I went clothing-shopping with a friend yesterday. I have a phobia of clothing-shopping - nothing ever fits and all of the cute outfits are not designed for my body type. But my wardrobe is becoming a ragged affair of tattered jeans, worn-out dress pants, and pitiful shirts. My friend is also very good at finding clothing to flatter your body type. We walked into a store that was having a sale on jeans. I picked out a pair of boot-cut jeans and headed to the dressing room.
Trying on the jeans, I felt an overwhelming sense of embarrassment. The jeans were too tight and the thought of going up another size was a devastating blow to a woman already struggling with body-esteem issues.
“How are the jeans?” my friend asked, her voice coming from the adjacent dressing room.
“Um - they’re OK.” I said, my voice small. What the hell I thought - I walked out into the common area of the dressing room, tight jeans on display to the world.
“Do you think these jeans are too tight?” I asked.
My friend walked out and a look of shock appeared on her face. “Oh my goodness!” she said, a note of surprise in her voice. “You look so thin!” She kept looking at me, looking at the jeans I felt so embarrassed to wear. “You look completely different - I never knew your legs are so thin!”
I blushed, embarrassed but also pleased. And I was reminded, once again, of how different my up-bringing was and how the teachings of Mormon modesty - especially womanly modesty - still lingers in me to this day.
Starting at age twelve, once I was inducted into the Mormon Church’s Young Women’s program, the lessons on modesty and chastity began in earnest. I was never taught about the mechanics or pleasures of sex - I was taught that my virginity was a precious asset that should be preserved as a gift for my husband. I was also taught that my appearance needed to be modest at all times. Mormon women are raised to be example of modest femininity - pretty but not sexy.
We were all given a pamphlet - “For The Strength of Youth
”. This pamphlet was considered the ultimate resource for the standards by which we were expected to live. An entire code of living was described in this booklet. There was the directive to dress modestly at all times - no tight clothing, no sleeveless shirts, no low-cut tops, no shorts or skirts above the knees, no shirts that exposed the stomach. Sometimes I would flout the rules, only to feel guilty for doing so. We were also strongly advised against any intimate premarital behavior that would arouse passionate feeling. As girls, we were counseled to dress modestly to avoid arousing lustful thoughts in men.
For girls’ camp one year, a Mormon police officer came to teach us self-defense. After the lesson, he start talking about the prevention of sexual assault. He told us “Some of the prevention of sexual assault is in your hands. The more immodest your appearance - extra earrings, tight clothing, low-cut tops - the more you expose yourself to the risk of assault.” I was fourteen and I nodded along with him in approval of his message. As an adult, I remember all of the times that members said something similar and I wonder just how much the indoctrination still lingers.
Rachel Velamur is the author of the blog "A Post-Mormon Life", where she writes about the experience of being raised in a strict Mormon family but making the decision to leave in order to forge her own path in life.