More than Hemlines and Haircuts


The way youth dress is a key to shaping some of the most important relationships in their lives.

More than Hemlines and Haircuts

Elizabeth is the world’s most adorable two-year-old. I’m confident of this fact because I’m her father, and I should know. But as cute and fun as she is, she does have her limitations—mostly the result of her inexperience and lack of information.

Take the days of the week, for example. She doesn’t understand the difference between them yet. The words Sunday, Monday, or Thursday just don’t mean a thing to her.

So why is it that she always seems to know when Sunday rolls around? The other six days of the week don’t start out all that differently at our house—we get up, read scriptures, have family prayer, and Daddy goes off in his suit and tie.

But on Sunday mornings, Elizabeth walks around the house chanting, “Nur-see! Nur-see! Nur-see!” Somehow she knows it’s the day she gets to go to the Primary nursery, even though she doesn’t know Sunday from sesquicentennial, semantically speaking. I think she’s simply figured out that whenever her brother puts on a tie and her sisters and Mommy all put on dresses, she gets to go to “nur-see.”

It doesn’t take long in life to learn that you can tell a lot about almost any situation by the way people dress. If you drive by the meetinghouse on a weekday afternoon and see people there wearing shorts and T-shirts, you’re not likely to assume it’s a funeral or a wedding. If you drive by and see those same people dressed in their Sunday best, however, you’ll probably consider both of those possibilities—but not a basketball game.

Similarly, the way an individual dresses reveals a lot about attitudes and priorities. Okay, I know—we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But it’s hard not to form an opinion of a woman who always wears plunging necklines and short skirts, or a man who goes out in public wearing nothing more than a pair of skintight biker shorts.

That’s why Church leaders counsel us to dress modestly. According to the pamphlet For the Strength of Youth, published by the First Presidency of the Church, modesty is one way we can show our respect for Heavenly Father—and for ourselves.

“Because the way you dress sends messages about yourself to others and often influences the way you and others act, you should dress in such a way as to bring out the best in yourself and those around you. However, if you wear an immodest bathing suit because it’s ‘the style,’ it sends a message that you are using your body to get attention and approval, and that modesty is not important.” (For the Strength of Youth, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990, p. 8.)

The problem for us, then, is how to determine what is modest and what isn’t. Modesty is, after all, fairly subjective. One person may consider a sleeveless dress too immodest for a young Latter-day Saint woman to wear, while another could look at the same dress, note the modest length and design, and find nothing wrong with it.

Our own confusion is sometimes fueled by the constantly shifting public standards of modesty, which can be hard to keep up with. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when it was considered indecent to expose an ankle or a knee—even on the beach. When I was in high school, the raging debate was the question of whether or not it was appropriate for girls to wear jeans to school. Today, my children have to contend with school standards so liberal that nearly anything goes except wearing your underwear outside your clothes. And these days, who can tell?

It is a great blessing that we have a definition of appropriate Latter-day Saint dress standards: “Immodest clothing includes short shorts, tight pants, and other revealing attire. Young women should refrain from wearing off-the-shoulder, low-cut, or revealing clothes. Young men should similarly maintain modesty in their dress. All should avoid tight fitting or revealing clothes and extremes in clothing and appearance.” (For the Strength of Youth, p. 8.)

Even within that definition, however, there is room for interpretation. Exactly where on the thigh do shorts become “short shorts”? How tight do pants have to be before they are “revealing”? And does “low-cut” mean anything other than turtlenecks?

Clearly, For the Strength of Youth teaches the correct principles and leaves us to govern ourselves. And that’s the way it should be. Heavenly Father has given us the freedom to choose, and we can’t grow or receive blessings from obedience if all the decisions have been made for us.

But as parents, youth, and youth leaders work together to arrive at standards of dress and modesty that everyone can feel comfortable with, there are a few things we ought to keep in mind:

1. Modesty begins at home. Okay, parents, let’s take a look at ourselves first. Are we setting a good example of modesty in dress and appearance? And are we insisting on maintaining Latter-day Saint standards in our homes? We can’t expect our children to follow a standard we aren’t prepared to live. This is especially true of parents who have been through the temple. What message does it send to children if they see temple garments pinned up—or not worn at all—so a revealing outfit can be worn?

We would be wise to examine the books, magazines, movies, and television programs we allow into our homes. Do they reinforce our values, or are they working against us? If it’s the latter, we will want to consider eliminating those negative influences. Things are tough enough as it is—we don’t need the extra competition.

2. A modest style of our own. For the Strength of Youth tells youth that “you can also show respect for the Lord and yourselves by dressing appropriately for Church meetings and activities, whether on Sunday or during the week.” (P. 8.)

This was a problem in our ward because of a disagreement over what constituted appropriate dress for Mutual. The youth thought that if they could wear something to school, they should be able to wear it to an activity at the chapel. But the adults didn’t like the idea of shorts for anything except sports, and they established a “no shorts” policy that prompted a little rebellion among the youth.

So, one activity night we took our youth and their leaders to a park near our neighborhood. While we cooked hot dogs and roasted marshmallows, we read the guidelines from For the Strength of Youth and gave everyone an opportunity to express their views. A few weeks later in our bishop’s youth council meeting we asked the quorum and class presidents to help the bishopric establish a standard that everyone could live with. Interestingly, the policy we chose was pretty close to the one the adult leaders had tried to impose. But the young people felt better about it because they came up with it themselves.

3. Modesty is in the eyes of the beholder. A U.S. Supreme Court justice once said that while he wasn’t exactly sure what obscenity is, he knew it when he saw it. The same could be said of modesty—and especially immodesty. Sometimes it’s a hard concept to define—until you see it. But what are you supposed to do then?

A lot depends upon the situation. Obviously, it isn’t a good idea to walk up to a stranger at the swimming pool and say, “Listen, pal, that swimming suit you’re wearing offends me and I wish you’d change into something more modest.” Not only is such an approach unlikely to accomplish anything, it might prove hazardous to your health.

We usually have the most impact on those with whom we already have a relationship. And the best approach I’ve found for a situation like this was taught to me by a teacher, who suggested that you find a moment when you’re alone with the person you need to talk to and then speak simply and honestly. “Look, this is going to be a little awkward for both of us,” you might begin, “but it would be wrong if I didn’t tell you that your swimming suit is not exactly appropriate for a Church activity.”

Those words let the person know you care. It’s important, however, that you focus on the swimming suit (or the dress or shorts) as the problem, not the person wearing it. And since you’re in the delicate position of correcting one of Heavenly Father’s children, you’ll want to remember the Lord’s counsel to do so with “gentleness and meekness, and … love unfeigned,” and then afterwards to show “an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.” (D&C 121:41, 43.)

4. The best defense against immodesty is a good offense. I recently heard of a Mia Maid adviser who saw her young women slipping when it came to modesty. So she wrote down comments she had heard from others who justified immodesty, and she built a lesson around asking her girls to come up with their own snappy comebacks. For example:

  • “I’m not sending out any messages with my clothes. I just wear what I like.” Response: “Then why do you keep checking the mirror to see how you look?”

  • “I dress for comfort.” Response: “Then why don’t I ever see you in muumuus?”

  • “I wear skimpy clothes in the summer because it’s hot.” Response: “And exposing more of your skin to the burning rays of the sun is supposed to cool you off?”

“They had fun coming up with answers,” the Mia Maid adviser said, “but I knew I’d made my point the next week when one girl said I hadn’t played fair. I asked why and she said she had tried to rationalize buying a cute top that was low-cut, but her own clever response had popped into her mind. ‘I guess I talked myself out of it,’ she said.”

“Yes,” the adviser confessed, “that was the general idea.”

5. Faith precedes modesty. One family I know was really struggling with the issue of modesty. One of their daughters absolutely defied family standards, altering her clothes with tucks and safety pins the minute she arrived at school.

“We talked, we pleaded, we yelled, we tried to teach,” her mother told me, “but nothing worked. My husband and I finally tried to convince ourselves that she was just a rebellious spirit and there wasn’t anything we could do about it.”

Then a Relief Society lesson on personal revelation struck a responsive chord. “It occurred to me that maybe all our daughter lacked was a spiritual witness that modesty is important,” the mother said. “If we couldn’t convince her, maybe the Lord could.”

The parents looked for ways to improve the spiritual climate of their home. Family prayers and scripture study became more frequent. Family home evenings became more focused. Sunday became the most significant day of the week, with lively discussions of Church talks and lessons and with each parent trying to find a little more one-on-one time with each child. The parents also worked to strengthen themselves spiritually through their own obedience, study, and temple attendance so they could respond to the whisperings of the Spirit when it spoke. And it did.

One Sunday after church the mother found her daughter sitting alone in her bedroom, crying. When the mother gently pressed for an explanation, the girl told her that she had overheard some of the boys in the ward talking about her in a manner that suggested a lack of respect for her values and standards.

“I’m not like that,” the young woman cried, “and it bugs me that they think I am.”

The situation gave the mother the opportunity to show love and support for her daughter, and then to talk about some of the messages the daughter was sending with the clothes she wore. When the father came home, he joined the discussion. But instead of simply telling their daughter what to do, the parents encouraged her to go to the Lord and receive a personal witness of the importance of modesty. The father even gave her a blessing to that end.

The result? “We still have our moments,” the mother admitted, “but things are better. Much better. And our relationship with our daughter is improved, too.”

When it comes right down to it, that’s really what modesty is all about—improved relationships. Those who follow Church standards of dress and appearance will find that their relationships at home will be less stressful, and their relationships with friends—especially those of the opposite sex—will be more fun and appropriate.

But mostly, they will notice improvement in their relationship with Heavenly Father. And that stands to reason, doesn’t it? Our physical bodies are among the greatest gifts he has given us. When we show respect for our bodies, we show respect for him, and any relationship that is based on mutual respect is going to feature lots of trust, confidence, and love.

And there just isn’t anything better than basking in the security of God’s love. I know that because Elizabeth told me. She learned it in “nur-see.”

[photos] Photography by Craig Dimond

Joseph Walker, national media specialist for the Church’s Public Affairs Department, is second counselor in the presidency of the Bountiful Utah Orchard Stake.