt, but one with spaghetti straps and is too short. It was not modest. We don’t know who taught Stacey about modesty. We don’t know if it was a Primary teacher or her mother (or her friend Amanda’s mother). But Stacey had an impression about why she wanted to dress a certain way, and she knew that the short spaghetti-strapped shirt was not it. I say hooray for Stacey!

The BCC article poo-poos the idea that a ten-year old girl might receive confirmation from the Holy Ghost about a clothing choice. (And it erroneously asserts that the article teaches that a child’s access to the Holy Ghost is based on clothing choices.) But my experience listening to plenty of conference talks is that when we choose well, the Holy Ghost will confirm our choices. I think for a ten year old girl, making her own choice about clothing, and choosing to eschew something that doesn’t match what she’s been taught, the confirmation of the Holy Ghost would be a wonderful and merciful thing.

Finally, Stacey realizes that Amanda’s big sister Lexie doesn’t find her uncool because she didn’t choose the orange shirt. Stacey acknowledges that she wanted to try the orange shirt, but is in the end pleased that she didn’t. This is a lesson we’d like our children to learn over and over again in life as they are tempted to step off the path. Maybe a clothing choice is minor compared to other choices our children will ultimately make, but each step which allows the spirit to confirm a correct choice is chance for our children to feel the spirit, to learn what that feels like, and to grow a testimony. Those are all good things.


This post is also available at A Latter-day Voice.

About Paul

Paul was a convert to the church with his parents and siblings when he was a child, and therefore has the great blessing of having some of his formative years in the church while still remembering his family’s conversion experience. He is the father of seven and husband to his lovely wife. He served an LDS mission in Germany and has lived in Latin America and twice in Asia for his employer; now he lives with his lovely wife and youngest two children in the Midwestern US. Prior to earning his MBA, Paul also earned degrees in English and Theatre History. He also blogs at A Latter-day Voice (see the link below -- in "Our Authors Elsewhere" section at the bottom of the page) where he writes, as he does here, of his own experience as a Latter-day Saint. He does not speak for the church but will speak in favor of it.

29 Responses to In Defense of “The Orange Shirt”

  1. Becca says:

    I love this post.

  2. Lisa says:

    For someone to state that a ten year old can’t make a modesty decision on their own must not have a child…that’s the only thing I can think of. I have a fifteen year old daughter who has always had a sense of modesty…even from a young age. I equate this to living by example and her being filled with the Spirit. It is black and white with her. There are no gray areas.

  3. Emma says:

    I don’t know if it has to do with my particular upbringing, personality, or whatever, but I’ve never felt the idea that modesty is tied to sexuality. I sometimes read fashion blogs, and many (though not all) of the women who run these kinds of blogs tend to lean feminist; as a result, through them I’ve seen a number of arguments against modesty which seem to assume that anyone who espouses modest dress is doing so to avoid sexual temptation. I admit that many who teach modesty do talk about it in those terms, or at least don’t make the point to avoid implying it. However, there are plenty of ways to teach modesty without attaching to it those connotations — which I think is what the author of this post is trying to suggest. Instead, we should talk about modesty being a form of respect for ourselves and for God, and stress its importance in both genders (just because boys aren’t as often tempted to be immodest doesn’t mean it’s completely irrelevant to them). Anyway, that’s just my two cents. I worry that we are too quick to judge when we feel that someone else is not being a “good enough” Mormon because they don’t do things exactly the same as we do. (I will note that I’m not a fan of the tshirt-under-a-tanktop trend, but hey, I won’t stop you. I just won’t wear it myself.)

  4. Paul says:

    Thanks for the positive responses!

    Emma, I liked the fact that for you there’s a division between modesty and sexuality. I think that there has been plenty of teaching in my lifetime that blurs that line, but I still believe the two are not inextricably linked.

    When two of my sons had bright red or blue hair during their surly teenage years, those were (for me) also issues of modesty. They were not related to sex (in the way we normally think of these things, anyway), but they were all about teenage boys wanting attention (while claiming they didn’t want attention, of course). As they matured, both boys moved out of that phase. One moved into tattooing, and now has modesty issues of another sort, in my view.

    Your thought, “just because boys aren’t as often tempted to be immodest” was intriguing to me. I think teenage boys are quite naturally immodest in lots of ways, some of them sexual: they (the group, not necessarily LDS young men, but maybe them, too) are happy to parade around shirtless or in tank tops, showing off their developing physiques. That society allows for this does not make it less modest in my view. Others are happy to swagger about with huge swaths of undershorts showing. I think the modesty in dress message has plenty of play for both young men and young women.

    I think your idea that modesty is about respect for ourselves and God is right on target. (And so did the author of “The Orange Shirt:” ” She knew that dressing modestly was an important way of respecting her body and being a good example.”)

  5. SilverRain says:

    Modesty wasn’t tightly linked to sexuality for me until leering teenage boys made it so.

  6. Jeanna says:

    I so appreciated seeing a positive post on this topic in the Mormon blogosphere. In general, actually, I have found that this site is wonderful for posing thoughtful questions and having intelligent discussions without the constant undercurrent of, “Geez, the Church is just messing up everything… but we still think it’s true-ish” that a lot of the other major Mormon-related blogs have. So thank you!

    • Paul says:

      “we still think it’s ‘true-ish’.”

      How apt. Thanks for your positive comment. 🙂

    • JessK says:

      “Geez, the Church is just messing up everything… but we still think it’s true-ish”

      That is exactly why I love Real Intent and don’t read some of those other LDS blogs out there. Thank you, Paul, for a well-reasoned discussion about how to better our culture in response to an eternal standard.

  7. Brittany says:

    The two stories the other article mentioned from The Friend were both about girls. I think it would be great to have a story about a boy choosing to avoid extremes, wearing his pants properly, etc. I went and looked at For the Strength of Youth, and there is a detailed list of what is inappropriate for YW, but it is a bit vague on YM. But modesty is always going to have an element of not flaunting sexuality, and I think the message ends up falling heavier on women because of a combination of biology and partly because we live in a culture where sexualization of women’s bodies is a very common sight. I am not sure what I think about children’s clothing. I think 10 (the age of the girl in the story, right?) is probably old enough to start thinking about modestly. My oldest is 5. My children all have some clothing (much of which we’ve received as hand-me-downs or gifts) that is sleeveless or not knee-length. I am not sure how to find the balance between letting kids be kids and not have to worry about it–especially because I think it is important that the learn to love their bodies and, at their current young ages, learn to appreciate what their bodies can do without being overly appearance-focused–especially for my girls. Would it be better to set an example by only having clothing in their closets that fits church standards? What if my 5-year-old is wearing sleeveless dress with a shrug or sweater over it, and she chooses to take it off? Do I say something or just let her be? I am just not sure exactly how to have it play out in my parenting.

    • Paul says:

      Brittany, you raise a great point about the stories being about girls. I’ll pass that comment along to the author of The Orange Shirt. (I suspect that most of the contributors to The Friend are female, so “based on true story” experiences are also from their, er, experience. That might account for some of the bias, but it’s still a fair point to raise.)

      • Annie says:

        Yes, I’m sure that the reason there aren’t more modesty stories aimed toward men is because there hasn’t been an author who submitted a publishable story about male modesty. The great thing about the Friend is that every story has to be based on a true event–this stuff actually happens. (Although one blog that ripped apart my story implied that it was fabricated…) This can make it difficult when trying to find a certain topic that will balance out an issue sufficiently, though.

        As for the modesty question with your girls, Brittany–that’s a choice a mother is going to have to make. If I had kids, I would definitely make sure they were aware of the modesty standard long before they went into middle school. Based on what I see as YW president and what I see in stores, on TV, etc., our youth need to have their standards firmly embedded in them at a young age. But I think that teaching a child this standard can be done in various ways, and it just depends on the family and the child. (For instance…if your daughter is extremely stubborn, you may want to start teaching her about modesty now. 😉 Good luck–and thank you for your comments!

        • Paul says:

          Annie, thanks for chiming in!

        • Brittany says:

          Thank you for commenting, Annie. I appreciate your insight into how the church magazine publishing process works. It makes sense that women submit most of the stories for a children’s magazine. I think, in general, women are probably also more likely to have and share spiritual experiences about modesty because, as a culture, we may stress it more to girls, so they are more likely to be thinking about it. I have a three-year-old son also, and I think I would like him to aspire to modesty (in all senses of the word) as well, but something in me feels a little awkward using the word that way, because I feel like I grew up with it being mostly used for girls.

          My questions about the specifics were kind of rhetorical, really. It is a complex issue. I have started teaching my daughter about modesty, just not clothing standards (as the principle of modesty does not equal a set if standards). I often say something when we see a scantily clad woman on TV, pointing out that I think she could use some more clothes and that I would never feel comfortable or like I was honoring Heavenly Father if I were dressed that way (I try very hard to avoid putting judgement on the woman, instead focusing on the clothing and how I think it would make me feel). She has started talking about these things herself now. Maybe I will teach her about specific standards when I buy her new clothes for the warm weather. She will be going to school for the first time in the fall (we did “home preschool”), so it may be a good time for her to start thinking about setting a good example for her peers.

  8. Ray DeGraw says:

    Matthew asked me to comment more on the post than my short denunciation did, but I wasn’t able to get back to it for a while and felt I would need to write a counter-post of my own to do justice to what I wanted to say.

    I don’t have to write that post now. Paul just wrote it for me.

    Thanks, Paul. I will be linking to this post on my own blog at some point in the future.

  9. Heather says:

    Love it. Well, put, well said. Thank you.

  10. Ray DeGraw says:

    For what it’s worth, I think we do modesty a terrible disservice when we limit it strictly to how we dress – and not even the cost of what we wear but only how much and what parts of our bodies out clothing covers and reveals.

    How we dress is only one element of living a modest life. If comprehensive modesty is taught properly, the need to enact comprehensive rules (“hedges about the law”) fades away to a large extent.

  11. templegoer says:

    I appreciate your spirited defence of ‘The Friend’. It was interesting to see this worked through.
    I think my problem is with the use of the concept of the Holy Spirit in this. I certainly feel the Spirit for myself when I am obedient, I experience greater peace as I make good choices. But personally I rarely feel the Spirit direct me to particular choices. It confirms my good choices once I have made them.
    I know my children have had difficulties dealing with the idea that their good feelings do not belong to them but to the Holy Spirit. That can be a very damaging perception. It’s also damaging to think of the Spirit withdrawing when we make bad choices. That also can be terrifying as a concept, leaving them feeling that they have been abandoned at the very time when they need most help.
    I also know very admirable and sweet spirited women who dress in ways that I would never associate with the modesty that they show in many other areas of their lives, daughters of entirely modest parents. The sweetest parents can raise children who make their own choices.
    Whilst I think it’s right to teach an ideal with kindness, that kindness has to extend to our children’s choices. I’m aware how trying that is, but sometimes our teaching can invite our children to rebellion and confrontation. At the end of the day, there are more important things in life than our children’s sartorial choices. I find it best to turn a blind eye, ignoring bad behaviour and admiring the good. It’s just not worth endangering our relationships with our kids.

    • Ray DeGraw says:

      Amen, templegoer. I especially love your last paragraph.

      I have four daughters. Three of them are naturally modest in its comprehensive definition; one is flamboyant and less naturally modest. One is more modest in the way she dresses than the other three, and one loves stylish fashions and is built in such a way that makes it hard for some members to see her as modest no matter what she wears. (In her own words, “It’s really hard to find 32C bras!”) All of them are slightly different when it comes to how they dress, but all of them are modest in how they dress – not by the most conservative Mormon standard, but absolutely in the purest sense of the word. I have never condemned not criticized their choice of clothing, especially since it has not been extreme – and once they turn 18 and leave home, I would never dream of saying anything about what they choose to wear.

      As an aside, I believe the lowering of the minimum age for young women to serve missions will do a lot to broaden what is seen as acceptable for women to wear in the Church. The old stereotypes and attitudes won’t work with this generation, so we better get on board and define modest attire differently than we have in the past – more properly, in my opinion.

      • Paul says:

        I appreciate this thoughtful discussion. A couple of thoughts:

        1. As our children mature, we need to find ways to teach them to feel and identify the spirit. One of thoses is to help them understand how it feels when we obey — our parents, church leaders or scriptural commandments (hopefully those three are aligned). And it’s possible that our children might associate some good thoughts and feelings with the spirit that are more likely just a soothed conscience for doing what Mom and Dad said. But our children will experiment and learn over time to identify the influence of the spirit. From the perspective of the 10-year old protagonist, I don’t think attributing the promptings to the spirit is an issue at all. It’s an element of growing up in the gospel. In the story itself, the protagonist feels prompted not to try on the shirt and attributes that prompting to the Holy Ghost. It might just as well have been the Light of Christ (or its absence), but to the 10-year old I’m not sure that distinction matters as much as trusting the feeling not to proceed. There are plenty of examples of people being warned by the spirit not to do something.

        2. As for how we deal with our own children’s choices, I am an advocate of showing plenty of love to our children. The position I’ve come to, after trying several that didn’t work, is that I’d rather have my kids happily at my dining table than unhappily sitting next to me in church. When I was young, my father got after my brother all the time about his hair length. By the time I was a teenager, Dad had changed his approach and didn’t get after me so much. The latter was a much more peaceful approach.

        3. Ray, I agree with your earlier comment that modesty is more than a dress code. But I’m not convinced that it does not include a dress code. I think it’s possible to teach both the broader lesson and the dress code, as well, and I think each has a place. (Whether we’ve been successful at it is another matter.)

        • Ray says:

          I agree totally, Paul, that modesty includes a dress code. I hope nothing I have written makes anyone think otherwise.

          When dealing with clothing, at one extreme, there is the burka; at the other extreme is South Beach, FL and some beauty pageants (not nude beaches, in my opinion, since nudity is not automatically immodest). Modesty is found in the middle of those extremes – in the gray area where reasonable, modest people can disagree on the exact line.

  12. templegoer says:

    I’ve appreciated your thoughts on the issue, and I agree that it ‘s a good policy to teach our kids to attend to their instinct for good and for peace. I wish I’d had a chance to talk this through with more balanced thinkers such as yourselves earlier in my kid’s childhood. There’s a lot of fallout from these issues in many families, so much anger has been wasted. I appreciate the autonomy that is clearly part of your commenter’s and your own families lives. I think it can be hard for our children to identify their own testimony when we micro manage their lives, which was very much the approach that was recommended during our childrearing years. I have to say that there are many things I would now in retrospect choose to shield my kids from, even from the very well intended.

    • MSKeller says:

      I remember when my youngest turned 8, and we began to talk baptism. We asked him when he would like to be baptized, (his birthday is in May) – He said, “I think. . . . . . November.” We were a little curious as to what significance that had, but when asked he replied with a cheery smile, “I want to live a little first.”

      While a cute antidote, it also made it very clear to me that he knew what he was going into, he knew the choices he was making. We convinced him (gently) that September might fit better into our schedule and he acquiesced. He was baptized in September of that year, and has since served a mission and is married in the temple. I think that just that little bit of respect really helped him in his own asurity that his decisions would be respected.

      I did ok with that one. I’ve made plenty of mistakes with others, this I know.

      He was also the child who chose to wear his policeman Halloween costume to church, and sitting in sacrament meeting, I noticed. . . and busily and mortified, started picking out they yellow stripe on the blue pants I hadn’t noticed. I didn’t make it all before sacrament was done, and he left with one stripe on and one stripe off to primary. I was completely embarrassed. As the ‘bishops wife’ I was supposed to be a model of conformity and perfection, wasn’t I? Later that day, a lovely, wonderful woman put her arm around me and said, and I’ve never forgotten it’ “What a great mom you are to allow your children to make their own choices.” – Perspective, it is all about perspective.

      • Ray says:

        Your son’s comment might be one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. I’m sure I will be copying it on my personal blog at some point.

        Thanks for sharing it.

  13. Jendoop says:

    I wonder if the word “modest” is a barrier in discussing this with each other and our children. (The conversation about allowing our children their choices has been great.) Emphasizing the sacredness of our bodies is what I teach my children, hopefully helping them internalize and understand multiple church concepts such as chastity, dress and appearance, substance abuse, word of wisdom, and the list goes on. (Which they understand and observe in differently.) This can also illustrate that God’s commandments are not arbitrary, but have blessings/protection for us. Not that we always know the mind of God… I guess I’m just trying to say that gospel concepts are interconnected and we can teach them as such, not a single commandment to be obeyed via threat, intimidation, peer pressure or guilt. It helped me with the concept anyway.

  14. Paul says:

    Jen, I think your integrated approach is spot on.

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