Gordon Monson: When the LDS Church alters classic art in the name of modesty, it does more harm than good

Such moves are an affront to women and make the church look not just prudish but also extreme.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gordon Monson.

When does a church’s effort to champion female modesty have a corrosive effect on the way women view and feel about their own bodies?

Too often.

There’s no shame in the natural female form. It’s a good guess that even God would agree with that, since if you believe in him, you figure he was the author of it. But you wouldn’t know that by the way The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a faith, by the way, that preaches of a Heavenly Mother — attempts to keep it under wraps.

By now, you may have read in The Salt Lake Tribune about the Utah-based faith modifying classic works of art, including eliminating any hint of the Virgin Mary’s cleavage in Carlo Maratta’s 17th-century painting of the Nativity. In the church’s version, which had been made available on its website, Mary’s neckline is raised and a shawl covering her shoulder is a bit higher.

The original version of Carlo Maratta’s painting, titled “The Holy Night” or “The Nativity,” at left. An edited version on the right was used in materials for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Not only are the alterations an affront to classic art — the church’s image also edited out surrounding angels depicted in the original — but they also either unwittingly or wittingly send the aforementioned message to women that there’s something shameful about their bodies. In other works, the church has previously covered the shoulders of female angels.

We get it. The church is all-in on modesty. But the attendant shame put upon women coming alongside that overemphasis on keeping themselves covered backfires on the church, not just in the harm it creates among women and women’s self-esteem, but also in sexualizing them as objects or, even worse, possessions.

Not good, brethren.

Ironically, news of this doctored photo emerges at a time when members are praising the church’s new principle-based “For the Strength of Youth” guidelines for backing away from proscriptive instructions on modesty.

Nothing wrong with respecting women; nothing wrong with modesty, but when the church drapes a shirt over the Virgin Mary in classic art, eliminating the slightest bit of cleavage, what exactly does that do? It draws more attention to that form, sexualizes it, even in a rendering that depicts the mother of the Lord in complete innocence, adoring her newborn.

It makes the church look not just prudish but also extreme.

Some experts believe such a heavy-handed approach to modesty becomes a controlling mechanism, a tool to suppress female expression and to — wrongly — make women feel as if they are responsible for men’s sexual thoughts.

For women, that modesty mechanism can cause fear and anxiety, they say, particularly when the boundaries for compliance are spelled out primarily by male church leaders.

If the church makes a big deal out of the hint of a woman’s cleavage then it becomes … a big deal. What it should be is … natural and normal, which is to say, it should be normalized.

Nobody’s saying here to be disrespectful, especially when it comes to such a revered character as Mary. The encouragement and point isn’t, from the church’s perspective, for it to encourage the flaunting of a woman’s body to the edge of abject immodesty, wherever that neckline or hemline is to be drawn.

And those lines should be drawn by each woman for herself.

It’s the overwrought and overbearing messages, the extremes, that do more harm than good, the insistence that women cloak themselves because doing otherwise, even to the point of showing a little shoulder or midriff or whatever, in real modern life or in a centuries-old painting, is disfavored on the one end or deplorable on the other.

Society has already done a negative number on the way too many women view their bodies. When faith leaders add to that number, women of all kinds, particularly females of faith, too often are made to look at themselves and feel what they should not feel — chagrin, dishonor, shame and disgrace.

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