I have an analytical nature and I often analyze gospel doctrines and principles in order to understand them better. I find great insights often come by understand what’s at the core gospel topics. I have two teenage children, and modesty has been coming up as a topic more often so I thought I should do an analysis of the principles and practices of modesty. Many people typically think of modesty as a topic that applies primarily to how people dress, particularly for women. My study of the subject, however, shows that topic applies to behavior far beyond the clothes we wear and the modesty topic is just as applicable to men as it is to women.
The Church defines modesty as so: “Modesty is an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If we are modest, we do not draw undue attention to ourselves. Instead, we seek to “glorify God in [our] body, and in [our] spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:20; see also 1 Corinthians 6:19).” (see https://www.lds.org/topics/modesty?lang=eng)
A few parts of this definition stick out to me:
- Modesty is about more than how you dress. It’s about dress, and grooming, and language, and all aspects of behavior.
- Modesty is about using “propriety” in our dress and behavior.
- Modesty is about giving glory to God and avoiding “undue attention” for ourselves.
So, let’s dive into what it means to have “propriety” in our dress and behavior, as well as the difference between “undue attention” and appropriate attention, and I think this will naturally lead into how modesty is a matter of all aspects behavior and not just our physical appearance.
What is “propriety” in dress and behavior?
Propriety is a word that many youth may be unfamiliar with. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says propriety means the “state of being proper or suitable : appropriateness.” Therefore, to be modest is to be appropriate in dress, grooming, language, and all behavior. What is appropriate in one situation, may not be appropriate in another situation, so we must look at surrounding circumstances when determining modesty. For example, wearing a swim suit at a swimming pool is appropriate, but wearing a swim suit to school would not be appropriate and would therefore not be modest.
Since modesty is connected to the larger situation or context—where you are, what type activity you are engaged in, etc. –what is modest in one situation may not be modest in another situation. This reality helps explain why modesty is such a difficult topic to teach and underscores the importance of helping youth truly understand the principle of modesty in order to live it.
Other contextual factors that influence modesty could be what country you live in and what year you live in. If someone showed up at a Church meeting in Joseph Smith’s day wearing a modern suit or dress, their style would likely be considered extreme and therefore immodest. And vice versa, if someone showed up at a modern Church meeting wearing a robe and sandals from New Testament times, their dress would not be proper and would therefore be immodest. The exact same robe would be modest in a first century church meeting, but immodest in a 21st century Sunday school class.
Glory to God and Not Undue Attention to Ourselves
The other aspect of the definition of modesty that stood out to me was that we should not draw undue attention to ourselves, but rather, we should glorify God and bring attention to Him. This principle of bringing glory to God, I believe, really gets at the heart of modesty. As in all things, Jesus Christ is our prime example for giving all glory to God the Father rather than taking attention for ourselves.
In the pre-mortal council in Heaven, we are taught that Satan came before God and said “Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.” But God’s Beloved Son Jesus Christ said, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.” (see Moses 4:1-2) Jesus did not want to take inappropriate attention or honor to himself. He was dedicated to bringing glory to God and he did that by honoring God’s will in all he did.
We see this principle of bringing glory to God carried out throughout Jesus’s life. Jesus taught:
- “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.” Matthew 6:13
- “The light of the body is the eye; if therefore thine eye be single to the glory of God, thy whole body shall be full of light.” (Matthew 6:22, Joseph Smith Translation)
- “I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me” John 8:28
- “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do” John 5:19
- “Not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42)
Modesty is about bringing glory to God rather than attention to ourselves and Jesus is our example so therefore we should do as Jesus taught when he said that mankind shall “not live by bread alone” but that we should live “by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (Matt 4:4) Furthermore, God has said in the latter-days that “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” (D&C 1:38) We know that God is interested in modesty because through his modern prophetic servants, he has taught us standards of what is appropriate in dress and behavior.
The prophet has given us For the Strength of Youth standards which outline appropriate, modest dress and behavior and we will go over those standards a little later. But before we go into those details, the dos and don’ts of modesty, let’s examine more of the underlying principles of being modest.
Your Body is a Temple, therefore Glorify God
Most youth in the Church have heard that the physical body is a temple because it houses the spirit of God. This relates to modesty because, taught Paul, that like a temple we should use our body to glorify God. He said, “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
Paul is teaching that dress, grooming, language, behavior, and other things we do with our body can and should be used to glorify God. These outward expressions of our body are symbolic of our inward honor and glory that we give God. Conversely, immodest dress and grooming and inappropriate language and behavior can also be an outward expression of our inward pride and arrogance and neglect toward God.
Inward vs Outward Modesty
In an ideal world, the outward would always be an expression of the inward, but in this world, that is not always the case. Jesus taught, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” (Matthew 7:15) Conversely, the Savior taught by example that there are people who may appear bad on the outside, but on the inside, they are closer to God than most of us. “But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?” (Luke 5:30)
While in this life, the outward is not always an expression of the inward, it often is and our long-term eternal goal is to be godly, inside and out. There are many people who are modest in dress and behavior, but inwardly still need to improve the way they glory and honor God. Conversely, there are many people who are inwardly dedicated to glorifying God, but their dress and actions still needs some improvement to reflect that. And there are plenty of people who need improvement both inwardly and outwardly.
A Tale of Two Trees
Some years ago, I met a friend who had bought a home with two large, beautiful oak trees on the property. He thought that these trees would stand for many years adding shade and beauty to his yard. However, not long afterwards, when a fierce thunder storm came through the area, one of the trees came crashing down. In the morning, when friend inspected the fallen tree, he discovered that it had been infected with insects and was rotting on the inside. While the looked strong outwardly, inwardly it was damaged and dying. Like these trees, if modesty standards are only surface level, outward only and not internalized then they will not help you withstand the storms of life. When our outward modesty is an expression of our inward reverence and glory to God, then we will be strong, inside and out, and we will be able to withstand the storms like the tree that stood firm.
Deep Beauty Shines from the Inside Out
Speaking on this topic in 2010, former Young Women’s General President Elaine S. Dalton said, “‘Deep beauty’ [is] the kind of beauty that shines from the inside out. It is the kind of beauty that cannot be painted on, surgically created, or purchased. It is the kind of beauty that doesn’t wash off. It is spiritual attractiveness. Deep beauty springs from virtue. It is the beauty of being chaste and morally clean. . . . It is a beauty that is earned through faith, repentance, and honoring covenants. The world places so much emphasis on physical attractiveness and would have you believe that you are to look like the elusive model on the cover of a magazine. The Lord would tell you that you are each uniquely beautiful” (Elaine S. Dalton, “Remember Who You Are!” March 2010 general Young Women meeting).
For the Strength of Youth
The prophets have documented their teachings about appropriate dress and behavior in a booklet called For the Strength of Youth (FTSOY). Therefore, I think it is appropriate to conduct a brief review of the dress and conduct standards outlined by the prophet there. In FTSOY, the First Presidency of the Church reminds us that the modesty standards of dress and behavior standards established there will help us look appropriate, act appropriate, and become people inside and out that will be able to have eternal joy in the Celestial Kingdom of glory. They have said:
“The standards in this booklet will help you with the important choices you are making now and will yet make in the future. We promise that as you keep the covenants you have made and these standards, you will be blessed. … Keeping the standards in this booklet will help you be worthy to attend the temple, where you can perform sacred ordinances for your ancestors now and make essential covenants for yourself in the future. … It is our fervent prayer that you will remain steadfast and valiant throughout your lives and that you will trust in the Savior and His promises.” Click here to read my related article on the history of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet.
Appropriate Dress and Appearance
“Immodest clothing is any clothing that is tight, sheer, or revealing in any other manner. Young women should avoid short shorts and short skirts, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders or is low-cut in the front or the back. Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance. Young men and young women should be neat and clean and avoid being extreme or inappropriately casual in clothing, hairstyle, and behavior. They should choose appropriately modest apparel when participating in sports.” (FTSOY)
“Can ye be puffed up in the pride of your hearts; yea, will ye still persist in the wearing of costly apparel and setting your hearts upon the vain things of the world, upon your riches?” (Alma 5:53) Click here to read my related article on dress and grooming standards for missionaries.
The language we use isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind when talking about modesty, but it is just as much a part of that topic as how we dress. Remember, modesty is an outward expression of our inward feelings, feeling about ourselves, about God, and about our relationship with God and others. Our inward reverence to God, or lack thereof, shows outwardly in our dress and in our language.
The prophets have taught: “How you communicate should reflect who you are as a son or daughter of God. Clean and intelligent language is evidence of a bright and wholesome mind. Good language that uplifts, encourages, and compliments others invites the Spirit to be with you. …Speak kindly and positively about others. Choose not to insult others or put them down, even in joking. Avoid gossip of any kind, and avoid speaking in anger. …Do not use profane, vulgar, or crude language or gestures, and do not tell jokes or stories about immoral actions. These are offensive to God and to others. Remember that these standards for your use of language apply to all forms of communication, including texting on a cell phone or communicating on the Internet.” (FTSOY)
“Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good.” (Ephesians 4:29)
Just like King Benjamin who said, “I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin” (Mosiah 4:29), it would be impossible to list all the behaviors that are appropriate and inappropriate. But let me attempt to touch on a few important areas:
Appropriate Behavior: No Bullying
Extremes in Friendship can be bad on either end of the spectrum leading to cliques on the one end that exclude people and bullying and mistreating others on the other end of the spectrum. “To have good friends, be a good friend. Show genuine interest in others; smile and let them know you care about them. Treat everyone with kindness and respect, and refrain from judging and criticizing those around you. Do not participate in any form of bullying. Make a special effort to be a friend to those who are shy or lonely, have special needs, or do not feel included.” (FTSOY)
Appropriate Behavior: Honesty and Integrity
“Closely associated with honesty is integrity. Integrity means thinking and doing what is right at all times, no matter what the consequences. When you have integrity, you are willing to live by your standards and beliefs even when no one is watching. Choose to live so that your thoughts and behavior are always in harmony with the gospel.” (FTSOY)
Appropriate Behavior: Music
Styles of music can be influenced by the world, extreme, and immodest just like styles of dress. Remaining modest means also being modest in the music we listen to. “Music has a profound effect on your mind, spirit, and behavior. Choose carefully the music you listen to. Pay attention to how you feel when you are listening. Some music can carry evil and destructive messages. Do not listen to music that encourages immorality or glorifies violence through its lyrics, beat, or intensity. Do not listen to music that uses vulgar or offensive language or promotes evil practices. Such music can dull your spiritual sensitivity.” (FTSOY)
Appropriate Behavior: Dancing
“Dancing can be fun and can provide an opportunity to meet new people. However, it too can be misused. When dancing, avoid full body contact with your partner. Do not use positions or moves that are suggestive of sexual or violent behavior or are otherwise inappropriate. Attend only those dances where dress, grooming, lighting, lyrics, music, and entertainment contribute to a wholesome atmosphere where the Spirit may be present.” (FTSOY)
Appropriate Behavior: Dating
“A date is a planned activity that allows a young man and a young woman to get to know each other better. In cultures where dating is acceptable, it can help you learn and practice social skills, develop friendships, have wholesome fun, and eventually find an eternal companion. You should not date until you are at least 16 years old. When you begin dating, go with one or more additional couples. Avoid going on frequent dates with the same person. Developing serious relationships too early in life can limit the number of other people you meet and can perhaps lead to immorality. Invite your parents to become acquainted with those you date. Choose to date only those who have high moral standards and in whose company you can maintain your standards.” (FTSOY)
Appropriate Behavior: Sexual Purity
“Do not have any sexual relations before marriage, and be completely faithful to your spouse after marriage. …Never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression. Treat others with respect, not as objects used to satisfy lustful and selfish desires. Before marriage, do not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another person’s body, with or without clothing. Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body. Pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit so that you can be clean and virtuous.”
“Physical intimacy between husband and wife is beautiful and sacred. …God has commanded that sexual intimacy be reserved for marriage. When you are sexually pure, you prepare yourself to make and keep sacred covenants in the temple. …Do not participate in any type of pornography. The Spirit can help you know when you are at risk and give you the strength to remove yourself from the situation. …Make a personal commitment to be sexually pure.” (FTSOY) Click here to read my related article on the law of chastity.
I encourage you to be intentional about modesty. If you’re not intentional you will get caught up in the fashions and behaviors of the world, which are often designed to be provocative and sensational and not in line with the teachings of the prophets of God. We should be intentional in our clothes choices and try to convey reverence for God and ourselves in all our behavior.
In President Russell M. Nelson’s worldwide devotional for youth in June 2018, he encouraged modesty in dress and behavior. He said, “The Lord needs you to look like, sound like, act like, and dress like a true disciple of Jesus Christ” (“Hope of Israel”, worldwide youth devotional, June 3, 2018). As you do so, “you will be blessed with the companionship of the Holy Ghost, your faith and testimony will grow stronger, and you will enjoy increasing happiness.” (FTSOY)
P.S. Below is a link to a Kahoot quiz I built about the standards from the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet that goes along with this lesson on modesty.