So, here in Massachusetts, it’s starting to seem safe to put away the snowpants. Which means, of course, that (by the fashion industry’s bizarre calendar) the stores will soon be full of back-to-school fashions, and I’ve got to hurry to buy shorts and swimsuits for my kids. The boys are easy enough–plain t-shirts and longish, comfy shorts are easy to find. But shopping for my daughter is tedious and annoying as a practical matter, and downright infuriating as a philosophical and spiritual problem.
There’s a great deal of staggeringly skanky clothing manufactured for little girls–the depravity of dressing preteens as baby prostitutes needs little comment (although there have been some entertaining diatribes against this trend). What I’m talking about is something more subtle. Every girls’ t-shirt I saw in several different stores today had some decorative detail–puffed sleeves, a little embroidered doo-dad, a ruffle, a bow. Innocuous enough in themselves, but each of them–every innocent cutesiness–teaches my daughter that her clothes are not for her, not for her comfort or the function she wants them to serve, but for other people to look at.
It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with being pleasant for other people to look at. What troubles me is that my daughter is being taught to draw attention to herself, to her body, by the way she appears and the way she adorns herself. In a few years, she will start to be told to monitor the kind of attention she draws to herself. She will be told how short her shorts can be, how long her sleeves must be, whether or not she must wear pantyhose. She will have makeover nights in Young Women’s where she will be taught to apply just enough makeup to be attractive, but not too overtly sexy. She will be told that her eternal fate depends on attracting boys’ attention, and simultaneously she will be warned against “becoming pornography” by dressing inappropriately. She will be in charge of finely calibrating young men’s responses to the visual phenomenon of her body.
If she is like me (and I desperately hope she is not), this will cause her significant pain. She will begin to see her body as an object, separate from her own feelings and desires. She will hate her thighs, or her nose, or the tiny bit of fat on her upper arms. She will diet (or worse) and exercise not for the joy of moving her healthy body, but to look “right”. All of this starts with the ruffled t-shirts that tell her that her clothes have a different function than her brothers’. This is the sweetly insidious beginning of the appropriation of her body as the passive object of others’ gaze.
It makes me want to scream.
But, of course, most of that is not a particularly Mormon phenomenon. So, here’s a Mormon angle:
It is possible to find plain girls’ t-shirts, in colors my daughter likes and without the frills, in pricey catalogs and online stores. Issues of modesty and adornment are class issues. Our language betrays us on this point: a well-dressed woman is “classy,” a too-scantily or brightly-clad woman is called “cheap.” Our Mormon notions of modesty derive not just from sexual protectiveness, but also from the vestigial aspirations to respectability and inclusion in polite society left over from the early days of the church, from being regarded as barbaric (in both senses of the word–primitive and strange, outlandish). Mormon women’s bodies and sexuality have always been contested territory, our hemlines mapping much larger boundaries.
In the early 21st century, we have a certain image of the “modest” Mormon woman–size 6 (or 4, perhaps, vanity sizing having completely untethered clothing tags from reality), in a tailored skirt and blouse–feminine, please, not too severe–or a nice, but only moderately expensive suit–Ann Taylor, not Armani. Neither too frumpy, nor too fashion-forward. Appealing but not overtly sexy. Casual wear may include pants, but ought to look “put-together”–never like the mother of small children who may or may not manage a shower or makeup (to say nothing of “beauty sleep”–ha!!) on any given Tuesday. For the wives of General Authorities, I’m told these rules are very explicitly spelled out–denim skirts are ok for casual private gatherings, but no pants ever. We have cast ourselves as guardians of “traditional” gender roles, but we don’t want to be reminded of the ravages such roles can inflict on women’s bodies and psyches. So we preach exercise, makeup (remember “even an old barn looks better with a fresh coat of paint”?), and just-so dressing. Strangely, we ask women to dress in the uniform of women who have access to precisely the kind of power and wealth from which our prescription of traditional roles largely excludes them. Why on earth do the General Presidencies of the auxiliaries wear suits to General Conference, where they resolutely enjoin women to refrain from the kinds of activities for which suits are appropriate attire?
It is bad enough to send such mixed messages to adult women, who at least may have the psychic and intellectual resources to start untangling them. It is an entirely different, and more pernicious, matter to enact these questions about power and class on our children’s bodies.
I do not want to be part of the bashing Julie Beck bandwagon–I’ve written about the things I’ve found admirable in her talks, and, in general, I’m a fan. She uses a grownup voice and she speaks her mind–this is cause for celebration. [NB: I will ruthlessly delete comments that threaten to pitch us into debate over her now-infamous talk again.] However, one part of her “Mothers Who Know” sermon continues to trouble me–the notion that a child’s (and particularly a daughter’s) well-combed hair reflects some virtue of the mother’s. Here’s the unfortunate paragraph:
Mothers who know honor sacred ordinances and covenants. I have visited sacrament meetings in some of the poorest places on the earth where mothers have dressed with great care in their Sunday best despite walking for miles on dusty streets and using worn-out public transportation. They bring daughters in clean and ironed dresses with hair brushed to perfection; their sons wear white shirts and ties and have missionary haircuts. These mothers know they are going to sacrament meeting, where covenants are renewed. These mothers have made and honor temple covenants. These mothers have influence and power.
I think I know what she means, and an even slightly charitable reading would interpret this as an exhortation to care and show respect even in small ways, as evidence of devotion. This is not a problematic idea.
What is problematic, though, is the idea that a mother’s righteousness can be gauged by her children’s appearance, an idea which is all-too-alive and well within Mormon culture, with devastating consequences for girls and women. Moreover, she associates women’s power with their appearance and that of their children. The notion that a woman’s spiritual power and influence are evidenced by their appearance intensifies the importance of clothing and appearance in our assessment of women’s character, rather than teaching the sort of self-forgetfulness and unwillingness to draw attention to oneself that are contained in older senses of the word “modest” (before that word became exclusively associated with the regulation of sexuality). Moreover, little missionary suits cost money, as do frocks that need ironing–Beck’s description of women who manage to dress their children well even in poor circumstances implies an aspiration towards middle-class values that we ought to be very, very (very!) careful of entangling with expressions of piety or devotion.
There is a terrifying diminishment of women’s sphere inherent in the notion that her spiritual power is expressed by dressing herself or her children well. I believe with all my heart that Mormonism, at its core, affirms the spiritual potential of all human beings. We ought to carefully guard against the encroachments of worldly cultural ideas that confuse or distract us from our highest ideals. Of course fathers and mothers should teach their children to be neat and clean, to dress in a way that conveys their respect for themselves and others around them, but, as Brigham Young exhorted, “let us not narrow ourselves up [!]” We must not, especially, narrow our daughter’s possibilities by increasing the anxiety over their appearance that the world will all-too-abundantly bestow upon them.
Is it any wonder I hate shopping??