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Years ago while driving to work, I saw something that made me want to cry.

All over town in Las Vegas, there are little metal boxes along the sidewalks. In other cities, these would dispense your run-of-the-mill newspapers. In Las Vegas, many of them dispense advertisements for adult entertainment. Naked women with stars or hearts covering strategic portions of their anatomy sell their wares. It is Sin City after all. We wear our vices on our sleeves for all the world to see.

While waiting at a red light that morning, I glanced over at a mother walking down the sidewalk holding her daughter’s hand. The girl was probably only four years old. When they came to some of those notorious boxes, the little girl’s eyes went wide as she stared at something that I couldn’t see. She kept her eyes glued to that something as they walked past. I had a pretty good idea what she saw.

I had a newborn daughter of my own. It struck me that my little girl would probably see those same things as she got older. It broke my heart to realize what that little girl was learning and what my daughter had ahead of her.

When I saw the following video from Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty (the same people who brought us evolution), I immediately remembered that little girl on the sidewalk.

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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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