When Tad R. Callister spoke before a student assembly at Brigham Young University last year, his remarks went relatively unnoticed. “Our dress not only affects our thoughts and actions, but the thoughts and actions of others…the dress of women has a powerful impact on the minds and passions of men, if it’s too low, too high, too tight it might prompt improper thoughts in the mind of a young man striving to be pure…in the end most women will get the type of man they dress for.” This month, Callister’s entire speech is featured in the Ensign Magazine, a Church of the Later Day Saints publication, and reactions to his words have gone viral.
At the 1968 Miss America Beauty Pagent, a group of women staged a protest against what they saw as the demeaning way women were portrayed in the event. The women gathered together cosmetics, bras, high heeled shoes and other symbols of “repressive dress” and threw the items into a trash can. They made a clear statement that they would not be bound by men’s model of the ideal woman.
In the early 1990’s, Indonesia hosted the Miss World Beauty Pageant. By prior agreement, the press was barred from the swimsuit competition because many of the Southeast Asian contestants came from cultures that believe uncovered legs are a violation of a woman’s modesty. When it came time for the national dress competition, Miss Bali gracefully took the stage dressed in a sarong (a long batik skirt) with nothing on the top of her body except hand crafted necklaces. Reporters from the western press went crazy, noting the inconsistencies in perceptions of modesty.
The silk merchants of Shanghi designed the Chiang Sam with modesty and economy in mind. The thin dress has slits up the sides so that a woman can walk, but is tailored with a high mandarin collar to hide the neck. Amongst the Shanghinese, necks are considered the most erotic part of the body.
I could continue to list examples from all around the world showing cultural norms about the dress of women and social reactions when either dress norms are broken or different cultures come in contact with one another. We all recognize the challenges of cultural differences, but within these different stories is a common story, and it’s about the burden women are expected to bear when it comes to social dress and social reaction.
A few years ago Mr. Newman “exposed” himself in school meeting wearing a tight pair of pants. I believe that his intention was to show that in our culture modesty is valued and that social norms of modesty apply to both genders. Yet why are yoga pants and leggings so popular amongst female students and non-existent in boys’ dress? Why are short-shorts a “normal” choice for girls, yet they seem “strange” when boys wear them? Why do we laugh at boys who dress in “skimpy” clothing for Halloween when this same clothing can be “normal” for a girl to wear on any day of the year?
Modesty cannot be measured as an exact science and it is not a constant set of rules immune from change. Modesty is an individual quality and a social perception, and often individuality struggles with social rules. This dynamic tension has existed since humans first began to cover themselves, and I don’t see the tension ever being resolved. Yet we can still work to shift the burden away from women and our very gender-specific views of modesty.