Monday, May 20, 2013

In Defense of "The Orange Shirt"

I’m still an avid reader of The Friend, even though my youngest graduated Primary last year, and when I read this month’s issue, the story “The Orange Shirt”  caught my attention. I am aware that there are plenty in the blogosphere who object to stories that teach dress standards to children, and I imagined there would be a bit of a dustup over this one, as well.

I was right. Last week, BCC chimed in with its response: Children Can’t Dress Immodestly.

I hope to respond to a couple of thoughts in the BCC post and general concerns of those who oppose teaching modesty to Primary children, and a few observations about what I think the latest Friend story does quite well.

It its first paragraph, the BCC post claims that children cannot dress immodestly for the same reason seven year olds cannot sin. I’m intrigued by that notion. On the one hand, I agree that the natural innocence of small children does shield them from sin, and yet we still teach them not to lie, not to steal, to be kind to one another. In other words, the absence of ability to sin – or at least accountability for sin – does not keep us from teaching them the commandments and proper behavior. Indeed even small children can lie; they can steal; they can treat one another without kindness.

Similarly, the natural innocence of children also shields them from being immodest. I agree with that idea. When my oldest was nearly two, he regularly stripped down to nothing and ran out into the front yard. He knew nothing about modesty or immodesty. I just knew he preferred to wear no clothes. (Now in his thirties he’s more socially acceptable – he wears clothes but goes without shoes as often as he can.) Nevertheless, his mother and I taught him to wear clothes because in our society, wearing clothes – even for little children – is important.

One of the real concerns of those who oppose teaching modesty to Primary children is that the way we teach modesty tends to sexualize those whom we are teaching. And the sexualization of Primary children is wrong. The suggestion is that if we teach young women that they must dress modestly to avoid stirring up sexual fantasies in young men, then we are sexualizing the young women in the process. I agree with that line of reasoning, and for that very reason, I did not teach my daughters to dress modestly to avoid tempting young men. And I taught my sons that they are the keepers of their thoughts, not the young women around them.

It does seem the church has taken some significant steps in the direction of teaching modesty in dress at earlier and earlier ages. Especially noted are the changing of pictures in the gospel art kit to put sleeves on sleeveless dresses in the last few years.

Another concern among the don’t-teach-modesty adherents is that the teaching of a particular dress code leads us to judge those who don’t adhere to the dress code. While I share the valid concern that as Mormons we are way to judgmental of one another and of those who are not of our faith, I don’t quite understand the notion that we should not teach standards to our children for fear of judging one another.

Can’t we do both – teach the standards, and teach how to love one another? Isn’t that what the Savior modeled for us? When He forgave the adulteress, He was clear: He loved her enough to prevent her being stoned, but He also expected her to forsake her sin. Don’t we have a similar problem if we teach the Word of Wisdom? I think many children from good LDS families are surprised to learn when they become adults that not everyone who drinks alcohol is a raging drunk. But that does not change the truth that our modern prophets have taught that we should abstain from alcohol. There is a natural process for those who learn standards also to learn over time that those who have different standards may still be fine upstanding people who happen to have different standards.

In the BCC post, Mathew puts the Friend’s tagline “based on a true story” in quotation marks. I don’t know if that’s because he’s quoting the Friend, or because he wonders if it really is based on a true story. Some of the commenters seemed to question that the article is based on a true story. In fact, in this case, it is based on a true story. I know because I chatted with the author of the article, and she described to me the actual incident from her own life. Very similar to what happened in the story.

Before I say any more about the story itself, I have this thought about why this issue is important to the church. I attended a regional leadership meeting years ago when I served as bishop. Members of the general auxiliary presidencies where there, including the Primary, and we were taught that there was concern even then – over a decade ago – that what we once might have taught in Young Womens or in Aaronic Priesthood quorums we now needed to teach at an earlier age because of the earlier grip of society on our children.

As a father, I’ve seen the same thing. Television shows aimed at “tweens” are far more provocative now than I remember their being when my older children were younger. And physical maturation of children seems to come earlier than it did. So it is no surprise to me that there is an effort to teach certain age-appropriate lessons at an earlier age.

Have we got it completely right? Maybe not. But it does not mean we should not look for the best way to teach the best things.

Which brings me to “The Orange Shirt.”

There are a couple of things I thought were awesome in the story. First, Stacey is in a position to make her own choice. Our children need opportunities to make choices in order to learn to make choices. So it’s good for parents to read about children who are in that position. Second, Stacey is required to choose. She has the opinion of the cool older sister Lexie, and she has the positive peer pressure of her friend Amanda.

The issue with the shirt itself is almost secondary to me, but I note that it is not just that it’s a sleeveless shirt, but one with spaghetti straps and is too short. It was not modest. We don’t know who taught Stacey about modesty. We don’t know if it was a Primary teacher or her mother (or her friend Amanda’s mother). But Stacey had an impression about why she wanted to dress a certain way, and she knew that the short spaghetti-strapped shirt was not it. I say hooray for Stacey!

The BCC article poo-poos the idea that a ten-year old girl might receive confirmation from the Holy Ghost about a clothing choice. (And it erroneously asserts that the article teaches that a child’s access to the Holy Ghost is based on clothing choices.) But my experience listening to plenty of conference talks is that when we choose well, the Holy Ghost will confirm our choices. I think for a ten year old girl, making her own choice about clothing, and choosing to eschew something that doesn’t match what she’s been taught, the confirmation of the Holy Ghost would be a wonderful and merciful thing.

Finally, Stacey realizes that Amanda’s big sister Lexie doesn’t find her uncool because she didn’t choose the orange shirt. Stacey acknowledges that she wanted to try the orange shirt, but is in the end pleased that she didn’t. This is a lesson we’d like our children to learn over and over again in life as they are tempted to step off the path. Maybe a clothing choice is minor compared to other choices our children will ultimately make, but each step which allows the spirit to confirm a correct choice is chance for our children to feel the spirit, to learn what that feels like, and to grow a testimony. Those are all good things.



  1. I'm so glad you wrote this post. Good points all. I'm sure the author of this story is astonished at all the adult discussion it generated. Or perhaps not; she is rather wise, after all.

  2. I also appreciated what "The Orange Shirt" had to say--for all the reasons you discuss. I find it an especially a good example of a child demonstrating integrity. She was faced with a choice and felt confident enough to do what she felt was right--and that choice was confirmed by the Holy Ghost. It could have just as easily been a scenario about telling the truth or choosing to be kind, etc. In this case, it was about modesty (presumably modesty was the setting because it was based on a true story?).
    As for whether or not children are objectified when we teach modesty... I think much of that depends on the teacher and how they understand the principle of respecting one's body. When we teach children, it is especially vital that adults seek to understand the principle and give thoughtful consideration as to how we teach it. When adults are confused about the matter, it can be easy to send convoluted or inaccurate messages to children.
    When we teach modesty in dress and in thought, are we teaching it ONLY as an aspect of sexual purity? To focus on that aspect of modesty is to take a rather myopic view of the matter, in my opinion. Modesty is about understanding that we are MORE than merely sexual beings. The notion that "teaching modesty objectifies" us tells me that someone, somewhere along the line, is misunderstanding the principle.
    I think this article in the Friend is great because it *doesn't* "objectify" or "sexualize" the young girl making the choice. She isn't concerned with the inappropriate thoughts of others who may see her in the shirt. Rather, she is concerned about aligning her choices to the things she feels are true and right. [are detractors suggesting that the principle of modesty is not true or right?] Here is a girl who is thoughtful, honest with herself and others, and desirous to do what she feels is right. Tell me again: how is this a negative thing??

  3. Kaarin & Robin, thanks for your comments.

    Yes, the adult discussion is interesting, and some of it astonishing. I suppose the good news is that there are lots of smart people thinking about and talking about these things.

  4. Oh, and Kaarin, yes I think there are some who believe it's wrong to teach the principle of modesty in dress to young children. To be clear: I don't agree with them.

    I think your comment demonstrates nicely how we can teach that princple without objectification.

  5. Thanks to you all. :) The author certainly did not realize that her personal story of recognizing and acting on a prompting from the Holy Ghost was going to cause such a response from a certain group of adults about the question of modesty. I am very shocked, indeed, but what they say...

  6. My issue with the story: we are conflating an eternal doctrinal principle (modesty) with a changing societal issue (what particular aspect of an article of clothing makes it "immodest" - a shoulder showing, a knee showing, ???). It is absolutely fine and right for each person and family to determine what being "modest" means for them, but when someone attempts to impose their interpretation on others as "right", it is damaging. And that's what this article (and others like it) does.

    This child is non-endowed. There is nothing inherently wrong with shoulders showing. In fact, at least 90% of the people in my ward yesterday would be considered "immodest" by a prophet of our Church. Per President Joseph F Smith:

    “The garments must be clean and white, and of the approved pattern; they must not be altered or mutilated, and are to be worn as intended, down to the wrist and ankles, and around the neck. These requirements are imperative; admission to the Temple will be refused to those who do not comply therewith.”
    - “Instructions Concerning Temple Ordinance Work”

    For at least half the history of the church, we were supposed to keep covered to our ankles and wrists. We've already changed. Unless the author of this article still keeps covered down to her wrists - how is her removing 18 inches of covering from her arms really that much different from someone who removes 2 inches more?

  7. Related to some of the points above, our local paper last week ran an article that began "A new federal public service campaign encourages parents to talk to their children as young as 9 years old about the dangers of underage drinking."

  8. Now Mike, I think it's clear that we've moved past President Smith's direction, since subsequent prophets have approved changes in the garment.

    The Friend is the church's magazine. The church can determine what the standard is for modesty to be included in its magazine. And the example cited in the story is consistent with the church's published standards in For The Strength of Youth: "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."

    That standards can change is clear. Your citation of President Smith's description of standards in his day is one example. Another is the prior inclusion in the Gospel Art Kit of children in sleeveless dresses.

    That certain standards exist today is also clear as evidenced by the present publication For the Strength of Youth cited above.

    I suppose you can argue that you don't like the standard, or that you wish the church didn't establish a standard. I suppose you could even find a way to suggest that the church's standard is at odds with the Lord's standard. But you certainly cannot say that there is no standard, or that the article in the Friend misrepresesnted the standard.

    But as commenter Kaarin points out above, the article is about much more than the dress standard.

  9. Paul:

    I agree that standards can change. The pendulum swings. In President Smith's day, members were expected to keep covered down to their wrists. A few decades ago, no one made a big deal about uncovered shoulders in girls. Now, for some reason, we get articles like this and air-brush cap sleeves on famous paintings for the Ensign.

    The problem with all this is that we get too hung up on external things. We have encrusted the law. And it has a very real effect on people. Take this particular article, for example. There are probably very few people who read the article and changed their mind about what is appropriate for their Primary-aged child to wear. However, articles like this DO have a huge effect on a great many faithful Latter-day Saints who are having a hard time with what feels like increasingly more and more micro-management of non-doctrinal things.

    It is a fact that we are losing our young people in droves. Activity rates are decreasing. And in many cases, it's not because the "world" is luring them away, but because the "church" is driving them away - through institutionalization of ever changing societal preferences.

    I just wish we'd focus instead on the gospel.

  10. It's interesting to me that you attribute this article (and ones like it) for our losing our young people in droves. In fact, this article chronicles a spiritual experience of the writer of the article, one who did not leave, but who felt the confirming witness of the Holy Ghost for her obedience to a principle she was taught. (I suppose one might interpret what she felt was a prompting from the Holy Ghost to be something else, or perhpas the prompting was for obeying her parents rather than a particular standard of modesty; who am I to question her experience?)

    I will not take a position on whether "we" have become too encrusted. As I wrote in the OP, the general leadership of the church has for quite a number of years had a sense that we needed to teach certain principles at an earlier age. And the standards set forth in FTSOY are pretty clear. I suppose someone can argue that the standard is wrong (I won't), but one cannot argue about the existence of the standard. And the idea of standards is not new in the church.

    Of course the church has gone through a number of "retrenchment" periods in its history, where standards became more restrictive. Are we in one of those periods? Perhaps. No one has called it that. But there's little doubt that there has been some greater focus on some standards in recent years.

    My children have not been harmed by our dressing them in shirts with sleeves as we have always done. I have only two children at home still, and we have had modesty conversations with each of them (one boy, one girl) as they've reached an age to choose their own clothing. We've typcially taught the standards as "family" values rather than "church" values, mostly because early on we learned that teaching them as "church" values caused some resentment toward the church in some of our surly teenagers. But we have consciously tried to keep our family standards consistent with church standards, TBMs that we are in our house.

    And, in truth, some of our children eventually chose a different path from the one we would have chosen for them. The reasons for those choices are as varied and complex as our children are, though I don't think articles in the Friend played a role.

  11. Paul,

    I think part of the problem with things like this is that they draw in our angst with the topic.

    I have an eleven year old girl who is excited to join YW.

    In the past year, I've seen her, in primary and achievement days, subjected to a checklist of modest clothing, a requirement to go home and go through her clothes to see if they comply with the list, a "modest is hotest" fashion show and a primary sharing time where the kids went through magazines and cut out and pasted examples of modest/immodest clothes.

    Yesterday, she was in tears before church because she is outgrowing her clothes and she was afraid she would be teased for wearing immodest clothes. So, she wore socks, tights, shorts, a skirt, a top and a sweater.

    Do you think I'm excited for her to advance into YW?

  12. I've always defined immodesty as anything that calls unnecessary attention to a person. You can decide for yourself how clothing fits that definition. But do think about where your attention is when certain things are worn. This definition also fits other areas of life.

  13. Anon 1, I agree -- "Modest is hottest" fashion shows are the wrong approach. As Kaarin said above, one of the great features of the story in the friend is that it had nothing to do with what others thought of the shirt, but what Stacey thought of it. And it does sound like there's a bit of overkill going on, though at some point, young men and young women do benefit from seeing some models of "how it's done" in modest dress as in other areas of church standards.

    Anon2, I think you're right in the broadest sense. And as you (and many others in many forums), modesty applies to more than clothing. But modesty in dress does apply to clothing, and it's an appropriate topic for conversation. Not the only topic, and not even the most important topic, perhaps, but it is a valid topic, I think.

    I can't even begin to think about what to do with a group of young women who would tease one another for being immodest. That does seem to be particularly un-Christlike behavior, and would be an awesome moment for some teaching.

  14. I should add that when I posted that "Modest is Hottest" fashion shows aren't a good idea, I got a little flack from my lovely wife. She and my 12-year old daughter see that phrase differently than I do. That's ok. There's plenty of room in my tent...

  15. Hi Paul,

    How can I get in contact with you? I couldn't find the contact you part of the blog.


    Barbara Pawson

  16. Part of modesty in our home is that we must be dressed for the occasion. We love to swim and wear our swimsuits...but we don't wear our swim suits to sacrament meeting, or the mall. That we don't wear our swimsuits to sacrament meeting has nothing to do with sex. We do teach it young.

    If a family has decided that tank tops are inappropriate for young children, I believe the spirit could support this to help the child honor her parents.

  17. Britt, I think you're spot on. Thanks for reading.

  18. What I think is lacking, in this principle and in others (such as the Word of Wisdom), is the idea of not judging others.

    We know from experience outwardly visible "sin" (some sinful in nature, some wrong because of covenant, some 'wrong' by not matching current (but changable) norms) very easily enable judging others. Which is what leads to the previously mentioned teasing, or social ostracism, or cliq-ish behavior.

    It is something we actively teach our children - that WE encourage them to follow these commandments, or these standards, or these norms, because it is what WE (as members of our family and/or of the church). But that others not doing so - whether members of the church or not - does not make the wicked or worthy of derision, or make us better than them. It is between ourselves as individuals, a family, a church, and most of all, with God.

    I am a big believer that the church is a help to families. It is our responsibility to teach our children. But since the church is helping teach the principle of modesty and following the scriptures, I think it would be good if they incuded more practical examples of not judging when teaching about outward commandments. We know it's a problem - both from our current experience, and from the writings of Paul.

  19. Leonard, as I read your comment I thought of two things. First, that Great & Spacious Building in Lehi's dream. I think most church members would NOT want to be associated with those who stand in that building and mock others, yet that is precisely what we do when we judge others for their lack of conformity.

    Second I think I Elder Uchtdorf's recent talk about not judging one another because we sin differently. Clearly someone more than those of us in the bloggernacle are thinking about this stuff.

    Parents have to deal with this all the time, whether it's teaching a child how to respond to someone in a wheel charir, or with a differnt color of skin or a different kind of clothing.

  20. Well said, Paul. President Uchtdorf's talk was memorable. And I really like that idea regarding Lehi's dream. It's such a familiar and powerful image, and lends itself well to the type of introspection (likening unto ourselves) we stand in constant need of.