The first time I was called to serve as a Bishop’s counselor, I had purple hair. It was a big hank, right in front that was actually violet but since the rest of my hair was so dark, you’d only notice it in bright light. I was going to art school in Seattle at the time so most of my classmates found me rather conservative. One Sunday, after a Sacrament meeting that I had conducted and my Stake President had attended, he put his arm around my shoulders and asked, “Brother Lewis, can I ask you to do something?”
“I’ll consider anything you ask, president” I replied.
“Will you wear a white shirt to church?”
Why is it that political despots, Church leaders and School Teachers get so hung up on the way folks look? Most school districts in America have policies about personal appearance. I’ll concede that there should be some standards to maintain hygiene for the sake of public health, and to prevent exposure to obscenity or vulgarity. Certain reasonable modesty standards will prevent undue distraction, especially among teenagers, but most of these standards seem to be arbitrary. I was sent home from elementary school one day because my jeans had a hole in the knee. My mom was so mad that she made a patch out of the loudest, brightest fabric scrap she had and sent me right back. Several kids were expelled from my Junior high School for their outrageous haircuts: modified mullets that stood straight up spiky on top and long in the back. A student at my High School was suspended from playing in a basketball game because he refused to tuck his shirt in. My kids are still forbidden from “unnatural” hair colors and from wearing any kind of hats. I’m sure you have thought of several examples as you’ve been reading this. The degree of severity and enforcement of these appearance regulations vary widely based on culture, but I’m confident in guessing that they exist throughout the world. I’ve written before about the benefits of individuality within a culture, which you can link to here, but I didn’t really explore the compulsion to impose restrictions on personal expression.
Why is it that leaders and authority figures seek to dictate something so personal as appearance? As you’ve probably guessed, I have a couple of theories and I hope you will add yours to the comments below. The first is a cynical though realistic view of political control. A despot needs minions to carry out their narcissistic schemes. By demanding compliance to arbitrary standards of appearance, likely based on said despots personal tastes, they can easily see which subjects are obedient and therefore useful. They can identify and squelch any fledgling uprising by simply observing the appearance of their subjects and eliminating the dissenters. The problem is, hardly anyone likes to be treated this way and history has shown that rebellion is inevitable. This scenario has played out to varying degrees in political arenas from national to community politics. It may provide a season of material success for the despot and his lackeys but it is doomed to fail when the natural desire for liberty reaches critical mass.
The second theory is somewhat more forgiving, but the negative results are just as inevitable. The main difference is that teachers and church leaders, presumably, care about their charges. They want their students to make good decisions. They want them to engage in behavior that will result in happiness and prosperity. The problem is that there is no way for teachers and youth leaders to know whether their acolytes are abstaining from destructive behavior like gang membership and unprotected sex. They can’t see if their pupils are praying or fasting or refraining from drug and alcohol consumption. So they seek to control what they CAN see. Haircut/ color, facial hair, white shirts and “modest” clothing become their measure of success.
“The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism… the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances.” -Hugh Nibley
Another of the dangers with this approach is that these young impressionables are led to believe that there is inherent morality in these arbitrary requirements. If Church leaders in particular, insist on enforcing these standards as a means of control, instead of following the Spirit as advisers and establishing trusting relationships, they risk a generation that judges rather than encouraging one another. School Teachers and administrators will produce workers who assume that the proper skirt length or necktie is an indicator of business acumen.
A significant contributor to the problem is compliance. Blind acceptance of arbitrary standards of appearance will produce negative results faster than incest produces mutants. Be your authentic self, honestly boldly and kindly. I recognize that it’s difficult. Individuality requires a committed path of self-discovery, which is further complicated by our cultural conditioning for conformity. The transmission of personal values into personal style is a pursuit that very few understand, most just “Know what they like” But if your authentic self is golf shirts and Dockers, God bless you, rock those Dockers! Don’t let someone else control your self.
I honestly think that sometimes it’s a straight up power move. When my husband and I were first married, we moved into a small ward in rural Virginia. My husband had served his mission in Virginia and was friendly with a lot of church leaders there. This small ward didn’t get new people very often and I think they weren’t quite sure what to do with us. One Sunday at church, my husband was wearing a sweater over his shirt and tie, and one of the Bishop’s counselor’s, in front of several people told my husband he needed to tuck in his shirt that was showing under his sweater. It was done in a pretty condescending way. My husband just kind of laughed cause he didn’t know what to say, but it was awkward. I know he did it just as a power move.
It is certainly a power move with some people. Within the church, there are elements of both of my theories.
I think you are spot on in your theories, and I’m guessing the answer is that it’s a little bit of both. I’d also add that I think there’s a goal of… I don’t know… Tribal cohesion. If we are all required to dress alike, it becomes easier to identify who is part of our group and who isn’t. Teenagers can spot other modest teenagers and assume that they are part of a group with the same standards. Missionaries are identifiable miles away. Adult Mormons can identify other Mormon adults by the obvious “Mormon smile” lines.
The problem with this, though, is that if you deviate from the uniform, the assumption is that you’ve chosen the dark side. Appearances become unnecessarily loaded with meaning. Beards and blue shirts, even if they are clean and well-kept, become a sign of rebellion not just by leaders but by other members. I gave up wearing the required Mormon underwear years ago, for very personal reasons, but have remained active, even holding some fairly high leadership callings. However, you wouldn’t believe the looks of horror I have received from the handful of people who have discovered that *gasp!* I am wearing different underwear than they are! Besides being an uncomfortable boundary issue, it has always seemed odd to me that an article of clothing that should be private becomes the representation of whether you are part of the righteous, or not.
I would love to say that I brazenly wear whatever I want and that so do my children. I do send sleeveless girls to primary nearly every week, because you have to fight stupidity where you can, but even I am not quite free of the social pressure to go along with the arbitrary standards. I’m getting there, though.
The first step is recognizing the problem and it’s potentially damaging consequences. Authenticity and kind, firm resistance are the antidotes. Fight the power!
Your “two” theories are in reality exactly one – with the second a renamed version of the first. The second is the first with a “caring” narrative tacked on. It’s not needed.
There is always this dichotomy between the central core of salvation being the atonement of Jesus Christ, yet the first to receive the sacrament is the “presiding authority”, between “man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”, yet Al Fox as a tattooed mormon would not have received the followers if she received artwork after baptism. I think there is something in what III Isaiah said, “there is no beauty that we should desire him”. It points to the poor wayfaring man of grief, as the savior is a man who passes through unnoticed – yet teaches with great power and “not as the scribes”. When a stake president speaks on grooming, rules, and dogma instead of personal ministry, or when a mission president has more to say about conformity to mission rules, than to share how he is doing with his own teaching pool in bringing souls to Christ, then we see a church that has lost the power and authority “living oracles” it once had. Still – I like that Elisha asked Naaman to wash in the dirty river Jordan to become clean of leprosy. yeah – a navy seal has to be obedient to super strict rules to just survive, but what are these rules? When people speak to me about grooming as pertains to the sacrament or the temple they say that we don’t want to wear “distractions” which draw away from the spirit or focus of the ordinance, meeting, or worship of others. What is the impact of this scheme of false righteousness? Closing down single adult branches and wards, while Mark Driscoll was able to grow a church from nothing to 14,000 members in a liberal part of the country wearing a hoodie and jeans on sunday.
Here is the rub..EVERY SINGLE time, as a church group, in my ward and stake we have been asked to do something in concern of appearance..IT NEVER ENDS with JUST a FEW THINGS…Once the ball gets rolling it is a non stop onslaught of more and more..going from asking to then DEMANDING and THEN THREATENING people…At last count since I was there it was no bright colors for women( or you are not being MEEK), no sandals (all of them not just flip flops are beach wear and therefore not worthy), Socks with dresses are unexceptable(and my bright colorful vivid bold, colors and patterns full under the not modest, too distracting and taking away from the spirit), necklines should never be lower than one finger width below the neck(so there is no chance what so EVER of showing even a hint of top cleavage if you were to have to bend over) ONLY full length panty hose are acceptable(not knee highs with a super long skirt and certainly NOT hose worn with a garter, Hell its hot I'm not wearing pantyhose, especailly when you keep the building at 90 degrees for all the old ladies and if I am wearing garter and hose unless I am doing the CAN CAN in the hall way I think is none of your business). My too long skirts have been brought to the attention of the Relief Society with a call out and a counseling as to how we are NOT AMISH, so we should not dress as such (and a lesson complete with reminder of skirt length really need to be to right above the knee to no more than 3" below the knee or we are participating in EXTREME fashion and thats distracting and NOT MODEST both TOO long and TOO short)….I have been called out cause some of my clothes were TOO COSTUMEY, TOO FRILLY, TOO WEIRD, TOO WILD and TOO BAGGY in front of the entire Relief society…I could go on but I won't..including the jewlery counseling, footwear counseling other than sandals(only certain styles are acceptable don't you know and only certain colors)…Some people give them a little control and BAM! I will no longer even listen to it..It gets mentioned I am out the door
Holy, or rather, unholy crap! I think your story falls under the first theory.
Kimberly Lynn Cherrine-Bell,
Oh my! Can they not find something of more consequence to occupy them… A service project in the community or something…
Grooming and white shirts today. When I was getting married in 1990, there was big talk about what was appropriate sexual relations for married people. Fifty years earlier, everyone had to shave their beards. Fifty years before that, you needed a beard and several wives to be considered truly righteous. Jesus was right. The harlots and publicans are in better shape spiritually than the Pharisees.
I had a similar experience. I was a young, poor, newly married college student with 3 kids under the age of 4. I was also the EQ president in an urban ward. My bishop approached me about wearing khaki’s with my white shirt & tie. He said it was sending mixed messages to the young men to see Priesthood leaders not wearing suits and was setting a bad example to these future missionaries. I had previous run ins with this bishop before and had to learn to differentiate between when he was speaking as Ken the blowhard power fiend and when he was acting as an inspired servant of the Lord. I wasn’t in a position financially to buy a new suit (diapers and tuition seemed like a higher priority at the time) and being 6’5″ I rarely find anything used that fits. I remember rolling my eyes and thinking, “If the Lord thinks it is that important, he can provide”. A week later while shopping for kids clothes I passed the clearance rack and happened upon a three piece suit in my exact size for 90% off. I snatched it up and got the distinct impression that this was the Lord’s way of winking at me and telling me to put away my pride and let him worry about things.
“Consider the lilies of the field…”
I can totally relate, Will. I’m 6′ 7″, plus I’m a punk rocker…
Many of these rules are divisive. They are saying that only Mormons know how to dress modestly and the rest of the world is filled with people who live by lower standards and have poor taste. I grew up in an elegant but very liberal suburb of New York City. We had no dress codes because we didn't need them. My Mother and a young Aunt took it upon themselves to see that I always dressed in a "ladylike" fashion. (I wore my older brother's hand-me-downs to play in but never to school.) I was in my 60s when I joined the Church and simply couldn't imagine anyone having the nerve to tell me how to dress. And no one did, I was in my 80s when Sister Busybody took me aside after Primary and told me that I was wearing my "Sacred" garments inappropriately.I had unbuttoned my cardigan because of the overheated Primary room. A tiny bit of my camisole was visible. I came home, removed the garments and never wore them again. My covenants were between My Heavenly Father and I and no one was allowed to intefere with that relationship unless the Bishop was moved to do so. . Sister Busybody crossed that line. I would assume that most faithful Christians are much too busy tending to their own affairs to waste their time worrying about how I am dressed.
Weren't sandals common footwear in Jesus day? Anyway, I'm surprised that you are so tolerant and I do admire your humility. It only took one shot, in private, from Sister Busybody, for me to decide I was better off staying home on Sundays. I left with my self-respect intact. God does not require you to allow others to make mashed potatoes of your self-esteem.
Love the Nibley quote. Hadn’t heard that one before.
Daniel, I’m in general agreement with everything you wrote, though I think certain requests/expectations are reasonable when it comes to Sunday dress, such as:
• Comb your hair.
• Take a bath/shower within the preceding 24 hours.
• Men: wear a shirt (any color) and tie; jacket optional; no bluejeans. Women: wear a dress, skirt, pant suit, or nice slacks and a blouse. If you can’t afford Sunday clothes, then please come as you are (but change out of your pajamas first).
In other words, there are certain cultural norms—which vary from one country to the next—that we are all expected to observe. For example, when I meet with a client in my law offices, I wear a coat and tie, even if the client does not, because that is what is expected and there is a certain impression I wish to convey. When, however, we go beyond these generally accepted standards and begin imposing pharisaical requirements for purposes of ensuring conformity, then amen to the priesthood of that man.
Final note: I had to laugh at your opening anecdote. To use a biblical expression, your Stake President strained on a gnat but swallowed a camel—he choked on the white shirt but was unfazed by the purple hair?!? Dude, purple hair? Really?
I would have said “if the Lord was okay calling me when I was wearing colored shirts, I’m sure he’s okay me serving in colored shirts….”
Hmmm, this is an interesting topic. I am now a former member, so I have a slightly different point of view. And I am an older woman, a product of a different era. I came of age in the Fifties.
I wore hose to church and didn’t like it. Skirts–a given. No pants–ever. While still in The Cult in So UT I was taken aback to see both males and females attend Sac. Mtg. in clothing that I considered unacceptable. Judgmental, yes. Outspoken, no.
Fast forward. Widowed, found out that I was being deceived by the “church”, and began my departure process. I relocated to Co.to be near my TBM daughter and family. This meant a period where I wore the G’s to preserve the illusion that I was still TBM myself. Very uncomfortable on many points. I never did like those silly things. Keep the peace ruled my life.
More fast forward. I remarried an excellent and, “Choice”, Catholic gentleman. We began attending Mass and then went to Sac. Mtg. ( more deception, for my Daughter’s sake. Her husband being in the Bish.) My husband refused to wear a white shirt. Heh, heh. Of course I wore the ‘right apparel’.
BUT–was I ever surprised to see that the Catholics wore most anything to Mass. I was the only one in “proper church attire”. In fact the young went WAY past, OMG, short shorts!!!!! Tank tops!!!!! Sports Logos on hoodies!!! And I was again judgmental. Shame on me. Who am I to decide what Christ thinks about such matters?
Decision time. I went to Mass and didn’t take to it. I went to Sac. and REALLY didn’t take to it. Hubby continues to attend Mass, and I stopped going to Sac. Time to stop the pretense and living a lie.
I no longer wear a dress, stockings, and lastly, nobody can tell me that, “your religion is showing Sister”, as I was once told because an inch of lace was showing above my neckline at Sac. Mtg. A lot of things have changed for me in my life time.
There for awhile I wanted to wear pants to church, just to poke the nest, I’m too elderly for the shorts and tank top. One mustn’t scare the children! LOL.