Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Again with the modesty thing

So i was going through old emails (dating back to 1999, which really is too long to keep stuff like that around), and i found this response of mine to someone else’s post in a long-running discussion of issues of modesty (in the usual Mormon sense). I reproduce it here even though it’s longish, and even though what it’s replying to isn’t an attitude unique to Mormons (we share it with lots of other groups). I’m curious what others think of my reasoning, though.

So, anyway, it started with something forwarded from a website apparently called “Religion Today”:

“Lurid and sexually provocative magazines at supermarket checkout counters are inappropriate, most Americans say. Seventy-three percent of 1,006 people questioned by pollster Wirthlin Worldwide said the covers of magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Mademoiselle, and Redbook should be covered up.” The head of an organization called Morality in Media, Robert Peters, states: “…it is irresponsible to openly display at checkout counters, where children and vulnerable adolescents cannot help but see them, trashy magazine covers that so blatantly violate common standards of decency and morality,” Peters said.

My response:

I find this fascinating, myself, particularly since Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Mademoiselle, and Redbook were singled out, all of which (usually) show women in to be honest not-terribly-revealing but certainly often enticing/​provocative (depending on your point of view) outfits. (Cosmo makes much use of push-up outfits in its cover photos, but swelling breasts are not in and of themselves revealing—if anything, they involve the creation of an illusion that hides rather than reveals.) What’s really interesting about this, though, is that magazines like GQ and Men’s Health, which often have men on their covers showing lots more skin than any of the women on the named magazines’ covers, were not mentioned. Is it only photos of fully dressed women that are “lurid and sexually provocative”?

For a moment, i’d like to reminisce on my own experience in Germany as a full-time missionary. Yes, magazine cover (and advertising, for that matter) shots of scantily-clad women (usually not men, interestingly, although there were some in my observation) showing more skin than would be allowed on the cover of Cosmo in the United States were quite common, but i have to admit that i don't necessarily see this as being related to any sort of “moral decay” in German culture—they simply showed more skin in their photographs than Unistatians tend to.

And this brings me to what troubles me about this whole discussion—there’s an underlying assumption that nobody’s questioning. That is, there’s a tacit ground rule people are using that having more skin visible in public places is necessarily a Bad Thing. Is it, though, or is this simply Unistatian (or American? Angloamerican? Euroamerican?) values being parrotted by the participants in the discussion? The assumption may well turn out to be correct, but never holding it up for questioning is, i feel, a disservice to the entire issue.

I mean, it’s quite valid to propose (full disclosure: this is actually my position) that the problem isn’t visible nudity, but the problem is rather the people who view that nudity. I suppose that i’ll be the minority here, but i’d argue that a fear of viewing human skin is at some level irrational, and we should be less worried about what’s visible to the world and more worried about how we react to it. (Arguably, we should also worry about how others react to it, but in my opinion we need to work on ourselves first.)

Maybe i’m alone on this, but my reaction to scantily-clad men or women on magazine covers tends to be something along the lines of “attractive person” or “good muscle definition” or “that outfit’s entirely the wrong color for that person, and i can’t believe that shot made it to the cover”. Is this a bad thing? Is it a bad thing to think that the problem isn’t that which is seen, but rather the reaction of that which sees?

I mean, really—the reaction of most Germans i knew, when i asked them about the level of nudity on magazine covers over there or the topless beaches or somesuch was something along the lines of “But it’s just a body!” And that, folks, is all it is—it’s just a body. Yeah, that’s an important thing and all, but it’s not like what you see in front of you is something eternal, even given the Mormon doctrine of a corporeal postmortality—it’s just a mortal body. So why the uproar over something as ignorable as that?


Michelle said...

Before I got to your last paragraph I was thinking about exactly what you mentioned - beaches in Europe. In Germany this summer Jim actually saw 2 men come out of the water, pull off their swimsuits, rinse out the sand in the water, and then get dressed again. No one batted an eye. Also, no one seemed to notice the handful of topless women playing in the water or hanging out (ahem, literally) on the sand with their husbands/boyfriends in swimsuits and their fully naked children. It did make us wonder if LDS youth are cautioned to not go to the beach in Europe, or if nudity on a beach is viewed as a non-issue in their eyes. Interestingly, Erik, who usually turns away from magazine covers that are even remotely revealing, seemed oblivious to the nudity around him on that beach.

Heather the Mama Duk said...

And, thanks to our society's weird obsession with skin, nursing in public is deemed "disgusting." Which reminds me of something. I was reading ages ago something written by a woman (Muslim, I think) from another country and she was talking about nursing and how she was in a group of women, kind of like a La Leche League in her home country held at a hospital, and they were hanging out, relaxed, nursing their babies. All of them were completely uncovered at the top with both breasts showing. Because they were with all women, they did not have their heads covered. A male doctor came into the room and all the women scrambled to cover up... their heads. Covering their breasts in front of this male doctor was not something they thought of because they were nursing. But the doctor absolutely could not see them with their heads uncovered. THAT would be indecent.

Brittany said...

So, speaking of modesty... I thought your readers might be interested in seeing a fun music video my family and I made about modesty. Here is the link to the video: . My husband and some friends wrote the song as a means to communicating the sensitive subject of modesty to a show choir at the University of Utah's Institute of Religion some years ago. It was a big hit and we feel like it might help young women to get the message. Thanks, enjoy!