Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Modesty Question--a really long post.

I've not been writing everything I'm thinking lately because the shift key on my computer is going out and that annoys me so much when I'm writing that I just don't do it more often than not.

Anyway, this one issue I kept trying to Not Write About, but I can't let it go, so I'm going to write about it.

The latest "in" complaint coming from certain segments of the population is to condemn the church for "the way they teach modesty." And this, apparently consists entirely and exclusively of teaching girls (only--not boys) that they have to cover their bodies so that boys don't have bad thoughts, and that there are arbitrary lines drawn on our bodies and crossing those lines is being immodest. What's wrong with these teachings, according to those who are complaining? They say that boys should take responsibility for their thoughts--if they see a girl and have bad thoughts, it's their own fault; and that arbitrary lines lead people to judge and condemn others unfairly--especially children--and that is bullying and not a good idea; and, finally, that teaching girls to cover their bodies introduces them to sexuality far too early and trains them to see themselves as sexual objects rather than people.

As usual, I don't disagree with everything they are saying.

But the whole thing really grates on me. I don't even know where to start, there's so much here that's close but not quite right.

First of all, while I have heard both arbitrary lines and dress so boys don't have bad thoughts in church, I've never heard them taught as canon. It's a mistake to assume that because culturally in Utah those things are taught or presented in a particular way, that it's endorsed by--or dictated by--"the church." Everything in the church is done by lay teachers. What they say, they heard before more often than not. When they teach stupid or false things, like "chocolate is against the word of wisdom" or "you can't feel the Spirit in a messy house" or "If you show your upper arms, that's immodest," it should be pointed out--in an appropriate way--that those things are not doctrine. It should not be assumed that every word that slips out of someone's mouth in a meeting is 'the way the Church teaches_______'.  It might be the way people in the church have taught whatever it is, but it's likely not The Church. I hear people say (and, quite frankly, I have said) well-intentioned but flawed (and sometimes outright dumb) things in church all the time--ever hear someone say that Alma compared faith to a seed? Yeah--he never said that. It doesn't mean the church as a whole is teaching faith wrong, even if there are pervasive errors that get repeated often.

Not only do I take issue with the "how the church teaches" part, I also take issue with the "teaches modesty" part. Personally, I find their definition of 'how modesty is taught in church' to be a gross oversimplification.

For example, boys are taught modesty, too. My husband and brothers assure me of this. And, they have informed me, never are boys told that it's the girls' fault if they have bad thoughts. They are taught that they are responsible for themselves and shouldn't indulge in sin and blame it on other people. They are also taught that they are human and are wired to notice women's bodies, and taught to not dwell on the bad thoughts that come. And, if I'm not mistaken, they are taught to respect girls as daughters of God, not treat them as fresh meat, even if the girls act like it.

When I was a teenager, looking at boys' bodies did nothing to me. Nothing. I was totally clueless that boys seeing my body might possibly do anything to them. Informing innocent girls that what they wear can have an effect on boys is not giving the girls responsibility for the boys' thoughts. Actually, it is the boys own fault if they dwell on bad thoughts or stare at half-naked girls, but seeing half-naked girls in the pews is going to give any hormonal teenage boy trouble focusing on the sacrament. Sure, the idea shouldn't be the entirety of modesty teaching, and it's not the girls' fault if the boys are staring, but it's fair to warn the girls that when boys see their cleavage, there's a good chance the boys are not thinking about what the girls are saying. It is not fair to give girls responsibility for the boys' righteousness or lack thereof, but it's fair to warn them that boys are different from girls, and there might be things going on that they hadn't considered. And yes, there are girls that are _that_ innocent in church. Keeping boys' thoughts clean is not the reason we girls should choose modesty (I agree that that is a dumb way of teaching it--but I've never once heard it taught that way). But mentioning men and women are different and that we should treat each other with respect--including not egging on the boys, trying to manipulate or exert control over them using sexuality, "teasing" them with immodest dress or behavior, or trying to get them to think of women as sex objects or body parts on purpose--is a fair thing to teach, just like teaching the men to focus on a girl's face and ideas and be sensitive to her emotions is a fair thing to teach.

As for the arbitrary lines, thing...well, God has drawn arbitrary lines for temple-going adults, so I have a hard time saying all arbitrary lines are bad. I do think that where the lines are taught for children should be up to the parents and kids to draw, not necessarily the teachers, but it's hard to argue that women should be allowed to wear anything at any time and that's okay because God made it clear that He prefers we cover our bodies--men and women--and he drew lines.

And if children are judging and bullying based on someone not 'being modest' according to these arbitrary lines, perhaps the right answer is not to abolish the lines, but teach the children to have charity. We don't throw out the standards to avoid offending people--we still say tobacco is against the Word of Wisdom, for example, even when that is sometimes very awkward, especially outside of Utah--but it is not our place to judge other people based on our own standards or the church's, and, in fact the Church has repeatedly asked us not to try to force others to follow our personal standards.

And, finally, I have never met a little girl who, introduced to the idea that her body is a special gift from Heavenly Father and it's good to keep it protected and covered modestly, immediately thinks about sex. Seriously. If their parents are teaching them about their bodies and modesty in a sexualized way, the parents have a problem, not the church. Also, we do have bodies. While I am so very, very opposed to all the body-hate garbage out there, and I think the things little girls learn from the media and their friends about their bodies are justification all by themselves for getting rid of all media and homeschooling, I don't think it's fair to say to women, "you exist entirely in your own mind. Your body is nothing." Our bodies are part of us. Teaching girls to take good care of that part and treat it like the sacred gift it is is not a bad or sexualizing thing. That doesn't turn us into objects. Modesty is about so much more than maintaining sexual purity and clean thoughts, and I never once heard it taught otherwise.

So, with all of that, there are a few more things that bother me about the discussion. One is that the women who are talking about this stuff are not giving a positive alternative. I keep watching for it, and I have seen here and there hints of it, but most of them instead of saying, 'fix this problem--here's one way to do it' seem to be saying, 'You're destroying people by teaching modesty. Stop teaching it.' As if church should be a slut walk, where we can wear anything we want and insist that people respect us anyway. (If you haven't heard of a slut walk, it's a parade of women dressed as prostitutes to drive home the point that dressing immodestly is not an invitation for sexual harassment, abuse, or rape.) The women who are going around spouting all this stuff do not seem to be in favor of teaching modesty at all. I might be wrong about that, but if so, they should watch how they are presenting themselves and make it more clear.

While there are things that need to be fixed (not making victims feel responsible for their abuse is a big deal, for example), you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Modesty is an important thing to teach.

For one thing, how we dress influences our feelings about ourselves. If we dress sexy and slutty, we are more likely to feel and therefore act immodestly (yes, most of the people in the church that I know do actually comprehend that immodesty reaches far beyond simply hemlines and how tight a shirt is). And that will affect our choices and how we feel about ourselves. The biggest danger is not the media or our peers objectifying us because of how we look--the danger is we, ourselves, objectifying us. And modest dressing actually helps us not treat ourselves as though our only value is as a warm, sexy body. It can help us see ourselves as children of God, and to feel like that.

Also, as much as everyone is opposed to everyone judging each other based on what we wear, it does happen. Why do you think they ask missionaries to wear business clothing? Or have everyone wear essentially the same thing in the temple? What we have on and what we see others wearing affects our vision.  And, in fact, it can help protect our teenagers and children if they are able to identify what is modest (behavior and clothing) because what other people wear gives us a hint about the kind of person we're interacting with. Why else would gang members wear similar clothing? While it's wrong to condemn, judge, and bully people for their clothing choices, it's also a quick indicator of what kind of person we're looking at--are they someone we should get to know better, or are they someone likely to get us into trouble?

And it's important for people to know that other people are looking at them and making snap judgments based on their appearance. Whether that is right or wrong, it's real. And the guys in school looking for good, intellectual conversation are going to pick out different girls from the crowd than the guys looking to get laid--primarily, initially, by a girls' appearance. So if a girl or guy wants to be taken seriously, it behooves her or him to dress modestly, whether or not she or he thinks it's a good idea to judge people by their appearance instead of their insides. If a girl wants to attract the right kinds of friends, she has to choose to cover her body more because the right kinds of friends are doing likewise. You cannot dress like a slut and attract a nice, righteous boyfriend, even if you try to feel and act modestly in your immodest clothes (which is harder than feeling and acting modestly in modest clothing).

I realize people are opposed to this--they want all people to be judged by their hearts and minds. But we can't see people's hearts and minds, so we tend to judge by what we do see. Our clothes and appearance are an advertisement for our hearts and minds, and I can't see that any amount of counter programming is going to change that. Having a slut walk is not an effective way of getting people to take women seriously. So while we teach our kids to not judge, we also have to teach them to judge and be judged. It's totally unfair, but totally real.

The clothes might not make the man, but they do influence how he feels about himself and others, and how others feel about him, what they expect from him, etc.

There is a great deal of nuance in the modesty issue--and the way it's being taught in a lot of wards and classes--that we miss by zoning in on this one aspect of the teaching. Can that aspect be taught better? Yes. Absolutely. But the discussion is not talking about how to do better.

Once again, I don't get the idea that the people involved in this have any respect for men or the reality of male-ness, even while they are demanding that men comprehend and respect women and female-ness. They seem to assume that the male experience of mortality is identical to the female experience (or ought to be), and if it isn't, the men are just plain stupid and choosing to be male. (It's the female version of the male disdain for women's emotionalism.)

So, now I take a breath, and then...

to the real issue I have.

I can't stand to read this stuff any more. I'm tired of hearing that God obviously is inept unless his wife is holding his hand (so clearly when we read the word 'god' we're reading about a calling held jointly by a man and his wife). Tired of hearing that the church is run by stuffy old men who just don't get it. Tired of hearing that women need the priesthood because the men can't handle it. Or that women don't need the priesthood per se but just want to be allowed to have those callings. Tired of hearing that if women were in charge of the church, nobody would ever get offended (hahaha! really?). Tired of hearing this weird revisionist view of history that isn't backed up by the evidence when it's all fully considered.  Tired of hearing that if  you look at the role of the Holy Ghost, it becomes clear that the Holy Ghost is a woman (because apparently these people really believe that men are incapable of teaching, comforting, guiding, being gentle, or understanding people's pain.). Tired of this horrible, cruel disdain for men which they claim they don't have but which their words and ideas reveal.  Tired of their power grabs, their insistence that God can do nothing without our permission, tired of reading again and again doctrines that don't make sense when you carry them to their logical conclusions. Tired of people doing deeply offensive things (like ordaining a woman to the priesthood and posting the video on YouTube) to prove some kind of a point. Tired of people saying things like, "I just can't believe..." as if belief is something that happens to you instead of a choice (I don't actually care if they choose not to believe--but presenting it as if there is no choice in the matter bothers me for some reason). Tired of people wresting incredible distortions out of the scriptures when, if they would just read them, they are perfectly clear and make sense (makes me want to ask them to try applying Occam's Razor to the scriptures--perhaps the simplest explanation actually is the right one even if you don't like it?--even though I realize it's the Spirit they should be applying to the scriptures). Tired of hearing people's explanations of what God is going to do in the future because they simply do not understand what He's doing now (and assume, therefore, that God must be wrong instead of entertaining the idea that perhaps we humans are incapable of understanding everything now).  And, most of all, tired of these ideas being presented in a way that is not discussion- or faith-oriented, but partisan politicking and demeaning to those who don't agree.

When I hear about the stupid stuff people do--like male BYU law school students refusing to work with female students because "they took a spot meant for a man who will have to support his family" or "it's not righteous to work with women professionally--I might have an affair"--I understand the outrage. I'm totally opposed to stupidity. Totally, categorically opposed to false doctrine being taught in the church, especially to the children and youth and new members. Totally opposed to women being treated as second class citizens, being told to stay with abusive men, being denied blessings because they got divorced from a guy who molested their kids. There are real issues out there that need to be dealt with--and that are getting dealt with. I am absolutely in favor of people standing up for truth and right and goodness and fairness and all of that.

And I'm also in favor of people being nice because we all make mistakes and get to learn slowly. I certainly have made my own share of mistakes--even while teaching--in my life. Like Elder Holland said--God is okay working with imperfect people, so maybe we should be, too.

But I'm tired of the paradigm I'm seeing among smart people all around me. It's a whole lot of eye rolling, and a whole lot of assuming whatever comes out of SLC is wrong and oppressive even before they consider what was said--or even hear all of it. It's a whole lot of looking for the mistakes before you look for the truth. I know how this works--I do it in sacrament meetings any time I haven't slept enough and go to church anyway. I just have these glasses on that say 'it's all lies, everyone is stupid, and they're going to teach false doctrine'--and so that's what I see. More than once I've started dissecting a quote to show how absolutely stupid it is before it's even done, and then I discover it was Joseph Smith or President Hinckley who said it, and I have to go back and reconsider--perhaps I should have listened first?

It's that paradigm--that set of glasses, so to speak--that I'm most tired of. And I can't write a rebuttal argument to every thing people say that I think is misguided or too limited or from that paradigm. I'm not even sure I should. It might just add to the partisanship that this sister suggests is a problem:

It doesn't mean I won't try again. Somehow, I get caught up in it all.

But from now on, if I know beforehand that an article was published on certain websites, I'm going to skip it. Even if it's hard for me to put my finger right on, I just can't take any more of that attitude.

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