Each week, Hannah and Asriel will discuss the Young Women’s and Young Men’s lessons for the coming week from a feminist perspective. This week is lesson 37.
The Young Women: “Caring for our physical bodies”
By Hannah Wheelwright:
The Young Women’s lesson involves cutting up a picture of a girl and putting it back together to teach about grooming and keeping yourself attractive. I’m just kidding, that would be ridiculous. Oh wait, actually, no, I’m not, because that’s exactly how the lesson starts.
It also starts by asking the teacher to have the young women complete some physical fitness tasks, like jumping rope, as if girls in dresses and heels and perfectly curled hair would jump at the chance to go outside and jump around and have the measurement be used to determine if she is physically fit or not.
The rest of the lesson- though it mentions briefly exercise, the Word of Wisdom, and the commandment to get enough sleep- focuses on personal grooming habits. A brief skim of the Young Men’s lessons tells me they have no such emphasis, though if anyone else has ever smelled a deacon I am sure you would concur that a lesson on grooming is just as needed for the young men. Thus I conclude (although it might just be the angry feminist in me) that the YW lesson’s underlying theme is “make sure you are attractive enough that a man will want to marry you.”
My biggest beef with the lesson from a feminist’s perspective comes from one of the subheadlines that has been bothering me since I first read it: “A Young Woman Who Appreciates Her Body and Wants to Be Attractive Takes Care of Herself.” Why does this bother me? For starters, what if it is not my goal to be attractive? I can be clean and well groomed without seeking to make myself appealing to other people. Because the problem is, being attractive implies that I am trying to meet some kind of higher standard of appeal, and perhaps that I am doing so to draw attention to myself, usually also with the implication that it’s to appeal to men. Additionally, the lesson emphasizes grooming habits, diet, and exercise as the way that a young woman “takes care of herself,” though it seems to me that there are many ways a young woman could “take care” of herself- by developing her mind, perhaps? Exploring the possibilities of her mind, contained in that attractive temple of a body, and harnessing its power to pursue worthwhile endeavors? I resent that the lesson focuses so much on being attractive without mentioning these opportunities.
The Aaronic Priesthood: “The Priesthood of Aaron”
For the young men, lesson 37 is all about the Aaronic Priesthood, and John the Baptist is the case study of exemplary Aaronic Priesthood performance. This lesson is quite male-dominant, the reason why is straight-forward; males receive priesthood authority, and females do not.
There was one reference to women’s role in the priesthood, though. Joseph Smith’s quote instructs the young men that John the Baptist is the “greatest prophet born of a woman.” Unfortunately, the only mention of women in this lesson is focused on women’s role in procreation of giving birth.
A good question to discuss in this lesson is exactly what role women do play in the priesthood. If young men have heard that when a man and a woman are sealed in the temple (i.e. the highest order of the priesthood), they become equals in that priesthood power, they could perhaps open some discussion of exactly what we mean when we say “equal.” For example, the manual explains that once the male priesthood holders were killed, there was no more priesthood on the earth. I don’t know the historical details about the marital status of the apostles or John the Baptist, but I think it is safe to assume that even if the wives survived their husband’s deaths, the priesthood would still have ended. On the other hand, had the women died before their husbands, there would be little question that the priesthood status of the men was still fully intact. I doubt this arrangement fits the idea of “equal” that most people understand.
I do want to end this on a bright note, though. The lesson primarily talks about ordination of the priesthood being an ordination to priesthood authority, not priesthood power. This idea is expounded in the Preach My Gospel manual. The power of the priesthood comes from personal righteousness, while the authority to officiate in the church comes from formal ordination by church authorities. The role of priesthood power in salvation is a doctrinal issue, and does not seem open to modification. The practice of who may be ordained with authority to exercise priesthood power formally in the church, on the other hand, is a matter of policy, as we can see from the policy changes in first century Christianity and for Latter-day Saints in 1978. This gives me hope that perhaps women, who seem, from the doctrine I know, to have access to the power of the priesthood, will one day have access to the priesthood authority, and officiate in exercising that power in formal church and family priesthood functions.
Hannah: I noticed that in your write-up you talked about the priesthood power and authority, and it reminded me of some things former Relief Society President Julie B. Beck has said about the difference between priesthood keys and power.
Asriel: I was not familiar with that. That kind of does seem to support the idea that women already have access to priesthood power, just not to the formal leadership roles within the current priesthood structure. In that talk by Sister Beck, one thing she says is, “Don’t confuse the power of the priesthood with the keys and offices of the priesthood.” I think that helps us acknowledge both that men and women are not “equal” in the priesthood, and that perhaps the women will be incorporated into the formal priesthood structure.
Doesn’t the idea that girls should dress modestly and wear deodorant in order to get attention from the right boys just reinforce the idea that we are using our clothes and bodies to get attention? Perhaps even a double standard? The weight and cleanliness stuff in the lesson is all about sex appeal. So, you can use certain parts of your body (your figure) and your clothes (“modest”) to attract boys, but you can’t use other parts of your body (skin) to attract boys, or you are “walking pornography.”
Hannah: I completely agree. I think that the lesson puts so much focus on how girls who appreciate their bodies try to look attractive. Why is being attractive such an important concept that there is an entire lesson about it? The young men have no comparable lesson. I don’t think we should be telling girls that they should be trying to be attractive. I think that could be detrimental for the girls who following the grooming suggestions but still don’t get asked on dates by any guys. We should be encouraging young women to develop their talents and pursue their interests, not to just be so perfectly groomed that everyone will see what a perfect temple of a body you maintain.
Asriel: Hmmm. That makes a lot of sense. Going back to what you were saying about the young men not having a comparable lesson, I always felt like I was taught that the way I become attractive to a young woman is by fulfilling my priesthood duties.
Hannah: I feel like I was always taught that the way to get a husband/be happy with eternal life is to be stereotypically beautiful. So if I looked like a hag, albeit a very clean one, I would be lonely for eternity.
Asriel: Well, I guess I feel like we probably won’t find a solution that eliminates “attractiveness” factors from the dating scene, but perhaps we could move away from equating whether or not your dating life is going well with whether or not your life is going well.
Hannah: I didn’t know until I read the young men’s lesson that the age limits for priesthood holders used to be different. Currently I think part of the weirdness of having only men have the priesthood is that it means that 12 year olds rule over grown women. If the age qualifications from the Old Testament were put back in place, and you had to 30 years old to hold the Aaronic Priesthood, I think women wouldn’t feel so …ruled over? as they would if the man was younger.
Asriel: That is an interesting perspective. You know, I remember being twelve years old, saying, “Dude, I have more authority than the Pope.” My mom was then quick to help me understand that while maybe I had more authority, technically, I didn’t have more influence. But I think my parents did have me “call on” someone to say the prayer at meals every now and then if my dad wasn’t home.
Hannah: Yeah I think that’s pretty common in the LDS church. I remember my brothers doing the same thing- not about the Pope, but about families calling on young men to choose who says the prayer.