“You are forgetting one thing,” I pause and stare directly into the eyes of the man sitting across from me, “I do not need your approval or validation.”
This sentence is a feature of many of my daydreams. I have never actually said it out loud but it is my secret fantasy (or not so secret anymore) to be able to say this phrase and mean it. In my daydream I am strong and competent, self-assured and bold. I do not worry about what people think about me. I trust myself more than those around me. I do scary things. I do not care about being liked as much as I care about being right. In my daydreams the only approval and validation I need is from me. “So….” you might ask, “why are these daydreams and not reality?”
Over the course of the last decade I have made a conscious effort to distinguish between the thoughts and behaviors I actually desire and those I have acquired via enculturation in the Mormon culture. There are silly things like discovering that I do not actually like to wear dresses and skirts even though they have made up my “nice” wardrobe for the past thirty years. Likewise, I have discovered that I do not mind disagreeing with those around me. I’m comfortable with pluralism. I have learned that we don’t all have to think alike despite thirty-plus years of Sunday School enculturation instructing me otherwise. I have also made more serious discoveries. I have learned that I have a deep rooted instinct to acquiesce to male authority figures. I think this stems from our all-male church hierarchy where men will always have more power and authority over me. I did not realize I had internalized these thoughts until I witnessed my non-Mormon colleagues talking back to an academic leader and my first thought was “You can’t do that.” Since then I have paid closer attention to how I interact with males in power. I’ve discovered that my behavior completely changes in front of church leaders. I am quiet and deferential. I hold in my thoughts and opinions. Because I have no social capital or source of collegiality without their endorsement, I am reliant on their approval and validation for my sense of worth.
I am convinced that LDS culture produces women who are constantly seeking the approval and validation of others to justify and legitimize their own thoughts, beliefs, appearance and worth. It starts in primary where questions are asked without any intention of engagement. Rather, approval is given to those who can replicate a set of “Sunday School Answers.” It continues in Achievement Days and Young Women’s when activities, motto’s and lessons are structured around the principle of making oneself prepared and worthy of others. While scouts were learning survival skills that benefit them throughout their life, I was taught about baking, childcare and make-up—skills that are inherently designed to attract and serve others. From the moment I turned 16, family, friends, and church leaders cared more about who I was dating than what I was studying, whether I was preparing for a mission and what I wanted to be when I grew up. From this early age until marriage the main message I received from my bishops was how I could best attract a husband. I was taught lesson after lesson about how modesty and chastity are directly correlated with desirability—that my obedience to the principles in the For Strength of Youth Pamphlet made me a worthy and attractive mate. While my male counterparts planned for their future careers and goals, I tried to make myself a “great catch.” I received positive validation from church leaders and dates when I followed the standard cultural script and negative consequences when I varied in any way from what was expected of me. There was a very narrow margin of what I could do and who I could be and still remain a good Mormon girl.
I think this phenomenon is perfectly illustrated in a recent prank conducted on BYU campus. A group of boys decided to go up to perfect strangers, demand their telephone numbers and video the results. Sometimes they communicated their approval by approaching the girl and saying that she is cute. Sometimes they withheld it by being rude and dismissive. In most cases the girls acquiesced and gave out their numbers. In the first group the girls were flattered into participating by being seen as desirable. In the second group the girls were shown outright hostility and commanded to give their phone numbers. I think these girls complied for two reasons 1) they wanted the approval and validation from the man who seemed to withhold these from them and 2) they have been trained from a young age to obey male authority figures. In fact, the number one answer the girls in both groups gave for giving away their phone number to a perfect stranger was, “because you asked.” What else will women give away because a man asks? Our safety? Our choices? Our autonomy? Our divine inspiration?
Sadly, I would have been one of those girls at BYU—flattered by male attention and seeking to please. Despite being academically successful I charted my ups and down in college by how many boys asked for my number not what grade I got on a paper, what grant I received or what grad school I got accepted into. Being desirable outweighed being successful. I would have rather been desirable than to go after those things that I most desired. It has been over a decade since my BYU days and I am just now uncovering these hidden, taken-for-granted assumptions that I have carried with me throughout my entire life.
We live in a culture where men’s prestige is based on economic and career success, political power and peer influence and hierarchical trajectory within the LDS church and women’s prestige is based on whom they can attract and how readily they follow directions. Women receive no positive social capital from having a career, becoming financially successful or being learned. We cannot rise in the hierarchy and our position in our religious community will always depend on male approval and validation. These messages are inculcated at a young age and, as was seen in the phone example, ourselves and our daughters will translate these behaviors into male-female relationships in all aspects of our lives. It has not been an easy task, but every day I try to to wean myself off of needing the approval and validation from the men in my life. In the hopes that someday I will be able to verbalize the mantra that repeats in my mind: I do not need your approval or validation.
Have you noticed your own need for approval and validation from the men in your life? Is it something particular to or more exaggerated in LDS women? What specific steps have you taken to eschew this need?