Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

The Mormon temple wedding photo game

Mette Ivie Harrison

(courtesy of Mette Harrison)

Mette Ivie Harrison

A guest post by Mette Harrison

When I was a teenager, my father sat me down one day to show me a “game” he played. He’d open the newspaper to the section that had wedding announcements. Then he’d hold his hand over the names and other information and he’d try to guess just based on the image of the couple whether or not they were getting married in the temple.

He had over ninety percent accuracy at this game.

To him, this proved that “the Spirit” was visible in the eyes of those couples who were ready to make eternal covenants with God and to create an eternal family unit.

At the time, I went along with this, surprised that my father was right so often. When I tried to play the same game, I was also pretty accurate at guessing who was getting married in the temple. Occasionally, I was wrong, but it was usually a couple who was getting married in a Mormon church building, so that meant they were still showing “the Spirit” to me in their eyes. At the time, this game confirmed to me and my father that we were righteous enough to be able to discern those who were worthy of the temple and those who weren’t.

Fast forward twenty-five years and I am horrified by the assumptions and prejudices behind this game. I hope you are, too. What I see now is an adult and a teenager looking for people whose appearance followed cultural rules, from missionary-standard hair length for the man to certain hairstyles for the woman.

We scrutinized the bride’s wedding dress to see if it conformed to Mormon modesty standards, and her ears to check the number of piercings. Only one pair of earrings was acceptable for a woman. For the groom, no earrings of any kind were allowed. Or tattoos or jewelry.

While my father, as a man of his generation, believed that people indicated their spirituality by what they chose to wear, I’ve become more dubious about this as I’ve gotten older. People can choose to adopt typical Mormon Utah clothing, hairstyles, and other obvious markers of “belonging,” but what does this really tell us about them? That they are willing to change their tribal identifiers so that they can be part of the church? Maybe. That they want to “fit in” and “belong”? This seems more likely.

My daughter who has left the LDS Church still looks very Mormon. She wears “modest” clothing (most of the time), doesn’t smoke or drink, and has let her one set of ear piercings grow over. Her mid-length, undyed hairstyle looks typically Mormon, too. She sometimes gets asked out by nice young Mormon men who meet her through her job in Utah. Inevitably, she turns them down and tries to explain that they have the wrong impression of her. She’s not particularly interested in dating Mormon guys and suspects strongly that they will not be interested when they discover she’s an atheist.

I have a lot of problems with our insistence in Mormonism on some very strict rules on modesty, including telling young women that they can either change their clothes or not come to weekday activity if they’re wearing “capris” instead of long pants (yes, this has happened in my ward). I think this unduly stigmatizes groups we should be welcoming in, as well as encouraging rape culture in Mormonism by telling girls that it’s their job to make sure boys don’t have “impure” thoughts. It may also produce problems in marriage relationships (see here for earlier post). But at the very least it produces a mentality in which we believe we can tell at a glance whether people are spiritual.

Choosing to wear a certain kind of clothing or to have a certain hairstyle doesn’t mean anything other than an ability to see what others are doing and conform. Some people can’t afford that kind of clothing. Some people can’t see the difference between what they’re wearing and what other people are wearing.

And the solution the church often offers—which is to pay for people everywhere to wear this weird church-approved uniform—isn’t dealing with the real problem, which is superficiality. Surely we want to be able to view people on a deeper level than their clothing choices? Don’t we want our children to learn to look below the surface? I know I do.

I’m asking for Mormons everywhere to think a little more deeply, to be more discerning. This may have the added bonus of also making us less likely to be deceived by those who know very well how to act like good Mormons on the surface, but are only interested in cheating their community of investment funds—or using their positions as “good Mormons” in even worse ways.

We can do better. We must do better. No more games about seeing “the Spirit” in wedding photographs or anything similar, please. Christ looked on the heart. He looked beyond dirty clothes, bearded faces, or “porn shoulders.” So should we.

 


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

23 Comments

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  • When you finally realize much like your sister that your father indoctrinated you into his cult of blind obedience things will become a little more clear. Had you seen a mixed race couple in a wedding announcement… what would you have thought?

  • While I agree with literally everything in this article, I think it’s important to not go too far in the other direction and say that what we wear doesn’t matter. I like to think of it this way: You should never judge someone deeply or harshly based on what they are wearing. It’s true that certain things that a person wears will give some hints about their life, but it’s too hard to discern meaningful insights from a person’s dress and appearance, since there are too many confounding variables. More importantly, it’s not your place to judge.

    However, I recognize that what I wear sends a message, intended or not. Further, people make conscious decisions to communicate something based on what they are wearing. Modesty is an important value, and encompasses much more than skirt length or percentage of shoulder showing. People who dress loudly, provocatively, or sensually normally know they are doing so and intend it (although some, whose cultural frame of reference is different, don’t understand it as such). My place is not to judge others who do, but it is for me to be careful about the message I am sending.

  • I realized a while back that the “spirit” I was seeing in people’s eyes, or that other people mentioned seeing, was really just privilege and “culture”.

  • As one who has photographed many LDS weddings and families for the greater portion of a substantial number of years, it is clear that our culture cares deeply about the appearance of conformity. Look at the portraits we display of ourselves. Matching shirts and matching smiles. The illusion of perfection. Perfectly behaved children. Thank goodness for Photoshop so we can perpetuate the myth. I understand the imperitave to conform, but the result is images that are boring, dishonest, and empty of the human spirit. How much sweeter to accept our flaws and our differences. After all, that is what mortality is all about. I think we will be judged more on how we treat those who are not just like us than we will on how perfect we appear to be.

  • Oh, I thought the Spirit look in the eyes was, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, the manifestation of their brainwashing.?

  • I don’t see how encouraging modesty in both young men and women perpetuates a culture of rape. Your “rape culture” suggestion just has not been my experience with the hundreds of Mormon men and boys that I have associated with over the years. I have no doubt there are victims of rape in the Mormon church both girls and boys and the perpetrators should be punished to the fullest extent of the law including excommunication. However, I think it outrageous for you to suggest that rape is pervasive and normalized in the Mormon church simply because church teachings encourage modesty.

  • No, the rape culture is perpetrated at BYU by punishing the “victim” instead of the perpetrator for breaking a stupid made up “honor code violation” is real. Beards, on the other hand aren’t permitted at a school named after a horny polygamist who wore a beard.

  • It’s funny, I read a lot of these articles, and most of them don’t line up to my experience in the Church. I’ve been a member all my life, but in California, and i didn’t attend BYU.
    What you’re describing is endemic to most upper-middle class societies of any demographic. What’s funny is that many of the articles here preach for more open-mindedness, but then rarely span their view/reach outside of the experience of LDS from the Wasatch front.
    Come talk to some California Mormons! How about some Mexican Mormons? Or some Nova Scotian Mormons, or maybe some Romanian mormons! =)

  • You write: “And the solution the church often offers—which is to pay for people everywhere to wear this weird church-approved uniform—isn’t dealing with the real problem, which is superficiality.”

    I respond: What in Heaven’s name are you talking about? What weird church-approved uniform? There is no such thing. You have imagined this out of whole cloth. And since when has the church offered to pay for anything of the sort? As an orthodox Utah County Mormon who often attends church with an open collared colored shirt, I literally have no idea what you are talking about here. Not even an inkling. Can’t figure out how you could arrive at that sentence, even from confusion.

    Furthermore: As to the capris incident, which you claim happened in your ward, please immediately report this incident to your ward or stake leadership. I served for three years a volunteer in the Mt. Timpanogas Temple. We were instructed in the strictest terms, on the authority of Salt Lake, that we were never to mention the clothing a temple patron chooses to wear to the temple. Under no circumstances. Never. In the Temple, no less.

    If that is true in the temple, to suggest that a youth or ward leader might be empowered to make such a comment about a youth wearing capris at a ward building, whether on Sunday or during the week, is absurd. Surely someone has done so. But just as surely he or she should be called on the carpet. And it is disingenuous to suggest or imply that this is tacit or official church policy, or that it is widespread practice in the church.

  • Or some Utah Mormons. See my comment above. Fifteen years in the heart of Utah Valley, after growing up and attending college in California. I’ve never seen or heard anything like what she describes. I think she just needs to accept that her dad was weird.

    It’s the classic Comedy Central routine: find the neighborhood idiot and pretend he’s a representative sample.

  • Or some Utah Mormons. I was raised in California and have lived 15 years in the heart of Utah Valley and I have no idea what she’s talking about. See my comment above.

  • The question is, do I choose to care what others interpret from what I choose to wear? Many of us are dissatisfied with and choose not to support the societal norms that are based on unfair ideas that only made sense in their historical context. The “message” I send to others depends much more on the “receiver” than whatever I was thinking when I pulled on some clothes before heading out. That said, I conform to societal expectations in my dress more than I would like because of the professional consequences that would result if I simply wore what was comfortable. In other words, I have to choose to intentionally change my outer appearance in order to cater to the internal value-laden responses of those around me. Even as a golden ticket winner in our society (white, male, middle-class, educated, no obvious disabilities, neutral accent, cisgendered, RM, etc.) I have to conform or risk disempowerment and judgment based on outward conformity. I can hardly imagine what it must be like for women, minorities, cultural transplants, immigrants, etc., to keep track of all the rules imposed on them.

  • “The “message” I send to others depends much more on the “receiver” than whatever I was thinking when I pulled on some clothes before heading out.” I disagree. It’s at least 50/50. Nearly all people choose something to wear based on some combination of comfort and some kind of message they want to send. They want to demonstrate that they are part of some culture or sub-culture (including counter-culture). Clothing is a part of the symbolic messaging that is so human that it is a part of literally every culture to have existed on Earth. Again, my part is to not make judgments based on someone’s choice because I have incomplete information, but I think it is virtuous to at least think about the messages my dress sends.

    As a side note, men have it easier than women in terms of dress precisely because society is MORE strict for men’s dress than women’s. Men have a uniform to wear to work, which makes the decision of what to wear easy. If you don’t wear that uniform, you’re sunk. Women have more freedom, but there are still boundaries (fuzzy, hard to discern boundaries), which makes appearance more of a mine field for women.

  • I think she’s referring the the “uniform” we have traditionally imposed on members around the world over the years regardless of clime and indigenous culture, i.e., white shirt and tie, women should wear dresses/skirts instead of slacks, short vs long hair on males, tattoos/multiple earring/beard taboos.

    As to your last comment I would retort that it is disingenuous to suggest that these norms have NOT been promoted by church leadership, whether it be in the form of official policy or tacit messages disseminated in leadership meetings, area conferences, and/or church leader articles and literature. There has always been a “wink wink” it’s not policy but if the brethren aren’t wearing this or that then we shouldn’t either. The enforcers of these “unofficial” norms are the community congregations, who make it clear in multiple ways that lack of conformity is not acceptable.

  • You need to do some research online of what the term “rape culture” means. It’s more complex than whether or not anyone’s actively encouraging the act of raping.

  • You are right that the definition of rape culture is more expansive than that. How is this for a definition:

    “Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.” (Taken from Marshall University’s Women’s Center)

    CiderMan’s comment that he does not see how encouraging modesty in both young men and women perpetuates a culture of rape is completely valid under that definition. Teaching modesty and sexual purity and/or focusing on how people dress and act is not misogynistic in and of itself, but it can be if people do it in a way that is one-sided or focuses solely on the female. The brethren on the other hand do not see modesty or sexual purity as solely a woman’s responsibility. One of my favorite quotes on this subject comes from a talk given by Elder Jeffrey R Holland when he was President of BYU on January 12, 1988. He said:

    “I express particular caution to the men who hear this message. I have heard all my life that it is the young woman who has to assume the responsibility for controlling the limits of intimacy in courtship because a young man cannot. Seldom have I heard any point made on this subject that makes me want to throw up more than that. What kind of man is he, what priesthood or power or strength or self-control does this man have that lets him develop in society, grow to the age of mature accountability, perhaps even pursue a university education and prepare to affect the future of colleagues and kingdoms and the course of the world, but yet does not have the mental capacity or the moral will to say, ‘I will not do that thing.’ No, this sorry drugstore psychology would have him say, ‘I just can’t help himself. My glands have complete control over my entire life–my mind, my will, my very future.’

    To say that a young woman in such a relationship has to bear her responsibility and that of his too is the most discriminatory doctrine I have ever heard. If there is sexual transgression, I lay the burden squarely on the shoulders of the young man–for our purposes probably a priesthood bearer–and that’s where I believe God intended responsibility to be. Now, in saying that I do not excuse young women who exercise no restraint and have not the character or conviction to demand intimacy only in its rightful place and role. I have had enough experience in Church callings to know that women as well as men can be predatory. But I refuse to buy some young man’s feigned innocence who wants to sin and call it psychology.

    Indeed, most tragically, it is the young woman who is most often the victim, it is the young woman who most often suffers the greater pain, it is the young woman who most often feels abused, used and terribly unclean. And for that imposed uncleanliness a man will pay, as surely as the sun sets and rivers run to the sea.

    Note the prophet Jacob’s straightforward language on this account in the Book of Mormon. After a bold confrontation on the subject of sexual transgression among the Nephites, he quotes Jehovah saying:

    For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people in the land. . . .

    And I will not suffer, saith the Lord of Hosts, that the cries of the fair daughters of this people . . . shall come up unto me against the men of my people, saith the Lord of Hosts.

    For they shall not lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their tenderness, save I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction. [Jacob 2:31-33]”

  • You’ve got me confused on the earring part. Either you’re a lot younger than I thought, or leaders preached one set of earrings before President Hinckley.

  • I think a better term for it would be “shame culture”, perhaps. Thinking back on my own experience in the YW, there were plenty of moments where we were (probably unintentionally) encouraged to compare ourselves and others in a way that was pretty much bullying with a smile. At some point modesty got derailed by self-righteousness. The point of modesty is to feel and be comfortable with yourself and others. It’s looking at a person and seeing a person, not a hem-line or a brand label. No comparing, wanting more than you need, puffing yourself up, seeing yourself or others as an object to be acted upon.

  • What weird church-approved uniform? There is no such thing.

    But then, you say:

    As an orthodox Utah County Mormon who often attends church with an open collared colored shirt

    It’s almost as if you understand that the standard, church approved uniform is a white shirt and tie. If this were not the case, you wouldn’t have pointed out your ‘open collared colored shirt.’

  • We were instructed in the strictest terms, on the authority of Salt Lake, that we were never to mention the clothing a temple patron chooses to wear to the temple.

    The need for such instruction points to Temple volunteers who think it is their duty to enforce the ‘church-approved uniform.’ Were this not a problem, Salt Lake would not need to countermand the culture of members ‘in the strictest terms.’

  • Im sorry to have to tell you but you sir are quite blind! Ive been an LDS member for 47 yrs now, since I was 8 yrs old & I grew up in the so-called “Mission Field” all my youth. I grew up in a military family so Ive lived most of the states in the lower half of the US. Ive seen “Mormon-Uniforms” almost everywhere Ive lived! Sisters who wear “Mormon Uniforms” tend to be more successful, often moving in and out of the so-called better callings or leadership callings! I now wear comfortably modest clothes but then I now live in a ward where I dont have to follow or fit in any LDS molds!

  • A rape culture is a combination of many things but dressing a certain way that includes a certain feminine-charm, naive purity, such as bows, lace, delicate sheer fabrics, worn with camisole underneath, sweetly feminie & subtly sexy accessories & hair then behaving with an air of overly sweet openness. This could be a start from her part but then you must have his too…he sees her as weak, needing to be told what to do, expecting things from her without verbally asking or giving any appreciation…I dressed like this way years ago & my husband behaved that way too but I elect not to do so anymore.

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