god delights in our bare and freckled shoulders

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Modesty is more to do with the measure of our hearts than the measure of our skirts.

"Young Women, you cannot feel the Spirit if you dress immodestly."

 

The words sucked the oxygen out of the room. Clunky. Opaque. We had two minutes left in class and no time to unpack the complexities of that statement. No time. We weren't even talking about modesty, yet somehow it (once again) wormed its way into the lesson.

 

I simmered for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. I did not want these young girls moving through the world thinking that God would leave them, offended at the sight of their bare and freckled shoulders.

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It was 1993. I was fourteen years old and embarking on a greatly anticipated rite of passage: my first church dance. My mom and I went shopping at the Washington Square mall earlier that afternoon to find a dress that made me feel pretty and grown up. We found the perfect dress--it was black with cream flowers and cinched with a clasp in the back. It had a scoop neck and long sleeves. I crimped my hair and put on blueberry lipgloss. I felt flutters in my stomach and tingles behind my ears.

 

Three girlfriends picked me up from my house, an older brother chauffeur at the wheel. When we arrived at the church, we bounced out of the rusty, red Toyota and ran towards the double doors. My first dance!

 

Two older men sitting behind brown card tables greeted us at the entrance. The sentinels of morality and all things wholesome.

 

"I'm sorry. You can't come in. Your dress doesn't reach your knees."

 

I could feel the red heat rise from my feet, through my stomach, up to my forehead.

 

"But it does reach my knees. See?" I tugged at the shoulders of my dress in hopes of covering that quarter inch of thigh hidden beneath my thick white tights.

 

"I'm sorry. Your dress is just above the tops of your knees. It needs to come to the middle of your knees."

 

"But this is my first dance."

 

"I'm sorry. You'll have to go home and change."

 

"But it comes to my knees in the back. It's just a little shorter in the front."

 

"I'm sorry."

 

I looked at my girlfriends. Mortified. And mad. But mostly sad.

 

The church was far from home, and no one--including me--wanted to drive all the way back so that I could change. My friends were reluctant to go in without me, but I assured them in my best martyr performance yet that I was fine. I agreed to wait outside of the church until the dance was over. And so I sat on the curb for two hours while my more modestly dressed companions were, I imagined, having the time of their lives.

 

Also, it was my birthday.

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I decided to write a letter to the Young Women leaders from class on Sunday. I needed to speak my truth before it burned a hole in my throat. I needed to say things like:

 

I feel very uncomfortable with the punitive tone of the statement: If you dress immodestly, you won't feel the Spirit. The Spirit reaches each of us according to the softness of our hearts. The Spirit reaches us even when our hearts are hard in an effort to bring us back into the fold. The Spirit reaches us at different times, in different places, and in different ways. It is not our job to dictate how/when/where the Spirit will communicate with our young women, especially in regards to something as subjective as clothing. It is our job to teach them how to listen to and respond to promptings from the Spirit, but at the end of the day, they know best their relationship with God and what feels appropriate and proper.

 

and

 

As their leaders and confidants, we must stop hyper focusing on what our young women can and cannot wear on their bodies and focus instead on their relationship with Christ. When they gain confidence in their relationship with Heavenly Father and Christ, they won't have any desire to seek validation with their bodies or their sexuality because they will have that security and peace in the gospel.

 

I sent the letter three days ago, and have second guessed myself every minute since. I don't want to offend. I don't want to hurt feelings. I don't want to steamroll. But for me the discomfort of not speaking up is almost always greater than the dissonance that emerges after I've said my piece/peace. 

 

I'm still sorting out the moral to this story. A few fragments are legible: I should keep being brave. And I should keep being true. And while I'm doing all of that, I should always, always be kind.

 

And, also, if I'm ever dismissed by the sentinels of morality and all things wholesome again, I should definitely figure out a way to sneak through the back door.