Guest Post: Mormons, Garments, and Body Image: A Survey

By Nancy Ross

Jessica Finnigan and I are conducting research into body image and garments. We’ve had an abstract accepted by a journal and now we’re in the survey stage. Please help us out by taking this survey.

When the topic of women’s bodies comes up within Mormonism, we’re usually referencing some element of modesty culture. But for many of us, our bodies and our religion continually interact every day through the wearing of garments. Both men and women wear garments, but men and women have very different experiences with their bodies and we hypothesized that men and women may also have very different experiences with their garments as well.

A lot of people have been asking why we would research such a taboo and personal thing. Don’t we know that asking questions about people’s underwear is inappropriate? I can’t speak for Jessica, but I can tell you that my relationship with my body and my garments have changed a lot in the ten years since I’ve been endowed.

Over time, my experiences with my garments have changed, largely as a result of changes in my body. When I went through the temple for the first time, I had a very positive experience with the initiatory, the ordinance associated with receiving garments. Thereafter, my garments were an extension of that positive experience. I was also surprised that garments had such short sleeves and weren’t calf length. I had been dressing hyper-modestly for years in an effort to not offend God and I was relieved and excited to wear short-short sleeves. Initially, garments freed me from my excessive modesty. They were almost liberating and a sign of my sincere commitment to the gospel and to God.

But they never stayed in place, with the legs always rolling up and the lacy necklines trying to climb out of my modest shirts. The lace was always itchy and the waistbands dug into my skin. I got rid of all of my feminine hygiene products with wings.

Despite difficulties, I still saw them as holy. Pregnancy changed my body and I tried to find garments that would accommodate my growing and changing form. My new state left my body feeling extra sensitive and the poorly-placed seems and limited fabric options of maternity garments led me to buy my preferred fabric in much larger sizes.

When my daughter arrived, I tried to continue wearing my bra over the garment top, but it just didn’t work. Even my most traditional and believing relatives said that nursing tops were a waste of money. That summer, temperatures rose to 117 F and I wore skirts daily to promote air circulation around my swollen legs. Pregnancy and childbirth had not been kind to my body.

At that time, garments became a hair shirt that I wore to fulfill a religious duty. I had never seen them as a sacrifice before, but the sacrifice of wearing them in extreme heat with a swollen body was a difficult physical sacrifice on a top of the many I was making with a breastfeeding newborn. I knew that I could not take a break from them because to do so would be to lose my temple recommend, a symbol of my worthiness before God.

At that time in my life, I felt I had little worth. My garments were a symbol that God was demanding and ever-present. I didn’t like my garments or my duty to wear them, but I wore them anyway. I struggled with my body and I struggled with my garments and I felt that God was in the mix somehow.

Today, my relationship with my garments is different from what it was then. My body is scarred with the marks of pregnancy and childbirth, but its general shape has returned to normal. With my garments, the legs still roll up, the lace is still itchy, and I still can’t use hygiene products with wings. I am still committed to the gospel, and even to wearing garments, but I do not see God in my garments anymore and I am happier for it.

Nancy Ross is a life-long member of the LDS Church. She is an assistant professor in art history at Dixie State University and conducts social science research on Mormons in her spare time.
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What if Christ Had Doubts?

Doubt

 

 

 

“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46.) Common LDS interpretations of this scripture and the event it chronicles include: an expression of belief even in the face of great pain (Waiting upon the Lord: Thy Will Be Done, Robert D. Hales, Oct. 2011) a moment where God removed himself in order to let Christ finish the Atonement alone and the great faith Christ showed in that moment of loneliness (He Lives! All Glory to His Name! Richard G. Scott, April 2010) In every discussion of Christ’s death on the cross, he is presented as a perfect example of faith.

But what if this scripture documents a moment of fear instead of a moment of faith? What if, in that moment, Christ doubted his mission, his calling as the Savior, his position as the firstborn son of God? We believe that Christ experienced everything we do; does that include doubt?

I believe there is room to interpret this scripture as an expression of doubt. To say “why hast thou forsaken me?” suggests that the speaker believes he has been abandoned. He did not ask “have you left,” but “why did you leave?” At such a pivotal moment, to feel abandoned could very easily have led to doubt not just of God’s presence but of everything he was dying for.

In my years of involvement with several Mormon feminist groups, I have been told many times that my questions and doubts were a sin. I’ve been told that “obedience is the first law of heaven,” that “when the prophet speaks, the thinking is done” and if I were really following God, I wouldn’t be asking these questions. If you look at the Ordain Women Facebook page for 30 seconds, you will find comments reflecting these attitudes. Doubt is viewed as a sin by many church members. And church leaders encourage this attitude in some ways. The Aaronic Priesthood Manual contains the quote “when the Prophet speaks… the debate is over,” encouraging the youth of the church to obey blindly. In April 2009, Elder Kevin W. Pearson presented doubt and disbelief as the same thing, and he also stated that feeling doubts was a choice, implying that to question is choosing to lack faith. In short, having questions is presented as an incorrect  or sinful choice to make.

But Christ did not sin. He died sinless, allowing Him to atone for the sins of others. So if Christ doubted, it cannot be a sin. We can say we are following Christ when we have questions and reach out to God for answers. If Christ doubted, those of us who question are in good company. We are not sinning when we doubt, because Christ doubted and did not sin.

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A Sermon for International Women’s Day

Several months ago I was asked to give a talk in my ward’s Sacrament Meeting in celebration of International Women’s Day. The following is the text of that talk.

Introduction

Several years ago I was at a park with my children. There was nothing particularly interesting about this park except for two older boys at one corner play-fighting. I don’t like my children to watch or engage in violent behavior so I tried to keep their attention on the other side of the park. But we kept hearing their taunts: ” I have the power.” “Ha Ha, I just took your power.” “You can’t take it because I’m invincible.” “I have your power, I have your power.” “No. I have THE POWER.”

Sylvia became more and more distracted by their exchange and before I could stop her, she marched over to the two boys. She stared at them intently and then proclaimed, “Now I have the Power.” She snatched at the air in front of their faces as if, in this one single gesture, all of their power and the power of the universe would instantly transfer to her. The look on the boys’ faces was priceless because, at least momentarily, three-year old Sylvie had taken the power.

I was shocked–where did this assuredness and sense of entitlement to a theoretical power come from? We tend to be uncomfortable with women claiming power but as far as I can tell there is no doctrinal justification for this, in fact, just to the contrary. So after the shock, I was delighted and so proud that this spirited little girl is my daughter. Sylvia was and is in that beautiful time before the forces of the world try to convince her that she is smaller than she actually is. Right now she has absolute confidence in her place in the world. Since this experience I have often wondered how I can help Sylvie retain this confidence, or at least prolong it. The results of those musings are the genesis for this talk.

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​Broken Understanding: Ordain Women, Conference and Easter​

​Broken Understanding: Ordain Women, Conference and Easter​
Throughout our lives, we all have experiences that build our faith and enhance our spirit.  In the weeks leading up to Easter, I had several of these spiritual moments.

​First, ​I was asked to teach Temple Preparation to a humble woman in my area; it was​ a ​sacred personal exchange that touched me deeply.  A​lso, I talked with my parents about their final experiences as missionaries as they concluded their mission and found them very mov​ing​.  Additionally, I listened to General Conference, which is always a high point for me spiritually.  I love feasting on the inspired words of the prophet, the apostles, and the other male and female leaders of the church.  ​Coinciding with Conference, I had the privilege of walking with Ordain Women to the standby line at the Priesthood Session; praying, laughing, crying and being surrounded by these devoted and faithful women was inspiring to me.

Lastly,​ upon arriving home from Salt Lake City, I was asked to give the concluding remarks in my ward’s Easter Program.  In preparation for my talk, I prayed​ and thought deeply about my Savior and His Atonement and felt personally blessed in my preparation​. All of the leading experiences​ shaped my Easter remarks, particularly my experience with Ordain Women.  The OW action pulled out a variety of view points and a lot of vitriol.​ I​t made me think of how we all see things “differently” and how we each have only a​ piece of truth. This idea of broken understanding led me to think of the broken bread and the broken Christ – and ultimately about redemption.

Easter Remarks

As I have thought of Easter for the past 40 days and during this Holy Week, my mind has rest on one scripture … in Mark Chapter 14.

And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body.  (Mark 14:22)

We continue this tradition of blessing and brEaking bread each week during this very Sacrament Meeting – it is a symbol of Christ.

Jesus knew His body would be broken.  He knew a terrible thing would happen – a brutal assassination.  It is an intolerable thing.  And the miracle of Easter is that God took this intolerable thing, and made it a blessing: the greatest blessing of all.

And because God created blessing out of that which was broken, we can have hope that He will do the same for us.  He can take our unmet expectations, our shameful sins, our unspoken hurts – and bring blessing to these intolerable situations.

 He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.  (Isaiah 53:5)

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BYU: A Feminist Reflection

View of BYU from the top of the SWKT, 2014

As a teenage convert to the LDS Church from New York City, going to BYU and studying in Utah was the equivalent of going to the Vatican or Mecca–– I would be studying on holy ground. BYU was the place where all good Mormons went (at least, according to my bright eyed and bushy tailed new convert self). So despite acceptances to other colleges such as Mount Holyoke, Pratt Institute, the University of Michigan, and others, I put my deposit down at BYU. And, much to the dismay of my non-member parents, I attended.

I arrived in Provo ready to be among my Mormon brothers and sisters. I was ready to embrace all that Mormon culture had to offer. I would finally be accepted for who I was as a faithful Latter-day Saint! Well, that was the idea, at least.

Back home in New York, after being introduced to the Church, I was considered a conservative among a vast sea of liberals (this was New York City, after all). As a result of my affiliation with the LDS Church and because of my desire to fit in with my new faith, I embraced conservative ideals–– I was anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, believed a woman’s place was in the home, supported Republican leadership, et cetera. This was part of joining the Mormon Church, right? So I went through my four years of high school defending those conservative ideals, believing it was what the Church wanted for me and was the way to true happiness.

In Provo, all those beliefs started to unfurl. I saw what I supposedly believed in the faces of others. When people I knew at BYU began to express homophobic tendencies (including one friend who believed that homosexuality was a choice), I cringed. When the female friends I associated with only aspired to be stay-at-home mothers with no other contingency plan or any further hopes or passions, I was in shock.  When my friends believed that people outside the Church were lacking in happiness or true joy, I was saddened. Did I really believe that? Did I really support those things in high school? Are these really the ideas the Church espouses and wants me to embrace? Obviously, my testimony began to fall apart and unravel as I tried to figure out the difference between doctrine and culture. However, that is for another day and another post. The point here being that I kept my testimony, but BYU eventually turned me into a diehard liberal and feminist.

Okay, so I became a liberal and a feminist. Now what? Who was I supposed to relate to? Who was I supposed to confide in? The only way to find that out was to just be myself. I wasn’t completely in-your-face about my new ideology, but when people said things that offended my newfound liberal and feminist conscience, I spoke up. I got to know people who also spoke up and expressed similar views as I. Essentially, I put out feelers as to who I could trust. They didn’t necessarily have to be as liberal or as outspoken as I was, but I did have to trust them enough to speak my mind. And I was lucky enough to find quite a few friends who were openminded and loving. Even a few feminists, much to my joy. Finding online support groups such as Young Mormon Feminists and Feminist Mormon Housewives helped with my sanity a great, great deal. I was not alone.

As I prepare to graduate from Brigham Young University (by the time you read this post, I’ll have probably walked across the stage at commencement already), I look back at my time here and realize that as a feminist, things weren’t so bad.

A text as my friend was sitting in her Marriage and Family prep class at BYU

Yes, I had to deal with people mocking the sincere and faithful members of Ordain Women. I had to restrain myself from verbally lashing those who blatantly insulted and demeaned our homosexual brothers and sisters. And if I had a dollar for every time I heard “those feminists”, I would be able to afford quite a few Cafe Rio pork salads. But overall, I was able to find my niche. BYU helped me develop into a feminist I don’t think I would have become had I gone somewhere else. I suppose it’s because it was easier to stand up for what I believed in, after being confronting with viewpoints I didn’t believe in. BYU was a refiner’s fire. And as I began to shine brightly with that feminist glow, others were able to draw nearer to me. I found dear friends who felt the same frustrations as I did and celebrated the same victories as I did. The friends and associates I found here truly saved me here from suffocating here at BYU. And though many of my friends wouldn’t consider themselves liberal or feminists, they are openminded. And that’s all I really ask for in friendships. Some of my good friends are among the most conservative Republicans you’ll ever meet. But we’re friends because they’re able to listen to my views, respectfully disagree (or, reluctantly agree), and still continue to be my friend. I am grateful for those friends, as well. Those who listen, regardless of political or religious belief. Those who are able to not let politics or religious conservatism get in the way of a fruitful friendship. It also helped my sanity a great deal that I studied within a fairly moderate and left leaning department here at BYU, with decidedly openminded and caring professors. I was also able to take classes from and identify other feminist and left-leaning professors here, and that has given me great hope for BYU. Even my church leaders, conservative as they were, were empathetic and listened to my concerns and were extremely caring.

So, looking back at my time here at BYU, I can honestly say as a feminist that I enjoyed and appreciated my education and experiences here. BYU helped me to define my beliefs (politically and religiously), introduced me to the most amazing and interesting people, and learn patience and empathy. I realize that many people with similar views did not have the same positive experience as I did, and that saddens me. But at least for this New York City convert, attending BYU proved to be a character defining experience that has shaped the person I am now, feminism and all.

I wouldn’t change it for the world. (Well, maybe a few things….)

For those who went to BYU (either in Provo, Idaho or Hawaii) what was your experience? Looking back, would you have chosen another school to attend? How did you survive? Would you encourage others to attend? What were some feminist successes or failures you had while studying at a Church school?

If you didn’t attend a Church school, how were your experiences elsewhere as a feminist or liberal member of the Church?

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Woman, Why Do You Weep?

I weep because gross darkness covers the whole earth. I weep because daughters bear the burden of the sins of their fathers. I weep because women are often harmed at the hands of unrighteous men and everyone suffers for it. I weep for women.

And yet.

mary at the tombIt is no accident that a woman was first witness to the resurrected Lord. Like everything else he did, it was his choice. His first declaration of freedom, new life, and hope for a fallen world was made to a woman. And with his question, he answered the eternal why, when and how to end all our suffering.

Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed, so tired and hopeless, so utterly alone in grief, like Mary, it takes a while before I recognize that voice . . .

Dear woman, why do you weep? Whom do you seek?

He is risen indeed.

.

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