About Face

Not long ago, when my husband and I were in a stage of life where we were changing wards every few years, I kept getting called into the Primary Presidency of each new ward. I thought it was strange. My kids were either newborn or just barely in Nursery. I didn’t have much experience in teaching kids, my background was in the sciences—not in elementary ed.

After the third time this happened I asked the bishopric counselor who was extending the call why he thought I kept getting called into Primary. He replied:

“Well, you just have a Primary face.”

I was rather dumbfounded by his remark. I sat there trying to figure out what that meant. Certainly I didn’t have “I heart Primary” tattooed across my forehead.

As I pondered what genes I’d inherited that that made me look so ready to serve schoolchildren, I wondered just how many callings have been extended to women (and men, too), based solely on their looks. [Note: in subsequent moves I’ve pre-empted Primary callings by telling the Bishop of my previous service and asking for something a ‘little different.’ So far so good.]

In the meantime, though, I seem to have lost my Primary look (maybe I left it at the DI with all of my denim jumpers about 10 years ago?). Though now I seem to have acquired the “I’m new here” look. Granted, we have a large ward so it’s really hard to be acquainted with everyone, but at least once per Sunday I’m greeted by someone as if I just moved into the ward. I haven’t yet figured out why this is. So I’m now weary of the polite small talk, the “So, I haven’t seen you here before” sorts of comments. And it’s hard to figure out the best way to reply. I don’t want to say, “Well, actually, I’ve lived in this ward off-and-on for 15 years,” or “No, I’m not new, I just look that way,” because I hate to squelch the friendliness of the person asking such questions. I just assume that if I know who someone is, then they know who I am. But I guess facial recognition isn’t necessarily a two-way street.

Perhaps my larger concern in writing this missive, is to muse about the types of judgments that I’ve made about other people just by assessing their outward physical appearance. Often I’ve misjudged a perky young married woman to be young and naïve, only to find later that she is an accomplished artist, or has great insight into the gospel, or some such talent that was camouflaged by my own prejudice. Also, I think that I am more likely to make assumptions based on looks about other women than I am about men. I hate that I do that, because I want to foster the empowerment of women and create a supportive sisterhood at church. But I think it’s my own insecurity that causes me to do this. For example, I met a woman recently who’s from the wealthy end of my stake. Her hair is blonde and cut in the latest style, her makeup is flawless, and her body (and plump lips) looks as if she’s had more than a few surgical enhancements. As we were introduced I immediately felt inadequate. Was she looking down on me because I had cat hair on my jacket, my shirttail was askew, and my hair was limp from having been hastily styled as I was on my way out the door taking the kids to school about ten hours earlier?

I honestly don’t know what she thought of me, as our interaction was fairly cursory as we discussed some Stake business. Yet, as I talked with her I realized that I shouldn’t judge this woman any more than I should be judging myself. I knew that we were both trying our best to fulfill our callings, and to do so despite the fact that we’d just met. I decided that I would, in the future when we had to work together, try to learn more about her. Does she have children? How long has she lived in the area? What types of callings has she had before? Does she like to read? I’m sure I will be delighted and surprised as I get to know her–and perhaps she will feel the same way about getting to know me.

Jana lives in Southern California with John, their 2 children, 2 cats, and two thousand books. She’s a PhD student in U.S. History and serves as a freecycle moderator, community garden treasurer, and in LDS public affairs. Jana’s alter ego is pilgrimgirl. She’s looking forward to being a regular contributor to exponentblog.


Jana is a university administrator and teaches History. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com

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  1. Caroline says:

    I am also certainly guilty of making snap judgements based on looks. I can’t help but think that often what we choose to wear is a signal to others of what we believe or think. For instance, my husband will only wear a white shirt to church (it drives me crazy). Part of his reasoning, I think, is to signal to others that he’s not a rebel, that he’s willing to play by the the book. Your post reminds me, however, that there are definitely nuances. Mike is a true blue faithful Mormon (and he sure does dress like one) but he’s also open-minded, compassionate, and a deep thinker who understands and appreciates grayness.

    I think perhaps a bigger problem for me than making judgements based on looks is making judgements after only talking to them or hearing them speak for a few minutes. A number of times, people have born their testimony, and because they have said things that I consider trite or reductive, I have said to myself that we could certainly have nothing in common. Only to find out later that when they are removed from a context in which they feel they need to project a certain persona, they have become infinitely more interesting.

  2. Starfoxy says:

    This is really interesting. I have a sister who is 28, and has only been on less than 10 dates her whole life. Here’s the thing, nearly all of her dates were with with mentally handicapped people. I have this theory that she exudes a “don’t talk to me, because I don’t like you” vibe, and only the people who don’t pick up on that vibe actually see how nice she really is (she really is incredibly tenderhearted). I wonder if I don’t put out a similar feeling, and if that is related to my friend making troubles.

  3. Brooke says:

    Of course we all sometimes make hasty judgements. I guess the goal is to be aware that we do it and genuinely try to put those impressions aside as we get to know the person. It’s not always obvious to me when I am judging someone, and usually takes retrospect to realize it and, if it’s not too late, overcome it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Ira Flatow (I think) on NPR was just talking about all this research they’ve done on beauty lately. And apparently it’s a very powerful thing. We make the decision about a person’s attractiveness in much less than a second, and then the way we treat people afterward (according to their level of attractiveness) is powerfully affected.

    I don’t know what that means . . . except that we should be very aware of how we treat people, and how much it is affected by how they look.

  5. fMhLisa says:

    hey, that was me . . .

  6. Aimee "Roo" says:

    it’s a psycological thing to make judgements so fast, we needed it back in the survival days to stay alive. obviously we don’t need to rely on it so much.

    there was a study about how attractive people get along better in life. i think it’s good to do the best you can.

    so, about the “primary face”… is it just that you looked kind? was it really the jumpers?? i know that a lot of people do have similar looks in certain callings, as odd as it may be, there may very well be something to this conclusion. it would be interesting just to notice in your wards, do the people in primary have a similar look? what about the RS presidancy? the EQ? are the men in the bishopric all somewhat similar in some way? maybe you will see that there are certain quailites.

  7. Lynnette says:

    Jana, I can relate to a lot of what you said. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m often guilty of rushing to judgment of women who have perfectly done makeup or who look like they just stepped out of the pages of a catalog. They trigger a lot of feelings of insecurity— I immediately assume that they’ll look down on someone like me, who makes a valiant effort to brush her hair before going out but doesn’t always quite get there— and so I kind of dismiss them before they can dismiss me. It’s an assumption I really need to step back and question when I find myself making it.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Funny, this is one reason I’m glad I’m not super attractive like other people. I don’t want to be judged in that way by them. I want to be semi-attractive (or not too ugly). That way, I have a fair chance to show who I really am. What a terrible thing to say since it assumes people will misjudge me. But that’s the way the world seems to work.

  9. jana says:

    Responding to Roo about the look of Primary (and, yes, these are gross generalizations):

    1) The Primary Presidency look: Mothers of young children. Often a bit homelier (read: more spiritual) than women in category #2. More likely to have a slip hanging down below hem or have throw up stains on their shoulders.

    2) YW leaders look: Attractive, perky, married. With very attractive (and young) kids. Enthusiastic about the gospel. Must come with attractive young husband who has an MBA or an MD. Wears dry-clean only clothes in the latest styles.

    3) RS Presidency look: Mother of teens or of grown children. Often wears suits in pastel colors and holiday-themed outfits. Has permed hair cut in a short, matronly style. Favorite book is either Sheri Dew’s latest or Chicken Soup for the Soul.

    4) Scout leader: Mother of young children, often predominantly male. Tomboyish. Wears flats and denim skirts.

    Just a few of my fav stereotypes. Maybe you can all add to the list???

  10. Mike says:

    You didn’t give the male leadership stereotypes like Roo asked. I want stereotypes for young men presidency, scoutmaster, elders’ quorum presidency, high priest group leader, bishopric, and stake presidency stereotypes.

  11. jana says:

    Mike: You’ve got to chime in and add some of your own! I can’t do all the hard work around here 🙂

  12. EmilyCC says:

    Scoutmaster: arts or sciences graduate degree, doesn’t wear white shirts (sounds like your husband is safe in that respect, Caroline!), clearly no Church career ambitions (he makes unconventional comments in Gospel Doctrine), looks scruffy (no missionary hair-cut or being clean-shaven at all times for this guy)

  13. amelia says:

    apparently my dad broke the scoutmaster mold. he has no bachelors, but does have a JD, always wears white shirts to church, always is clean shaven (except while backpacking), makes very insightful but not necessarily “unconventional” comments in gospel doctrine, and, after serving in scouting for a good long while (probably ten years or more) served in the stake presidency (exec sect’y, 2nd counselor, and president) for an even longer while.

    but then stereotypes are fun because they just aren’t true–even though they are.

  14. Mike says:

    hey, i didn’t make any claims that male leaders could be stereotyped–you did! come on now. you can’t back out now by throwing it onto me!

  15. Dora says:

    Well, since I know what calling I definitely don’t want, here is me swearing off pastel suits, any sweaters with Christmas embroidery or bells on them, and vowing to never go the perm route again.

    Also, can I have all the acoutrements of the YW leader and dress like the Den mom? I really can’t stand dry-clean clothes.

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