Several months ago, a bunch of blog posts about modesty were going viral all over my facebook newsfeed. Everyone wanted to get their two cents in on the issue. I read a lot of posts because I wanted to see other perspectives, and answer the burning question: why? My oldest has asked "why?" about modesty since she was eight years old, and I never felt like I had an adequate answer. But I discovered an interesting thing as I read multiple blog posts on the subject: no one else did, either.
There were posts that were quoted texts from meetings where bishops or stake presidents had been counseling youth that had some good points in them. And then there were comments and counter-posts indicating that the original posts had missed the mark. I felt that the commenters were also right. Some commenters were even offended, crying sexism and hypocrisy over the way other bloggers stated their positions. And they all had their points. I even made an attempt at organizing a post in my own mind about the whys, but never got very far. Finally, I asked. Why, Heavenly Father, does modesty matter?
I was a little surprised by the answer I got. It was so simple (as are most of the answers I get when I ask): modesty is important because it helps us to be closer to God. When we dress modestly, we are not focused on the world: fashion, body image, being sexy. It frees the mind to focus on higher things. It allows us to see true beauty instead of getting mired in our "natural man" responses (see Mosiah 3:19).
Don't get me wrong. Man and woman and the bodies we all inhabit are beautiful--the crowning creations of our Father in Heaven. But as Mosiah 3:19 tells us, we are dual beings. We all have within us the seed of Divinity, but we are mortals and subject to the baseness of mortality. Our goal is to overcome that. But we can't if we are steeping ourselves in it. Modesty is a way of keeping out thoughts higher and living a little closer to God. So many of the "dos and don'ts" in the church are exactly that--ways of keeping us closer to God--but are misconstrued as being yet another commandment. It can make it seem like we have commandments for the sake of commandments. But that is not the case. As the Lord tells us in Isaiah 55:9, "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." If we truly want to become like God, then this gives us an opportunity to practice keeping our thoughts on a higher plane.
I reached one other conclusion about modesty, particularly about the way it is taught to the youth (and especially young women). The reasons that are given about why it is important to be modest often miss the mark. They are not the reasons to be modest, they are the benefits of being modest. One of the benefits of being modest is that it helps us to stay chaste. But when youth--young women in particular, since that is where the focus seems to fall--are told that they need to dress modestly so that they can avoid pre-marital sex, it puts the burden of sexual purity entirely on the girls. "Girls, don't dress immodestly, or boys will see you as objects and be after only one thing." It may be partly true and well intended, but does that mean that a girl who is dressed "immodestly" is asking for sex? And on the flip side, what about the modestly-dressed girl who finds herself a victim of rape? Wasn't modesty supposed to be a protection against such a thing? When sexual purity is touted as the reason for being modest, there are a host of associated (and incorrect) conclusions that can be drawn.
Here are some of the other benefits of modesty I came up with:
Helps keep our thoughts pure
Helps us support others in keeping their thoughts pure (I do think it's an important way that young women can support young men in honoring their priesthood)
Takes our focus off the things of the world: fashion, body image, coarse language, material possesions (we often associate modesty only with dress, but it's more of a state of mind than a state of dress. See the definition of modest here)
Prepares youth for keeping temple covenants
Allows the Spirit to be present more abundantly in our lives
Read about Dress and Appearance in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet.