Another BYU Modesty Note: The Toxicity of Shame in LDS Culture

Let me preface this post by stating that I am a devout Mormon, an active and proud BYU student, and for the most part, greatly appreciative of the LDS culture that is characteristic of Utah Valley.  I have never been happier than I have been for the last two years which I spent in Provo.  That being said, there are certain aspects of Mormon culture that manifest themselves particularly nastily at BYU, and often target young women such as myself.


This is a note I received sitting in the periodicals section of the BYU library.  It reads:

                Dear Cute Girl,

                I have seen you at the Library before and (first off I’m not trying to be creepy, Just a nice friend) you where [sic] that Blue Shirt a lot (which By the way the color looks really good) however I notice that its [sic] a little low cut.  The guy sitting in front of you a table away keeps Looking (Just thought I would warn you).  I hope you take care and help the boys around Here out in the future. So they don’t have the temptation.

Sincerly [sic], a friend looking out for you and the Boys


It was delivered to me quietly by a young woman I had never seen before.  I don’t know if she wrote the note herself or was delivering it for a friend. While I certainly appreciate her subtlety, (she didn’t make eye contact and sat down immediately after) I felt my heart sink as I saw the folded paper before me.  Everybody at BYU knows what a library note from girl to girl means.  I felt humiliated and sat in shamed shock as I read and reread the accusation packed among compliments and faux-concern: I was causing this young man to sin.  The shirt in question was a long sleeved t-shirt with a V-neck, one which had been given to me by my conservative mother and which I had worn to church in the past.  It was flattering, yes, but by no means inappropriate.

I looked up at the man who had been staring, and held eye contact, my eyebrows raised in a clear expression of disapproval.  He faltered, embarrassed at having been caught, quickly packed his backpack and left.  (That’s my preferred method for dealing with oglers, all women should take note, it’s very effective!)

                The man was gone, but I was left in a shallow pit of shame, embarrassed that the shirt my mother had bought me for my birthday was the star of a classic library controversy.  My shame melted into disgust, however, as I dissected the note further.

                Why had my BYU classmate written the note to me? The man who was staring was the active perpetrator, engaging in lustful behavior and thoughts; I was simply the object.  (Although as far as I know he had been spaced out with his eyes unfortunately aimed towards my chest.  I guess we’ll never know).  If this modesty vigilante had been so concerned with this man’s mental chastity, a much more appropriate note would have read: Dear Creepy Guy, I can see you openly staring at that young lady’s chest.  I just want to help you out by reminding you to keep your thoughts pure.  I hope you take care to help yourself out in the future by avoiding viewing women inappropriately, so you don’t have any temptations.  Sincerely, a friend looking out for you and the girls around you.

                Unfortunately, the blame fell to me.  I was causing this man to stare, never mind the fact that it was the silent section of the library, kept quiet to minimalize distractions so that students could focus on their studies.  This man apparently was so weak-minded that he was forced by the celestial power of my breasts to neglect his schoolwork and zero in on the one aspect of humanity that gives women power over men.  I was the slinky vixen, hell-bent on singlehandedly corroding the virtue of the poor, unsuspecting male population of Provo.

                Except not.  I put on a comfortable, cute T-shirt that flattered my body and was weather-appropriate, with no devilish, corrosive agenda.  Leading young men astray or drawing attention towards my breasts had been the last thing on my mind.  I can think of two possible solutions to remedy the situation I’ve described: I (and other women in the library) could have taken 25 minutes to go home and change, OR, this man could have simply refocused his attention to his schoolwork.  Which one seems more fair to ask?  Which one offers a long-term solution to his problem of being distracted by women’s bodies?  I was being asked to modify my clothing, when this man could have been asked to modify his behavior.

                If he was so jarred by the sight of the skin beneath my collarbone, can this poor ‘immodesty victim’ function outside of Provo?  I shudder to think of the moral decay he would experience on a beach in my native New York.  He can’t honestly expect each woman he encounters to completely obscure even the shape of her breasts.  His outlook on female modesty needed an adjustment, not my outfit.

                The letter I received warned me about “men’s temptations.”  Temptations to do WHAT, may I ask?  Touch my body inappropriately?  Have sex with me?  I can wholeheartedly promise that I would NOT allow that to happen.  The vagueness surrounding such “temptations” is frustrating.

Ignoring the fact that breasts have no sexual function and in many cultures are considered completely normal and unexciting body parts, my shirt was by no means overtly revealing, and I will continue to wear it without guilt.  It is downright dangerous to blame women for the thoughts of their antagonists.  Thoughts lead to words lead to actions lead to character.  I refuse to take responsibility for a man’s actions.  The selling point of our Heavenly Father’s Plan of Salvation was agency.  Men are blessed with a choice to entertain impure thoughts or not, regardless of their surroundings.  Heavenly Father has promised that He will never present us with temptation we cannot overcome.  The young man in the library exercised his agency.  I was completely outside of his decision to ogle me.

Instead of shaming women anonymously for wearing comfortable, practical clothing, it’s time we hold men accountable for their own thoughts and actions.  Men are not subject to carnal cravings; portraying them as such is insulting to men and dangerous for women.  While I appreciate the concern from my library “friend,” I am scared for the future if this modesty policing continues.

Some thoughts:

I have heard over and over and over again in church that “men are visual creatures.  Your physical appearance has a huge influence on men.”  Am I the only one who thinks that humans in general are visual creatures?  Maybe women just express their visually-driven nature in a more appropriate way.

The power a woman’s breasts have over men is highlighted consistently in YW lessons.  Perhaps the idea of women having power over men is terribly threatening, and that is what drives the LDS obsession with female modesty.

Has any man ever in the history of BYU ever received a note ever telling him that his clothing was ever tempting a woman ever?  Ever?  If women are expected to conduct themselves appropriately regardless of the physical appearance of those around them, so should men.

Sexual impurity (even in thought) seems to be the only sin for which someone else can be blamed.  If you’re able to turn down a friend who pressures you to drink alcohol, or disappoint a classmate who wants help cheating on an exam, you should be able to apply that same willpower to sexual sins. 

MEN: You have your agency.  You don’t have to stare if you don’t want to.  Please don’t play the victim here.  You’re better than that.

To the author/deliverer of that note: While I think your concern was misplaced, I sincerely appreciate the sweet compliments you gave me, and your discretion.


This is the shirt in question.  Sexy?  Maybe.  Provocative to the point of taking away male agency?  Hahahahahaha!  Nope.