“You look like a lesbian.” “Why do you want to look like a man?” “Hey, boy head!” These were just some of the responses I got from friends and family when I decided to cut off my hair. The gendered connotations that come with how one decides to wear one’s hair are an overarching signifier of the dominant culture’s obsession with normative appearances. Many religious institutions and congregations uphold normative understandings of appearance and dress. Growing up in a conservative town in rural South Georgia and being raised within a Pentecostal tradition came with many challenges regarding gender, sexuality, and dress.
In an earlier post on FAR, I described my experiences with my church and my community regarding sexuality in “Sexual Ethics and Southern Belles.” In this post, I want to further explore those thoughts to discuss modesty codes within my own Pentecostal denomination, The Church of God, and within the LDS Church. Both Mormonism and The Church of God promote modesty codes that are ultimately harmful to girls and women.
The Church of God views modesty as a practical commitment to one’s faith. Modesty not only relates to one’s clothing, but one’s overall appearance, speech, and conduct. Growing up my overall appearance was constantly under scrutiny. I remember being chastised over something as simple as having pink nail polish on my fingernails. While my parents allowed me to choose clothes to my liking as long as they were not “too immodest,” my grandmother has never worn pants. I think there are generational differences regarding what is considered appropriate dress and appearance in my experience; however, there is the overarching assumption that modesty is needed for specific reasons.
In Mormonism, God has a physical body; therefore, our human bodies are considered sacred and divine. Like my denomination, within the Mormon context modesty is also viewed as the outward manifestation of chastity. Modesty in the Mormon context becomes intertwined with gender roles, sexuality, marriage, and eternity. Avance explains that “the creation of the ideal maternal/spousal body (a covered and desexualized body) through modesty works to create the ideal type/role for women. Young men are instructed to avoid marrying women who do not represent this ideal maternal type.”
Women are expected to appear as desexualized, pure beings in order to embody this perception of what the ideal woman is: a godly mother.
While both the Church of God and the LDS Church do not explicitly state that modesty codes are solely for women, it is obvious that they are directed towards women. The Church of God’s teachings on modesty explain how one should not be concerned with the materialization of appearance such as jewelry, cosmetics, pricey clothing and one should focus on their “chaste conversation and meek and quiet spirit.”
I think it is quite obvious that this is directed towards women from the focus on what is considered normative for women’s apparel and attitude. What are these teachings really about?
In my opinion, these types of chastity and modesty codes are directed towards women as a means of patriarchal control over women’s bodies and sexuality. These types of teachings reinforce gender roles, patriarchal dominance over women, and in turn, create a negative view of women’s bodies and sexuality. From my own personal experience, I know I have struggled with these concepts as a young girl and I am ready to see women and men within their respective traditions continue to deconstruct teachings that give rise to women’s subordination.
However, do modesty codes have a positive potential that could be recovered for the traditions that take the virtues of chastity and purity seriously? I think that a constructive dialogue about modesty without the negative framework regarding gender and sexuality would be more helpful. It is one thing to have religious dress that signifies one as a faithful practitioner of that tradition, but it is another thing to have rigid modesty codes that create divisive attitudes around sexuality and gender. By allowing youth to openly explore what it is that they find meaningful about modesty from a religious perspective could be a good place to start.