There was a light-hearted post written recently about how BYU statues break the honor code. Yes, it’s an old joke; why can Brigham or Karl Maesar have a beard, why aren’t there sleeves on the little girls’ dresses, etc. etc. It’s all in good fun, but it does actually raise some questions, or at least, could give us an opportunity to think more carefully and appropriately about something like the BYU Honor Code.
What is an Honor Code? It’s a code, or a set of rules or behaviors that a group enters into willingly, and assumes responsibility to follow those rules without anyone forcing them to do so. It’s the old chalk-circle analogy: if I promise to stay in that circle, I’m going to stay in that circle! That little story I think illustrates nicely what is at the heart of an honor code, that is, honesty. Rules about beards or shorts may have been put there for various reasons, and those reasons may even change over time, but when it’s a part of an “honor code” then the rules themselves aren’t really what matter. For the time being, what is at stake is one’s honesty. Like I said, that may be only for a limited time, such as while a student is still a student at BYU. Once they have graduated, a student is free to have a beard, for example. The fact that something is okay for the temple recommend interview but not to take a test at BYU ought to tell us at least this: don’t take the rules as commandments; they are a code for a particular group of people. (Plenty of schools have dress codes or other codes not associated with religious beliefs. Even our local middle school has a uniform requirement.)
Now, how does that speak to modesty issues? Has the BYU honor code come to mirror modesty “rules” taught in the Church? Or, have modesty “rules” in the Church come to mirror the BYU honor code? Also, how does the temple factor into our discussion? (or how ought it to factor in?) I wonder this, because as I walked around Provo last summer I noticed that women all over Provo, on BYU campus, and at BYU museums (including employees) were fine wearing shorts 6 or more inches above the knee. Now, before any one picks on me for being too picky, I’m using this as an example of three different ways to think about (what we usually call) modesty:
ONE: BYU Honor Code specifies a specific length of short. Just as any other dress code for any school, these BYU students and employees willingly agreed to follow BYU’s dress code. Regardless of other ways of thinking about modesty, this seems like a matter of being slightly dishonest or disingenuous.
TWO: Temple-endowed members will need to wear clothing to the knees and over the shoulders and covering the belly & back. This is a fact and can be a fact without any reference to modesty, sexuality, etc. Either these women at BYU and around Provo were not endowed, or, they weren’t following through with the need to wear garments and clothing to cover them. Which would mean not following covenants made in the temple; in other words, another question of honesty.
THREE: Clothing is also a way to cover, display, signal, label, etc. Were these women signalling anything inappropriate by their choice of clothing? No, I don’t think so at all. Nothing was provocative, nothing associated them with “dangerous” groups or movements, nothing was even flashy or gaudy. They were usually simple khaki or denim shorts. Outside of a BYU or temple-aware culture, there would be nothing about these shorts that would be considered immodest or inappropriate in any way!
So this summer, when I was in Provo I assumed these women either weren’t members or weren’t yet endowed. They were bright, happy people going about doing good. I had concerns about BYU employees or students, but not because they were being sexualized or any such thing, but simply because it seemed a bit dishonest. Kinda cheap, I guess. But I just shrugged my shoulders and let it go. Besides, if it’s a matter of honor code, maybe something in the honor code has changed and I’m just not aware of it.
Such seem to be three different ways of thinking about rules like knee-length shorts and shirts with sleeves. There are times when not following those rules is provocative certainly, but of course not every instance! The rules I think go beyond that. I teach my children to wear knee-length shorts and sleeves not because it’s scandalous to do otherwise, but because it’s a way of pointing them to or preparing them for the temple. It’s a small thing, but I want them to feel like it’s a reminder to prepare for the temple. I suppose similarly, the temple garments are a small thing, but they remind us about the temple too.
I love the statue of the two children playing with a frog that is outside the Wilk. They are bright-eyed and happy and having fun sharing a wonder of nature with each other. The little children are not dressed to BYU Honor Code standards, but why would they need to be? They aren’t BYU students! 🙂 And they certainly wouldn’t be endowed at that age. And perhaps the person who made the statue wasn’t even a member of the Church! There is nothing in their demeanor or dress that is negative or that signals something inappropriate in any way. It is full of innocence and joy.
Which is why posts like the one I mentioned can be so light-hearted. BYU students realize that they are choosing to dress and act a certain way. It’s not an eternal commandment to be clean-shaven, wear a ring, have shorts a certain length (hey, early members had to wear full-length pants!), etc. And we recognize that. BYU students choose to follow the Honor Code because it is requested of them in order to make them a identifiable group (as all codes do, whether for schools or religions or political or artistic movements, etc.)
Honor code or dress code rules aren’t, almost by definition aren’t, eternal universal rules! Which I think ought to make our discussions of modesty much more nuanced than they usually are. Are we modest for this or that moral reason? Maybe. But we are also “modest” because we are are asked to be, and in that we are modest because we are honest too. Things to think about, anyway…