Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

The Mormon “Shoulder War”: What’s at stake?

The 1964 Homecoming Queen at BYU
Teen girls are six times as likely to hear modesty advice in LDS church magazines as teen boys.

Teen girls are six times as likely to hear modesty advice in LDS church magazines as teen boys.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported yesterday on a fascinating study that the Mormon blog Zelophehad’s Daughters has done into the rise of modesty rhetoric in Mormonism.

Using three official LDS church magazines (The Ensign, New Era, and The Friend), the author tracked references to modesty from 1971 to 2014. How many times did the magazines encourage Mormons to dress modestly? What age group was being targeted by this advice? What gender?

Some findings:

  1.   There has been a sharp increase in modesty discussions for young women* since about 2000, with the most marked spike occurring in the last three and a half years.
  2.   Despite many people’s argument that modesty rhetoric is directed to both boys and girls equally, the numbers tell a different story. Boys (represented by the dashed blue line) almost never have articles telling them how to dress, unlike girls (solid blue line), who hear it six times as often.
  3.   In the last year, there has been a complete drop-off in modesty discussions for children 11 and under.

In related news, CNN reports on a story that has been brewing in the Mormon Twitterverse for days: A Utah public high school yearbook  Photoshopped sleeves onto the pictures of some female students who actually wore tank tops—without the students’ knowledge or permission.

When a tax-supported public school in a predominantly Mormon area imposes Mormon modesty standards on female students who may or may not be LDS—and does not alter boys’ photos in any way—that should tell us: “Utah, we have a problem.”

The 1964 Homecoming Queen at BYU

The 1964 Homecoming Queen at BYU

Interestingly, it’s a recent problem. The Mormon sexualization of women’s shoulders—and even children’s shoulders (!), as this Friend article from 2011 suggests—is something new.

Mormon females used to wear sleeveless tops and dresses, as this photo of the 1964 BYU Homecoming Queen demonstrates. The For the Strength of Youth manual didn’t have any restrictions about sleeveless clothing then (though backless and strapless were flat out).

What changed?

There are likely several factors at work. First, as the broader culture has become more permissive, even to the point of marketing sexy clothing for little girls, it makes perfect sense that the Church would strive to counteract it, even if that means going too far in the other direction. It’s wrong for children—of either gender—to be dressed in a sexual way. As the APA reports, a too-early focus on sex can have negative effects on kids’ self-esteem and mental health.

Second, this may be part of a broader trend for the Church to spell out in  precise detail what its standards entail, especially for teens. For the Strength of Youth used to be sixteen pages. Now it is three times that length.

But neither of the above reasons addresses the question of why shoulders in particular have emerged as a litmus test of modesty.

Perhaps it’s because shoulders are a recognizable symbol of human power and strength.

  • When we work hard, we put our shoulders to the wheel.
  • When we build community, we shoulder one another’s burdens.
  • When we destroy community, we give others the cold shoulder.
  • When someone we love is in pain, we provide them with a shoulder to cry on.
  • When we feel superior, we are head and shoulders above everyone else.
  • When we are angry and lash out defensively, we have a chip on our shoulder.
  • When we carry out our duties successfully, we shoulder responsibility.
  • When we meet someone powerful, we rub shoulders with them.
  • When we oppose someone powerful, we stand shoulder to shoulder with others in the fight.
  • When we push someone aside, we shoulder past them.

In every one of these examples, the human shoulder is a locus of might.

As tense discussions continue to erupt about Mormon women’s power, it’s not an accident that the corporeal locus of that tension has become their shoulders.

We are acting out our discomfort with women’s power by covering their shoulders, the part of the body that most represents responsibility, capability, and authority.


* “Young women” is used in the LDS Church to refer to any teenage girl ages 12 to 18.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


Click here to post a comment

  • *Just a note — having worked in the schools with the photographers who take those school photos: The kids ARE warned, MULTIPLE times, both from teachers and staff and the photographers themselves, of the dress code rules, and they are told of the consequences (namely, that their photos will be altered) should they choose to ignore those rules. While I don’t think anything these girls were wearing was all that bad (and I do agree that we need to re-examine how we approach the modesty issue) that story has gotten blown way out of proportion, in my opinion. (Sorry, I know that’s a minor part of this, it’s just been seriously bugging me the past few days.)

    In other news…great perspective, Jana. 🙂

  • Doe, a LOT of these girls would go into school wearing one thing, and then take an outer layer off in favor of a tank top beneath. I have actually seen girls do this. They knew the rules, they just didn’t like them. Often, the teachers weren’t even around when this happened. We would issue our own warnings, and then it was up to them to face the consequences.

    And I’m sorry but…how is it irrelevant that they were warned in this case? Their whole argument is that these changes were made “without their knowledge” — except that when multiple people warn them about what might happen…well, that’s kinda giving them that very knowledge.

    And yeah, some kids got overlooked in this — which, to me, is another discussion entirely 😉 — and personally, I’d have taken a different tactic. But the fact remains, schools have the right to decide their dress code, and how they enforce it.

  • Telling the girls what the “rules” are doesn’t make the “rules” any less absurd.

    The point is that the rules are stupid. Dumb. Just plain absurd. The fact that they were “warned” is beside the point. The fact that the Mormon population chose to make those “rules” in the first place *is* the point.

  • If the school wants to enforce a dress code, it should enforce it. Altering photos isn’t enforcing a dress code because nothing changed the day of the pictures… those young women wore what they wore, weren’t sent home or whathaveyou. If schools have the right to photoshop images of students without parental consent, boy I REALLY have a problem with that. I’m glad it made national news. It’s shocking on many levels. What if a school made photographs look more provocative? People would be outraged. It’s not the dress code I have an issue with… lots of schools have dress codes; in my kids school I’m very glad that they don’t allow super short shorts or tank tops or flip flops. But the rules apply to both genders and if a student violates the dress code, they are sent home. Period. I would be infuriated with our school district if it didn’t enforce the dress code, but later altered photographs to make it look like they were.

  • What about the “knee wars?” When I grew up in Farmington, Utah, it was only one or two “weird” families that made their kids wear shorts to their knees. Everyone else wore cool corduroy “OP” shorts (as in Ocean Pacific). Okay, maybe we weren’t so cool, but you get my point. There are also regional influences at play. When I moved to Cincinnati in 1994, I showed up at the gym for basketball on Wednesday night and took off my shirt to play “shirts and skins” basketball. I was immediately told “we don’t do that here.” I remember at youth conference at BYU in the early 1980s when a young woman only had a bikini. The solution? An advisor gave her a t-shirt and everyone kept on swimming. I would also contend that the larger the family the less modest you are. If you have six sisters, four brothers, one bathroom and there isn’t a lock on the door, well, you aren’t very modest. It’s just reality! At the end of the day, modesty is about intent.

  • This is another example of how Mormonism is in several ways “Islam-lite” and “Scientology-lite.”

    The only difference between these “modesty standards” and wearing a burqa is the amount of skin the controlling institution dictates its members must cover to comply.

  • Reminds me of when I got married in the temple. My bride was given a little ruffled piece of paper to pin to her neckline — as if all the rest of the temple experience wasn’t crazy enough, there was that.

  • When my mother worked for The Friend magazine in the late 1960’s (before she got married and pregnant and “let go” – i.e. fired for pregnancy because that was legal), there was one cover with a photo of a little girl (4-5 years old) in a lacy white dress. They were made by the higher-ups to draw cap sleeves on her dress “because some old man might see it and get ideas.” Even back then, Mom says everybody rolled their eyes at the idiocy. And now it continues…

  • Wonderful insights for us to think about.

    My sister tells me there is a portrait of Marjorie Hinckley in a sleeveless ball gown hung in the Nursing School at Weber State. Wish I could get a picture of it to use as ammunition in this ridiculous debate. Has anyone seen it?

  • And have you seen the lovely portrait of Ezra Taft Benson’s family circa 1950? I believe there’s a copy of it in the Benson building at BYU. As I remember, a few of his daughters were wearing off-the-shoulder dresses.

  • My knee-jerk reaction was that it was because of the Sexual Revolution, until I took a closer look at the graph – way too late for that. My fallback position is the spread of the internet. As for why the shoulders, off the cuff I’d think it’s because of temple garments coming with sleeves.

  • So the Church comes under fire for a school and a photography studio imposing standards this article writer automatically assumes comes from the Church? Sorry — I haven’t seen that connection made. If the Church had that kind of power there would be a lot more stuff going on than this.

    This episode actually justifies the Church’s stance on modesty. It is a HUGE problem for today’s young women and it needs continual focus. Where this article fails to make the connection is that while the young women are being constantly reminded of modesty and its influence the young men are being subjected to continual feedback about pornography and respecting women. Where’s the study on that?

    Oh, I forgot. This was just merely a hit piece designed to be critical of the Church in any way possible.

  • This was the most STUPID pro feminist argument I have ever heard. I’m not anti feminism. But I’m am anti of many feminists and their ridiculous conclusions.

  • Dotpeddler,

    Why is it any article, any comment, anywhere that is critical in any way of the LDS church is labeled “hate,” “anti-,” or a “hit piece”?

    And I am sure the irony of your comment that “[modesty] is a HUGE problem for today’s young women” is lost on you.

    The fact is, the LDS church is misogynistic on so many levels. And the data this article reveals that applies to modesty standards as well.

    The saddest part of controlling organizations is that their members seldom realize they are being controlled.

  • “This episode actually justifies the Church’s stance on modesty. It is a HUGE problem for today’s young women and it needs continual focus.” I would say this applies to young men as well. I am so sick of seeing young men’s pants hanging around their knees with their underwear on display for the whole world to see. I think this is as bad or worse than young ladies wearing shoulder-baring tank tops.

  • I wish we would put as much emphasis on the responsibility each one of us has to controlling our thoughts despite what people choose to wear, as we do on clothing choices. I am sure there are people who will entertain lurid thoughts while looking at a fully-clothed person. The key is taking responsibility for our own thought processes and choosing to redirect our thoughts if they verve down a dangerous path.

  • I don’t know. I believe the church and the school distrct are too lenient. Elbows and knees are both incredibly appealing and tempting to BOTH sexes. I mean, they bend and everything.
    At what point do we say enough? I love seeing the old BYU picture. Well, as they say, “Those were the days,”.

  • Jana,
    There is a war in progress against the truth that God’s love for us includes commandments regarding how we use our sexuality. As with any war both sides cause collateral damage at times. The side for chastity has caused some discomfort for children who don’t see the point of modesty. I think this is inconsequential compared with the side effects of the side for lust, fornication, and adultery: broken marriages, millions of children born to unmarried mother’s, pornography, sexual slavery, and so on. You have joined the wrong side.

  • Agree with this. And will add that emphasizing modesty has the same impact as emphasizing sexuality. It teaches men and women that women’s source of power and worth is in her appearance, which is about as demeaning as can be. I’m not sure if it’s quite as calculated as Jana poses: shoulders as a symbol of strength and therefore suppressed (though I always enjoy creative analysis). But I *am* sure that focusing on appearance as a measure of value has oppressed women for centuries. While some may not agree, I think that rigorous modesty training is no different than pornography.The sexual object is either covered or exposed, but clearly… is a sexual object.

  • So… if we were to identify a representative corpus of photos for a given society/period, we could pick out which groups are most powerful by noting who most often showed up showing their shoulders?

  • It would be interesting to track those articles relative to the increase in pornography, particular internet pornography. And relative to female pornographic images vs male pornographic images.

  • Covered shoulders take away power and strength? Other than athletic competitions, when would a man have bare shoulders when trying to command respect?

  • It’s time for someone to design some stylish – even sexy – Christian bourkas. Schools could adopt them as their dress code – for women only, of course.

  • Gary,

    The fact that you could associate bare shoulders with “lust, fornication, and adultery” speaks volumes. Yet I’m sure you still don’t get it.

  • Interesting article and information. Loved your telling photo of the 1964 BYU Homecoming Queen. Some comments on your 3 suggested reasons:
    1. “. . . as the broader culture has become more permissive, even to the point of marketing sexy clothing for little girls, it makes perfect sense that the Church would strive to counteract it, even if that means going too far in the other direction.” I totally agree, including the observations that we sometimes go too far in the other direction.
    2. ” . . . this may be part of a broader trend for the Church to spell out in precise detail what its standards entail, especially for teens.” Again I agree. I note that there are potential pitfall in detailed rules, rather than stressing principles and encouraging members to govern themselves.
    3. ” . . . why shoulders in particular have emerged as a litmus test of modesty.
    Perhaps it’s because shoulders are a recognizable symbol of human power and strength.” While I understand your interpretation, if that were really the case I would expect that males would likewise be increasingly shown with bare and muscular shoulders. Several of the Friberg illustrations for the Book of Mormon could be cited, but they come from the 1950’s, and rather than being recent.
    4. I suspect another reason for the frequency of editing pictures is how easy it has become, unlike the 1960’s. Some may certainly allow their zeal to exceed their common sense.

    However, it is important for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to dress, behave, and think modestly in a world that increasingly ignores and mocks even the concept of modesty. As we understand and apply the principles, most of the rules will usually be easy to live, while being of good cheer, rather than overly judgmental.

  • Could be worse.

    The Muslims have “face wars”.

    There are still some places where a woman can be killed for showing her face in public.

    Now…that’s religion…on steroids.

  • Is Jana really trying to say that promoting modesty via covering the shoulders is somehow denies people of responsibility and authority? Does this apply to men as well?

  • Genise,
    I get the shoulder equal power idea. I just don’t think that is the reason for encouraging women to cover them. Did you get what I said that it is really a small matter compared with the damage caused by so-called sexual freedom?

  • Gary,

    I did (get your comment about it being a relatively small matter). I have no issue with that.

    But what I have a huge issue with is your and others’ conflating bare shoulders with behaviors that lead to sexual promiscuity. That notion is absurd. And by that logic, a burqa makes the very most sense just to keep women “safe.”

  • Ya, and morden society is just “mormonism-lite”, I mean they make you wear cloths in public! Can you imagine? Horrible people forcing women to wear something that covers their breasts, and forcing men to cover there penises. They are no better than muslim extremists who rape women then kill them for being impure!
    PS: Ranette, relax. You are forgetting that you yourself, and the society you live in also have a standard of acceptable dress.

  • When the prophet Joseph Smith said, “I don’t (control my followers), I teach correct principles and let them govern themselves,” it seemed obvious that he felt that micromanaging shoulder coverage was not his to do. Teach modesty. Let the members govern themselves.

  • Sven,

    I’m guessing your sarcasm was intended to be funny. It wasn’t.

    This isn’t about covering body parts that are broadly considered unacceptable for public exposure. This is about creepy actions that arguably turn even little girls into sex objects.

    How about altering art to (absurdly) put capped sleeves on angels in a beautiful piece of 19th century art of The Resurrection? This was done before it was published in the a Mormon church magazine:

    Or how about changing the sleeves on a seven year-old little girl’s sundress to make it more “modest”?

    These kinds of actions hardly identify society as “Mormonism-lite.” They instead portray Mormonism as increasingly obsessed with suppressing behaviors that are normal and healthy.

    But what are we to expect from a church founded by a man who “married” teenagers and the already-married wives of other men?

  • I think this whole argument is ridiculous.

    – There really should be no need to alter the photographs. What’s the point? That’s not what they really wore….

    – As for modest clothing for children, I believe it’s a preparation for life, and for the temple. If they wear modest, garment-friendly clothes their whole life, they don’t need to make any changes when they go to the temple and make those covenants. In my mind, that applies to both boys and girls equally. Why should we not have our youth be looking forward to, and be ready for the temple? ! ?

    The whole shoulders is power argument really makes no sense in this case, if boys and girls together choose temple-centered modesty.

    We may be mocked as a foolish, peculiar people, but we have been warned that that would be the case already. Let’s stand together as a temple-going people, and choose to honor and respect our bodies!

  • Yeah, she is “on to something.”

    Jana has really bitten into a meaty subject again. How does she do it?

    The evil patriarchy running the secret yet pervasive scheme to keep women in their place, otherwise known as the General Authorities of the LDS Church, recognized many years ago that it all begins with women’s shoulders, the universally accepted symbol of female strength. After all, when I see a bare shoulder, I think woman power, not immodesty. It all; makes so much sense now.

    Yep, the modesty story is all a cover up, so to speak, of the Church’s desire to keep women from knowing their own strength, which is profound and located in their bared shoulders. Thanks for snouting out the plot and exposing it to a benighted world like a broad-shouldered sow finding a truffle in the forest. The rest of us, who are not attuned so such subtitles, would have walked right past this valuable nugget.

    Excellent work again, Jana. I don’t know how you do it—or why you do it—but you always demonstrate a rare and special gift of reasoning that helps to right the the ark of the covenant. Keep it up. The Church cannot function without you.

    Oh, and whatever you do, Jana, don’t let The MAN make you cover your shoulders. They remind us of how powerful your arguments are.

  • Mormons are the only religious of which I’m aware in which men are held to a higher standard of modesty than women. Though it’s not a major difference, Mormon men are definitely required to wear more fabric to cover temple garments than women are. Accusing Mormons of going after shoulders should include a conversation on male shoulders, because they are more commonly covered than mormon female shoulders- some females dress with uncovered shoulders but males do not.

    If this post seems facetious, it’s intended; the fact that we only talk about female dress is a reflection of the sad state of western society in which we look at women as objects-bodies to talk about. If we are going to talk about dress, include the men too Ms Riess. Including the men in this conversation is the only way to ensure that the conversation is about dress, and not about objectifying women (unintentionally). In the case of Mormons, when you include the men then the standards for women seem much more moderate. There’s little to complain about unless you’re opposed to temple garments in general, in which case you should consider how liberal and easy the standards are now compared to ankle/knee norms in the 19th century.

  • And maybe the photographer couldn’t come back in time, so sending students home would be ruining their chances to take a picture, which their families really want.

    If they were warned clearly and more than once, then what happened is tough noogies to the students. Too often, the little snarfbags think they’re invincible and the rules don’t apply to them.

  • These are perhaps the two dumbest sentences ever placed next to each other in the history of the English language.

    “As tense discussions continue to erupt about Mormon women’s power, it’s not an accident that the corporeal locus of that tension has become their shoulders.

    “We are acting out our discomfort with women’s power by covering their shoulders, the part of the body that most represents responsibility, capability, and authority.”

    Wow, they shore teach you how to crank up the ol’ noodle there at Columbia University. I wish I could get that kind of expensive larnin’. Do you have to draw a pirate to get a PhD there? Your reasoning skills certainly show the abilities of having attained a doctorate.

    “Corporeal locus.” Jana, you know the big words, but please stay away from the logic of shoulders.

  • I was actually impressed at the observation about shoulders, power, and the symbolic implications. Since about 2000, researchers in cognitive science have been finding powerful (and largely unconscious) effects like this. For example, a person who reads about something repulsive will be more likely to wash their hands later. It makes no rational sense but you can understand it in terms of emotion and symbolism. A person who reads about old people will walk more slowly down a hall, afterward. That sort of thing. It is perfectly plausible that a symbol of power or independence would cause a covert (i.e. not consciously intended) negative emotional reaction in men who are trying to protect their maidens or feel they are under attack by feminists or have other reasons for being against powerful and independent women. It’s not a nutty idea at all. And it could easily be tested, BTW. Some cognitive scientist at BYU might want to take it on, with appropriate controls to make sure the outcome is not fore-ordained. E.g. show photos with or without exposed shoulders, in a task ostensibly about something totally different, and use sensitive dependent measures to detect attitude or behavioral change toward women. A talented undergraduate could do it.

  • Yeah, that sounds like a great idea for a government grant. There are a lot of really counterintuintutintive-nonsensical-yet-nonetheless-impressive-social-scientific links out there that need funding and probing and a serious look from inquiring minds. No doubt the patriarchy’s fear of women’s broad shoulders is one. If we can pull that off by wearing white lab coats and getting a couple of million dollars of grant money from Uncle Sucker, we can employ the unemployable, call it science, and give people degrees in it. Burp.

    On the other hand, Russ, I will give you a clue why the Church publishes a vastly greater number of articles now than it used to on the subject of modesty—and by “vastly” I rely on the “excellent research done by other social scientific types” who provided this idiotic survey showing maybe three articles per year instead of one in magazines that have perhaps 500 articles per year each.

    Don’t noise this around, Russ, but the concern is getting used to wearing temple garments. See how that works? It has nothing to do with empowerment or lack of empowerment. It doesn’t have anything to do with the sculpted and carved shoulders of today’s capable women who are denied authority by their evil church.

    How would one prove that women’s bare shoulder blades cause irrational fear in men? I mean, just think about that for a second. One would almost have to be a “grant-receiving cognitive scientist” or a full-time charlatan/snake charmer/alchemist to believe in such concepts or to believe they could be proved. Is this what college has come to? This sounds like the gooiest of soft sciences.

  • lol! Looks like I hit a nerve. Actually, the body of research devoted to this is not trivial either in its extent or its implications. There are over 15,000 studies on implicit social cognition since 2000. It turns out you can actually test this stuff with empirical, unbiased studies. They can be done cheaply, too. Hard to make the “their after government grants” angle when I suggested this could be done by an undergraduate. See Daniel Kahneman’s *Thinking Fast and Slow* for a widely respected summary of similar research. You can choose to be against this or ridicule it, but when a certain weight of evidence accumulates it becomes, well, sort of like evolution.

  • lol! Looks like I hit a nerve. Actually, the body of research devoted to this is not trivial either in its extent or its implications. There are over 15,000 studies on implicit social cognition since 2000. It turns out you can actually test this stuff with empirical, unbiased studies. They can be done cheaply, too. Hard to make the “it’s all about chasing government grants” angle stick when I suggested this could be done by an undergraduate. See Daniel Kahneman’s *Thinking Fast and Slow* for a widely respected summary of similar research. You can choose to be against this or ridicule it, but when a certain weight of evidence accumulates it becomes, well, sort of like evolution.

  • (LOL! It looks like I hit a time warp, LOL. And 23 skidoo to you.)

    Anyway, Russ, so you think you could get a kid who can’t control his own acne to do a reliable study that shows men are afraid of being dominated by women’s shoulders? Now that would be fascinating and earth-shaking. I wonder why no one has done it before?

    Perhaps the answer is because the study is ludicrous on its face?

    Why does there have to be a super-secret biologically-induced reaction that causes us to interact as we do? Is it because women’s collarbones are pointy and we are afraid of losing an eye? That would be excellent research. American colleges should look into that sort of stuff.

    On the other hand, perhaps there is an evil patriarchy approach that can explain all of this. Men, knowing how strong women are, cannot bear to see their exposed collarbones and shoulders, either because they instill in men a feeling of inferiority they wish to chase away, or, men, being the brutish pigs the feminists know them to be, cannot control their beastly reactions when they see a bare clavicle. Either way, men are to blame. Pigs. The Man is trying to keep the Sisters down. It has to stop. Shoulders today; the Priesthood tomorrow. They all fall in line, just like dominoes.

    This demands study, and a lot of it, and a lot of hypothesizing, and a lot of head scratching, because no one could take the LDS Church’s leadership at their word: that modesty now makes for an easier transition to temple covenants and rites that happen later. Nope, that couldn’t be the reason. That line of reasoning is too clear and obvious. Something is being hidden by those evil old white men, and we need to find out what they are hiding, either secretly or unknown even to them in their own dark hearts.

    Yep, even though we already know the answer, let’s line up the pseudo-sciences and have some undergraduate take interviews of people’s reactions to pictures of girls showing and not showing shoulders to give us a possible explanation. That sounds like an excellent plan. You’ve convinced me. It’s all about women’s shoulders.

    That picture of the BYU Homecoming Queen was the most convincing element in this whole argument. She was perhaps the most powerful woman in the history of the Church because she was allowed to show her great shoulders. Good ol’ Whatshername. But, alas, all of that is gone now. Women’s vast power of the 1950s and 60s has been taken from them—and it is all based on their firm and resourceful shoulders not being allowed to see the light.

  • You response shows that you continue to use ridicule as your main argument. My initial response was, exactly, reacting to that. And my point was that the blog’s owner was not making an outlandish suggestion, when she said the reaction to shoulders might reflect deeper issues.

    I should point out that a well controlled study might disconfirm that idea, also. You could also design a study to test the idea that an iconic image of Mormon women entering Temple with shoulders covered is “powerful” in its own way, as others in this thread have suggested.

    I come from a world where issues like this are resolved not be argument or ridicule, but by looking for evidence. If you dismissed a scientific study because the author had acne, or was of the “wrong” race or gender, you would be the object of the ridicule.

  • If they were going to a private school, a uniform, generally with sleeves would have been the norm. This doesn’t have to be taken to that “Mormon” place. Catholic schools and non-denomination private schools have uniforms that generally don’t include tank tops.
    But instead, they go to public school, where there is also a dress code. Had the photographer been informed before hand, that only students that were following the school’s stated dress code would be photographed, this wouldn’t have happened.
    The photo-shopping was ridiculous.
    But the requirement of a school dress code is not. And the dress codes in Utah are not overly conservative. They are just unnecessarily linked to the heavy Mormon population, by those who haven’t fully researched the dress codes that are attached to schools all over the country, and the world.
    If children in Africa can wear uniform tops with sleeves to class, our kids really have no argument as to why very short shorts and skirts, and tank tops are necessary in order to beat the heat in their air conditioned schools in Utah.
    This is also not a “freedom of self expression” issue.
    Dress codes do not have to be about modesty or about preventing individuality. They are about discipline and self respect and creating an environment for learning. It’s not a fashion show. School is an institution for learning.

  • I actually agree with you, Natalie. However when “modest” or “modesty” are the terms used to describe or explain the meaning of a dress code, that implies a religious concern. So the concern in this case is not for the purpose of social leveling or for promoting a secular communal identity (the reason for many school dress codes around the world). Rather, the reasons for this particular modesty code is religious. My own position on it is irrelevant, but it is certainly one of the issues Americans have to negotiate when it comes to First Amendment rights.

    One of my students asked (in the discussion forum) why the US government has become the arbiter of religious freedom. I requested that other students chime in with their answers to that question, but the obvious answer is that we have gotten so diverse, even just inside of the Christian umbrella (never mind non-Christian concerns), that people press their rights in lawsuits, requiring the courts to rule. And they rule so schizophrenically that it’s hard to know how they will rule next. Anyway, it’s just very interesting. But this case is definitely about religion, because the school made it clear the code is about their particular definition of something called “modesty”.

  • No, the terms “modest” and “modesty” do not imply religion. Every culture in the world has had standards of modesty, sometimes supported by religion sometimes not but always there.

  • I am LDS, a convert and recently moved from UK to the US. I am appalled that anyone in a public school system would set standards accordingly to a religious faith (whether it is the local dominant faith or not). There is such a thing as unrighteous dominion. People are taught principles and they are free to govern themselves. This type of interfering is really out of order in my book. In the UK, we would never feel the right to dictate these standards in a public school system. The UK Government is introducing measures to stop radical Islamic ideology from entering the schools because it brings a religious ideology that at times appears to be extreme in nature. It is for this reason, I would chose not to live in Utah. I would get so angry at what is being played out masked as ‘faith’. I won’t go on … Peace to all.

  • It doesn’t matter if the root cause is religious, what a particular culture considers to be modest is what that culture considers to be modest. If you intend to be a part of it, or even simply visit, you need to take that into account.

  • Thank you for your interest in what i said. I think it is hard to have any two people in complete agreement on proper dress.There have to be compromises between bare naked and the burka. When a woman exposes skin to look attractive to men it activates our sexual interest circuits. Bare shoulders works for me. Avoiding that attract with skin behavior is a symbol of commitment to some level of sexual standards. With the breakdown of modesty in modern culture it is helpful to have standards in dress. Standards don’t mean much unless there consequences for ignoring them like having your portrait airbrushed after ignoring a clear statement of those standards. Ridiculing the few of us who still believe in active standards of modesty puts you on the wrong side of the war against chastity.

  • Gary,

    So you think I am “on the wrong side of [a] war against chastity”? Please, PLEASE point to anything I have said that supports that.

    And you are describing yourself as among “the few…who still believe in active standards of modesty.” Self admiration much? Good grief. Ask a member of a Muslim sect that favors full body burqas if Gary is in the club of “the few…who still believe in active standards of modesty.” My sense is you wouldn’t be so regarded.

    And your suggesting that a bare shoulder “works for you” in “activating sexual interest circuits” is a perfect example of what so wrong here. Are you seriously suggesting that baring a shoulder makes a woman complicit in whatever carnal thoughts you conjure up? That is pathetic!

    No, airbrushing photos of bare shoulders is wrong. And it is wrong for the LDS church to airbrush beautiful artwork to put cap sleeves on angels or the sundress of an eight year old.

  • Genise,
    Yes, I am saying we are all responsible for helping each other avoid unwanted sexual interest. That’s why we have to wear clothes to the mall even on hot days. There need to be standards, they have to be group compromises,and the kids who ignored theirs deserved the airbrush.

  • So to make sure I understand:

    You believe that a woman wearing a sleeveless blouse or dress and thereby exposing a bare shoulder makes her somehow at least partially responsible for your thoughts and actions.

    You believe students who had their photos edited AFTER they had been shown unedited proofs “deserved the airbrush.”

    And I note you haven’t addressed the editing in the Ensign of century-old artwork to give angels cap sleeves, or the editing of a eight year-old’s sun dress for the same purpose. You’re good with that too, right?


  • “You believe that a woman wearing a sleeveless blouse or dress and thereby exposing a bare shoulder makes her somehow at least partially responsible for your thoughts and actions”

    “Responsible” is probably too strong a term. But I’m not sure it’s too much to ascribe “influence” instead, particularly in the context of a discussion of an essay whose premise seems to be that bared shoulders have other (if more symbolic) influences on how women are thought of.

    If I were to engage other commenters here by calling them names, questioning their integrity/intelligence, and generally acting trollish, would I be responsible for replies in kind and a discussion that took a turn away from the ideas? Not really — people would still have choices about how they respond. But if I behaved that way I think it’d be hard to deny my influence played a role. A community interested in better discussion might both suggest that people take responsibility for their own comments rather than reacting in kind to others… and outline standards for behavior that could influence discussion in the first place.

    This is an imperfect comparison — personally, I don’t think bare shoulders rise to provocative level of insulting people. But when we hit this part of discussing modesty discourse, it seems to me this distinction between influence and responsibility is often lost where I think it might be more readily accepted in other contexts.

  • Russ, I think it’d be fascinating to see someone test the idea and I can see where you’re going with the comparison to research like that presented by Kahneman, but I’m not sure I blame anyone who thinks it’s problematic from the start — at face value, it just doesn’t seem to match the common wisdom about who is empowered and disempowered. Society-wide, you might seem some high-status figures among athletes and entertainers baring shoulders, but you don’t often see that in the owners and financiers that put on the show and write the checks. Tank tops on men aren’t unheard of but they seem rare attire for the high-status man. And in the ecclesiastical context in which a lot of this particular discussion is being hashed out, leadership generally isn’t even showing elbows, particularly when exercising authority.

    Are we saying that shoulders are only symbols of power for women? If so, why?

    And if we’re not saying that, wouldn’t that either imply that the connection isn’t real or that the common wisdom about who is empowered is false?

  • Gary,

    Well, I suppose then–based on your notion that bare shoulders can “influence” some prurient thoughts in you and others–that you believe they should not be exposed. That’s your right to think, of course. But I think it’s an absurd notion.

    If a woman who chooses to bare her shoulders is somehow complicit in stimulating your “unwanted sexual interest,” then it’s a short trip to the notion that an ankle, a wrist, a button nose, or the nape of a neck can do the same thing. And here we are at a burqa.

    And to the point, I think Mormonism exercises several control mechanisms over its members that appear intended to maintain a compliant membership.

    To be sure, abstinence tobacco is positive, but it is found in many people (as best I can tell, less than 20% of Americans use tobacco). Coffee and tea are arguably beneficial in moderation, yet the LDS church prohibits both. And the history of how the WoW came to be suggests the prohibition of coffee and tea was an act of retribution by Joseph Smith toward Emma who had complained about tobacco use.

    My sense? The WoW is a test of loyalty, a test that engenders subservience. And I think the same of the notion that bare shoulders are prohibited.

    I agree that the comparison to posting provocative comments online is imperfect.

  • Yeah, I think my original comment was over-interpreted a bit. I was mostly moved by a prior comment that ridiculed Jana for suggesting that bare shoulders might be a potent, but perhaps not (fully) consciously understood, symbol of power. That sounds like something from research on implicit social cognition. HOWEVER… this stuff is very much dependent on culture and learning. I have a correspondent in Saudi Arabia who has an intense physical reaction to seeing any woman at his workplace. In his world, that is a rare and potent stimulus. So it is all “culturally relative.” Oh, and I never suggested this would guide church policy or anything that laughable. I would stand by my original point, which was that the idea of visible shoulders triggering a somewhat excessive and/or irrational reaction (especially in Mormon culture) is not ridiculous. Perhaps the underlying reason is that shoulders must be covered when entering the temple. That sounds plausible.

  • Just so it’s clear, I’m not Gary, though I can see how the confusion could arise since I jumped into the discussion.

    Slippery slope arguments are generally suspect and I think the “one minute it’s covering shoulder, the next it’s the burqa” isn’t an exception. Would the slope slide the other way? That is, if we assume a bare shoulder is an unmitigated right, would the reasoning lead to the idea that public nudity is also such a right? I suppose it’s possible that someone might argue that, but it’s unlikely to get a lot of purchase. So are burqas, for similar reasons.

    As it happens, though, you’re not quite on in your supposition about whether or not I believe shoulders should be exposed. I don’t have any easy resolution to offer in navigating the tension between personal freedom and influence over others, either in the specific case of bare shoulders or generally. I am certain that there shouldn’t be a law prohibiting displayed shoulders. I think institutions with influence like the church has probably shouldn’t issue a blanket ban (nor is it clear to me they have). I’m also not sure that modesty discourse should be as focused as it is specifically on dampening male lust.

    That disclaimer may lead you to wonder why I’m arguing the point, and it’s mostly because I think something is lost when we disengage people from thinking about the influence of their behavior. I don’t think that recognizing a link between shoulders (or anything else about the way people dress, speak, or act) and reactions people find difficult necessarily *obligates* anyone to self-prohibit the linked behavior. At the same time, inside the context of a community where people care about one another or at least care about getting along, it’s often worth considering what people are saying when they express a reaction they’re struggling with in response to some kind of behavior. And sometimes, when enough people are concerned, discussing norms that might be acceptable.

    “I think Mormonism exercises several control mechanisms over its members that appear intended to maintain a compliant membership.”

    This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Mormonism maintains control by… telling people to do (or not do) things? That sounds like confusing the effect with the cause.

    It seems to me that Mormonism primarily exercises control by providing a set of experiences that people identify as spiritual along with a narrative that puts leadership in a position of authority, whether or not you accept the experiences and narrative as legitimate. Probably to some extent by social policing like most communities do.

  • Genise,
    Yes to all of it. And I am biting my literary tongue to not write what I really think about the author’s motives for making fun of LDS zealousness in supporting modesty. Isn’t it great we can have such divergent opinions and still communicate civilly about it.

  • I find it incredibly telling that your argument for modesty, Gary, includes a reference to “millions of children born to unwed mother’s” (sp). So only the mothers are unwed? What about the men who were half of that baby-making equation? I can guarantee you that female immodesty is not the cause of fornication, adultery, or unwed births. It is instead that men seem to think if they can see it (or even think they can see it), then it is on offer and free for the taking. Female dress is not why inappropriate sex happens. It is equally, if not more so, down to men thinking it is a woman’s responsibility to “help him” control his thoughts. And that, sir, is simply misogyny and rape culture. If you don’t want sex to happen, then just keep it in your pants.

  • Those that lack the intellect to debate rationally often resort to personal insults. You are one fine example of this.

  • How is it stupid to expect girls to dress decently? I am not a Mormon, but I think a tank top is pretty absurd for a school outfit.

  • If we are going to compare BYU Homecoming photos in 1964 let’s also look at a typical HS yearbook from that year. All the boys wearing suits and ties and the girls wore a high neck sweater. Often the photographer had a string of pearls that the girls wore.

    It’s a different time and place. Trying to understand 1964 through the eyes of 2014 is ridiculous. It’s also a huge stretch to assume that covering the shoulders in 2014 is because of some sinister plot to discourage women from being powerful independent thinkers. If you look at the doctrine and history of the LDS church, you will see quite the opposite is true. Women always have positions of authority and sit on every ward council that makes leadership decisions

  • Martine, have you considered that what YOU think “decently” is, is not the same as what other people think “decently” is? And that bare shoulders aren’t considered “indecent” by the vast majority in the US, while they ARE considered “indecent” by the LDS church?

    Some of us think it’s “absurd” to require covered shoulders. Your opinion is not the only one, and the LDS church doesn’t get to *impose* ITS opinion by fiat. That is the problem.

  • I think it goes even further into the physical body. Science has proven that the female armpit is a bastion of sex. Females have far more apocrine glands in the axilla (armpit) than men. Those glands produce sex pheromones. One reason that women are shorter then men, in general, is that pheromone emission from the armpit travels upwards, therefore from the female armpit to the male nostrils. Those pheromones excite the male libido. A woman wearing a sleeveless dress will often expose her armpit, and subliminally that is a sexual place. Therefore, in the Mormon mindset, needs to be covered by sleeves.

  • Don’t you think the reason more of these articles address girls than boys is becuase boys don’t seem to have an issue with dressing immodestly? Yes, there is such a thing as dressing immodestly. And fashion always targets women and girls when it comes to covering less and less. You don’t see racks and racks of really short shorts, tank tops, midriff tops, strapless tops, etc. in the boys and men’s sections, do you? Hmmm, go figure that more of the articles are aimed at the audience who tends to have more pressure to dress immodestly. That said, in church literature, boys are held every bit accountable for their thoughts as they ought to be. But the way anybody dresses affects, for better or worse, those around them.

  • I was walking down a popular shopping street with my wife last week and we passed by a beautiful gown in a window. I said to my wife, “You would totally rock that dress.” It was completely modest other than the shoulders were bare. Not spaghetti straps or anything like that, just a beautiful, modest dress.

    She sighed and said “I guess we’ll never know.”


  • Oh, please. I grew up in a town where the majority were Catholics. The public schools I attended, catered to that. There were no sports practices on Catechism night. And, there was always fish served on Friday.

  • We often talk about what motivates the school to make and enforce dress codes but what do you think motivates the girls to break the dress code. I could be wrong but I was a girl once. And often I felt that my power came from what I wore or how I thought people were percieving me. There is something wrong in our culture that girls feel this way. It is not just the school either.

    Just a suggestion…ask the girls what they think the dress code should be and give it a democratic vote. If it results in tank tops so be it, but then everyone will be on board.

  • Yep– the Mormon church is trying to get the whole culture used to the crazy idea that “modesty” entails women wearing crazy magic shoulder covering underwear one day–

    On planet reality, modesty has to do with humility– not with whether clothing can cover your cult’s sacred underwear. I think Mormons and fundamentalist Muslims are the only people who are sexualizing shoulders in this day. The problem is in the head of the religious leaders, not in those bearing their shoulders.

  • This isn’t so much about tank tops as it is about the Mormon church forcing it’s sense of “modesty” on others… in a hypocritical fashion (per the BYU photo shown).

    Not everyone thinks shoulders are sexy or sexual– but the Mormon Church does… married women cover them up with their special underwear and all clothes must cover that underwear. In Stepford…er Mormon-land, every woman is supposed to aspire to this craziness.

    Many of the students,naturally, find this silly– so why are they being forced to comply? What did these schools and other schools do in the past when women dare to show their shoulders? BYU apparently didn’t feel the need to paint extra coverage on their homecoming queen!

    To those outside the Mormon church, the Mormons do not have a moral high-ground. Like Muslims, Mormons follow a sexist, polygamous prophet who bedded a youngster. The rest of the world does not consider Mormons the font of morality or modesty they seem to imagine themselves to be.

  • So is the BYU Homocoming Queen immodest? Should someone paint some cap sleeves on her? Why isn’t she wearing clothing that could be worn with garments? Why should those who don’t subscribe to the faith be subject to this silliness? Do you let people from other religions define how you should dress or what you should think is “modest”? How would you like it if the FLDS got to impose their standards of dress upon the school districts?

  • Yeah– but in the cult…
    men rule…

    they tell the women what to wear, how many earrings they can have in each ear,– they don’t let the have the priesthood… they call their secret names so they can go through the veil in the purported afterlife… they get to be gods in the purported afterlife while the women just get to be sister-wives…

    Let’s not pretend there’s equality there.

    But this isn’t supposed to be about the church because the church is not supposed to be running the schools– those that aren’t members of your church should not be subject to your church’s arbitrary hypocritical and ever changing clothing standards… they should not be shamed or photo-shopped for refusing to adhere to the silliness… all clothing rules should be clear, consistent, and enforced across the board– unless, of course, you want Utah to be a laughingstock and people to point out the hypocrisy and creepy church-state entanglement going on in your schools.

    How different is…

  • Then why not shame your women into dressing like the FLDS whose garments are much more like those that the original Mormons wore! Cover up your ankles ladies and gentlemen or prepare to be photshopped! The modesty police have spoken.

  • When my daughter was in high school in Illinois, I was surprised to find out that they had adopted a dress code not only forbidding short shorts, but also forbidding sleeveless tops. This was a public high school, not a private school by the way. She went to high school in a town where there weren’t many Mormons and even less Moslems, so I was pretty shocked about this rule. She preferred taking the path of least resistance since students who did not follow the dress code could and supposedly would be sent home. I was the one who was outraged, not her, particularly, because it meant that she could no longer wear some of her school clothes from the previous year. I was arguing with an employee in charge who was wearing clothing that didn’t meet the dress code for students, not that her clothing was particularly immodest. It was all very surreal, I thought.

  • Suppressing power by covering women’s shoulders? Really? Is that why they cover men’s shoulders too? In fact, men’s shoulders are MORE covered than women’s shoulders based on the arm length of their undergarments. This logic is horribly flawed.

  • I agree. There are no cozy analogies to couch it in, ladies. Quiet the words and take stock of the effects. Your religion is an unapologetic patriarchal tyranny that is as harmful to your sons as it is your daughters. If you’re comfortable with the outcomes you see, by all means keep ahold of that iron rod. If you aren’t, it is time you fully awake to the truth about your religion, because the only change you will ever see is after you start the hard process of making genuine change in your own life. It is as hard as it sounds.

  • Actually my point was that the premise of the article about women being targeted to cover their shoulders to keep them from being powerful, at least based on garments, doesn’t make sense since men’s shoulders are covered more than women’s as men’s garment arms are longer than women’s are. That’s all.

  • I think it’s more telling that a discussion about bare shoulders would set off a comparison to pornography, of which there is zero mention. If bare shoulders has a relation to pornography in your mind, maybe it has more to do with sexualizing and objectifying women, than an actual issue with shoulders.