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Terry Cloth Shorts and Other Obscenities

By Hildie Westenhaver

Henry Ford and the Merrie Miss calss

I sorted through the box of pictures looking for a snapshot of my dad to show my kids. Instead I came across a picture of me and a couple of girls from my Primary class at about age 10. All of us had on very short shorts. And nobody thought anything of it. I remember wearing a tiny pair of terry cloth shorts to Girls’ Camp and no one batted an eye. My mother is a very faithful and strict member of the church so if modesty had been an issue back then, you can believe she would have been on board. (This is the same woman who bought a tote bag that said Coca-Cola and she wrote “caffeine-free” above the logo with a sharpie.)


I called my mom to ask her if I was remembering things correctly about the clothes I wore growing up. “Oh, everything you and sister wore had spaghetti straps. It wasn’t a big deal back then.” I could hear my mom’s friend chime in in the background, “Back when I went to BYU in the 50s we wore strapless dresses to the dances! And we wore the cutest sundresses to class that had teensy little straps.”


“Oh yes,” my mother added, “I wore a strapless dress to the Gold and Green Ball at church when we lived in Provo.”


Wait just a minute. Strapless dresses at church dances? Booty shorts at Girls Camp? What kind of bizarro dress code is this where things get more modest as time progresses, not less so?


When I asked my mother what she thought the reason for this might be, she couldn’t come up with a decent answer. And neither can I. She offered a lame explanation about young men’s imaginations going wild at the sight of scantily clad young women. But surely if shoulders create torments of lust in young men in 2016, they did back in 1956 too. Yet there were no modesty lessons for the teenage girls back then. And besides, that’s not the point. Men are responsible for their own choices and thoughts; it’s insulting to treat them like animals who lack any self-control. Are we forbidden to own a fancy car because it might cause our neighbor to feel envy? Of course not; his feelings are his own problem.


So here we are in this church that has decided that the top two inches of a girl’s arm are risqué real estate. And that girls at Girls Camp must wear a one-piece bathing suit for modesty even though these girls are changing in front of each other every single day. And don’t even get me started on those zealots like the bishop of our old ward who insisted that even a modest bathing suit wasn’t modest enough; the Young Women must also wear a dark t-shirt and shorts over the top. Why didn’t he just assign the girls to wear burquas to the pool party?


I don’t really have a conclusion here. Only that I dropped my 15-year-old daughter off at the mall this afternoon and she had on capris and a loose tank top and although in reality she had plenty of skin covered, I still had the knee-jerk reaction to tell her that she needed a shirt with sleeves. Which she didn’t. She looked pleasant and modest and like a sweet girl, not a hooker. Why isn’t that good enough?


*That’s me with my back to the camera. I was about to climb onto poor Henry Ford’s lap.

About Hildie Westenhaver

(Blog Team) was born and raised in Detroit, but is happy to call Austin, TX home now. She majored in Art History and Geography at BYU and graduated a week before having her first baby. There have been five more babies since then. Hildie is an avid baker and tries to fatten up the people she loves.

20 thoughts on “Terry Cloth Shorts and Other Obscenities”

  1. Oh dear, this pushes my buttons and I didn't even grow up LDS. I don't even know what to say. Except that I pretty much let my 16 year old daughter dress herself and she generally looks perfectly decent. The only comment I've made lately is, "Did you know your whole bra strap is showing in the (non)back of that shirt? Think about whether you're OK with everyone seeing your underwear." I didn't really care. But I wanted her to question whether she did. She went and changed her shirt.

    Also, she recently went to church camp with the Methodist youth group and they had a "modesty" checklist almost exactly like Girls Camp. It was a co-ed camp, and the stated purpose of the dress code was "because we're all here to focus on God, so we don't want to distract anyone from that." It's a little too close to "we must cover our bodies to protect our men from themselves" (gag me now) but it is a point to consider. That's always been my modesty gauge: does my clothing or behavior distract me or anyone else from being able to easily sense God's presence? That, at least, we can do for ourselves and others, but I don't buy the prescribed "list."

  2. If I spend a lot of my day berating my wife, calling her names, criticizing the things she does and how she looks, I'm not responsible for her thoughts and low self esteem because, after all, she's responsible for for her own thoughts? No one has ever said men aren't ultimately responsible for their own thoughts and actions. But clothing is just as much about communication as are words. Women can't have it both ways — choosing to dress a certain way because they want male attention, then dressing that exact same way and claiming they aren't responsible for men's thoughts. We know we are responsible for what we think. It would seem the Christlike thing to do would be to make reasonable effort in assisting us in that challenge, the same way I make a reasonable effort not to use words that might influence another person's feelings and thoughts in a negative way.

  3. Great common sense thoughts here. I find the recent several years of modesty rhetoric deadening. What is the deal with shoulders!? Not having been reared in the Mormon Culture I find this peculiar, and not in a good way. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights so articulately.

  4. We are stuck in a ward where every swim activity requires t-shirts. At least this also applies to the boys. But, as I would rather poke my eye out with a stick than go swimming in a t-shirt (it's wet and drapey and tugs through the water and is just so…lame) I now just keep my teenagers at home if swimming is involved. It is ridiculous that teenagers can't just wear a swimsuit at a swimming event.

  5. The fault in your logic is you assume that women are dressing in certain ways in order to gain male approval. That might be true some of the time, but certainly not the majority of the time. Mostly we dress the way we dress because *WE* like the way we look (not because we are trying to tempt anyone). Once that logical fallacy is removed, your other argument loses all its weight. (It is actually a fairly disgusting and offensive argument anyway; being emotionally abused is in no way the same as being around someone dressed in clothing you object to. As I've experienced both, I don't just *think* this is true, but know.) Abusive language is ALWAYS designed to hurt the other person. Clothing choices are usually designed to influence how the wearer feels, not the observer.

  6. Sorry, but the four females in my household disagree with you about why they wear what they wear. Sure, they often do wear clothes that appeal to them (although they admit more often than not it's a worry about what other females will think about them, not males.) But they also admit they wear clothes that are form fitting and/or otherwise accentuate their figures as they are in the dating stage of life. My wife often wears clothes she believes will get my attention. I stand by my position, There is no logical fallacy. You simply disagree with my position, which is your choice. Wear what you want.

  7. If my kid is swimming outdoors, she wears a rash guard. It's not a modesty thing, it's a protection from the sun thing. Inside, she wears a tankini like almost every other girl. I would have a huge issue with her being required to wear a t shirt over her suit–she's covered already.

    I grew up with tank tops and spaghetti straps and shorty shorts, and I really wish I had kept my shoulders and legs covered because I have had to go to the dermologist so many times that I have lost track.

    My opinion is that today so many women/girls are putting it all on display that the girls who don't stand out. There is one other girl in my daughters age bracket who also isn't allowed to wear tank tops or shorty shorts. They are also the two girls who are in church almost every Sunday.

  8. Common, while I know where you're coming from, I don't really think spousal abuse and wearing a tank top are the same thing. That being said, my real point here is the arbitrariness of "modesty". Fifty years ago the Church didn't place an emphasis on how a woman dresses like it does today. Standards have become even more rigid and puritanical. They have become an entire monster within the Church and I find it both puzzling and disconcerting.

  9. My experience as a child is different. I grew up in the 70's and 80's in a stalwart (but not extreme) LDS family, and in our family at least, modesty was definitely a "thing". I was not allowed to wear tank tops, any kind of sundress or top with spaghetti straps required a shirt underneath, bikinis were a no-go, etc. I remember my mom having conversations with me about our standards and why we did what we did even though my best friend (also LDS) had different standards. I don't remember specific discussions about short shorts, but there are no pictures of me wearing any, so I'm assuming those were off-limits too. In looking at photos of my mother in the 50's and 60's, she was always dressed modestly as well.

  10. I had a bishop when I was in college explain modesty to me this way. When we dress like we are wearing garments before we go to the temple then it is easier when we actually go to the temple to not have to change the way we dress. I look at modesty as a preparation for the temple. This is for both male and female.

    This is just my opinion but if you watch, it seems like those who dress modestly are the ones who tend to get married in the temple. There are exceptions of course but it has been my observation.

  11. Thank you for voicing my sentiments exactly, Hildie. At our girls camp, the girls have to wear a cover up or T-shirt on their walk to the lake. With only all girls around. And can't have their knees showing. seriously? And this obsession with the length of skirts and shorts or the width of straps and sleeves … Puritanical is the word. If one chooses to dress as though they wear garments before going to the temple, that is a lovely idea. But to require it and to judge others negatively if they choose differently is something I disagree with. As my mother put it, they have not yet made those covenants. I love the idea of dressing so as to not distract others from feeling the spirit. I also like to think of modest as dressing to help those around you feel comfortable. There are many different looks that accomplish those goals and not all require measured hemlines or conservatively covered arms and shoulders. If I remember right, the most recent version of For the Strength of the Youth says nothing about specific styles. I hope our culture can take a page from that and lighten up a little.

  12. The "if they don't do it while they're young, they won't be able to do so later" argument is a fairly silly one when you think about it. World we discourage those who join the church at a later age from deciding to make temple covenants because they would have to make wardrobe adjustments for garment wearing that they didn't have growing up? Do we abstain from all TV, radio, swimming, physical affection and non-Church books because we have to behave as full-time missionaries to prepare our children to serve in the future?
    We take a correct principle, our bodies are gifts from Heavenly Father, and then go to extremes in trying to govern each other, instead of our own selves. If we're not careful, we'll hit the point of the ultra-orthodox Rabbi who recently forbade girls 5 and older from riding bicycles in that area because the body position needed for riding he deemed sexually provocative.

    Unity in principle, diversity in application, charity in all things.

  13. For the Strength of Youth:

    "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. The fashions of the world will change, but the Lord’s standards will not change."

  14. "The Lord's standard won't change"? I totally support the Prophet and the Twelve Apostles in most everything but this phrase is downright laughable. Why was I allowed to wear tank tops at BYU 25 years ago when they were deemed "modest" but now they're not. And why are capris modest enough for BYU but not modest enough for BYU-Idaho? Why was a strapless dress modest enough to wear 50 years ago but now any dress without sleeves is considered immodest.

    Maybe the Lord's standards don't change but how they are being interpreted has certainly changed.

  15. Also, when did "covering the shoulders" turn into "covering the upper arm"? I admit that the "sleeves on everything" movement is the thing that really bugs me the most.

  16. I don't think the Lord's standards have changed, society has changed though. Dress in general is much more casual today and with the invent of spandex/elasticity in our clothing also came a new option to wear virtually everything really really tight. Back in the day when our grandma's were wearing two piece bathing suits and strapless gowns modesty was more about the cut, clothing wasnt as tight (and in general cuts were not as revealing). The big deals back then were tight sweaters, ha, right?
    My understanding was that the covering of shoulders came about when some of Brigham Young's daughters started to wear dresses exposing their shoulders as per the new fashions in Europe. I think it just took a long time for the covering of shoulders to become common practice, kind of like coffee and alcohol, tithing.
    Another thing to keep in mind is that while they may have allowed strapless gowns in the fifties at byu, you couldn't wear pants to class a woman up until at least the late sixties, maybe later than that.
    Where I grew up (Virginia) and in my family we were allowed to wear sleeveless tops, the loose kind, like a button down shirt without sleeves but still covering your collarbone, Remember those? We wore them to church and it was considered modest to wear a formal gown that had thick straps, not spaghetti. But that was then and there.
    When I was going to college in Boston I remember twice feeling really embarrassed by wearing dresses that were high necked and wide to my shoulders but not covering them technically. Anyway, twice, two different guys I was interested in commented that I obviously had been to the temple yet, I was like "no, I haven't, so I can wear this and it is ok" but I felt they had the wrong impression of me, like I was not a good Mormon girl. So now my advice to YW is to play it safe in the modesty game, better to appear modest and attractive than attractive and immodest.

  17. Sorry to keep chiming in, I am paranoid because I have not commented on Segullah for a long time due to feeling misunderstood (due to not expressing myself well). I just want to make it clear the above comments are solely my experience and opinions, no offense intended, no doctorine cited.

  18. I don't get the whole not wearing capris at BYUI either. My daughter is attending school there and I've seen skirts that are shorter than capris. I don't get it.

  19. Oops. I put it in the wrong reply. Emily, I like your responses. I can tell you are really thinking carefully about your comments. I find it very refreshing.


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