Imagine that you’re 16 and a group of older men is standing in front of you, the closest one telling you that your body is a wonderland. You’re not at a sugar baby convention, though. You’re at church, and you’d rather be almost anywhere else.
Maybe he didn’t quote John Mayer, exactly, but he may as well have. According to him, I was irresistible. Guys were lining up around the block for the chance to have a peek under my knee-length skirt. Salivating at the thought of what I was hiding with my full-coverage cotton shirt (my shoulders).
A group of young women were gathered around me, all of us sitting in a nondescript room with walls covered with portraits of Jesus and sayings like “Daughter of a King,” adjusting our skirts to cover as much leg as possible and grimacing as the church leader who talked to us once or twice a year about our non-existent sex lives described women who have sex before marriage as cupcakes that have had their frosting licked off.
It was our responsibility to keep the men in shape. Our very existence tempted them, so it was up to us to cover up, keep some distance between us and make sure we didn’t stay out too late. The Holy Ghost goes to bed at midnight.
Honestly, the frosting is the worst part of a cupcake anyway.
There’s nothing like being raised to hate your body to make you hate your body.
Women are already taught that our bodies are the enemy in so many ways: in the media, amongst our peers, with a legal system that still struggles to recognize our right to control our bodies over the right of others to do so. We’re too fat, too thin, prudish, slutty. Too much makeup, too little, too much skin, not enough.
We buy dangerous diet products but turn around and eat more than we want to prove to people who “hate when girls don’t eat” that we’re not like other girls. People don’t hate when girls don’t eat, though; they hate being reminded that societal standards allow some of us to inhale three pounds of loaded nachos while simultaneously pressuring others of us to order a garden salad, hold the dressing.
And we’re conditioned from a young age to hate our bodies, to mistrust them, to be ashamed of them. Our bodies are sexualized before we’re even aware of the term; the 2-year-old is told to cover up before she’s capable of understanding why.
As we get older, we’re told that our bodies can be used as weapons. We’re the seductress and enticer. The objects of our affection were hoodwinked by our womanly charm. And more nefariously, we’re led to believe that we’re the cause of bad things; bad things don’t just happen to us. Catcalled? It’s your fault for dressing like that. Ass slapped? Wear a looser dress next time. Raped? You were asking for it.
Growing up Mormon only adds to the problem, and it’s compounded right at the time when you’re most vulnerable: As a teenage girl in Mormonism, all of the above applies, with the added bonus that your body is also a tool of the devil.
As a teen Mormon, I was taught that it was my responsibility to make sure the young men who encountered me were neither tempted by my body nor made to feel uncomfortable by it as they struggled to maintain their virtue. I performed some truly incredible mental gymnastics to rationalize how I was supposed to be confident enough in myself not to care what anyone thought about how I dressed, but still aware enough of how other people felt about my dress that I could adjust accordingly. The difference, of course, was in the perceived modesty of my clothing.
I’ll never forget a specific talk by a high-ranking official in the LDS Church during a conference the fall of my junior year of high school. Jeffrey Holland directed his words specifically to the teenage women of the Mormon church, and after reminding us of our worth he very quickly turned to the question of modesty.
“You can’t live your life worrying that the world is staring at you. When you let people’s opinions make you self-conscious you give away your power. … The key to feeling [confident] is to always listen to your inner self—[the real you.],” Holland told the youth of the church, bastardizing the meaning behind a 2005 Teen People article by Julia DeVillers.
It was the first time I remember questioning anything I’d been told. I knew that by urging us not to think of the judgment of the world as we chose our clothing, Holland was urging us to dress modestly without shame. But I couldn’t help but to consider the hypocrisy behind telling young women that opinions don’t matter when you’re already telling us how to dress, and while the church you represent makes it very clear that the standards for our dress are very much based on the opinions of others — namely, men.
I listened to that talk, and then I went to church the next week and the leader of my congregation compared my sexuality to a cupcake or ice cream cone or some other dessert and insinuated that the worth of my person was based on how successful I was at keeping the men around me — men of all ages, with their own brains, which had developed, as far as I could tell, at a rate similar to my own — from making mistakes based solely on how I presented my body to them.
That message had been entrenched in my mind by the time I found myself at BYU three years later, listening to the same talk from someone else whom church leaders had inexplicably deemed a qualified individual to lecture women about their appearances despite that 1) he was a man and 2) his opinion shouldn’t have meant a damn thing to any of us.
But it did, and we kept layering our spaghetti straps over our scoop-neck shirts (god, why) and doing mirror checks to make sure our skirts reached our knees while we walked. We wore tank tops at home, but ran to find a sweatshirt if a male student dropped by, or, god forbid, someone’s father. We were the same girls who had sewn sleeves onto formal dresses for school dances and had always chosen the modest swimsuit for pool parties and lake days.
We did all of this and told ourselves it was what God wanted — that by helping the men of the church remain virtuous, we were enriched spiritually, as well. What many of us failed to consider was the possibility that all we were doing was strengthening a culture that devalued women’s bodies and our ownership of them. Our bodies only existed in relation to the men around us: Were we a source of temptation or not? There were no innocent shoulders when God’s kingdom was at stake.
That attitude was pervasive in church culture, leading to quirks that might be annoying but are easy to shrug off; you can get away with a lot when you’re dealing with someone else’s eternal salvation. A little tug here and there by a youth leader let you know that an inch of your back had been exposed when you’d bent over or your skirt was riding up above your knees as you stood on tiptoe to write on the chalkboard. There are more sinister consequences, too, though.
In the heavily Mormon suburbs north of Salt Lake City, even the supposedly secular schools didn’t hesitate to enforce a fundamentalist view of modesty on all students, regardless of religion. With the rise of social media, Utah high schools seemed to constantly be making the news for enforcing modesty standards that neither had anything to do with their actual dress code nor would have been taken seriously at almost any high school outside of the Mormon Corridor.
In 2012, a 14-year-old girl was sent home from Tooele Junior High School, about 40 minutes southwest of Salt Lake City, because administrators said her skirt was half an inch too short. The school’s dress code required skirts and dresses to be no higher than two inches above the knee, and the principal had singled her out for a clothing change.
Later that year, Stansbury High School, north of Tooele, ended up throwing a make-up homecoming dance after sending home dozens of young women for wearing dresses that didn’t meet the school’s stringent dance dress code:
“Dresses should be at or near knee length. Slits in the dresses should not be any higher than the top of the knee. Strapless dresses are prohibited unless a jacket or shawl is worn. ‘Plunging’ necklines are prohibited. The backs of dresses should not show more than 1/3 of the back (directly below the armpits). Midriffs should not show in any way. ‘Sheer’ fabric is acceptable, as long as skin is not showing underneath.”
What does it tell young women about their worth if we give adult men the right to control them from a young age, through dress or otherwise? That their bodies are distractions. That they exist at the whim of those around them. That their ownership over their bodies has no value. These women are taught from a young age to submit to male authority, and the psychological impact of this early influence is carried with them into adulthood, especially if they continue to live immersed in Mormon culture.
I think this is the most Mormon sentence my brain has ever dreamed up: “Are skinny jeans the gateway style to more scandalous attire, or a legitimate clothing option with a bad rap?”
I’m reasonably sure I was just trying to be clever when I wrote that abomination in 2011 for the Student Review, an off-campus BYU student publication. BYU-Idaho, the (somehow) stricter version of BYU, was found to have posted “no skinny jeans” signs in its testing center. The signs caused an uproar online and the university quickly clarified that the policy didn’t specifically ban skinny jeans, but the quirks of the Mormon university experience had already been brought to the attention of a nationwide audience.
It was the end of my story that really shows where I was as a woman and Mormon in 2011.
Despite the alleged craziness, Cooper said he has come to accept the strict dress and grooming standards. ‘It’s nice that everyone is dressing relatively nice,’ he said. ‘At first I was rebellious … but I’ve adjusted and come to accept it. It’s not really a burden anymore.’
In fact, it can be helpful at times.
‘Some girls are trying to wear skinny jeans three sizes too small — it’s a good idea to not wear them at all,’ Taylor said.
“In fact, it can be helpful at times.” Oof.
What I wish I would have known then — what my present self would tell my past self as I wrote that story — is that adjusting to oppression does not remove the burden of oppression, and that we often tear other women down because we’ve been conditioned to believe that all women should dress according to the standards a patriarchal society has set for us.
If I could go back I would explain how problematic those last three paragraphs were, but in 2011 I very much believed what I had written and what had been said to me. Although I didn’t have as hard a line on modesty as some people (I thought skinny jeans were fine), I still conflated modesty with worthiness and personal value, and just like over-plucking my eyebrows in the aughts, it’s something that’s taken me years to overcome.
Purity culture in the Mormon Church has damaged decades of young adults.
There’s a well-known story from 1979 that has come to define generations of Mormons’ attitudes toward sexuality. Marion Romney — second cousin of Mitt — quoted his father as telling him, “We would rather come to this station and take your body off the train in a casket than to have you come home unclean, having lost your virtue.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought that was kind of an asshole thing to tell your child. What kind of parent would prefer their kid die than have sex, even if only to make a (questionable) point?
“You’re thinking about it too hard. It just means death is better that sinning,” a religion professor at BYU told me when I asked him about it.
“How is that any better?” I challenged.
“Just pray about it.”
Here’s the thing. I have only even been good at two types of prayer:
- 1) The Panic Prayer. This is the prayer you think without realizing what you’re doing when you hit some bad turbulence and feel the plane plummet and spill your drink on your lap. Some people also utilize the Panic Prayer when they’re about to fail a test. I mostly turned to it when I thought I was about to die.
- 2) The Rote Memorization Prayer. Personal prayers in Mormonism aren’t memorized, but children all stick to the same template as if they’ve made a blood oath to do so. Here’s how I and every other Mormon kid prayed over food when I was younger: “Dear Heavenly Father, thank thee for this food, ask thee to bless it, inthenameofJesusChristAMEN.”
That’s it. I’ve always felt like an idiot praying, like I was talking to myself and expecting an answer from someone else. So when my professor told me to pray I decided that was just a question I’d never have answered. God knows I wasn’t about to ask Him for an answer. I think about the casket story whenever another embarrassing instance of overreach by the Modesty Police reaches the news, though. And I think about all the times my church leaders equated “losing virtue” to wearing a tank top or above-the-knee shorts. About all the stories I’ve been told of teenage girls being called sluts and whores because they dared to go to class without their shoulders covered.
In the developing minds of a bunch of kids who have grown up surrounded by people just like them, being told that immodesty leads to immorality, it’s no surprise that there’s not far to jump from wearing tight pants to shacking up, and from that to going down a road that would surely be worse than death. At least in death you have a shot at redemption.
A couple months before I graduated, a story went viral that should have been so thoroughly embarrassing to every Mormon for the sheer ridiculousness of it that my stomach still drops just thinking about it. A student at BYU was wearing a long-sleeved cardigan and an above-the-knee dress with opaque tights when she was handed this note by a male student:
You may want to consider that what you’re wearing has a negative effect on men (and women) around you. Many people come to this university because they feel safe, morally as well as physically, here. They expect others to abide by the Honor Code that we all agreed on. Please consider your commitment to the Honor Code (which you agreed to) when dressing each day. Thank you.
Okay, so technically the dress was against the Honor Code, the thing we all agree to that forbids dresses from falling above the knee, among other things like coffee and sex. But 1) if seeing someone in a loose-fitting mid-thigh dress with opaque tights turns you on to the point that you fear for your morality, the problem is not theirs. It’s yours. And 2) a person’s outfit has no negative effect on you, unless they happen to be wearing a suit made of knives and are running directly toward you.
To me, people who insist on adhering to the letter of the law (nothing above the knee) at the expense of the spirit of the law (treat others with love and kindness) are some of the most insufferable people on the planet. The culture surrounding BYU’s Honor Code has enabled generations of people to deny women (and, certainly, men, especially when it comes to things like beards or the color of their dress shirt) of their personhood while valuing them only for their supposed virtue.
Because every BYU student has to agree to abide by the Honor Code in order to attend the school, the argument that “we agreed to it” has become a trump card, stifling valuable conversation about both the usefulness and the consequences of the code’s requirements simply because obedience to the code is non-negotiable.
Notes and caskets and licked cupcakes — these ideas ferment in our brains and stay with many of us into womanhood, distorting our views of our bodies, sexuality and worth until we have difficulty viewing ourselves as individuals; rather, we come to exist only in relation to those around us, and specifically to the men around us.
In 2013, a year out of BYU and a month after I had worn a sleeveless dress to work for the first time, I wrote about Jessica Rey for KSL-TV. Rey had given a speech promoting modesty as a way to empower women, basically saying that women who wear clothing with less coverage are objectifying themselves.
Mine wasn’t a hot take or even thoughtful analysis — it was a simple summary of how Rey’s words had gone viral and the feminist response — but, importantly, it didn’t seem to have a hidden agenda. Looking back, I can see how much my mindset toward modesty had changed between my skinny jeans story for the Student Review and my story two years later about Rey’s speech. In the former, my objectivity was colored by my own ambivalence about modesty and sexuality. In the latter, I had started to come into my own as a woman confident in her ability to dress for herself without worrying about the salvation of man.
I made no strong statements in that story. Few people comparing the two would have noticed the difference, I’m sure, beyond that I was a slightly better news writer later on. But I know the difference. And in those largely inconsequential words I see the years of being held responsible for the actions of men starting to loosen their stranglehold on my psyche, finally allowing me to raise my arms, free of constraint, and say, simply, “My choices are my own. I am no longer ashamed.”