Modesty Codes in Pentecostalism and Mormonism by Amanda Pumphrey

“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.

 Amanda Pumphrey is a first year Ph.D. student in women’s studies in religion at Claremont Graduate University. She received her MA in religion fromClaremont School of Theology and her BA in religious studies from Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Georgia. Amanda enjoys studying Christian sexual ethics and feminist and queer theologies. 

Categories: Gender and Sexuality, Gendering Mormonism Course Dialogue

Tags: , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Long long in the past (1972) Rosemary Radford Ruether gave a talk called “St. Augustine’s Penis” at the AAR in which she argued (convincingly) that the idea that women (who are not dressed modestly–or even those who are) are temptresses was a projection of the male inability to control unwanted erections (and/or to act on them witin the bounds of marriage or the law or not). In other words women were being blamed for the bodily responses and willful actions of men, including rape. To this we can add that comparison of matrilineal and patrilineal societies shows that “the reason” patriarchy has been be so concerned with controlling women’s sexuality (not men’s) has been because in patrirarchy a man’s primary concern is to know that “his” children really are “his,” so that he will not be passing down his property and good name to the “bastard” children of another man. As Merlin Stone (1976) wrote, in matrilineal socieites, there are no “illegitimate” children because all children have a mother.

    So what is a “constructive dialogue about modesty without the negative framework regarding gender and sexuality” when the issues are rooted in patriarchy and the need for men to control female sexality? I am sorry that you and other women myself included are still haunted by these issues, but do you really think we can address them without bringing up patriarchy–which may be even a more contentious word than gender or sexuality?


  2. Amanda: This is a great post! I have two quick reflections: (1) I used to use the dress codes at schools like (Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University) in my undergraduate teaching and ask students what they understood to be the theological rationale behind the ban on things like cargo pants (or even pants) for women. A very small number (though there was always at least one or two) would cite Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God.” (2) I am struck by your list of do-not’s according to the Church of God’s teachings on modesty and how closely they mirror a certain strand of second-wave feminists’ implicit instructions re: dress, too: “one should not be concerned with the materialization of appearance such as jewelry, cosmetics, [and] pricey clothing” (although, of course, the feminist rationale for that was certainly not the same).


  3. Amanda, great post. You raise what I consider to be an absence of dialogue regarding modesty within the framework of sexuality and gender. While straying from your subject of modesty and appropriate attire, the issue of modesty as it leads to sex is an underserved topic that I’d love to see addressed.

    I saw the need for this conversation with my young male students when examining hagiography and the construct of modesty cast onto women saints with its over emphasis on virginity. This conversation evolved to where some of the young men in class spoke of family, friends and peers perception that they will not be a virgin by the time they reach an undergrad setting, and how the inference of modesty/virginity appropriated onto them tends to emasculate and stereotype what maleness is. In other words, its a lot of pressure to measure up.

    The young women equally have a distorted understanding and pressure to discard their virginity in favor of a distorted understanding of feminism (in my opinion) as the ability to have sex without mutuality. Sex for the sake of sex. For this conversation I rely upon Margaret Farley’s text, Just Love, especially chapter 6 where she lays out the seven norms for just(ice) sex. An exceptional framework that supports sex between two people (absent the entanglement of sexuality or marriage). I believe there is room for self-respect of one’s body, (modesty?) on both sides of the sexual divide while navigating peer and religious stereotypes/constructs of what constitutes maleness and femaleness.

    Again, really enjoyed your topic and post.


  4. The over emphasis on virginity is about control of paternity. I think it all boils down to this. It’s pretty basic. Worrying about modesty or even virginity keeps women under control and domesticated. The whole thing seems very weird to me from a lesbian feminist perspective. But it’s a conditioning machine, men want babies to be their DNA property… property rights…it’s always about the property line!


  5. Amanda, thank you for this post. There is a problem with the way modesty is being taught in my faith tradition. Or multiple problems. 1. is that men should not tell women how to dress. 2. is that focusing so much on “modesty” objectifies women as badly as (purely) sexualizing them does. 3. is that making women responsible for the thoughts or purity of men is unjust and inappropriate. 4. is that it causes people to focus so much on outward appearance, rather than the heart/attributes that make up real righteousness. 5. is that people often use modesty as a measure of judging others. And on and on and on.

    I think one key to addressing modesty in a more positive way is in recognizing, as you do in your discussion of The Church of God’s views, is that it is not only about clothing. I would much rather teach future children I might have about living a moderate life than detailing what they will and will not wear.


  6. Though I disagree with the rigidity of “modesty codes that are ultimately harmful to girls and women,” I do believe a certain amount of modesty is beneficial. Coming from a relational background that would rival that of Gomer, and using the way I once dressed to “get” that which I wanted, a certain degree of modest dress restored the self-respect that I had lost along the way.

    Though out of context, I think Carter Heyward’s assertion that, “from a moral perspective, freedom is not value-free; it is the power of personal agency in the context of just social relations – that is, relations in which the positive value of all persons has been established as a given,” is totally applicable. Just as you “remember being chastised over something as simple as having pink nail polish on my fingernails,” I remember the shame of cutting off my inch and a half long, french manicured acrylic nails. After years of relating my womanhood to the perfection of my fake nails, it was incredibly difficult to undo that which I’d (and a larger social issue) created. It was perhaps a week after I bought my first pair of non-booty shorts shorts. My life was changing for the better haha…

    Of course, I recognize that it’s a patriarchal society that dictates a “respectful” way to dress and that same society that helped me convince myself being a woman meant having perfect nails, but there is something inherently valuable in moderation. “Let us wear pants,” I say, “but beware of how pleather and fishnets will change the way you relate to people.”

    Thank you for this post….


  7. I like your post as well. Once I began to analyze the various detailed aspects of the socialization of females in Western Patriarchal society, as well as within the context of having been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I really grew to resent the ideological theories of virginity and chastity and the interwoven connectedness of these two social constructs with one’s perceived “value” or “non-value,” worthiness/non-worthiness in the eyes of society; the effects these perceived related beliefs can have on one’s own sense of self worth, or even worse, the extent to which the potential exists to critically wound, or completely destroy a young woman’s self image, when such a distorted and overemphasized value is placed on such things. There is much about these teachings that close critical analysis and self reflection reveal to be outright cruel, manipulative, policing methods that I suggest are damaging to a woman’s psyche, regardless of her experiences within this context, or of the status of her ‘virginity.”
    It angers me to realize that at some point during history, the focus on placing a spriritual, heavenly, godly, “pure” and false sense of “value” on a woman’s “virginity” became a much regulated and policed method of mental (and physical) control that speaks to the violence and abuse of women; and how much of these treatments of women in Western society are fear, anger, and greed-based, and how much power and access to resources plays a role into this as well. If I had my way, careful analysis of all such socialization control “myths” would be subject to scrutiny, and, having the intent to destroy patriarchal productions of thought, would seek to remove any method of socialization that resembles a form of social abuse, or maintains any of the characteristics of an abusive relationship.
    It bothers me to think that so much careful thought and time was devoted to specifically execute attacks on women’s positive development and self agency. Even more disturbing is the inference that all these thought shaping methods and manipulations were intentional, at least to some extent, to thwart the success and development of ideas of self sufficiency. There is something eery about such concerted efforts expended by men for centuries, to dictate the restrictions, ins and outs of women’s behavior, appropriate dress, speech, and demeanor. Women are so over regulated, restricted, observed, judged, criticized, and ridiculed. It is amazing how little progress we have really made in halting the cycles of thought processes that reinforces the coninuance of these practices.
    It’s time we spent a little more time in the analysis of behavior/effect of such medieval thought, and bring forth our collective analysis of what it was like, how it is problematic, and introduce our self determined new vision of how these things will be approached from now on. It’s time we used history to create change in our experience and to insure better outcomes for the women leaders of tomorrow. We need a new formula which restores the confidence in, and prepares the foundation for women as leaders in all aspects of daily life across the board.



  1. Códigos de modestia en el pentecostalismo y el mormonismo | Amanda Pumphrey | Natanael Disla

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