A blog post that drives a wagon close to the edge and possibly falls into the gorge below

I don’t like to complain—no, scratch that. I do like to complain, but I’m self-aware enough to realize that I shouldn’t be enjoying it. So believe me when I say that I’m sorry to be enjoying what I’m about to tell you, and I can only hope that once it’s off my chest, I will have it out of my system and the temptation won’t be as strong in the future. That’s how repentance works, right? Oh, wait.

Well, anyway…

A while back my daughter came to me, Friend magazine in hand, and said something she had read had made her afraid she’d done something “terribly wrong.” (This is the way my daughter talks. She’s a bit of a drama queen.) According to her Friend magazine, a little boy’s mom had gotten him some temporary tattoos because she seemed to recall that he liked them, but this boy knew very well that President Hinckley had said not to get tattoos, and he informed Mom that he intended to follow the Prophet by shunning all tattoos, including the temporary ones. And Mom was so impressed with his valiant spirit that she wrote a letter to the
Friend about it, which is how we came to know the story.

So personally, I’m against tattoos—though I know some lovely people who have them and some perfectly awful people who don’t have any—but this story in the Friend made me knit my brow and do a Marge Simpson growl. “Hrrrrrmmmmm.” Needless to say, all of my children enjoy the occasional temporary tattoo. Since I love cleaning up after the Friend, I assured my daughter that regardless of what this little boy and his mom think, there is a distinct difference between real tattoos and temporary “tattoos.” To wit, one washes off with soap and water, and the other doesn’t. Last time I checked, that mattered—and anyone who thinks it doesn’t might consider consulting a dermatologist.

Now, I know that one could argue that temporary tattoos fall under the category of “avoiding the very appearance of evil,” and I certainly don’t think anyone needs to re-educate this little boy and convince him of his doctrinal folly. (“Go on…just one temporary tattoo…everyone’s doing it…[Hiss]”) Similarly, it’s no skin off my nose if you and your family ban the intentional application of ink to flesh as a means of separating yourselves from the world and growing closer to God. Knock yourselves out. Just don’t put it in my kid’s Friend magazine, which is supposed to be teaching her how to be like Jesus and not how she can enlarge her phylacteries. [Hiss]

I share this anecdote to show unto you all my weakness. We religious people do have our religious hobbies, and mine is mocking other people for their religious hobbies. On my personal blog I had a conversation with a reader-friend who was curious about the ins and outs of the dos and don’ts of Mormon life, and I was explaining to her the difference between normative Mormonism and what I call ascetic Mormonism. Normative Mormonism says you can’t drink coffee or tea. Ascetic Mormonism says you can’t drink Pepsi or Mountain Dew, either. If it’s righteous to avoid R-rated movies, it must be even more righteous to avoid PG-13 movies, too.

So there’s the letter of the law, and there’s the spirit of the law. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t think they were living the spirit of the law. People who seem hung up on the letters just think that’s the best way to live the spirit of the law; if nothing else, they’re being obedient—super-obedient—and obedience never goes against the Spirit. Unless you’re a Nazi, of course. [Hiss]

But it’s not nice to sneer. You know, there are Mormons who use artificial vanilla to avoid the ethical dilemma posed by the fact that real vanilla extract is an alcoholic solution—and I might think those folks are cuckoo (not to mention making inferior-tasting cookies), but it’s really none of my business. The fact is, we all have our little “things”—small, simple taboos we extrapolated from something we heard or read a church leader say once, or just something we concocted out of our own musings on a subject, when we had nothing better to do (or rather, had nothing better we wanted to do).

After all, there aren’t many gospel principles one can live perfectly. Ever try being perfectly honest, or perfectly long-suffering, or perfectly charitable? These are subjective values. Messy human details often get in the way. You know, people are sometimes jerks. Sometimes two (or more) goods conflict with one another. Sometimes what’s right depends on the situation. There’s turning the other cheek, and then there’s bending over and saying, yes sir may I have another, and that latter one isn’t technically scriptural, right? (Right?) It can be exhausting, constantly navigating the moral course. We know that God doesn’t expect us to be perfect—because we’re mortal and it’s impossible—but we do believe He expects us to try, and even trying can be hard work sometimes.

When President Hinckley gave his infamous no-tattoos-or-body-piercings talk, what he was really telling the youth was that one’s individuality and identity is best expressed by living one’s values, not by one’s outward appearance. I won’t argue that he wasn’t really against getting tattoos and piercings in weird places; clearly, he was counseling against those things, but in our zeal to follow his counsel—or in our umbrage at the ethical micromanaging–the “why” was kind of left by the wayside. As individuals we want to somehow mark ourselves as distinct from the crowd; it’s part of the process of finding out who we are. President Hinckley’s point, I believe, was that we should distinguish ourselves with our behavior; it’s what we do that counts, and a tattoo or piercing is a very weak symbol indeed.

But it’s still a symbol, and the absence of it is a symbol, too.

I think it’s understandable when we glom onto something we sense can be lived “perfectly” without putting too much strain on ourselves. When we draw very specific boundaries and heavy black lines between permissible and impermissible, that might be putting hedges around the law; there’s the argument that it puts us in a protective circle, ensuring that we don’t rationalize ourselves into increasingly more wicked behavior. Constant vigilance! There’s another way of looking at it, though. I live by a number of standards I don’t think are particularly meaningful in and of themselves. They’re only meaningful in that they serve as tokens of my good intentions—including my intention of not rationalizing myself into increasingly wicked behavior. It’s my way of saying, “I may not be perfect, God, but I’m trying—do you see how I’m trying?” I only say that to God, though. It’s not really the rest of the world’s business.

So if putting up a hedge around a particular law is meaningful to you, I understand completely. I can also understand wanting to share the blessings you’ve received as a result. Just, seriously, keep it out of the Friend and out of the realm of normative Mormonism. I’m already focused on eschewing the espresso truffles and not watching The Matrix, and it’s not meet that a woman should run faster than she has strength.


  1. Two thumbs up.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Wait, you never saw The Matrix? Now building a fence…

    (Nice post.)

    We’re so focused on the perfectly-livable, fenceable commandments that we have a tendency not to pay attention to the more subjective and, arguably, more important ones, as you rightly say.

  3. More Rebecca J, all the time.

    I’m kind of looking forward to when all the people who have trendy tattoos are 20 years older and they’re all blurred and faded and indecipherable. Like my husband’s is now.

  4. Of course, to do that strictly, you have to know what’s doctrine and what’s not, which I think we fail in discerning. Caffeine? Movie ratings? Near-death experiences?

  5. Aaron Brown says:

    After each session at Gymboree, my 2-year-old daughter is always keen to receive a handstamp on each hand. Next time she does it, I will burst into tears and make a point of telling her how disappointed I am that she doesn’t heed President Hinkley’s counsel as valiantly and militantly as she ought. They’re never too young for guilt-tripping and emotional manipulation, I say.


  6. A very nice post, Rebecca J. You have articulated nicely something that I have observed but have been unable to explain to myself.

    For a variety of reasons (some good, some bad), people do set different limits, and sometimes they surprise you.

  7. Speaking of hand stamps, Chuck-E-Cheese is obviously now out of the question. Sure, those hand stamps only show up when put under ultraviolet light, and yea, these mostly invisible stamps may be intended to help deter or prevent kidnappings, but rules are rules.

    For me and my family, now it’s Cici’s.

  8. Latter-day Guy says:

    A thousand blessings on you! Great post. I always get concerned about the intersection of normative Mormonism and personal Mormonism, particularly when local leaders confuse the one and the other; ah, whatever space we open for people to receive revelation is also vulnerable to “propheteering,” but such is the uneasy federalism of LDS belief.

  9. I live by a number of standards I don’t think are particularly meaningful in and of themselves. They’re only meaningful in that they serve as tokens of my good intentions—including my intention of not rationalizing myself into increasingly wicked behavior. It’s my way of saying, “I may not be perfect, God, but I’m trying—do you see how I’m trying?”

    I love this. A lot. Like, a lot a lot.

  10. Wonderful post, Rebecca. You’ve nailed one of the important paradoxes of Mormonism, imo. Thanks.

  11. Martin Willey says:

    I read the Friend article, too, and until know was not able to accurately describe my reaction. It was, in fact, a Marge Simpson growl. Great post.

  12. RJ, I think your last two posts taken together are an interesting example of how that sort of tension can exist within a single person! You take a fairly hard line on modest dress, but a more relaxed one on tattoos. I think this illustrates that liberal/conservative can be a false binary. We all value some principles above others, and it’s not only OK, but good, to choose our battles based on what we think matters most.

    I’ve become so used to hearing the ultra-hard line described as normative in church publications that I don’t really pay attention any more.

  13. what’s interesting about this is the thinking that would lead to such a critical examination of a seemingly trivial splitting of a hair—the difference between a permanent tattoo vs a temporary one.
    Us Mormon’s are obsessed with thinking about what other people think of us, and defining our values based on that.
    What else could lead to this kind of hyper-ventilating about tattoo’s?
    You bought the tattoo’s so obviously you thought nothing wrong with them. But when you learned what other’s thought or MIGHT think about your choice, then it becomes another matter entirely.
    ……”what should I do? what should I do? well, let’s see….what are the smith’s doing? and the jones? do they think it’s ok?”….

    at some point values must be defined internally, and this indeed is living by the spirit……even prophets have opinions (anybody read Mormon Doctrine lately?)

    …”I’m thinking about watching the game this Sunday….now, where did I put all my friend magazines…hope they don’t say anything about this…..”

  14. I’ve never in my life read or subscribed to the Friend Magazine.

  15. I finally found the letter — “Reminding Mom,” part of Trying to Be Like Jesus Christ, July 2002, if anybody else is looking for it.

    I agree with you if we’re talking about adults. Children are pretty much black and white, though, aren’t they? 5-year-old Kaden can’t be expected to know the difference between temporary tattoos and permanent ones — they’re both called tattoos, they both ARE tattoos, in his eyes, and if that were all there were to it you’d probably be proud of a little boy who was trying to put his Primary lessons into practice. It’s not all there is to it, though, and Mom missed a teaching moment by not explaining to Kaden the difference between the two things that share a common name — if, that is, the temporary/permanent nature is what matters, and not the body decoration itself, or association of some tattoos with a lifestyle contrary to the gospel, or for some other reason (I have literally never wondered until now what is the reason for discouraging tattoos, because they repel me and I’ve never faced the temptation). It sounds like Rebecca had the conversation with her daughter that the letter-writer could have had with Kaden.

  16. 5-year-old Kaden can’t be expected to know the difference between temporary tattoos and permanent ones — they’re both called tattoos, they both ARE tattoos, in his eyes, and if that were all there were to it you’d probably be proud of a little boy who was trying to put his Primary lessons into practice.

    I assure you 5-year-olds do know the difference, and if not, it is very easy to explain to them. It would have been good of this mother, IMO, to explain the difference then and there–and the spirit of the law.

  17. I think I’ll get this post tattooed on my back

  18. Oh, Ronito, please don’t do that. It would have to be such a large tattoo that you would surely end up in hell. :)

  19. nah, god and me, we’re tight.

  20. All those candy cigarettes I ate as a child…………
    Funny, they didn’t turn me into a smoker as an adult. I could tell the difference. (the candy ones were so hard to light).
    I can see the Friend’s point of view, AND still not be worried about using fake tattoos. I don’t have a problem with Henna either, or women using makeup to paint their faces or hair dye to color hair. Why would I? I mean where are we going to draw the line?
    Not to long ago we visited the Polynesian Cultural Center at BYU Hawaii. Some of the performers from the islands, had actual cultural tattoos from their homes, and they were displaying them with pride. This was in a church sponsored facility in part of the program…..

  21. Some of are more zealous than others. And some of us are a whole lot more zealous about one thing than another.

    If someone is so zealous as to keep the commandments and avoid natural vanilla extract and makes inferior-tasting cookies, it’s no skin off my nose. I’ve eaten burnt offerings for the sake of politeness.

    If someone wants to say Pepsi and Coke aren’t against the Word of Wisdom and gets so dependent on caffeine that he’s got to have it at least three times a day, that’s not my headache either.

    There was once a certain Peter, who evidently thought that if an instruction from his Master was worth obeying it was worth exceeding and had to be sometimes not so gently restrained. Until one day his zeal failed him, and he found himself denying he even knew his beloved Master.
    But Jesus didn’t deny knowing Peter. Evidentaly, zeal is not the unforgivable sin.

    Unless letters to the Friend from mothers bragging about their children have somehow become canonized scripture without my hearing about it, exactly what does that have to do with you or me?

  22. How are we going to treat people who join the church and had real tattoos before they converted?

  23. See, it is not as simple as soap and water. Sometimes the removal of temporary tattoos requires rubbing alcohol and then you’ve brought the WoW into it. Then you’ve got the appearance of TWO evils. Where will it end, I ask you? Where?

  24. Latter-day Guy says:

    But Jami, alcohol is for the washing of our bodies according to the revelation!

  25. Good stuff. I always love that ‘You do WHAT?’ moment in talking to other Mormons, going both ways.
    When my kids were born, I bought chocolate cigars to hand out as a joke. A mormon co-worker was incredibly unamused and confronted me about it.

  26. #22

    The same way we might treat an investigator that tried to attend a youth dance sporting a visible tattoo: deny them admittance.

  27. Latter-day Guy says:

    26, that’s terrible. I hope that someone asked his/her forgiveness and they weren’t totally turned off from investigating.

  28. Ardis, it’s because children are such black and white thinkers that I don’t want anecdotes like this published in the Friend. The Friend isn’t for adults, it’s for children, and there are so many good black-and-white issues to teach children–like being kind and obeying your parents (you know, unless they tell you to get a tattoo)–that I really think we can leave the tattoo discussion out altogether. I have absolutely no problem with Kaden deciding that he’s going to follow the prophet by shunning the temporary tattoos. If he were my kid, I’d think it was sweet, and I sure wouldn’t try to tell him he was wrong–because it’s just not that important. I’d let it go–until the day he asked me why Sister So-and-So lets her kids wear tattoos even though the Prophet said not to, because then it’s time for a little nuance.

    Occasionally girls my daughter’s age will come to church in sleeveless dresses, and while it doesn’t bother me (because I don’t think sleeveless dresses are immodest), it does bother my daughter–because she’s not allowed to wear those dresses. So I’ve had to explain to her that different families have different rules and different opinions about what should or shouldn’t be and what they will or won’t do, and I’ve always emphasized that it’s NOT because other people are doing it wrong and we’re doing it right–it’s because people think about things differently, and good people can come to different conclusions. The fact is, her mom and dad have different opinions on the modesty rules, but we had to have a unified position, and bare shoulders was not the hill I wanted to die on, just as R-rated movies wasn’t a hill I wanted to die on. And the rest is hard-liner history.

    Pres. Hinckley also said we shouldn’t be racists, so what if I wrote a letter to the Friend telling how my kid refused to do the offensive Native American-mocking hand gestures during the singing of “Book of Mormon Stories” during Primary? I’m sure some people would find that just wonderful, but other parents might not be too thrilled when their kids come up to them and ask if everyone in their Primary is really a racist. They might think that anecdote was inappropriate for the venue, and they’d be right.

  29. You really should see the Matrix.

  30. I heart Rebecca J.

  31. Mark Brown says:

    Anybody interested in prophets and/or tattoos should look here.

    I would really, really like to know what was going through his mind. Who know, maybe they’re only temporary.

  32. I actually appreciate letters like the one in the Friend. Because then when I take my kids to the Ramayana festival at the Krishna temple in Spanish Fork, and let them go to the henna tattoo booth, it seems all the more delightfully transgressive to them.

    This, of course, makes henna tattoos all the more effective as a buffer vice against greater sins. They think I’m the coolest, most laid-back parent ever, because I let them do stuff that prude in the Friend can’t do. And of course, the mother in the friend can comfort herself in knowing she’s a more righteous parent than people like me. Win-win, I say.

  33. merrybits says:

    Awesome post! I love the Matrix too. So much in fact, that it inspired me to take marshal arts classes.

  34. You know, there are Mormons who use artificial vanilla to avoid the ethical dilemma posed by the fact that real vanilla extract is an alcoholic solution—and I might think those folks are cuckoo (not to mention making inferior-tasting cookies), but it’s really none of my business.

    I don’t cook, and when I do I am a horrible cook, but somehow I’ve learned how to make pretty damn good chocolate chip cookies. When asked what my secret is, I always respond that it’s real vanilla unmeasured. I just turn the bottle over until I feel like I have enough, which I’m certain that it’s always more than the recipe calls for.

    Also, a prodigious amount of lard (Crisco) helps too.

  35. You know, there are Mormons who use artificial vanilla to avoid the ethical dilemma posed by the fact that real vanilla extract is an alcoholic solution

    I feel sorry for these people, anyone with working taste buds can tell the difference. I’d give up my Dr. Pepper and temporary tattoos before I’d give up my real vanilla.

  36. Y’all really need to shut up about the Matrix. Next you’ll be telling me I need to try sex. Where does it end?

  37. Perhaps they should just re-title that childrens magazine “The Pharasee” and be done with it.

    Sometimes being a good example also means not being a pain-in-the-butt Mormon snob.

  38. Not just Mexican real vanilla either, but the bourbon stuff. If anybody lists a secret ingredient other than their special, local-store-only vanilla, don’t eat their cookies.

  39. Well, I think for the most part the Friend is just fine. Which is why I don’t understand the need to corrupt it with needlessly confusing and trivial anecdotes. The ethical dilemmas facing most children have to do with peer and family relationships, honesty and the like–befriending the new kid (or an unpopular one), not cheating or stealing, helping your parents or siblings, etc. Not many kids are out getting tattoos or being pressured to get tattoos.

  40. merrybits says:

    But there’s no point sacrificing your personal righteousness on the Matrix sequels.

  41. As always, love your posts, Rebecca! I think you’ve surpassed Ronan as the Brit I’d most like to meet. (Although, 2 for 1 isn’t a bad deal.)

    I particularly enjoyed the hisses.

  42. Rebecca J says:

    I’m not a Brit, so Ronan has nothing to fear from me. :)

    It’s the real Rebecca (no J) who’s the Brit, I think.

  43. Off topic here, but I just have to add to the chorus of Rebecca J praise. I’ve immensely enjoyed every one of your posts and (shameless lobbying) I really, really hope BCC adopts you.

  44. Ha. The real Rebecca is actually married to Ronan.

  45. Steve Evans says:

    Rebecca J is her American doppleganger, apparently.

  46. Steve Evans says:

    …and she too is married to Ronan.

  47. Rebecca J says:

    Well, I take it back. Ronan should be afraid.

  48. Rebecca J says:

    Thank you, ZD Eve. ::blushing emoticon::

  49. Ronan is a trans-atlantic polyg?

  50. Ronan is a fundamentalist Mormon with 52 wives. His Facebook page says so.

  51. Researcher says:

    Sorry to break into this lovefest, but I enjoyed the discussion yesterday and started to wonder if this was really a morally complex and murky shades-of-gray subject for my children. So this morning I asked my 11-year-old a couple of questions.

    Would you get a tattoo?



    It’s immodest.

    (Interesting construct.) [Brief instruction to him about the prophet said not to get tattoos.]

    Would you get a fake tattoo?



    It washes off.

    (No moral hand-wringing here.)

  52. Nicely done, Researcher! LOL.

  53. OK, I’ll try too. My boy is 5.5

    hey E, would you get a tattoo?
    because I like them. they look pretty.

    (E turns to little sister)
    want to get a tattoo?
    umm, yeah

  54. Researcher says:

    That’s funny, cchrissyy, so I just tried to ask my younger kids the same questions. They weren’t aware that all tattoos aren’t the kind that you put on with a wet cloth. Ah, the simple life of a young child.

  55. yeah, I’m not concerned :)

  56. nesquik405 says:

    Temporary tattoos? What about make-up? My mother was very purse-lipped about marking up our skin that way. One of her older daughters broke that taboo and paved the way for the rest of us. I will thank her ’til the day I die. Maybe even into the eternities, provided I get to wear it there, too. (Unless my eternal countenance gets fixed so I don’t need it.)

  57. I love temporary tattoos, except that they feel strange on my skin (almost like a sticker.) Henna is annoying because it’s all crunchy. I am overly sensitive, though — otherwise I’d be sticking fake jewels on myself with reckless abandon, or drawing stuff on my arms just for fun. This is the Makeup Addendum to the Thank Goodness My Feet Are Too Wide For All Those Cute Shoes principle.

    #38 – my mother doesn’t get her vanilla from a store; she makes it herself, so there. She’s a convert and thinks the whole LDS alcohol fixation is pretty silly. My dad (not a member) puts wine in his spaghetti sauce, and it was my mom who told me to get over it and enjoy it like I did growing up, when I learned about the WoW. Strictly speaking, my entire family is full of heathens, including me. I love that coffee ice cream… sigh.

    #56 – my non-LDS stepmom forced me to wear makeup to my 6th-grade graduation. That, and the Laurel who tried to hold me down and pluck my eyebrows when I was 16 or so, meant I eschewed nearly every kind of feminine beauty technique until my mid-20s. You don’t have to be opposed to a practice in order to turn it into a battle zone.

  58. Wow, I’d never even thought about temporary tattoos as being an “appearance of evil” issue. In fact, the Young Women in my ward were putting them on people’s arms as a fundraiser for some cause at our last ward activity.