Author note:

This project was funded with an Eliza R. Snow grant from Brigham Young University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Sarah M. Coyne, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University, JFSB 2086C, Provo, UT 84602, USA. Phone: 801-422-6949; E-mail:


The principle of modesty is one highlighted in many religions and can be a controversial practice. However, little research has examined how this principle is taught by religious communities and how it relates to body esteem among individuals. The current study consisted of two studies aimed to examine modesty and body esteem in a sample of religious individuals (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Study 1 involved a qualitative study of 111 individuals who reported a number of principles and practices surrounding modesty. Perceptions of the teaching of modesty were mixed, with participants reporting having better body esteem when teaching involved principles instead of focusing on practices. Study 2 was a quantitative study of 1,333 religious individuals. Again, body esteem tended to be higher when modesty was discussed using principles as opposed to practices and strict dress codes. Implications for religious leaders, parents, individuals, and clinicians are discussed.

Key words: Modesty; Religion; Body image; Body esteem

In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array (1st Timothy 2:9)

If I catch you doing dances on the TikTok
In a crop top, so help me God
You’ll be grounded ‘til the world stops
I’m just kidding … no I’m not
‘Cause Modest is hottest, the latest fashion trend
Is a little more Amish, a little less Kardashian
What the boys really love is a turtleneck and a sensible pair of slacks
Honey, modest is hottest, sincerely, your dad
(song by Matthew West, 2021)

A high school in Florida recently used “modesty editing” to digitally add clothing to 80 photographs of young women who were not deemed “modest enough” (Dastiger, 2021). No photographs of young men were modified, even though several pictures in the yearbook featured men shirtless and in Speedos. The school was called out by international news media for holding on to outdated and sexist policies that target women. Parents were furious, with one mother speaking of her daughter’s edited image, "My daughter has been hospitalized twice this school year due to the stress and pressure this past year has brought upon her, including body image issues … And now, the school has made a decision that is now drawing attention to her body in a negative way” (Gardner, 2021).

This experience led many individuals to wonder if the concept of “modesty” has any place in modern society and how discussions around modesty might impact body esteem, particularly among girls and women. However, many religious organizations regularly teach the principle of modesty, often having strict dress codes by which they may enforce or uphold the modesty standards. Indeed, the phrase “modest is hottest” is one that has regularly been used in religious communities to promote modesty in clothing, hairstyle, and dress, and was even the subject of a Christian song that was later pulled for being too controversial (Smietana, 2021). The principle of modesty might be expressed and taught in a number of different ways that might differentially impact body esteem, though no research has examined this in detail. In general, research suggests that religiosity and spirituality tend to be protective factors against the development of body dissatisfaction (Boyatzis et al., 2006). However, religiosity may have less of a positive impact on body esteem (and may even have a negative impact) if modesty is taught in a shame based or sexist way, with a focus on the length of hemlines or hiding the body, for example. The purpose of this paper is to employ mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) to examine the relationship between body esteem and religious principles and practices around modesty, specifically in members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which tends to place a heavy emphasis on teachings around modesty).

Body Esteem and Religiosity

Body esteem, described as a self-evaluation of one’s body and appearance (Tremblay, et al., 2011), is an integral part of individual identity. Unhealthy body esteem (including body dissatisfaction) can lead to harmful practices such as unhealthy eating behaviors (Zarychta et al., 2018) and over-exercising (Ventura et al., 2017) which, in turn, can contribute to adverse health outcomes (e.g., Tavolacci et al., 2015), and in extreme cases, death (Crow, 2013). Given the importance of developing positive body esteem, many scholars have examined potential socializing agents, including parents, media, peers, and culture. However, little research has examined the role of religion, particularly in the context of the principle of modesty and how this might relate to body esteem.

Religion may serve as a protective factor against poor body esteem in part, because of religious principles (i.e., fundamental teachings). Indeed, religious women are less susceptible to internalizing the thin ideal (Smith et al., 2004) and are less likely to engage in unhealthy weight-loss attempts in general (Zhang, 2013). Religious teachings emphasizing that the body is a divine gift from God and a manifestation of unconditional love from a higher being may lead an individual to believe in the sanctification of their body. Body sanctification is a principle that leads a person to view his or her own body as having divine qualities or as a manifestation of God (Kopp et al., 2017). A number of studies have found that body sanctification is associated with better body esteem, healthy exercise, and lower levels of unhealthy weight loss attempts (Boyatzis et al., 2007; Mahoney et al., 2005). Thus, an understanding of the purpose of one’s body from a spiritual perspective appears to have a positive impact on the development of body esteem in general.

Religious practices differ from religious principles in that a principle is a fundamental teaching, while practices are behaviors. Practices are what individuals do, while principles are often why those behaviors are important or the motivation for those behaviors. Less research has focused on religious practices, but some studies suggest that practices such as prayer and wearing certain clothes tend to be related to better body esteem for religious participants (Jacobs-Pilipski et al. 2005; Mussap, 2009).

Modesty and Body Esteem

One aspect of religiosity that has received far less attention is modesty. Modesty can be both a principle and a practice for religious individuals. The principle of modesty might include moderation, humility, reserve, and a lack of pretentiousness. This principle can apply to many aspects of life (e.g., home, income, lifestyle), but in the context of the body, might include body sanctification (as opposed to objectification), respect for the body, and a lack of attention seeking for praise through comparison. Though colloquially, modesty often refers to a specific style of dress, this view of modesty is about intention and perspective. Thus, two people can wear the same outfit and yet one can be “modest” and the other not.

More often, modesty is viewed as a set of specific practices. This is common among religious communities and often centers around appearance, with many religions having a specific dress code. Research has found that a modest dress code is associated with lower objectification experiences (Fredrickson and Roberts 1997), particularly for women who find that modest dress codes affirm their identity as humans instead of sexual objects. Because of this positive effect on identity, there may be a diminished effect of cultural appearance pressures. Most of the literature related to religiosity and modesty is focused on the practices of Islamic women, specifically on those who wear the hijab (a head covering [Kertechian & Swami, 2016; Sidi et al., 2020; Swami et al., 2013]). This research finds that Islamic women who wear the hijab tend to experience a more positive body esteem than Islamic women who do not. Likewise, research about modesty within contemporary Orthodox Jewish communities also finds that religious dress codes are protective against poor body esteem (Hartman, 2007). Researchers hypothesize that by adhering to religious dress codes, individuals (women in particular) are less likely to engage in social comparison regarding their bodies (Mussap, 2009) or self-objectify (Frederickson & Roberts, 1997). However, studies on this subject are still somewhat limited, and are primarily focused on a small subsample of conservative religious groups.

Modesty and Symbolic Interaction

The relationship between religion and modesty is perhaps best theoretically understood through the lens of symbolic interaction theory. Symbolic interaction theory suggests that not only do individuals act towards individuals or things based on the meaning those individuals or things hold for them (Blumer, 1986), but that meaning is created through interaction. Through interaction, meanings are attached to symbols: behaviors, words, objects, or even individuals which convey a meaning that shape the way individuals view themselves (Stryker & Burke, 2000).

Viewing religious practices and principles of modesty through the lens of symbolic interaction may provide a deeper understanding for why modesty may impact body esteem. First, religious principles or teachings often impart sacred significance to the body. This deeper meaning may help religious individuals to more deeply value and love their bodies and help buffer the effect of potentially harmful cultural messages about body dissatisfaction. Second, religious practices encourage an individual to behave differently toward their body, which in turn, symbolic interactionists would posit creates further meaning around the body. For example, if an individual is a member of a religious group which encourages members to adhere to a specific dress code, then it is possible that those actions (wearing specific clothing) would in turn impart greater meaning to the body, which may also help to increase body esteem, or protect from negative body esteem. From a theoretical standpoint, it is important to examine both practices and principles of modesty, as both religious practices and principles help create meanings around the body.

Modesty and Feminism

The previous literature review suggests that principles and practices related to modesty tend to be positive for the development of body esteem in religious individuals. From a feminist framework, however, the effect of modesty is widely debated. Feminist theory is based on conversations around power (ability to influence behaviors or events [Olson et al., 2005] in social, political, or other settings). Thus, feminist dialogue about modesty is inherently linked to a debate about the power afforded women specifically through modest dress. Some feminist scholars argue that modesty has a positive impact on women’s body image by creating a vehicle to reject the hyper-sexualization of women and girls (Hahner & Varda, 2012), which in turn gives them increased access to power over their own bodies (Lewis, 2011).

In contrast, other feminist scholars contend that modesty inherently is about control over women’s bodies and sexuality (Tarrant & Corbett, 2009), which inhibits women’s access to power. Indeed, most modesty discussion almost exclusively focuses on women’s (as opposed to men’s) dress and appearance. By telling women to “cover up” and “be modest,” one may assume that women are only meant for the male gaze and that their appearance might be responsible for men’s sexual thoughts (Aghasaleh, 2018). This type of thinking may contribute to rape myths which may increase misogynistic views around women or even the likelihood of sexual assault (Begum & Barn, 2019). Additionally, some individuals may feel shame around their body when consistently told to be modest, especially depending on the way modesty is taught. This might lead to a lack of self-empowerment as women do not fully embrace their bodies and might feel shameful over the way they look (Wang et al., 2019).

Modesty in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

One Christian religious group that teaches principles of modesty is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Like other religious groups, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also has specific practices or dress codes tied to modesty. Little research, however, has examined the lived experiences surrounding modesty for individuals in this religion. The Church of Jesus Christ defines modesty as "an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If we are modest, we do not draw undue attention to ourselves" (n.d., para. 1). In another church publication, The Church of Jesus Christ states that; "your body is sacred. Through your dress and appearance, you can show that you know how precious your body is. You can show that you are a disciple of Jesus Christ and that you love Him" (n.d., para. 1). Like other religious groups, these principles center on the divine and sacred nature of the body.

In addition, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also has associated practices pertaining to modesty. At a young age, members are taught to 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" (For the Strength of Youth, para. 4). Thus, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are exposed to both principles and practices surrounding modesty. Given that most of the research on modesty and body image has focused on Islam conservative religions, we wanted to examine these relationships in Christian religions where modesty may be taught quite differently. Additionally, research tends to examine religiosity or modesty broadly, with little research focusing on the specific teachings that may differentially impact body esteem.

Current Study

The purpose of this paper is to examine associations between body esteem and religious practices (behaviors) and principles (teachings) of modesty, specifically in members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We do this using mixed methods in two different studies. Study 1 consists of a qualitative sample that focuses on how religious individuals perceive modesty teachings from their church, and how both principles and practices impact their body esteem. Study 2 is a large quantitative study (based on the interviews in Study 1) where we explore specific associations between practices and principles of modesty on body esteem in a Latter-day Saint sample.

Study 1: Modesty and Body Esteem Interviews

The aim of study 1 was to understand the ways that modesty was taught in the Latter-day Saint Church and how individuals feel it impacted their own body esteem. The purpose of employing qualitative methods was to allow us to look deeper at the processes and meanings around modesty that are often difficult to examine through quantitative approaches (Gilgun et al., 1992).

Methods (Study 1)


Participants included 111 individuals (75% female) who were currently members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Participants were recruited through posted flyers on social media and word of mouth by the research team. Participants qualified if they 1) were currently an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2) lived in the United States, and 3) did not currently have a diagnosed eating disorder (17 participants were unable to participate in the study because of this requirement).

To increase diversity in the sample, we set quotas based on age (18–29; 30–49; 50+), and the location where participants spent the majority of their adolescence (Utah, United States but outside of Utah, and outside of the United States). See Table 1 for demographic information for the qualitative sample.

Table 1: Study 1 Participants Demographic Information

Procedure and Questions

This study was approved by the authors' institutional review board and participants were treated under the human subjects' guidelines from the American Psychological Association. Data were collected through individual interviews instead of focus groups because of the delicate and personal topic of body esteem, allowing honest self-disclosure (Kruger et al., 2019). Participants took a short initial eligibility survey via Qualtrics and provided consent to participate in the interviews. Two trained research assistants were present in interviews to ensure all desired questions were asked and technology worked properly, with one designated research assistant to conduct the interview. Interviews were semi-structured with open-ended questions to allow the interviewer to guide the conversation, to permit for follow-up questions, and to encourage participants to share their unique experiences and views.

Interviews lasted on average 53 minutes, during which interviewers asked participants several questions regarding personal religiosity and general body esteem. The data for this paper are a subset from questions regarding experiences and opinions about principles and practices of modesty, as well as questions about how their experiences with these principles and practices influenced their body esteem. Interviews were conducted and recorded over Zoom. At the conclusion of all interviews, participants received both general resources and religious resources about body esteem and monetary compensation in the form of a $40 Amazon digital gift card. Each interview was fully transcribed and subjected to a detailed coding process as described later.

Reducing Interviewer Bias

Qualitative research methods require interviewers to be reflexive during the interview process, acknowledging and increasing awareness of personal opinions and biases surrounding the topic of interest. Like participants, interviewers were also primarily members of The Church of Jesus Christ, with their own thoughts and experiences regarding body esteem within Latter-day Saint culture. Belonging to the same religious faith helped interviewers understand how to best ask interview questions regarding religious beliefs and culture and allowed interviewers to understand when participants used cultural jargon. To help reduce preconceived biases, interviewers were trained to be aware of their own predispositions regarding the topic, to remain open to and encourage open-ended thinking from participants, and to not specifically reinforce if the participant mentioned a positive or negative experience in relation to the topic.

Analyses and Coding

The transcribed interview data were analyzed using the inductively based qualitative grounded theory approach to develop codes and categories (Charmaz & Belgrave, 2015). Thus, coded themes emerged from participant data and not by the researchers' own preconceived beliefs. Analysis of data consisted of two stages, initial coding and selective coding. During initial coding, six trained research assistants coded two transcripts to see if consensus was met concerning the identified themes. Once the six coders reached 100% consensus for those two transcriptions, the 111 transcriptions were divided up among all six coders who then each coded about 18.5 transcriptions. Codes related to modesty were categorized together under the code Modesty in one distinct category. To ensure there was no drifting in code definitions, categories were constantly compared one against the other and a qualitative code book was created.

During stage two, four additional coders used selective coding to identify the main, overarching themes within the codes from stage 1. Guided by our research question, coders specifically examined three themes: Modesty and Spirituality, Modesty as a practice, and Gender and Modesty. To assure the rigor and validity of the current study, coders met frequently throughout the analysis process to discuss theme development. Inter-coder agreement reached 100% consensus, where Creswell (2013) recommends having inter-coder agreement higher than 80%. To further ensure trustworthiness of the codes, coders completed notetaking during data collection, memo writing during the analysis, and frequent member checks after the analysis (Creswell, 2013).

Results (Study 1)

One interview question asked “What have you been taught about modesty in the church? How has that influenced how you feel about your body?” Participants offered a wide range of responses to this question, and often reflected on the connection to modesty and body esteem later in the interview. Of the 111 total participants, 94 discussed modesty in some context during their interview, for a total of 168 quotes.

Of the 168 quotes about modesty, 62.50% (n = 105) did not discuss the impact that modesty had on their body image. 23.21% (n = 39) discussed modesty as having a positive impact on their body image, while 11.90% (n = 20) discussed modesty as having a negative impact, and 2.38% (n = 4) having a mixed (both positive and negative) impact on their body image. Responses have been categorized and will be discussed in the following themes and subthemes:

  1. Principles of Modesty
    1. Body as a Temple
    2. Self-Respect
    3. Personal Relationship with God
  2. Practices of Modesty
    1. Protect Men’s Thoughts
    2. Follow Church Rules
    3. Presenting a Specific Image

Principles of Modesty

Many participants spoke of various principles or teachings that they understood as underlying reasons for modesty: viewing their body as a temple, self-respect, and their relationship with God (or to strengthen their relationship with God). Participants reported these various principles having both a negative and positive impact on their body image.

Body as a Temple

Overall, 10.71% of the quotes about modesty (n = 18) discussed seeing their body as a temple as an underlying reason for modesty. Of those 18 quotes, 7 did not discuss the impact modesty had on their body image (38.89%), and 11 felt that modesty had a positive impact on their body image (61.11%). For example, one woman shared;

My parents taught me always just, "Your body is a temple. Make sure that you're always taking care and protecting it." So I definitely feel like now, looking at my life, I'm just so grateful that I listened to my parents and stayed modest. […] But yes, modesty has definitely improved my body image, because I've been able to see my worth more and respect myself more when I'm modest. (White, 18–29, Female, Utah).

No participants discussed seeing their body as a temple as the underlying reason for modesty and felt that modesty had a negative impact on their body image.


Overall, 26.79% of quotes about modesty (n = 45) discussed showing respect for their bodies as an underlying reason for modesty. Of those 45 quotes, 51.11% did not discuss the impact modesty on their body image (n = 23), and 40% felt modesty had a positive impact on their body image (n = 18). One woman shared;

Modesty and the way it's been taught to me is basically just showing respect for this body that Heavenly Father's given me. We only get one, we need to take good care of it. So, I have found that dressing modestly makes me feel more comfortable. It's nice to be able to put on clothes that look nice, fit well, and to be able to leave the house and know that I'm not causing a scene or having anyone stare because I'm wearing something that's just calling too much attention or is showing in any way, any kind of disrespect for this pretty awesome creation that the Heavenly Father gave me. (White, 18–29, Female, Utah).

In contrast, 8.89% of quotes felt modesty had a negative or both positive and negative (mixed) impact on their body image (n = 4). As one woman shared;

[Modesty] is very important. That you need to cover up your body. That if you don't, you're a saucy tart. And, I don't know, whatever. [chuckle] … I think it's a good and a bad thing. I have a greater respect for my body, but I also don't have ... I also don't have a lot of confidence in it because sometimes it almost feels like it's shameful, like, ‘You need to cover up. Your knees are showing, Miss,’ you know? So sometimes it's … you can feel a little bit ashamed about your body because you're told to cover it up so much. But at the same time, you are showing yourself a measure of respect by doing that. So, good and bad. (White, 18–29, Female, Broad United States).

Personal Relationship With God

22 quotes (13.10%) discussed the participants’ individual relationships with God as an underlying reason for dressing modestly. Of those 22 quotes, 12 (54.55%) did not discuss the impact that modesty had on their body image. Nine (40.91%) discussed modesty as having a positive impact on their body image. One participant shared:

I feel [modesty is]) an outward expression of the faith that we have, kind of like with wearing our garments. That makes me feel good about my body too ... I feel I didn't really understand modesty until I received my garments to where it's not just covering up your body ... it's a faith-based thing. (White, 18–29, Female, International)

Only one quote discussed a personal relationship with God as an underlying reason for modesty and modesty as having a negative effect on their body image. This participant shared:

My parents sort of taught me another way because my mom is a convert of the Church, so she understands both sides since she's a little bit more relaxed, concerning things. Or more than more relaxed, she kind of understands the bigger picture a little bit more. She taught me about loving my body and not just showing it as a tool or things like that, that it's more about respecting myself and respecting what the Lord gave me but at church, it was more like I should be ashamed with myself for doing that, that's something terrible to do. They did it more in a negative way, like making you feel like, I don't know — your worth decreases when you show too much of your skin. And that was a terrible sin and that's what Satan wants you to do. So, I felt ashamed of my body... (Hispanic, 18–29, Female, International).

Practices of Modesty

In addition to discussing various principles as the underlying reasons for dressing modestly, many participants also discussed being taught about modesty in a more practice-based approach; dressing modestly to follow church standards, covering up for men, and to present a specific image. Participants reported these various teachings that were tied more closely to practices as having both a negative and positive impact on their body image.

Follow Church Standards

Of the total 168 quotes pertaining to modesty, 38 (22.62%) discussed dressing modestly as related to following specific church standards (not that they followed specific standards, but that the underlying reason for dressing modestly was to follow these standards). Of these 38 quotes, 22 did not discuss the impact that modesty had on their body image (57.89%). Five quotes that discussed this reason for modesty also felt that modesty had a positive impact on their body image, such as one woman who shared:

And also just even at the base level of modesty is that even if I don't completely understand all of the dress code things, that it's like we were given base guidelines, and that's what God has, or at least, we've been under ... From what the prophet has told us. That's what we understand God has asked, and so if nothing else, it's an obedience thing. It's like a faith ... I would say that [modesty] has helped me in somewhat t... to me, I think modesty is a way that's it's like, I wear the clothes that will work with the promises that I've made and that is kind of enough for me. But that doesn't mean I can't dress nice or I can't dress in a way that I know is attractive on me. (White, 18–29, Female, International).

In contrast, 11 quotes (28.95%) discussed modesty as a result of following church standards, and modesty as having a negative or mixed impact on their body image. One woman shared:

I was telling my husband,… When I grew up, modesty was always what you wore, what clothes you wore, whether it was modest. We never talked about other aspects of modesty in church. And it's come up a lot in different Facebook groups that I'm in and talking less about the clothes that you're wearing and more being modest in the way that we act. And I was always taught that modesty meant you were wearing sleeves, garment-appropriate clothing. And I don't think that's necessarily 100% true. I feel like you could be modest and still ... I don't know. I don't think shoulders are immodest, but I was always taught that it was. And so, modesty's always been kind of a negative thing for me because I always felt like I was being forced to dress a certain way or be a certain way ... I felt like that was the first point of real contention with me wanting to leave the Church because I felt like I couldn't be myself and if I wore a two-piece swimsuit that I wasn't okay and I wasn't good enough to go to a church activity, or it just felt like it was the first point of setting me apart from my peers at church. (White, 30–49, Female, Utah).

Covering Up for Men

In total, 14.29% of quotes about modesty (n = 24) discussed modesty being taught as a way to protect men’s thoughts, or as covering up for men. Overall, 13 of these quotes (54.17%) did not discuss the impact that these teachings had on their body image. Three (12.50%) of the quotes discussed this teaching and felt that modesty had a positive impact on their body image. One woman shared:

When I was a teenager ... I bought a short skirt and my friends had very similar skirts. And I bought it and my dad pulled me into his room and was like, "You're returning this, this is not okay for you to wear." And I was really upset about that. And one thing that he said to me was that, when you wear this, something along the lines of, "When you wear this ... I guess you don't understand what young men think about.’ And kind of basically said, "When you wear this, you encourage those kinds of immoral thoughts for young men." And I don't think … I know I've heard ... [this] could be viewed as a bad thing, but for me, I took that as a good thing. I feel like that was very cultural because I don't think modesty is always about how long your skirt is or how much sleeve you have or how much skin is showing. I think it's the way that you wear your clothing as well, and when it's appropriate or inappropriate. But I think I took that moment as an opportunity to understand that my body was not for other people to be looking at. It was for me, and it stunk that I didn't get to wear cute clothes that I liked, and if they didn't fit into this mold, but I guess, I don't know. I am still trying to figure out if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but I think at the time, it affected me in a positive way (White, 30–49, Female, Utah).

In contrast, eight quotes that discussed modesty as a way to protect men’s thoughts also discussed modesty as having a negative impact on their body image (33.33%). One woman shared:

Well, growing up, obviously it was ... I think the church has changed its stance a little bit, but it was basically ... You don't wear short shorts and things like that or the strapless dresses. And I think when I was taught modesty, it was like, "Well it's your responsibility to not be tempting to boys." … I would say it probably made me feel worse [about my body], and probably I would go with a different way of teaching my kids ... I think I probably … teach them that their bodies are special and that it's something that they have to love and that it's not something that they need to show everybody ... I want them to feel confident and love themselves, and so they can especially with this sex thing and different things like that, I want them to feel like that's not cool, and they don't have to do that to have somebody love them, or like them, or tell them they're beautiful. (White, 30–49, Female, Utah).

Presenting a Specific Image

Lastly, participants also discussed dressing modestly as a way to present a specific image, typically as a way to convey something about their personal spirituality or morality. Overall, 32.14% of all quotes pertaining to modesty discussed this as a reason that they were taught to dress modestly (n = 54). Of the 54 total quotes, 34 (62.96%) did not discuss the impact that this teaching had on their body image. Seven (12.96%) discussed modesty as having a positive impact on their body image, as one man shared:

So, in the church [I was in] before joining the LDS church, I was always wearing casual and different fashionable stuff. I haven't really seen people around here wearing that type of clothes, like wearing your pants below your hips like baggy pants and loose t-shirts. And I don't know, I thought maybe I'm looking good when I was a kid. But your society or the people you meet [influence] you, and I felt like “I'm looking good.” But then after joining the Church, I realized that I'm weird. I was really very skinny, and it felt like when you hang your clothes in a hanger with a ... so it was like that. But then, after joining the Church ... I stopped wearing such clothing, and now I feel better about myself, not just[about] my body. (South Asian, 18–29, Male, International).

In contrast, nine quotes discussed this approach to modesty in conjunction with modesty having a negative impact on their body image (16.67%), while four quotes (7.04%) discussed modesty as having both a positive and negative impact on their body image. One woman shared:

Yeah. How do you feel, so think kinda back to young woman age, right? How were you taught about modesty or can you remember? 0:39:47 S2: Yes, yes, I can remember. I would say that mostly they talked about modesty as very specific behaviors of not showing off cleavage or [wearing] too short of clothes. And we did have some of the traditional lessons that I personally think are super detrimental ... I do feel that, in a degree, it made me a bit more self-conscious or cautious, not that I would want to dress myself to show anything or to flaunt, but I do think that it's mixed because I do think that you made me a lot more conscious of why my body is sacred in a sense, but I do think they might have made me more self-conscious about my body, about not showing my body ... (Multi-Ethnic, 30¬–49, Female, International).

Study 2: Body Esteem and Modesty Survey

To further explore the impact of different practices and principles of modesty on body esteem, we collected survey data from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Methods (Study 2)


Data for this study came from a survey specifically conducted to address our research questions. Of the total sample (N= 1,333), 1,094 were women (82.07%), with 176 men (13.20%), one was unsure of their gender identity (0.08%), and 62 missing (4.65%). Participant ages ranged from 18 to 80 (M = 32.88; SD = 10.19). The vast majority of the sample consisted of active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (n = 1,271; 95.35%), with a small subset consisting of ex-members or members who are not actively participating in church right now (n = 62, 4.65%; See Table 2 for additional demographic information).

Table 2: Study 2 Participants Demographic Information


Participants were recruited via social media, where they were directed to an initial demographics and qualifying survey where they provided informed consent to participate in the survey. Eligibility was based on quotas for age, gender, and race. Individuals were required to be 18 or older to participate and had to have been/or currently were a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If participants were eligible, they were directed to a larger survey which asked questions pertaining to their religiosity, body esteem, and the impact of church culture and teachings on their body esteem.


We created two new measures on modesty based on the qualitative interviews described in Study 1.

Modesty and Feeling. Church members’ experiences with modesty were assessed in two primary ways. First, how modesty made them feel was assessed. Example questions include “Modesty makes me feel shame,” “Modesty makes me feel empowered,” and “Modesty makes me feel judged.” Participants were also asked about “loved,” “safe,” and “worthy.” Participants responded on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = Never to 5 = Always). This scale was used for descriptive reasons.

Modesty, Principles and Practices. The principles and practices that participants were taught growing up (as described in the qualitative study) were assessed. Participants were asked: “Sometimes parents and/or Church leaders give reasons for dressing modestly. Please select the reasons you were taught” and were given seven options. Participants selected all reasons they were taught for modesty. Two subscales were created: modesty practices and modesty principles.

Modesty practices consisted of three items; “presenting a certain image,” “covering up for men’s sake,” and “obedience to follow church standards,” All factor loadings were good (greater than 0.40). Higher scores indicate being taught more practices.

Modesty principles consisted of three items: “showing self-respect,” “personal relationship with God,” and “Body is a temple.” All factor loadings were good (greater than 0.40). Higher scores indicate being taught more principles.

Body Esteem. The Body Esteem Scale (BES) for Adolescents and Adults (Mendelson et al., 2001) was used to assess body esteem. Participants were given several statements and asked to select the response that most closely fit their experience. Response categories ranged from 1 (never) to 5 (always) with sample items including statements such as “I like what I see when I look in the mirror” and “I am satisfied with my weight.” Several items were reverse coded so that higher scores indicate a more positive body esteem. All factor loadings were good (greater than 0.40).

Plan of Analysis

This analysis was conducted in three primary steps. First, we examined descriptive statistics of feelings of modesty, and bivariate correlations to ascertain basic information about the relationship between modesty principles and practices and body esteem. To further explore our research questions, we used structural equation modeling using Mplus v.8.4, to examine direct associations between principles and practices of modesty and body esteem, controlling for gender, age, race, and income. As our qualitative research revealed important gender differences in practices and principles of modesty, we also explored gender as a moderator of the relationship between practices/principles of modesty and body esteem.

Results (Study 2)

Preliminary Analysis

Overall, participants reported that modesty helped them feel worthy (M = 3.22, SD = 1.17), while the feeling participants felt in association with modesty the least was empowered (M = 2.74, SD = 1.24). See Table 3 for further descriptive statistics for modesty and feelings.

Table 3: Modesty and Feelings Descriptive Statistics

Bivariate correlations for individual items are shown in Table 4.

Table 4: Bivariate Correlations; Modesty Principles
and Practices and Body esteem

Main Analysis

A structural equation model was constructed using Mplus v.8.4, examining the impact of principles and practices of modesty on body esteem, while controlling for participant race, age, income, and gender (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Principles and Practices of Modesty on Body Esteem
and Practices and Body esteem

A multi-group model was conducted to test for structural invariance as a function of sex of participant. The unconstrained model did not result in better model fit when compared to a fully constrained model. Accordingly, the model was run as a single group.

Model fit was acceptable, χ2 = 1039.004, p < .001, RMSEA = .067; CIF = .91; SRMR = .048. Practices of modesty had a significantly negative impact (β = -0.30, SE=0.09, p = .001) while principles of modesty had a significantly positive impact on body esteem (β = 0.18, SE=0.09, p = .034). The R^2 value of body esteem was 0.071 (7.10%). These results indicate a negative effect of teaching practices of modesty on body esteem, and a positive impact of teaching principles of modesty on body esteem in a Latter-day Saint sample.

Controls of age and gender were both significantly associated with body esteem (age; β = -0.13, SD = 0.03, p < .001; gender; β = 0.12, SD = 0.03, p < .001 [men = 1, women = 0]). Income and race, however, did not have a significant impact on body esteem (income; β = 0.05, SD = 0.03, p = .11; race, β = -0.02, SD = 0.03, p = .60).


The current study utilized qualitative and quantitative methods to examine modesty as related to body image in a sample of Latter-day Saints. Overall, we found that participants reported a wide variety of ways they were taught about modesty, including several different principles and practices. Body esteem tended to differ based on the mechanism used to teach about modesty, with principles tending to be related to positive body esteem, and practices relating to negative body esteem (in both studies).

Overall, participants were most likely to report feeling “worthy” and “judged” when thinking about modesty. These descriptive findings reveal that participants believe that modesty is very much tied to their religious identity and adherence to modesty principles equate to worthiness (and assumedly feeling judged when they do not dress “modestly”). This led to very mixed responses from participants (particularly women) around the concept of modesty. Some women felt very positively about the principle of modesty, reporting that it helped them feel close to God, reminded them about sacred covenants with the divine, and gave them greater confidence in their own body. However, other women felt that modesty was outdated, taught incorrectly, and encouraged a culture of judgement from the religious community. Indeed, the two most common feelings around modesty (worthy and judged) demonstrate the tension that both our participants and feminist scholars experience with modesty. On one hand, some individuals felt that they experienced increased power (worthy) through modesty, while other participants felt decreased power (judged).

For example, some participants reported that from a very young age, well-meaning and good intentioned family and friends drew awareness of what individuals are “supposed” to wear, what is immodest and shameful, and what draws attention to certain body parts. This practice-forward approach to the overarching religious principle of modesty may lead to a culture where individual righteousness is measured by hemlines and covered shoulders, or even the style of and type of coverage provided by a swimsuit. Several women reported that teachings about modesty directly and negatively influenced their body esteem. For example, one participant reported, “[T]he more I was exposed to the word modesty, the more I felt bad about my body.” In contrast, other participants felt that modesty had direct positive effects on their body esteem. This discrepancy highlights that for many religious individuals, the way that individuals are taught and socialized to think about modesty from a young age has a profound impact on the way that modesty not only effects their body esteem, but the way that they view their body in relation to giving them increased power (e.g., worthy), or stripping them of power (e.g., judged).

The impact on a person’s body esteem likely depends on how modesty was taught, encouraged, and even enforced by parents and leaders (either based on principles or practices). In the qualitative study, participants described several different principles used to teach about modesty. When examined in the quantitative study, these principles were positively related to body esteem, for both men and women. The most common principle described by participants involved modesty as a way of showing self-respect. Many participants reported that learning about modesty in this way helped them feel more confident and accepting of their body, helping them to love and have dignity for themselves. This construct is likely related to the body positivity literature, where individuals feel a great love, respect, and gratitude for the body, focusing on what their body can do as opposed to how it appears (Tylka & Wood-Barcalow, 2015). In the context of modesty, this view focuses less on how the body looks in a certain style of dress and instead focuses on how the clothes makes one feel or how they might help aid the body in what it can do (e.g., running a marathon, gardening, climbing a mountain, etc.). This type of self-respect or self-compassion tends to relate to positive body esteem, which we found for the most part in the current study (e.g., Kelly, et al., 2014). Self-respect and compassion within the context of modesty might reduce self-objectification, which tends to be related to poor body esteem (Tiggerman & Lynch, 2001).

Other participants described different principles related to body sanctification (Kopp et al., 2017). Though other research has examined how body sanctification tends to positively be related to body esteem (Boyatzis et al., 2007; Mahoney et al., 2005), this is the first study to our knowledge to examine the principle of modesty in this context. Specifically, participants described how modesty encourages them to create a personal relationship with God and to treat their body like a temple. In the Latter-day Saint religion, the temple is a physical manifestation of being close to God and making personal commitments according to one’s value system. This approach to modesty also demonstrates ideas from symbolic interaction, as viewing the body as a temple, or a physical manifestation of being close to the divine, creates deep meaning for individuals towards their bodies. Thus, modesty becomes a physical reminder of the individual's connection with the divine, and encourages temperance, humility, sacredness, and purpose — as opposed to seeking attention, arrogance, or worldliness. Rather than focusing on a specific style of dress, this approach focuses on the symbolism of dress and reminds individuals of their relationship with God.

It is also within the Latter-day Saint temple where members go to receive further and more advanced instruction regarding “modesty” during their adult years. As a Latter-day Saint adult enters the temple, they are instructed to wear “garments of the holy priesthood throughout their life” which symbolize instruction given to their ancient religious ancestors to “cover their nakedness.” Much like a hijab or other clothing, the garments worn by Latter-day Saint adults serve as a physical yet symbolic reminder of the covenants they have made and are considered sacred and private by adhering members. While the style of the garment has changed throughout time, the purpose has not. It is interesting to note that another form of teaching practice could include telling individuals to “wear clothing that would cover the garment.” This practice, however, leaves room for policy changes and updates to the garment which are not as fundamentally connected to spirituality as the guiding principle, which is to maintain an attitude of propriety and decency in dress as a show of respect toward God and the self.

Participants also described multiple practices as related to modesty. In the quantitative study, these tended to be related to worse body esteem. Many participants discussed modesty as being taught using guidelines to comply with Church standards (such as hemlines being a certain length, no low cut or sleeveless shirts, one-piece swimming suits, etc.). These tended to be viewed negatively as the principles behind modesty were rarely discussed in these instances and instead compliance was emphasized. From a symbolic interactionist lens, practice-based teaching does not aid in the creation of deep meaning around the body, which makes it unlikely that this approach would help promote positive body esteem. Indeed, several participants reported feeling shame when being taught about modesty in this way, with many reporting developing a negative relationship with their body as they felt their body was something that had to be covered up (Aghasaleh, 2018). Some participants even reported feeling they wanted to leave the religion because of this approach.

Quite a few participants talked about being taught that modesty portrayed a certain image (such as avoiding short skirts to avoid being viewed as promiscuous). This particular response tended to be mixed, with some individuals feeling positive about this approach and others feeling negative. The reported positive and negative effects of this approach are unsurprising, given that dressing a certain way to present a specific image simultaneously increases individual’s power by giving that individual control over how they are perceived, while also decreasing an individual’s power by reducing their bodies to an image meant to be consumed.

Interestingly, all the individuals feeling negative about this approach felt this impacted their body esteem in a negative way, with some reporting feelings of guilt or shame around their body. Additionally, a sizable minority of individuals were taught that modesty was mostly for women and practiced in order to “protect men’s thoughts,” with the idea that men would not have sexual thoughts if women would dress more conservatively. Interestingly, many stories involved modesty practices around Young Women’s camp. This is a yearly event, and many participants reported a very specific and rigid dress code. Typically, several male adult church members attend camp to help with set-up, camp chores, etc. Participants mentioned that often the dress codes were described to them (primarily by females) as a way to be modest around adult men who may be present at the camp. The vast majority of individuals felt this practice was harmful as it focused solely on women’s dress, absolved men of any responsibility for controlling sexual appetites, desires, and behaviors, and may even contribute to rape myths where women are viewed as responsible for sexual assault when dressing a certain way (Aghasaleh, 2018; Begum & Barn, 2019).

This study has numerous implications for parents, Church leaders, and individuals. First, overall, modesty as a principle tended to be viewed positively. However, parents and leaders may wish to focus on principles of modesty (e.g., self-respect, body sanctification, humility, body as a temple) as opposed to practices which are often dictated by a specific standard of dress. Additionally, in our qualitative interviews, we heard several examples of young women being confronted and demeaned by a Church leader for not adhering to a specific dress standard. Invariably, these circumstances tended to end poorly, with some individuals never attending church again and many developing immense shame around their body as a result of the “intervention.” We encourage religious leaders to avoid this practice altogether and instead focus on helping develop an individual's relationship with God (Nakkawita & Heiphetz, 2021). Individuals who believe in the principle of modesty will likely be confident enough to withstand comments and judgement from others. It should be expected to have variability and variety between individuals in the way they dress. By focusing on one’s relationship with and commitment to God — and the importance of fostering self-respect and agency to choose — individuals are able to find ways to dress and move within their bodies while also building body esteem. We also encourage leaders and individuals to avoid rigid dress codes (particularly in youth camp or retreat experiences) and teach about principles instead — letting participants choose what clothing helps them feel good and allows them to be their best self in the activities they are doing for the day. For example, parents or leaders could say something like, "You are going to a yoga class where you will be bending and stretching. What would be most comfortable for you to wear?" Or: "You are interviewing for a job and want to look professional and be perceived as competent. What could you wear to help you feel successful?" Or: "You are going swimming at the lake. You will have the opportunity to waterski and be in and out of the water. What kind of attire or swimsuit will help you be more likely to play, enjoy movement, and engage fully in interactions with others?" Instead of rigid dress guidelines, focusing on principles encourages critical thinking, agency, and empowerment (which was, currently, the word least likely to be used when thinking about modesty). Empowering females from a young age regarding their clothing choices allows them the opportunity to practice being deliberate and purposeful and decide how they interpret and practice modesty. Notably, while this paper was under revision, the wording around modesty guidelines were changed for youth. Interestingly, the changes focused on principles instead of practices and the word “modesty” is not even found in the section. This change is consistent with the results of this study and may represent a change in thinking around modesty in the Church.

Finally, we suggest avoiding any reference to modesty as solely a women’s issue and as a way to protect men’s thoughts. This practice sexualizes young girls, encourages men to avoid responsibility for their own behavior, and may even contribute to rape myths or sexual assault (Begum & Barn, 2019). Modesty can and should be applied in both principle and practice to all individuals regardless of gender. Men and women can be taught to practice critical thinking and agency by thinking about principles of modesty in their thoughts and actions. Furthermore, all individuals are sexual beings and should each be held accountable for their own thoughts, desires, and actions linked to those thoughts; it is not the responsibility of anyone to gatekeep for another’s sexual impulses. Focusing on modesty as one’s connection to the divine and appreciation of their own godliness and goodness allows individuals to respect their body in thought and behavior.

Recent meta-analysis research indicates that body dissatisfaction may be on the decline, although women still struggle more than men (Karazsia et al, 2017). Struggles with body image are common for women who present for therapy. Clinicians and mental health therapists who are working with female individuals who are also members of a religious group such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should be mindful of the principles and practices within their client's religious tradition and culture. Clinicians could work with their clients to address potential incongruence or distorted thoughts and beliefs related to those practices and principles. The high incidence of poor body esteem in women in general — and then within this small Latter-day Saint sample — hint that therapists should at minimum be assessing an individual’s body esteem as related to modesty and then work to treat these concerns if and when they present. Though this study had several strengths, including the use of multiple studies, multiple methodologies, and a large sample of Latter-day Saints, there were some limitations which should be noted. First, the study only focused on Latter-day Saints, which is a small Christian religion. While other religions do focus on modesty and have dress codes, this study may not be generalizable to other religions. Second, the study was cross-sectional, so direction of effects could not be established. It is possible that existing body image might color experiences at church and interpretations of teachings around modesty. Thus, any suggestion of causality is not warranted. Future research might wish to examine perceptions of modesty in childhood and adolescence and how this might relate to body esteem later in life. Additionally, the sample was not necessarily representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at large. Instead, participants self-selected into the sample, and it is possible that those who have strong feelings around body image may have opted in. Thus, results should be viewed with some caution in terms of generalizability. In addition, anecdotally it seemed that the “girls dress modestly to protect men’s thoughts” narrative was propagated to younger generations primarily from other women. Future research should examine the gendered patterns of messages about modesty and explore further the role that men or women in power play in shaping women’s understanding of modesty as a religious principle. Within the Latter-day Saint community, there is a specific religious ceremony which typically takes place during adult years in which individuals are taught more explicitly about modesty and given a holy garment to wear as a reminder of their covenant to remain modest. It could be important to examine attitudes of modesty of those within The Church of Jesus Christ who have gone through this ceremony compared to individuals who have not. Finally, a large majority of participants were white. Therefore, this study may not be as generalizable to participants of color. We attempted several strategies to increase the diversity of the sample, but unfortunately, the racial diversity of the sample was not ideal. We hope future research can examine these concepts in more diverse populations, as race and culture tend to impact body esteem (Skorek et al., 2014).

So, is modest actually hottest? This study revealed that individuals from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have mixed feelings about modesty, with many loving the concept, while others report significant negative feelings. Our research suggests the way this principle is taught by parents and leaders has a significant impact on outcomes related to body esteem. Specifically, focusing on practices and specific dress codes tends to be related to worse body esteem, while focusing on wider principles and an individual’s relationship to God is associated with better body esteem. In our modest opinion (excuse the pun), we encourage individuals to think about how their relationship with the principle of modesty might be beneficial in their lives and also, about how to root out toxic modesty discussions in their culture of influence.

Funding: Eliza R Snow grant at BYU
Conflicts of interest/Competing interests: None
Availability of data and material (data transparency): By request to the first author
Code availability: N/A
Authors' contributions: All authors contributed substantively to the manuscript


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Full Citation for this Article: Sarah M. Coyne, Jane E. Shawcroft, Chenae Christensen-Duerden, Lauren A. Barnes, Haley Graver, Moriah Perkins, Andrew Brindley (2022) "Modesty and Mormons: A Mixed-Methods Study of the Impact of Principles and Practices of Modesty on Body Esteem in a Latter-day Saint Sample ," SquareTwo, Vol. 15 No. 3 (Fall 2022),, accessed <give access date>.

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