Viewpoint: A modest proposal

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A few months ago, a young Jewish girl in Israel was walking to school when a few ultra-orthodox men began to spit and yell at her for not being more modestly dressed. She was 8 years old.

Stories such as this are nothing new and certainly not limited to religious extremists. It reflects a blame-the-victim mentality, where responsibility is deflected away from where it actually belongs. Often, this mentality exists in our own backyards.

The Readers’ Forum is often littered with letters about leggings, men counting uncovered knees, short dresses — we’ve heard it all.
Too often, the discussion of modesty is one-sided, focusing on women more than men. Our discussions dissolve from respecting our bodies to guilting women into covering up or risk leading men into temptation and destruction.

Let me be clear, I do not think modesty is bad. Nor do I think we should stop encouraging people to dress modestly. However, I do think we should re-evaluate our framing of the issue.

In “True to the Faith,” it reads, “[Modesty] is founded on the truth that the human body is God’s sacred creation. We must respect our bodies as a gift from God. Through our dress and appearance, we can show the Lord that we know how precious our bodies are.”

Modesty reflects a personal commitment to God and the idea that we are more than our physical bodies. It is a proclamation that you, as an individual with unique thoughts and experiences, have far more to offer society than just your body.

Elder M. Russel Ballard touched on this subject recently when he said, “Popular culture today often makes women look silly, inconsequential, mindless and powerless. It objectifies them and disrespects them and then suggests that they are able to leave their mark on mankind only by seduction — easily the most pervasively dangerous message the adversary sends to women about themselves.”

Flaunting our bodies can imply that a woman’s value is based on her physical attributes rather than her personality and character. Just as too little clothing perpetuates this idea, an extreme obsession with covering the body does the same thing.

In response to the incident in Israel, Dov Linzer, a New York City rabbi, wrote, “By saying that all women must hide their bodies, they are saying that every woman is an object who can stir a man’s sexual thoughts. Thus, every woman who passes their field of vision is sized up on the basis of how much of her body is covered. She is not seen as a complete person, only as a potential inducement to sin.”

Somewhere, the responsibility has become skewed. Women, through their dress, now become accountable for controlling or curbing men’s sensual thoughts and become the cause of these thoughts.

While men biologically are more visually stimulated and women can help by dressing modestly, a woman’s dress should not be an excuse for the improper thoughts and actions others choose to entertain.

In his editorial, Rabbi Linzer continued saying, “The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze — the way men look at women — that needs to be desexualized, not women in public. The power to make sure men don’t see women as objects of sexual gratification lies within men’s — and only men’s — control.”

We have been told that we must “live in the world but not of the world.” If we cannot learn to control our thoughts (whether sensual or judgmental) in a mostly modestly dressed community, what hope will we have outside of BYU?

The issue is a two-way street: Women should dress modestly; men should learn to control their thoughts. However, we need to reject the blame-the-victim mentality.

We cannot allow the actions of others to determine our reactions. We have agency. We can choose to reject or entertain thoughts. Learn to take responsibility for which of those thoughts you invite. It may be difficult — it may be uncomfortable — but it is possible.

Katie Harmer is the issues and ideas editor at The Daily Universe. This viewpoint represents her opinion and does not necessarily represent the opinions of BYU, its administration or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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