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An Immodest Proposal

I didn’t expect to hear about topless teens when I sat down in the pew that day. A missionary had returned from a mission to somewhere in the South Pacific. He spoke in church and devoted a large portion of his talk to chastising the young women where he served.

School graduations there require traditional attire. Traditional attire meant being topless for the women. The missionaries exhorted the young women to refuse to honor the tradition by dressing more modestly for their graduation. They pleaded with the girls to observe Heavenly Father’s standard for modesty. They reminded them how sinful it was to appear in public without covering their breasts.

The young women attended the ceremony in traditional attire despite the missionaries’ exhortations, and the speaker condemned the young women for bowing to custom and social pressure instead of following the word of God.

His remarks got me thinking.

After I stopped daydreaming about topless young women in grass skirts (thanks, Elder), I wondered: what exactly is the true standard for modest attire?

The talk reminded me of my own missionary service. I learned soon after I arrived in my first area that it was forbidden for missionaries to be in Seneca Falls during the summertime women’s rights parade. It didn’t matter that I arrived as the last of the autumn color was fading from the trees, that I would probably leave before I had a chance to violate the taboo. The other missionaries told me anyway, taking some relish in warning me that all of Seneca Falls was verboten during the parade because female participants often went topless.

It was apparently legal in the state of New York for women to go topless just like men. At least prosecutors refused to try cases. The missionaries also shared folklore with that topless sunbathers could be found at the top of Cobbs Hill in Rochester. Oh the devilish controversy these stories conjured in this young missionary’s heart! I heard stories of errant P-day activities at the top of Cobbs Hill, but I studiously avoided participation. That’s not to say that I didn’t want to.

The mission leaders forbid missionaries from these areas because the wanted to preserve us from the taint of sexual temptation. Randy young men can be hard to control, especially when their leaders remove all sexual outlets. The leaders expect the young missionaries to lead exceptionally celibate lives at the peak of their sexual drive. Personally, I felt like a boiler with a red-lined pressure guage. Any weakness could cause the whole thing to explode. Seeing topless women could be the beginning of the end.

As I thought about my missionary experiences, I could think of no particular reason that men and women shouldn’t be held to the same standards of modesty. Why should women’s chests be so much more sexually charged than men’s?

Many modern members of the LDS church will point to the temple garment as God’s standard of modesty: the limits of the garments define the minimum standard for modesty. My primary problem with this idea has always been that the garment has changed over the years. It originally covered down to the ankles and wrists and up to the neck. Today’s garment covers a few inches below the shoulder and down to the knee, and plunges quite low below the neck. If the garment is God’s standard, he seems to have changed his mind to suit changing fashions in the Western world. Would God make the garment even more abbreviated in the future?

Also, assuming there is an absolute standard for how well clothing should cover our nakedness, what happens if we shorten clothing even a little bit I wondered. If my shorts should cover my knees, what if I shorten them just a nanometer? (A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers) Surely a nanometer can’t make a perceptible difference in modesty. Surely shorts that reveal 1 nanometer of my knees are still modest. But if I can reveal 1 nanometer, why can’t I reveal 2? That’s still not enough to perceive. If 2, why not 3? Pretty soon, the assumed absolute standard doesn’t seem so absolute anymore. It seems downright subjective. I began to suspect the very idea of an absolute standard for modesty. Modesty came down to nothing more than an “I know it when I see it” test.

So if modesty is subjective, then whose standards did the LDS church preach? Did God set these changeable, hazy standards? It seemed like pretty sloppy work for a perfect God. Perhaps God just expects us to follow the standards of modesty for our own time and place. That made more sense to me. If the idea is to avoid titillating each other with naked flesh, then different cultures have different thresholds for titillation. An African man wouldn’t give any special attention to a bare chested woman. A Muslim might feel aroused by the sight of a woman’s hair.

Wasn’t the missionary just exporting his own cultural mores to those young women in the guise of serving God? Maybe the problem was that the missionary found the idea of topless young women titillating. The problem arose because of his cultural expectations, not because of the attire of the young women. He was the visitor. He failed to adapt instead expecting them to conform to an absolute standard that didn’t exist. He believed himself to be God’s emissary come to save the benighted natives from their lascivious ways.

I became a lot more forgiving of other culture’s standards of modesty after that missionary’s talk. No standard of modesty is more justifiable than another.

I would be remiss if I finished this post without providing photos and videos of topless women in New York.

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  1. mel said,

    July 11, 2007 @ 7:12 pm

    Well, let me start by saying thanks. I was in the Munich mission and public nudity and particularly nude billboard advertising were a constant threat to the “purity” of my thoughts. It’s no wonder that western religion has placed woman in collusion with the serpent as threats to male salvation. I was taught to think otherwise but now I believe that if the “natural man is an enemy to god” it’s only because god is unnatural. Pity the fool who would rather have such god than the natural world.

    Now I’m going back to watching Daisy Duke with no guilt whatsoever.

  2. Stephen Merino said,

    July 11, 2007 @ 7:44 pm

    Interesting post. I have thought a lot about this. You know, it’s not just Mormons who have confused socially constructed cultural norms with divine mandates. Religious folks in our country seem to be especially susceptible to it. Your story about the missionary in the South Pacific was interesting and instructive. Now, not all cultural traditions and practices are good, and I’m not about to judge their topless tradition. But, it is their tradition, and it was important enough that young women (church members?) wanted to do it, so it was probably harmless in reality. Nudity and sexuality is all about context and conditioning. Unfortunately, we have both kind of screwed up in our culture, and particularly in Mormon culture.

    I have heard other missionary stories. I heard from a missionary who had served in France that many women went topless at a ward activity on the beach. Now, it is not sexual at all in that context. Many beaches are topless in Europe. I see nothing wrong with it if latter-day saints in France don’t.

    Your comments about the garment are interesting. I’m with you and seeing it strange that God would change his mind about the garment. You could also make the argument, though, that God has the right to “update” his church, its customs, and doctrines to make it relevant and accessible. I have no problem with that. But, take swimwear, for instance. If church members 100 years ago saw what women could wear to a beach or pool activity today, they would probably have heart attacks. It’s all about culture, and socially constructed norms.

    Now, I disagree wholeheartedly with mel’s comments, which are a bit immature and irresponsible. He may be joking, but he brings up a good point. Is there morality in the absence of a God? Is there sexual morality, sexual chastity? I believe there is. I still believe that we need to master some natural, carnal part of us. I don’t think we need to succumb to every physical whim and desire we have. I think that humans can be better than that.

  3. His Sexy Wife said,

    July 11, 2007 @ 8:17 pm

    One detail Jon left out was how the girls were insisting on being topless because it was not only tradition but they would be ridiculed by others, and I may be incorrect in saying this, but not allowed to take part of the ceremony. The traditions of the ceremony were held in the same regards as a religious ceremony, if I were to compare why they would want to be topless. It wasn’t just “it’s tradition” there was much pressure for them to conform to the traditions of their cultural.
    I was actually sad to hear this missionary judge the young girls. I think to compare their cultural to our own is like comparing apples to oranges.
    In some culturals it’s thighs that are sexual, not breast, of course us Mormons have those covered too.

  4. mel said,

    July 11, 2007 @ 8:50 pm

    Stephen, I guess it depends on which part of what I wrote you found immature and irresponsible. I don’t think I said anything that disagrees whith what you wrote about the need to be the masters of our domains … though somehow I doubt that most of us master as much as religious doctrine might suggest. It’s a point to debate.

  5. Jonathan Blake said,

    July 12, 2007 @ 7:45 am


    It has become strange to me that we in the West adhere to such a self-loathing religion. It seems to argue against the idea that we created our own god. Who would choose to believe in a god who hates human nature so much? Then again, perhaps our Western god reflects a cultural neurosis, or the machinations of a hypocritical ruling class.


    I single out Mormonism only because it is my background. Other ideologies in the U.S. must be just as conflicted. Isn’t it strange that we’re saturated with pornography yet one of the most religious nations in the developed world. Of course we’re not the most repressed: Islamic countries lead the pack in searching for “sex” on Google.

    That’s a very interesting missionary story from France. Apparently the church hasn’t succeeded in becoming a monoculture yet, even in core religious issues like modesty.

    Your point about the garment is well taken. God should have such a right, especially if his intent is pragmatic: to prevent us from sexual licentiousness resulting from pushing the boundaries of our cultural conditioning to nudity. I have never seen it presented this way in church, however. Members use the standard of the garment to judge everyone, even those who haven’t made temple covenants or live in other cultures. God doesn’t seem to alter the garment for those in more liberal cultures: I’ve never seen a bikini garment yet. ;)

    I have my own thoughts about morality that I may post on soon.

    My Sexy Wife,

    Your comment about thighs segues right into a post I plan to make soon. Thanks. :)

  6. mel said,

    July 12, 2007 @ 8:31 pm

    Here’s the thing … you don’t need a Redeemer unless there’s something hateful about the unredeemed nature of the prospective redeemed. We always talk about what a loving, caring, selfless, and ultimately sacrificing being the christian god is, but have entirely suppressed in our minds that requisite moment when we (usually as innocent and trusting children) were force-fed and ultimately greedily consumed the notion that we needed saving from our sinful natures.

    The power of religion is the degree to which it convinces you of its needfulness. There are no more needful people than those who believe that only an omnipotent god is sufficient to save them.

    This is what I think is the answer to your observation about western religious self-loathing.

  7. Kullervo said,

    July 13, 2007 @ 5:44 am

    Once again, the cultural assumptions of 90-year old men being passed off as God’s word.

  8. Jonathan Blake said,

    July 13, 2007 @ 8:32 am


    The force fed thought that humanity is fallen is exactly what I wish my children could avoid. I don’t want them to be burdened by artificial shame in the name of keeping them faithful.

    Therefore if that man repenteth not, and remaineth and dieth an enemy to God, the demands of divine justice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt, which doth cause him to shrink from the presence of the Lord, and doth fill his breast with guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever. (Mosiah 2:38)

    Ugly. If you look at that scripture from the perspective which sees God as created in the image of man, it’s heartbreaking to think of all the people who have struggled under religion induced shame.


    Maybe the LDS church will catch up to the present sensibilities in about 40-50 years when the 30-somethings come to power. :)

  9. Anna said,

    July 13, 2007 @ 2:20 pm

    I think the issue is intent.

    I had a longer comment, but it just doesn’t come out right. And, as always, there’s a lot of grey area.

    I give up. I’ve been trying to write this comment for more than an hour, but work keeps getting in the way.

  10. Jonathan Blake said,

    July 13, 2007 @ 2:47 pm

    Dang work! If only we could get on with the blogging without all the interruptions. And don’t beat yourself up too much for not being able to put it into words: it’s Friday afternoon.

    I would contend that its all gray area. Every time that I try to come up with a good, clean definition of what is modest, I always think of some reason that the definition doesn’t work.

    Even intent has problems. A woman in my office used to work in a casino managing their pool. Quite often she would have to tell European tourists that it’s not OK to go to the pool with their obviously pubescent daughters going topless. They had no intent to be provocative, but the scene is going to create problems here in the U.S. In a word, their behavior is immodest.

    If you’re saying that God wouldn’t condemn them because they had right intentions, I guess that makes sense. But that just means that God doesn’t really support any particular culture’s standard of dress.

    Intent also has shades of gray. Does wanting to look good to the opposite sex count as slightly immodest? How sexy can I intend to look before it becomes immodest?

  11. C. L. Hanson said,

    July 13, 2007 @ 10:35 pm

    Even though I’m on a mini-hiatus, I can’t help but want to join in this discussion since your post hits on two of my most popular blog entries:

    I talked about how culture defines what constitutes modesty in my post topless on the beach.

    Plus I have a post with the same title: An Immodest Proposal.

  12. Jonathan Blake said,

    July 14, 2007 @ 5:43 am

    C.L. Hanson,

    Great minds think alike as they say (far too often) but I must say that your proposal is much more immodest than mine. ;) It’s interesting to read about other cultures’ attitudes toward nudity. What’s really odd to me is that I ever believed in an absolute standard of modesty (e.g. female nipples should remain clothed at all times).

  13. mel said,

    July 14, 2007 @ 3:02 pm

    Just for the record, CL is soley responsible for corrupting six generations of puritain indoctrination in my particular branch of the family tree.

  14. Anna said,

    July 16, 2007 @ 9:15 am

    I had a discussion about how intent ended up being a problem anyway, but deleted that when I couldn’t get it to come out right. It looked a lot like your comment. (Except I gave a great example from Law and Order). I would say if your heart was right that God would not condemn you, but God also gave provision for inadvertent sin. Once you knew your sin you were to confess it.)

    Our pastor had a great message saying that we don’t have the right to condemn or judge others who don’t believe the same way as we do. (That doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t or won’t share my faith).

    Since women wearing traditional clothing (going topless) is not expressly addressed as a sin in the Bible, then I’d say it wasn’t a problem for the women to wear their traditional garb to the ceremony.

    Women are told to be modest in the Bible, but it seems that modesty is established by the culture of which you are a part. I guess my own modesty comes down to personal conviction. And that is the same for others too. But, you have to be aware of that is socially acceptable, ie: going topless the pool where it is not socially acceptable for women to go topless.

    Then there is always the question of where do you draw the line?

  15. C. L. Hanson said,

    July 17, 2007 @ 2:11 am

    Thanks Mel!!!

    I always think corrupting people is a thankless job, but every now and then I get a little recognition. ;)

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