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Modesty is an extremely intimidating topic to me. My own journey with the concept of modesty has seen its fair share of questions which is why I choose to talk about it today. I feel as though the church has started to move away from the culture of teaching young girls that they need to cover up to protect the boys; we have learned to teach the next generation that modesty is about respecting themselves. However, I think we can do so much better than even that. Modesty is a much deeper concept than covering your shoulders, and when we can teach it correctly, it has a powerful effect on how we feel about ourselves.
Though many people have shied away from the concept of modesty in fear of driving people away, I feel that there is a way to teach the next generation how to be modest without instigating an insurrection. In fact, I feel there is a way that we can teach modesty in a way that is inspiring and speaks deeply to our youth.
My own questions of modesty
I remember the new modesty movement starting to occur. I remember the world waking up and realizing that teaching our girls to cover up in order to protect men with little self-control was ridiculous. I also remember being confused with the teaching that replaced it. In lieu of protecting men, we started teaching that dressing modestly is respecting the body that we were given by our Heavenly Father. This is a true concept, but it confused me for a long time.
Why does covering our body equate to respecting it? Sure, there are many things in the church that we don’t show to everyone because it’s sacred. But there are also plenty of things in the church that we absolutely show to everyone (you know…like the gospel in general) because we love it. So what does covering our body have to do with respect for ourselves? I believed in the standards I had been raised with, but I didn’t quite understand them.
I think Isaiah explains it wonderfully. You can read all about the daughters of Zion and their difficulties in the last days in Isaiah 3:16-26, but I want to focus specifically on two verses.
16 Moreover the Lord saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet:
18 In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon,
The Lord then goes on to describe all sorts of accessories and clothing that the daughters of Zion use. Interestingly enough, He doesn’t mention tank-tops and short shorts. We’ll talk about tank tops and short shorts later, but there are far more important lessons here. I want you to listen very carefully to what He does say.
They walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing and making noise. It warns them that the Lord will take away the “bravery” of their ornaments.
Modesty can include concepts of clothing and accessories, but they are secondary principles. What we wear isn’t the actual standard. In my mind, walking with a stretched forth neck and wanton eyes means that these women (potentially married or unmarried) are walking around on the prowl. I equate it with today’s concepts of sticking your nose in the air and assessing a person based on how they look. When I hear “wanton” eyes, I also think of wandering eyes within committed relationships. Walking and “mincing” and “making a tinkling with their feet” draws up images of seeking attention simply based on how they physically appear.
Modesty runs much more deeply than clothing; modesty is about internally presenting yourself as more than eye candy. It is about presenting the best of yourself. It’s about how you view yourself and what you reflect to the world.
Theoretically, you could be wearing next to nothing and still have a modest mindset. You could also be completely covered and be immodest.
I would know. I remember going to dances and church activities and seeking attention. I hoped that people would see how I looked. I wanted to be noticed, and when it worked, it felt great. For a little while. I was pretty modest by clothing standards. I had always been taught to wear my skirts and dresses to my knees and to cover my shoulders (and please believe me when I say that I’m not trying to bash those teachings; I’m grateful I had them). However, somewhere along the way, I missed the memo that I could be immodest even when I was fully clothed.
I think it’s important to note that we don’t need to be ashamed of how we look. We don’t need to hide how we look or dress to hide ourselves. Modesty, at its essence, is looking in a mirror and seeing yourself as you are. Then it’s about showing the best of yourself to the rest of the world rather than minimizing yourself to how you look in order to garner approval from others. Looking good and dressing well and feeling good can be and should be aspects of who you are, but they should not be the main strategy by which you get people to like you.
Why it matters
So why does it matter?
As I said before, I used to have this immodest mindset. I would try to get attention so that I could feel good about myself, and I usually based it solely on physical aspects of myself rather than trying to be kind and fun to be around. I “stretched forth my neck” trying to get noticed, and my personal experience wasn’t always pleasant.
There isn’t enough attention in the world to fill up your “need” to be noticed. There isn’t enough admiration in the hearts of humans for you to feel totally satisfied when you have an immodest mindset. You will always be seeking more. Sometimes, when you win a bit of attention, it can feel nice, but it never lasts.
The gospel is meant to be about happiness and peace, but sometimes when we get hyper focused on commandments and standards, we miss the forest for the trees. We miss the fact that these standards are meant to be changing our hearts so we can draw closer to Christ. And then it is with Christ that we find what we’re looking for.
Modesty is no different. I can try to show myself off and let that be the entirety of what I offer people, but I won’t find the feeling of acceptance and approval I’m truly seeking. When I work on who I am and I present that in my actions, I will find that I approve of myself. I will find the approval of my Savior and I will be surprised to find that I don’t need the insufficient approval of others any longer.
Looking at modesty in this sense also changes how we look at other people. When we stand before someone else who is dressed immodestly by our standards, we don’t have to miss the forest for the trees. We can look at that person, look past whatever they chose to wear, and see the person that they are. We can see someone who may have a more modest mindset than our own. We can potentially see someone who has a less prideful mindset than our own as well. We have to stop judging others off of the outward standards like Pharisees and start utilizing the standards for their divine purpose: becoming the best of ourselves. Part of living up to those standards means truly seeing others as children of God that they are; in fact, that’s one of the most important standards.
So why even talk about clothing? If this about modesty is meant to be so much more, why risk getting wrapped up in outward standards?
Well…there is still wisdom in the standards we’ve been given. Drinking a glass of alcohol and getting a little drunk does not innately make you a terrible person, and perhaps if you drink, you may never find yourself in a compromising or dangerous situation. However, you can’t possibly know that ahead of time. Perhaps you can wear nothing and still keep that modest mindset, but if you’re anything like me, it is difficult.
Whether we like it or not, clothing influences that mindset and we have to stay aware of it.
We can teach the clothing aspects, but we have to teach the purpose of the clothing aspects. It is in the purpose of the modesty standard that we will find depth, peace, acceptance, and happiness.
I know the Savior gave us standards to make us happy. I know that when He gives us standards, it is meant to make us better and happier in our hearts. I know that when we morph those standards into outward rulers by which we judge others, we have completely missed the mark. I know that the Savior wants me to love myself for who I am, and I know that He loves me for who I am. I know that by offering the best parts of me to the world, I can make the world a better place and I can find the acceptance I’m looking for.