What is Modesty?

[ 22 ] Comments

by RI Editors


For our forum discussion today we’d like to know your opinion on this question submitted by Cowgirl:

What is modesty and, more to the point, how can we decide if a particular hairstyle, piece of clothing, or grooming practice is modest?

I am trying to teach my daughter. Having been raised in the church, the only thing I have to go on is, “cover specific body parts,” and, “only wear one pair of earrings.” I’d like to teach her something better than that.

I would like for her to consider what her appearance communicates to other people in our culture but that is too arbitrary a basis to pin everything on, especially as she moves between a culture at church and a culture at school. I’d like for her to consider why she wants to wear a particular item and how she expects to feel in it, but that also seems insufficient. So if you were considering a hairstyle or a piercing or a piece of clothing, how would you determine whether or not it is modest?


22 Responses to What is Modesty?

  1. Jenn says:

    To me modesty is only indirectly tied to what you wear. It’s much more about self-respect and wanting to convey the right message to the world about who you are. There are situations where a summer dress would come off as informal, disrespectful, or too revealing, and other situations where it’s perfectly acceptable- no one would see it and think the wearer didn’t know how to respect her body. Dress for the occasion, hold a higher standard, be aware of what messages your appearance sends.
    When we discuss modesty in my house, it is never “which skin is acceptable/unacceptable to show?” but rather “respect yourself and your body, and let your clothing tell the world that you do. Will my appearance send the right message about how I view myself?”

    • SilverRain says:

      I find it ironic that we cross-posted. Though I once thought similarly, my viewpoint on it has changed to almost the opposite stance. To be modest, we shouldn’t obsess so much about what messages our appearance sends. We should stop worrying about that, stop worrying so much about selling ourselves, and just get to work doing the Good Work.

    • abdou says:

      Jenn.well done

  2. SilverRain says:

    I just wrote a post about being in that exact same position, and the conclusions I came to. I won’t burden the comments with a summary when you can just read it there….

  3. I first thought of a broader definition. Modesty does not want to attract undue attention to itself. It wants to ensure that sufficient attention is given to the Divine. So it works to keep out of Its way. Trying to to serve as a distraction.

  4. *to not serve as a distraction

  5. Sue woodbury says:

    For me, modesty is so much more than sleeves and cleavage. Modesty is a character trait. When we are modest people we are not attempting to draw attention to ourselves in any way be it through our clothing ( extreme or revealing) or our actions, vocabulary or interests. Modest people speak respectfully and are not boisterous. They show restraint in their actions as well as their clothing. They have personal integrity and display themselves in a manner that reflects their commitment and alignment to Gods will. Modesty allows one to be a window into our soul and not a mirror of society. It is a true reflection of who we truly are. And, by the way, not an issue only for the youth. Nor does this life style of quiet restraint mean a lack of individuality or personality. To the contrary, when we live modestly the real US shows and not just the outward us. I would consider the leaders of the church, male and female, truly modest people because I could describe who they are much easier than how they look or dress. Modesty in all aspects of our life requires constant introspection. Counseling our daughters on the length of their skirts is better understood, I believe, in the context of living our lives dedicated to alignment with God’s will as a family…living modestly wirin our means, charity to others, honesty in our dealings with others, sustaining of church leaders… It is not an arbitrary topic but an intertwined part of our lives as stewards of the gospel. It is an honest reflection of our personal integrity and desire to have no wedges between us and our Lord. Just my thoughts

  6. Bonnie says:

    The Savior modeled this (hee hee) when he said, in response to someone calling him Good Master, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.” Modesty extends to all of our praises regarding appearance. I was thinking on Sunday during our RS lesson on perfection about Samuel and David. Samuel recorded the inspiration the Lord gave him with these words: “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him.”

    I think we often think that that means that anything goes as long as we are good inside. But the ability to discipline ourselves on the outside and the inside to a love of God is the focus. We are tempted to be respecters of persons in all of our behaviors, and it’s knee-jerk. People who are successful by the world’s standards are considered more likely to be successful by the Lord’s, and vice versa. The Lord was telling Samuel that you can’t judge a person without the spirit, because the spirit is the only way to see someone.

    There are two people involved in this whole modesty thing, I think. There is the person who demonstrates submission to what are likely fairly arbitrary guidelines appropriate to culture, and there is the person who is either distracted by appearances or not. Since the gospel is about connection, not about our personal experience of our own perfection, we are best assisted when we deal with each other in love. If I love you, I’m not going to go out of my way to do something that makes you have to do a double take and work to be charitable, and I’m also going to be charitable in my own views.

    I love Sue’s idea that modesty is a life of quiet restraint, and that sometimes means not doing something that we could – interesting thought. In the end, only God matters, and everything we might be immodest about is only mortal.

  7. Paul says:

    My youngest daughter is 12, and we have this conversation in our home a lot these days. Most of my children have been modest by nature. They are all rather introverted and shy, and I think that contributes to a natural desire on their part not to draw attention to themselves. Their parents (my lovely wife and I) hopefully model modest behavior (in attitude, as well as in dress — great discussion, Sue).

    One might think of the antithesis of modesty as pride — what President Benson called enmity for God and His teachings.

    When it comes to clothing, here is the message as a father that I have tried to communicate to my children:

    1. You are a child of God. Honor yourself and you honor Him who created you.
    2. You are responsible for your own thoughts and actions, not others’. I have told my daughters they are not the protectors of virtuous thoughts in young men.
    3. How you think about others matters. I’ve taught both my sons and daughters that how they see someone else is important; they ought to consider others as children of God, not as objects for their pleasure, fantasy, etc.
    4. Although you cannot control how others will think of you, and you are not responsible for that, you have a say in what impression you make. If you want to be seen as a child of God who honors Him, you can present yourself that way. If you want to be objectified by others, you can present yourself in that way, too.
    5. I have encouraged my children to look forward to the temple as they make clothing choices. (We never bought sleeveless sundresses for our little girls or sleeveless shirts for our little boys, but I don’t mind it if other parents do. Our little ones all wore shorter-than-temple-standard shorts as children.)

    My kids have sometimes agreed with me and sometimes not. Two of my boys (when teens)went through a couple of years with blue and pink hair. One got a piercing against my advice, and I was thrilled when the ensuing infection forced him to remove it. One adult son sports many tattoos, but has honored his mother’s request not to put her name (or any of ours) in his tattoos.

  8. John Mansfield says:

    The point of euphemisms is to express a point without being too blunt about it. If the expression chosen, such as “modesty,” didn’t have a broader meaning than it couldn’t serve as a euphemism. Unfortunately, gracious language confuses some for whom more direct language is needed.

  9. Wahmie says:

    I think the way a lot of people use modesty is incorrect. The definition says modesty is a noun (rather than the adjective it is frequently used as) and 1. The quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities. 2. The quality of being relatively moderate, limited, or small in amount, rate, or level.
    Most people who know me would consider my wardrobe very modest. Sleeves, below the knee, layers when needed, etc. But 1/4 of my hair is blue. And last month it was pink. And next month it’ll be purple.

    Blue hair is not “unassuming or moderate”. I have a temple recommend and visit often.

    I also have a handful of daughters and a few boys in my home, too (not all mine). One of my daughters is 6 and is so tall she has to wear a size 10 in girls. Finding clothing for her that both fits and conveys what type of person she is is impossible unless she wears sweatpants (NOT her style!). I don’t want her looking (to quote a friend) “like a slut”.

    Thank goodness I can sew!

    My goal with my daughters is to teach them to respect their bodies. Beyond that, I want them to be able to make decisions and learn what modesty means to them. My job is to teach, but it is their job to learn.

    • Paul says:

      In fairness, “modesty” is a noun. “Modest” is an adjective. And it’s ok to use modest as an adjective.

      The fourth definition my my copy of the Oxford American Dictionary reads, “4. (of a woman) showing regard for conventional decenicies in dress or behavior.”

      It’s interesting to me that the dictionary makes that sexist distinction (it’s a 1980 edition, so maybe in 30+ years it’s been updated). The first three definitions are similar to the two you list.

      As I commented, I agree that modesty is mostly about attitude; modesty in dress will follow a modest attitude. And yet, ‘modest’ dress need not be cookie-cutter, nor must it be dowdy.

      When I was a bishop, my own sons were in their blue hair stage, and I wrestled with whether they should pass the sacrament or not. They were teachers, not deacons, and so they could prepare the sacrament despite their hair color without calling undue attention to themselves. At least one member of the ward epxressed concern to one of my counselors that my boys were even preparing. One of them did baptisms in the temple with his blue hair. The only concern the worker raised was whether the dye would come off in the font (I assured him it wouldn’t, and was glad it didn’t). I suspect today it would be tougher to have a boy with blue hair do baptisms. I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other; I can see why the temple might exclude someone for that reason, but I can see value in allowing them to participate, too.

  10. Brittany says:

    I hope to teach my children the doctrines that they are children of God created in the image of their Heavenly Parents and their bodies have been compared to temples. I think when making choices about clothing/accessories/hairstyes should be made with those principles in mind. Does it honor the image of God and the sacredness of the body? Does it function as flowers planted on the temple grounds or grafiti on it’s walls? Does this particular item you are thinking about purchasing (or hairstyle you are considering getting, or whatever) give you confidence and empower you or does it cause you to feel self-conscious (either the embarrassed self-conscious OR the vain self-consious) or make you feel vulnerable or exposed?

    Just because we should think about these things doesn’t mean we should obsess about them, though. I remember hearing as a youth (I think it was at EFY) something like, “Do you spend as much time getting ready for the day spiritually as you do physically?”–I think that is a good thing to think about. It is easy to get caught up in the vanity of the world. I love the media literacy work the ladies at Beauty Redefined are doing, and plan to share much of what I’ve learned from them with my children when it is appropriate.

    • Wahmie says:

      Not to purposefully throw a wrench in things, but someone I know recently posted about his neatly trimmed beard and how he’d be asked to shave it off if he was ever called to the bishopric. His beard certainly puts him more in the “image of God” than a clean shaven face and yet it could be “the thing” that keeps him from being called to serve in a different capacity than he currently serves in.

      In this case, his choice of “hairstyle” or grooming holds a different standard between what we believe Heavenly Father and Jesus have (from descriptions of prophets and Joseph Smith) and what is currently considered appropriate.

      And I promise we’re not apostate! (Blue hair on one and a beard on the other!) We’re actually pretty conservative in so many ways!! My brightly dyed hair (it’s the bottom portion near my neck and is only visible when my hair is up or braided) is the first step in my mid-life crisis and probably the most drastic thing I’ve ever done in my life.

      • Paul says:

        I think there’s a difference between a dress code and modesty.

        It’s fine for organizations to impose dress codes, even the church. Our missionaries have a dress code. BYU students have a dress code. I have no problem with that. Or even with the church’s giving their employees a dress code.

        When I worked in the temple, I did not have a beard. (I did have one both times I served as bishop, though I wonder if things have changed in the last decade…nothing official, of course…) If I were asked to, I would happily shave it again.

        I believe a dress code is there to satisfy the weakest among us who would otherwise be distracted, and I’m happy to abide by the dress code to help my fellow saints to worship in peace.

        But, as you suggest in your earlier comment, none of those things speak to worthiness. Frankly, neither does wearing a dress or sleeves that are too short. At least it doesn’t give anyone else license to judge another, period.

  11. Cowgirl says:

    I’m a little amused by the variety of answers. If this is the spectrum of opinions from such a small sample, probably skewed a bit toward homogeneity, then its no wonder I don’t feel like I get a straight answer in Sunday School! So many of these answers have their appeal but are a bit contradictory.

    To paraphrase: Be mindful of how you appear to others but don’t focus on appearance. Beautify (like you would the temple) to show who you are but don’t draw attention to yourself. Perhaps it will take a few years and some trial and error for my daughter and I to figure this out. 🙂

    By the way, since it was mentioned my husband used to have a ponytail but was asked by a member of the Stake Presidency to cut it off when he joined the bishopric on the grounds that it violates missionary grooming standards. He did but then grew a beard which also violates missionary grooming standards. A similar beard is worn by a counselor in another bishopric in our town (there’s only three bishoprics so I’m pretty familiar with all of them). No one has said anything about it. I think the bishopric grooming rules are a local Stake Presidency thing.

    • Bonnie says:

      I think the variety of answers stems from the fact that the boundaries of dress and grooming are cultural rather than doctrinal. As with most cultural practices, they are often policy, and often founded in that age’s understanding of doctrine. It is going to be regional, and it is going to be susceptible to the guidelines laid out by local ward and stake leadership. That’s a huge part of our lay church, and it serves in great measure to assist in our perfection. Much about our faith is personally worked out, and despite feelings to the contrary, we aren’t really a prescriptive faith. Sometimes I think the best work on our souls is done as we negotiate our relationships with those we lead, those we lead with, and those who lead us. It frustrates many people that for so many things, there is not one right answer to the question; the important thing is the process we go about to answer the question. Trial and error is the perfect way to describe a wholeheckofalot of the faith!

  12. Ray says:

    Modesty means moderation – broadly, about lots of things, only one of which is how we dress. Immodesty, therefore, means extremism. Not drawing attention to one’s self unduly is an example of modesty – again, in many practical ways; blending completely into the background, however, or homogenizing ourselves completely is an example of extreme immodesty in the other direction.

    The best examples of immodesty in terms of clothing are South Beach and the Taliban. In that sense, Mormons as a group are modest in how we dress – but, generally speaking, our collective obsession with modesty in how we dress to the near exclusion of modesty in any other way makes us immodest in the purest sense of the word.

    • Liz C says:

      Ray, I like that last bit, a lot! It’s an attitude I’ve seen more and more while living in the “Mormon Corridor,” and it’s not among my favorite things about the church.

      I can go for DAYS on modest/modesty… I think my most concise summation is that I only have stewardship over my own version of modest/modesty, and shouldn’t be using my own measure as a means to assume things about others. I try to help my kids learn to have a modest heart (which has nothing to do with clothing), and how to apply that in their lives (which might, but generally doesn’t, have anything to do with clothing.)

      I also like Bonnie’s comment about culture/region. We’ve been thrown into conflict with quite a few local/regional oddities as it comes to clothing, specifically, and there have been unfortunate consequences that don’t please me at all; I’m trying to develop a better sense of forgiveness over the situations. I get really tired of my little girls being criticized for wearing modest, childlike sundresses in the summer, or good kids being turned away from associating with other good kids at a dance because they don’t own dress shoes (clean trainers are not allowed in our youth dances, period. Like I said, I’m *working* on the forgiveness parts. It’s hard.)

      One thing that’s been helping is learning to draw boundaries on what leadership can reasonably request I do, and my own attitude in seeking clarification and confirmation from the Lord–and then having a peaceful, calm heart if I need to let a leader know that they’ve overstepped, and I won’t be acquiescing, but that I act without malice. (I’ve come to find out that a lot of folks don’t really like hearing that. It upsets their little (as in, small and overly-controlling) feelings. I’m learning to be okay with that. And obviously, still working on my own anger levels. 🙂 )

      On beards: I recall when my dad was called into a bishopric, and the stake president requested he shave. Dad politely explained that he worked in a building that *warmed up* to 20 below zero during the day, and his beard was a major aspect of his physical safety, and it would not be shaved between September and June. The stake president fussed, Dad held a polite line on his own personal safety, and let him know that he understood and held no hard feelings if the stake president felt he couldn’t extend the call because of this… Dad was in that bishopric, and many others, for a long time.

      Okay, back on topic: for me, “modest” means I live within the resources at my disposal, look for ways to stretch those resources to help others, carry myself with a generous heart, knowing that all my blessings and resources come from God, comport myself with kindness, compassion, and reverence for life, and try my best to be a disciple. It’s my modest undertaking to raise kids who do the same.

      I’m confident that if they can internalize the attributes of a modest, loving, disciple’s heart, their outward actions and choices will reflect that. It will probably carry through into behavioral choices that reflect a deep respect for themselves and others. So far, so good.

      Wearing cut-offs and a tank top to church, because that’s what you have available, and you want to be in church? Come sit by me. We’ll have modest hearts together, and I don’t care what either of us is wearing.

  13. Cowgirl says:

    I know I asked this question a long time ago, but then I was traveling for a month and I like to chew on things for awhile anyway. I appreciated the many answers. They helped me as I considered modesty. Strangely enough, I finally turned to the Word of Wisdom for guidance on this topic. For anyone who is interested, I wrote down the result of my studies.


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