Guest post by Nick Lindsey
The church’s recent changes to the dress and grooming standards for its full-time missionaries have received media attention, with newspaper articles like this one from the Deseret News, announcing the launch of the new missionary “Dress and Grooming Standards” page on the official church website. Missionaries are, in a very real way and for a very large portion of our society, one of only a few widely representative images of the Mormon Church. When somebody hears anything about the Mormons, odds are they instantly conjure up one of two pictures in their minds: 1) a severe-looking bearded man standing in the desert surrounded by droves of wives in long cotton dresses; or 2) a Mormon missionary riding a bike.
We only have to look at the consistently large body of non-LDS produced films, musicals, comedy sketches, and other popular cultural productions all centered in some way on Mormon missionaries to realize how deeply connected the image of the missionary is with the identity of the LDS church as a whole (check out the “Mormon missionaries in popular culture” section of this link for some specific examples). And of course, dressing up as a Mormon missionary and then boozing it up at a frat party is always good for some automatic laughs on pretty much any college campus in the country. The point here is that Mormon missionaries hold a special place in the collective consciousness of the US as highly representative of the entire LDS church—the image of the clean-cut, hair-parting, bike-pedaling, suit-wearing, polite-speaking, most likely white, happy-go-lucky (sometimes almost manically so) young man has come to define, for many, what the Mormon church is all about. (Of course, this popular image fails to include a vast array of identities, which is why it’s important to press against and open up anything that works to create such limited and limiting notions of normality or “proper-ness,” even if that something comes from the Church itself.)
The Church (spelled here and elsewhere throughout the article with a capital “C” to refer to the global institution, the leadership hierarchy, etc.) knows how deep this connection between the image of the missionary and the identity of the church really is in the popular imaginary, and consequently, works very hard to carefully craft the image put forth by its missionaries. Because of this, it’s important for us to think critically about what goes into this conscious tailoring of images, especially because these are images circulated by and physically inscribed upon human bodies.
In late February of this year, while writing emails to and thinking about my two brothers currently on missions, I found myself clicking around the church’s “Missionary” webpages. Not looking for anything in particular, just poking around and thinking. The “Dress and Grooming” section unexpectedly caught my eye and quickly became frustrating. What I thought would be fairly general, straightforward, and boring information was in fact quite troubling. At the time, the only information present was focused to the way female Mormon missionaries should look: what they should wear, how they should style their hair, even how to “properly” apply makeup. There was literally nothing about male missionaries.
More recently, however, the Church has expanded the “Dress and Grooming” section to include equally detailed regulations for male missionaries’ dress and grooming. The content for female missionaries has remained the same since my first unhappy reading (as a side note: it’s both interesting and telling that although the church had published its new and revised regulations for female missionaries months ago, none of it made the news until the new male regulations finally went online.) But the reality remains that for several months, the Church’s official website contained nothing but information for the “proper” presentation of women missionaries. The fact that the Church placed the publication of rules for female missionaries’ dress and grooming at such a high priority—why not wait until all the content was assembled for both male and female missionaries and publish them simultaneously?—reveals an alarming degree of anxiety on the part of the institutional Church surrounding the public visibility of the Mormon female body. One of its top priorities, in the wake of announcing lower missionary age requirements, was apparently to clearly define, strictly regulate, and broadly publish the rules governing the appearance of such bodies. As if the assumed default position of the Mormon woman is to be hidden from view, and any rare moments in which she becomes publicly visible—the mission chief among these—must be carefully controlled and rigidly mapped out for her.
Unfortunately, even after the recent publication of rules regarding male missionaries’ dress and grooming styles, the gender inequities so characteristic of the earlier website persist. This is by no means to suggest that there is nothing wrong, alarming, or dangerous with the rules set forth for male missionaries. In fact, the huge focus—for both men and women missionaries—on physical appearance as somehow crucial to what is typically framed as a “Christian” work of service is deeply problematic. In particular, the suggestion that such concepts as righteousness, spirituality, worthiness, and respect are somehow connected to the ability to buy particular types of clothes is troubling. To equate in any way material consumption and spiritual worth is to invite the moneychangers into the temple. Clearly, there is much within both the male and female dress and grooming standards, as well as the very concept of strict dress and grooming standards in general, to be unpacked and critically examined.
With that said, though, perhaps the most troubling aspect of all this is the difference in the language used when describing rules for male missionaries and rules for female missionaries, and what these differences communicate. These are immediately apparent in the pull quotes headlining the introductory “Guidelines for Elders” page and the “Guidelines for Sisters” page:
In both cases, a quote from Thomas S. Monson is used to explain the purpose of these rules, yet these explanations change according to the gender to which they’re applied. When referring to men, the adverb “appropriately” is attached to the concept of “respect;” when referring to women, however, the adverb “attractively” is conflated with both the concept of modesty as well as a list of adjectives: “lively, vibrant, and beautiful.” This language creates a vastly different set of associations for each group: men are associated with appropriateness and respect; women with attractiveness, modesty, and beauty, which must all be evident “both in [their] dress and in [their] actions.” Simply put, men are equated with universal abstract concepts, while women are equated with subjective judgments and bodily appearances. The distinction between men as abstract concepts and women as bodily appearances is reinforced on the “General Guidelines” webpages for elders and sisters. The page for female missionaries features a video clip in which “Elder Jeffrey R. Holland counsels young women about maintaining a high standard of modesty.” The page for male missionaries includes a clip in which “President Thomas S. Monson counsels young men to dress appropriately.”
The original pull quote used to describe female missionaries’ dress and grooming standards is extremely problematic as it not only places all the emphasis on a woman’s physical appearance—women should dress attractively, they should never be immodest, they should be beautiful in both dress and action, etc.—but then goes on to equate proper Mormon womanhood as meeting some undefined yet implicitly understood notion of physical attractiveness—an attractiveness that can apparently be achieved through buying the right kind of clothes, getting the right kind of haircut, wearing the right kind of makeup, and performing the right kind of actions. It brings together in a crooked and bizarre calculus a woman’s physical body, subjective notions of attractiveness, modesty, Divine commandment, public performance, and material consumption.
One of the underlying and fundamental problems with the way female missionaries are discussed and thought about on these webpages is that it’s all done entirely from the male, heterosexual perspective. Amid page after page of information outlining what a woman should look like, how she should maintain this look, and how she should manage the presentation of her body, there are zero words from actual women. Only men are cited: Monson and Holland. The notion of attractiveness that features so prominently throughout these pages is one very clearly defined—again, not by women—but by the church’s male leaders. In fact, this entire series of webpages puts the female body on display for the patriarchal male gaze, an invasive stare that seeks to simultaneously control and consume the women being looked at. This webpage tells women precisely how to construct their appearance while at the same time thrusting them before an ever-present, always-judging male spectator. All this ends up reinforcing the dominant position of heterosexual patriarchy within the church, a position that forces women into the role of passive and objectified—and as these webpages make so clear, ideally “attractive”—accessories.
The real concern in all this lies not only in the ways this may affect those specific women interested in becoming missionaries, but in the larger underlying cultural attitudes and trends it reveals, and in the messages it communicates to all young Mormon women, missionary or not. The message this entire series of webpages seems to be sending our young women is that what matters most is their physical appearance, their bodies, their attractiveness. Not their voices, not their spiritual vitality, not their opinions, thoughts, revelations, concerns, or questions, and certainly not their power or potential as agents in the world. The only thing that really matters is how pretty they can make themselves appear.
To tell young women that their fundamental worth—their primary contribution to the world—is linked solely to the degree to which they can attain physical beauty (again, as defined by a very narrow heterosexual male mentality), is nothing less than tragic. When the Church spends more time telling young women how to put on makeup than empowering them to speak and to live, or when it tries to convince young women that the amount, variety, trendiness, and quality of the clothes they can purchase (whatever happened to being wary of “costly apparel” anyway?) somehow has bearing on the value of their existence, it’s time to take a step back and do some serious self-critiquing.
Reading the underlying messages of the new “Dress and Grooming Standards” website, and the gendered differences it contains, makes clear that the official Church institution remains extremely uncomfortable with the possibility of publicly visible, outspoken, or unruly women. The heterosexual male spectator that still operates as the church’s default perspective wants only neat, tidy, pretty, and easily managed women. It wants women to look at and women to valorize, women to place on pedestals and women to remain silent. It does not want women who speak loudly and in tongues, women who cuss while giving birth, women who love their sexuality, women who look at their bodies naked in the mirror, women who bleed, women who fearlessly breastfeed, women who love the physicality of love, women who speak revolutionary thoughts, women who recognize their revelations as revelations, women who push back, women who challenge, or women who openly imbue their everyday lives with deep and uncontainable passion. Thus it is that the same institutional impulse so intent on creating and enforcing a strict image of “proper” Mormon womanhood is the same impulse that refuses to acknowledge, talk about, explore, or value female sexuality, female empowerment, or any of those “messy” or “immodest,” yet entirely fundamental, experiences of female embodiment such as menstruation and orgasm.
Taken as a whole, the church’s newly unveiled website reveals some persistent and troubling differences in the way the Church thinks about men and women, as well as the roles each can play and the contributions each can make. The consistent focus on the need for female missionaries to strive for some notion of physical attractiveness speaks to a larger underlying anxiety regarding women and their bodies within the church more generally. This anxiety is full of paradoxes: there is an explicit refusal to acknowledge sexuality, yet the fundamental premise of the entire “Dress and Grooming” section hinges on women’s ability to sexually attract and please men; there is a sustained effort to avoid speaking about women’s actual flesh, yet the focus of these webpages is entirely placed on the physical appearance of women’s bodies. In all of this, there has been an alarming amount of time, energy, and resources dedicated to acts of defining, limiting, and restricting our women, and very little toward celebrating, discussing, or empowering them.