An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for November, 2009

I Never Learned to Dress Myself

A posted photo of an invitation to a recent Provo area stake fireside for women caught my eye. The cover art of busty, leggy women in provocative poses was a curious choice for a program titled “LDS Image Integrity”— with the stated purpose of showing sisters the effect their clothing choices have on achieving “earthly and eternal goals.” But if I still lived in the Provo area, I think I would have attended. I’m not sure my poor sense of fashion will affect my eternal life, but it’s certainly impacted this life.

I learned not to trust my own taste in clothes the first day of seventh grade. My mother had died the year before, and I was left to outfit myself for junior high alone. My dad, totally unknowledgeable about shopping and prices, provided $20 for the occasion. I ventured downtown alone and returned with serviceable brown loafers, a bright Kelly green jersey sweater with angora trim on the collar and a blue silk pleated neck scarf complete with fake fox head slide to cinch around my neck. Aunt Betsy Ross made me a bright purple corduroy skirt for the first day of school. Unfortunately, Aunt Betsy didn’t know that skirts for junior high girls had to be long and full enough for multiple layers of petticoats to poof them out. I didn’t know about the length and breadth requirements for junior high skirts either and thought I looked like Debbie Reynolds as I set off to conquer Dixon Junior High, waving to my cousin Buffy on her way to Provo High.

Buffy swooped down on me with fifteen-year-old vengeance when she returned from school. What was the grand idea of my disgracing the family by wearing a purple skirt, green sweater, blue scarf, yellow sox (the top ones in my drawer) and brown shoes to school? I wilted under Buffy’s attack, but it did prepare me for the fact that the adolescent world I was so eager to enter promised more pain than pleasure.

In the fifties in Utah, homemade clothes were much more fashionable than off-the-rack clothing—not to mention less expensive. My aunts and grandmother all breathed a sigh of relief when I began the required sewing class the second semester of seventh grade. At last my wardrobe dilemma would be resolved. I would learn to sew my own clothes and save my dad money. Unfortunately, I had no aptitude for sewing. No one understood why I had such a difficult time. My aunts tried to help me, but finally decided my problem was stubbornness. Not until Howard Gardner came up with his list of multiple intelligences did I understand my difficulty. My lack of spatial intelligence prevents me from comprehending how a flat piece of fabric can be cut and stitched into a three-dimensional garment.

Nowadays students in beginning sewing make simple things like wind socks and drawstring bags. Not so in the fifties. Our first project was a gathered skirt. I pulled and broke strings until I finally gave up and put a waist band on to fit the skirt, not my waist. Aunt Charity took pity on me and made the buttonhole so I could turn in a completed project. The next project was a blouse to go with the skirt. Making a blouse to go with a skirt eight inches too big around defeated me from day one. Putting the sleeves in was a nightmare. My home ec teacher finally gave up having me make a wearable garment and gave me a C for conscientious effort.

All eighth grade girls were required to take a second year of home ec in the era before ERA. Second year students were expected to make a dress combining the skills we learned in seventh grade. No alternative was offered to girls who hadn’t learned any skills in seventh grade. I knew I couldn’t put sleeves in, so I picked a halter-top pattern. Trying on the completed dress revealed my bra straps. Going without a bra was not an option in the fifties, even for a skinny thirteen-year-old, so I bought a strapless bra which refused to stay up. Modeling our dresses in the spring fashion show was a class requirement. I still have occasional nightmares about walking out on a lunch-table runway wearing a halter-top dress with a padded strapless bra around my midriff.

On second thought, I would not attend the Image Integrity Fireside even if I lived in that stake. I have enough self-image problems without learning that the effects of my mismatched wardrobe may reach beyond this life.

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Follow Your Leaders

Obedience may be the first law of the gospel, but it’s never been popular in our family where we apparently have a genetic predisposition to believe we’re capable of making our own decisions. Humility R not Us. I’ve never understood the biblical symbolism of sheep and goats. Why are sheep the good example? They have to be led to food and water. Even rocks are smarter than sheep bleating obediently into the slaughterhouse. Independent and resourceful, goats are less easily led and less likely to starve if a herder doesn’t take them to food and water. Isn’t goatlike intelligence more essential for eternal progression than sheeplike obedience?

George served long enough in the military to despise arbitrary rules. Nor did growing up with five older siblings endear him to the idea of being told what to do. George loved being a temple worker until the TP ruled that all brethren with facial hair must shave clean or resign. That edict did not include elderly female workers which seemed unfair.

My dad’s side of the family disagreed with the practice of polygamy because my grandfather’s family suffered so greatly from great-grandpa’s marital excesses. Interestingly enough, neither my grandfather nor grandmother resented the handcart episode of church history although each had a parent or grandparent who suffered intensely from the poor advice that led to the tragedy of the Willie Handcart Company. The notion that we will be blessed for obeying our leaders even if they’re wrong probably didn’t comfort my ancestors freezing and starving near the banks of the Sweetwater. Mountain Meadows is another example of obedience gone wrong.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that we’re a family of anarchists or criminals. We pay our taxes and wait our turn at stop lights. We know that laws which promote the common good sometimes conflict with our individual convenience. But we also know that rules sometimes promote the good of an organization without necessarily benefiting the overall common good of the national or world community. Most American Catholics seem to be quietly in this position regarding their church’s stance on birth control. And many Mormons feel this way about our church’s support of Prop. 8.

Leaders who can’t explain the reasons for the positions they take also make obedience challenging. I am still waiting for someone to show me the revelation that says blacks can’t hold the priesthood. And it’s hard to respect leaders who condescend. Our youngest son, Techie, launched his stand-up comic career at age eight doing impersonations of Sister Sweettones, the Primary president: “Now boys and girls, can you say ‘Reverence’? That’s such a big word. I’m proud of you.” I’m glad Techie doesn’t watch General Conference now. The words are different, but a level of condescension often flows from the Conference Center pulpit to my living room TV.

Part of the problem members of our family have with the “Follow the Leaders” edict might be the unrealistic emphasis Mormon culture places on the leaders’ direct access to God. If our youngest daughter, Aroo, ever had faith in the doctrine of the bishop’s power of discernment, it was disabused the time her best friend passed a temple recommend interview six months after asking Aroo to buy a pregnancy test for her.

Maybe my philosophy is: Follow your leaders when their advice coincides with the best information you can learn about the situation. Beware if they can’t support their recommendations with hard evidence. And run like hell if they pressure you to add a sister wife to the family or to waylay a caravan of immigrants moving through the territory.

Loosening the Faith

Why do Latter-day Saints leave the faith? Active Mormons tend to think members lose testimony because they: a) weren’t keeping the commandments and allowed Satan to deceive them, or b) had their feelings hurt. A more interesting theory is that apostates suffer from ADD which makes them delve into Church History and note the contradictions between the facts and what they’ve been taught at church. But how do you account for historians such as Richard Bushman who have extensively researched Church History and still kept their faith? Perhaps historians without ADD lack the questioning gene that triggers disbelief.

My favorite explanation for why historical research shatters faith for some people but not others, comes from John-Charles Duffy.  He theorizes that beliefs in the historicity of the BOM are influenced more by social than by intellectual environment. In essence—if the LDS Church fulfills our social needs, if our closest relationships are with believing members—we will likely find a way to reconcile contradictory information about the BOM, Church History and doctrines.

Duffy’s theory fits our family to a T.  I don’t need to tell anybody that families with inactive or nonmember fathers inhabit the lower rungs of the ward social ladder. Our oldest son, Wort, was 12 before the light of LDS conformity drew George into the circle. Wort was a good kid and it hurt him that he was never called to be a class president in the YM organization. His social needs were met at school, not at church.

Our oldest two daughters, mentored by wonderful YW leaders, served as YW class presidents repeatedly. Both served missions and married in the temple. Jaycee’s temple marriage was a disaster which finally left her too depressed to attend church. When her husband left, her LDS friends responsed with, “Have you been going to church?” Only non-LDS, divorced associates from work empathized. Jaycee changed friends and church affiliation the same day.

Our youngest daughter told me she had never believed anything she’d heard at church. I don’t know if she was precociously intellectual or if she simply never fit with the kids in her ward age group. The fourth child in a family often gets lost in the shuffle. Our youngest son never fit in at church because his goal in life has always been to piss people off. This limited his acceptance at church as well as most other places.

School, not church, reinforced our kids’ self-esteem. None of them enjoyed seminary. They complained that seminary teachers favored the front row kids who sang hymns with gusto and beamed approval over each breath of wisdom puffed from the teacher’s lips—the “choir queers.” I know our kids’ choice of epithets was wildly inappropriate, but I was too busy telling them to put the toilet seat down and to stop sticking their heads out the car windows screaming, “You look mah-velous!” at passersby to teach them the finer points of civilized behavior.

By the time our kids ceased being cute little tykes who brought their mother self-esteem at church, I was teaching full time and my peer group became my work colleagues rather than ward members. As I participated in  out-of-state seminars and workshops, I met wonderful non-Mormons, several of whom shared spiritual experiences from within their own faith. Their testimonies of God’s love opened my eyes to the possibility that God does not reserve blessings to baptized Latter-day Saints.

George was a temple worker while I underwent my crisis of faith. I tried to save my testimony. I attended the temple regularly, prayed, read the scriptures, but the more I studied, the more inconsistencies I found. Possibly if my peer group had been limited to my ward, I could have found a way to rationalize the problems I encountered. Thankfully that was not the case. My horizons have expanded to include people of many faiths and no faith. I am not an apostate—one who works against the church.   I value what I have gained from my LDS background. I respect the differences in religious points of view of each member of our family. If only they weren’t so damned vocal about sharing their chosen brand of religion when we get together!

 

Abortion

Abortion

The Guttmacher Institute’s estimate  that if current rates continue, one of every three American women will have had an abortion by age 45 spawned a blog speculating that, given those statistics, many avid Pro-Life women must be having abortions. A response to that blog  cited a link to a site listing scores of anecdotal accounts of Pro-Life women hypocritically accessing abortions for themselves or their daughters.

 I’m not surprised the abortion issue might spawn a little hypocrisy. Abortion is an emotional topic and everyone is convinced theirs is the only moral position. Politicians and lobbyists use it as a hot button issue to support their own interests. Currently, health insurance companies are fighting health care reform with rumors that government plans will use tax dollars to fund abortions. My evangelical sons and my Molly Mormon daughter side with pro-lifers. My liberal daughters consider the pro-life campaign a plot by men to control women. My little old aunt opposes abortion because she thinks any woman who indulges in sex for any reason except procreation is a skank who deserves what she gets.

 I don’t know any pro-choice advocate who thinks abortion is good; it is a sad procedure that deals with an area of ethics and morality most of us prefer leaving to God. Ending unwanted pregnancies is not a modern invention—desperate women have attempted abortion with varying degrees of safety and success for centuries.

 Current abortion statistics reveal that only13 % of abortions are performed for medical reasons such as to protect the health or life of the mother or because of a defective fetus. About 1% are due to rape or incest. All but the most radical pro-lifers consider these legitimate reasons to terminate a pregnancy. That leaves over 86% of abortions performed for reasons more difficult to understand.  Without knowing why women have abortions, we can only deal with the symptoms, not with the problem.

 What do we know about women who have abortions? According to the Guttmacher Institute, they tend to be very poor, young (50% are under 25), unmarried and/or in troubled relationships—women who are not in a position to offer adequate care to a helpless baby. Sixty percent have other children to care for. A legitimate question to ask is, does it benefit the babies or society as a whole for these women to give birth? And if the state concludes that women in adverse circumstances must go through with unwanted pregnancies, then does the state not have a responsibility to provide funds for medical treatment, counseling, education and social support for these mothers and children?

 Health and safety, concern for the sanctity of life, and protection of the helpless are the most common reasons given for the state’s right to regulate or prohibit abortion. Concern for the woman’s health and safety in terminating a pregnancy is a major argument for legalized abortion. If we rescind legal abortion but do nothing to address the problem of unwanted pregnancies, we can expect that many women will opt for illegal, dangerous abortions. This will protect neither the fetus nor the mother.

 A controversial report by Steven Levitt of Stanford Law School and John Donohue of the University of Chicago theorized that half the drop in the crime rate in the 1990’s can be attributed to the legalization of abortion in 1973. They reason that many of the aborted babies would have been born to impoverished mothers and would have likely grown up to commit crimes. While this link can’t be proven, it is sobering to realize the effect that babies born to poor, troubled women who cannot care for them has on society.

 Arguing over laws to restrict or regulate abortion is about as helpful as reasoning with a cranky two-year-old. Rather than wasting rhetoric on pro-life/pro-choice arguments, we need to examine the reasons women seek abortions and work to reduce the causes.

Feminism, Sex, and Happiness

A recent Mormon Times article about the Rockefeller Foundation/Time  survey findings that American women are less happy now than women were 30 or 40 years ago drew criticism from the feminist bloggernacle. The MT author, well aware of the biases of both her readers and her bosses at Deseret News, interpreted the survey to pretty much dismiss feminism as a factor in female happiness.

Now I don’t know that any “ism,” including feminism and Mormonism, actually creates happiness. Certainly life is much different for women now than 40 years ago when female attorneys and male nurses were as rare as Democrats in Texas. One change particularly concerns me.  Despite all the gains in legal and occupational equality, modern American women are judged by appearance much more now than before the equality gap narrowed. And by appearance, I mean a youthful, sexy physical image. Back in the ‘70s when the ERA was being discussed, exposed cleavage and see-through skirts were not appropriate business attire for women. Today we women fight the erosion of age with the dedication of Netherlands engineers building dikes to hold back the sea. Our aging bodies have become enemies to subdue rather than friends to appreciate and pamper.

Now, men’s bodies as well as women’s deteriorate with every birthday, but male power and income increase with age. In too many areas, women still access power and income via sex appeal—and nobody has to tell you that sexy good looks do not improve with age. Even Maureen Dowd, the feminist NY Times columnist, posts glamour shots of herself on her webpage. While her photos are hardly cheesecake, they show a lot more leg and chest than photos of her male colleagues.

Why do we women still define ourselves by our desirability to men? Maybe because we don’t notice the problem when we’re young. Denying reality, we think Mother Nature will treat us differently. We won’t lose our looks. But no matter how strenuously we fight the ravages of time—defending ourselves with hair color, make up, diets, and surgery—Ma Nature wins every battle. Sometimes I think Muslim women have the better deal. Hide it all under a burqa.

Maybe if woman united and demanded being valued for our brains instead of our boobs, we’d attain equality. And maybe not. Rebellion can backfire. Look at how the sexual revolution affected women. As part of the equality movement of the ‘60s and 70’s, women demanded the same right to enjoy sex as men. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that idea. Women’s sexual pleasure has been ignored for way too long in American culture  . But by demanding sex with no strings attached, women gave away their best bargaining chip. Eventually the nesting urge kicks in for most women and they want a permanent attachment and a family. Not so with all males. Does a woman have any leverage to encourage marriage if the guy she’s been living with for ten years decides it’s time to replace the old model?

According to the survey (and who would fault the RF and Time mag?), equality doesn’t equal happiness. Since even the best of intentions and plans can go awry, maybe we should be grateful the gap between gender equality has yet to be acknowledged, much less bridged in Mormondom. Maybe pushing for a larger role in the decision-making process at church would somehow result in our being judged even more by our physical attractions. Do we really want to compete with the Hot Mormon Muffin in our ward for a calling as Relief Society president?

Indoctrination

A recent blogger expressed concern about the family values promoted in some of the more sappy Primary songs—the ones depicting an idyllic family with a strong, presiding father and a nurturing mother—or even a barely mentioned mother.  While I realize the purpose of Primary songs is to teach gospel principles, I question the effectiveness of them as instruments of indoctrination. Do a higher percentage of YM serve missions now than in former years because they sang “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” in Primary? Do Mormons who grew up singing “Book of Mormon Stories” read the BOM with greater enthusiasm than those of the generation who sang “Give Said the Little Stream” instead?

Children will run into cultural principles at church and other places that differ from the parents’ personal values or family situation. Certainly children from single parent or part-member families don’t see their family’s lifestyle depicted in Primary. But whose family is ideal? And I can’t really imagine children singing a Primary song about Dad abandoning the family or Mom getting a job. Certainly church isn’t the only place where normal families don’t measure up to mythical perfection. When she was in elementary school, our oldest daughter fixated on a series of books about the Happy Hollister family. The Hollisters traveled abroad extensively with parents who never uttered a cross word to the kids or to each other. The siblings never quarreled—never even annoyed each other. Lolly lamented that our family did not measure up, but now she has children of her own and realizes what a work of fiction the Happy Hollisters were.

Cultural influences outside our home made lasting impressions on our kids. Lolly, a staunch pro-lifer, recently told me that when she was in 6th grade, the mother of her best friend sat both girls down  and read them a magazine article about the horrors of abortion. Sister Dugood never asked my permission to share her opinion with Lolly. While I certainly don’t believe abortion is a good thing, my own feelings are in the grayer areas of mothers’ and babies’ health. It never occurred to me to share my thoughts about abortion with my 11-year-old daughter, and someone else imprinted her with values not exactly like mine.

As independent voters with fairly (for Utah) liberal leanings, George and I were shocked when our elder son began spouting ultra conservative political quotations from his 8th grade US History teacher. We shared our own opinions with him, but Wort preferred his teacher’s politics. Was that a bad thing? It is if we consider our children as clones of ourselves who should positively agree with us on every issue. But George and I see our children as independent agents. We taught them our core values of honesty, compassion, responsibility and self-reliance. And while we would have been delighted had they mirrored our loftiest thoughts on every topic, we respect their ability to evaluate not only what we taught them, but what they encountered from others.

I loved the blog on indoctrinating Primary songs and the comments it engendered. Most of the LDS mothers responding realize that no organization, not even a church, will reflect every member’s cultural values and reality. The prevailing thought was that parents should be aware of what their children are learning and discuss their personal interpretation of cultural values with their kids. To paraphrase Hugh B. Brown, as they mature, we should be more concerned that our children think rather than what they think.

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