women as attractive accessories: the church’s new “dress and grooming” website
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.
27 Responses to “women as attractive accessories: the church’s new “dress and grooming” website”
Awesome article. I noticed when I went to check out the website, the men’s side even has a quote about how dressing for attention doesn’t invite the Spirit. But then we tell the women that you need to dress in a way that is for others. They do say makeup and hair styles should be minimal and subtle, but saying “be attractive” sounds a lot like “you need to attract attention” to me.
“for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
Considering this scripture and that they claim to be god’s only true church, why are they promoting the importance of outward appearances? Are sisters viewed as eye candy used to promote the date them, dunk them and drop them missionary program?
Great article, Nick! The new website is a sad indicator of the fundamentally inappropriate way we relate to women in the church. It is indicative of a body that makes decisions without input from women–or, at best, the female input comes from those women most strongly”indoctrinated” into the male-centric worldview of our patriarchal organization. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.
Amazing analysis. Well put.
“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.”
Totally agree. I think this sentiment is expressed when young elders hope that by working hard on their missions they will earn an attractive wife: not a spiritual one, or a smart one, or a kind one, but an attractive one.
This post also made me think of this article
As a broader American culture there is a clear standard of what professional business wear is for men. Women, on the other hand, have to find this magic middle ground between too sexy and frumpy, too much make-up or not enough make-up. I imagine the LDS missionary dress guidelines are also reflecting this broader cultural phenomenon.
Oh please. You are trying so hard to pick apart the Church’s intentions it’s exhausting. I need to take a nap after reading this BS. I have never once felt pressured to wear makeup or look a certain way by the Church at anytime, if I had this “guideline” to reference to during a mission I would be looking at it every day. The Church did a fine job representing everyone’s figure, race, shape, and size. Stop being so cynical.
The new site with the guidelines and examples is WEIRD. I mean really weird. I’ve been inactive for 5 years, and this is weird. For the sisters and the elders. Why does anyone need multiple pictures of dark suit pants? Why do we need ten pictures of stud earrings? And the sideburns guidelines illustration in the men FAQ section made me snort. That half inch is the difference between Gods chosen sideburns and lucifer’s. the sisters at least get to look like halfway normal people, but the elders all look like lawyers or door to door salesmen. Why not business casual? I have a great idea, everyone thinks we are weird, so lets make sure we all dress like clone army businessmen from the 1980s. Yet at least the guys get to work out in a tees shirt and shorts, whereas the sisters have to wear layers and pants. And whatever you do, don’t let the bottom of your leggings show but also don’t wear a maxi skirt to hide them. Just cover them with sexy boots (just not too sexy, remember, modest is hottest).
The take away from this is just rigid gender roles visualized through attire. Men wear the pants, they are the business. Women are the pretties, the soft, the accessories, the fluffy happy, hair dyed, hotties you want to marry. As long as she isn’t pretty whilst wearing a pant suit… (Mentioned as a strict nono, at least 6 times in the guidelines.
One more thing. I would like to bear my testimony that the only people who wear short sleeve (white) dress shirts with ties are High School Math Teachers, and nobody likes them. If you must have short sleeves, a polo shirt looks far more professional and polished any day of the week.
I have not had a chance to read any of the other comments. However, another thing that should be taken into consideration is how middle-class American the target audience is, for both men (and especially) women. I wonder how many future missionaries will be discouraged by these guidelines, and what a financial burden and toll this will take on self-worth when they are not able to meet these requirements.
Thanks for this amazing post! I was just browsing the website’s sister missionary section and found this gem of a paragraph (sarcasm): Let’s play a quick game…. how many times can you say conservative in two short paragraphs… ready… set… go….
“The style, color, and length of your hair should be attractive and easy to manage and should not draw attention. The color of your hair should look natural and conservative. If you decide to color your hair, consider time, frequency, and cost. Hair adornments and other accessories should also be conservative. If you wear hair accessories, including headbands, choose styles that are simple and conservative. Avoid large hair accessories that draw attention and distract from your message. See examples of hairstyles and accessories.
You are not required to wear makeup; however, wearing makeup can help you look your best. If you choose to wear makeup, be sure that it is natural and conservative in style and color. Nail polish should also be subtle in color and style and not draw attention. See examples of makeup styles.”
But in all seriousness, I am so perplexed by on the one hand the sentence that the sister missionaries hair should be attractive, and on the other hand make sure you do not draw attention to yourself. These messages are so destructive and continue to play into our rigid gender roles in the church.
@Laura- What are your thoughts on these two paragraphs I posted? Do you not see the issues here? What about the fact that the church had only dress and grooming standards on their website for sister missionaries until just this month?
I loved this whole article, especially this:
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.
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.
This all makes my heart hurt, hopefully articles like this will help spark this much needed change of perspective.
I really like what was said. It really pointed out how blatantly things are run. I like to tell myself that its just me being picky about things that don’t matter. But no. There is a problem here.
Also, the updated sister dress and grooming site isn’t all that new. I first heard rumor of changes sometime in 2011 and have looked at the changed website and shown it to people for at least 12-18 months. The friend who told me about the changes in 2011 told me that sister missionaries no longer have To dress like nuns!. It’s so sad that these changes for sisters linger without notice for well over a year but the minute the elders site changes it is all over the news.
Please make sure readers understand you do not speak for the Church or even for the vast majority of its members. You are entitled to your opinion and to express it freely, but please make sure everyone knows it is your own.
I think this article could be cut by a third or even half and still cover the topic adequately. Wordiness discouraged me from reading the whole thing.
this is a very cynical and exaggerated article. I had a look the mentioned site (https://missionary.lds.org/dress-grooming/sister/dress/suits/?lang=eng) There are pictures of women of all shapes, sized and races. and yes they are all “neat” and “pretty” , what is wrong with this? All women have the capacity to be pretty, beautiful, intelligent, spiritual and expressive. Why try to inhibit this by saying that is only what the patriarchy of the church wants? All the women I have ever met have a desire to be pretty, even so called feminists, there is nothing wrong with this. Let women be beautiful and fulfill their great capacity as daughters of God. STOP by trying to limit women potential by saying it is just “what men want.”
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Wonderful post! Great analysis. Wouldn’t it be great if we could talk about women’s dress like we talk about men’s? Dress appropriately; show respect. You’re done. We could drop all the hooey that’s based on the worries about women being walking p0rn for men.
You would think that it would be that easy. (I know you commented 2 years ago, but I just had to say this because reading this article really irritated me to my core) For most of us it would be that easy. But for a few it needs to be said. Growing up I knew young women who would have no clue what ‘dress appropriately’ means or how to do so. I also knew young women who would push it as far as they could get away with.
I’m addressing everyone, not just singling you out here, fyi. If you have to say it to ONE single person then you need to put it out the for everyone. If just ONE single yw doesn’t understand the clear as mud ‘dress appropriately’ then there will be another. Pray about it. Seriously. You don’t think that it was said for a reason? That it wasn’t inspired? Our leaders give us guidelines for a reason. Some times we can understand the logic or the why of the instructions given, other times we have to go on faith (and by faith, I mean faith, not blind following)….
My head is swirling with so many things to say…There’s so many more ways for a woman to fail to dress ‘appropriately’ then men. For goodness sake, this isn’t about micromanaging women. As a woman, even I know that. (And please don’t come back at me with the brain washed by the male dominated church crap, molly mormon housewife, sister wife) ((Now I’m imagining how everyone who reads this post is going to think of me and wanting to clarify…and now I’m thinking about what you must be like to disagree with me; bitter, angry, unfaithful…see judging doesn’t work and usually isn’t right. Pretty sure I was wrong about you too. I don’t know your experiences and you don’t know mine)).
The wonderful thing about our church is that we are invited, no, more than invited, to find out the truth of ALL things for ourselves! That is what I love about this church! Has it been easy? No. Have I always CTR? Nope. It’s difficult to do what’s right rather than what’s easy or convenient. But I get to know what I’m doing or what I’ve been asked to do is right, maybe don’t get to know the ‘why’ but we are always allowed to know what’s right and true.
Final thing before I kick myself for posting something without taking time to cool down…what is wrong with asking women to be attractive??!! As Mormon women (and men) ANYONE can throw on a potato sack and be MODEST. But we are supposed to be women that others want to be like. I can tell you there isn’t a woman in a potato sack that I look up to or long to be like. There is nothing wrong with trying to be attractive for people to look to as someone they want to be like or be around. I can also say as a young woman I dreaded, absolutely didn’t want to grow up to be like the frumpy Relief Society women I knew (my mother was a convert and she was beautiful to me, but not always ‘modest’). Why can’t we say to our young women and women to be attractive? Do most need to be told this? Nope but there sure are a few ladies I’d like to share the sister’s guidelines with. I remember hearing about Mark Twain going to Utah and saying that the men were saints to marry more than one woman, that it was really a service because the women were the homeliest women he had ever seen! Come on! Personally, I’d rather be known for our attractively modest missionaries then for our stinky homely ones!
The Church, it appears, is trying to push back against the old stereotype of sister missionaries being frumpy old maids. This has the unintended consequence of overemphasizing appearance and “looking pretty” to the point of being damaging. I think sisters are capable of deciding for themselves what is and is not appropriate to wear for missionary work.
While we are at it, I fully agree with KristyJ that short-sleeve dress shirts with ties are asinine. The McDonald’s Manager look is not going to win us any credibility.
Yeah… Honestly this post is extremely cynical and picks apart the intentions of the church WAY too much. Its just stupid and faithlesd, actually. How do you KNOW that the reason the male guidelines werent posted with the female means that the church had anxiety about the focus on the female body?? Are you serious?? Maybe Joe in the website department forgot to revise the elders rules and sisters really needed to know the new guidelines because more goes into sisters appearances than elders?? And honestly… Who CARES? You are so cynical and judgmental about these tiny things in the gospel. How do you call yourself a faithful member when you arent even faithful about stupid things like this?? Wow. I mean your opinions are your opinions but it makes me angrybthat youd post this publicly and make us look like we are all OPRESSED by the Church and men are holding us back. Well you are few and far between because its a good thing to be presentable and pretty. I mean missionaries are supposed to be professional!! You say its stereotypical of us to walk around in these rule bound styles of clothing as missionaries… But you KNOW wed be criticized if we walked around in jeans and a tshirt!! Its not professional!!! Wow, i dont know how you DONT understand this. You are not a good example. Ughh.
The Gospel is true. We have a living prophet, a Father in Heaven who loves us, and a Savior who lives. That’s all that should matter. Not your personal opinion on how missionary work should be conducted.
Interesting perspective! Thanks for sharing.
I love that you haven’t engaged any of the detractors. I’m getting better at ignoring non-constructive feedback, myself!
I went on a mission during the frumpy sister years. It was frustrating to be given narrow guidelines for dress and grooming, and then get thrown into hot and humid France on the back of a bike during all weather. We were given pamphlets showing one Caucasian sister wearing straight hair and dull suits. We were told to wear make up so we didn’t look androgynous, but not to wear white or toned down shirts and dresses so we looked more like the elders. We were told to do our hair, yet we were riding bikes through rain and snow and wearing helmets. Try riding a bike in a long straight skirt! if we had worn slacks, at least we wouldn’t have had skirts getting caught in wheels or hiking up to our hips.
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This is interesting. I used to be LDS, and I am still friends with many LDS. A few of the women thought it was funny that some of the men said, “Even a barn looks better painted, etc.” I thought it was a rather sexist comment, that women aren’t beautiful naturally. Women look fine without make-up (my husband actually prefers me without). I told my friends I think that being tidy and clean is far more important than wearing make-up, and even more so, what comes out of the mouth, not what color lipstick is on it.
Though I am not mormon but live in a heavily mormon area, I was trying to understand your perspective on appearances. Looking on the missionaries webpages, there is a very clear deliniation of unfair bias what guidelines are for woman and men. I especially find interesting that as women you really don’t even need to think what to wear almost right down to what bra and underwear your should have on tho they didn’t go that far. Your work out clothes will smother you. If you live in the state I’m in where it’s often over 100 degrees you would die of heat stroke with all those layers. If shorts for men are ok on the website guidelines then why not for women?. I’m not talking hoochy coochy shorts but shorter than sweat pants. Also, I only saw two examples of curly hair and one was African American. If they saw my mop of curls that I have which I have a hard time controling what would we ever do? Last note. All the skirts and dresses examples truly make you look like frumpy old housewives. Why can’t you wear a skirt to your knees or an inch higher. Trust me, no one will ever say you look unprofessional or not modest.