Female Bodies, Female Beauty: My Experiences in the LDS Young Women Program

“My husband said that I just didn’t have that much potential to be beautiful. Can you imagine how I felt?” The woman, Anne, said tearfully to a room full of teenage girls.

It was the early 1990s. I was a fourteen-year-old Mormon and had been told that we would be going to someone’s house for a special Young Women activity. When all the young women, about twenty of us, were seated on the living room floor in rows, a woman entered the room. She wore a fitted suit, heels, styled red hair, and lots of makeup.

As she sat down on a folding chair in front of us girls, she told us about a moment in her life when she became determined to become beautiful. She had been a young mother, watching over the kids and not taking great pains with her appearance. She always wore clean clothes, of course, but she wore a lot of t-shirts and jeans. One day she heard her husband having a conversation with his mother. His mother was concerned about Anne’s lack of effort when it came to her appearance. Her husband’s response to his mother, that some people just don’t have all that much potential to be beautiful, was crushing to Anne. At that moment, she determined, she would turn over a new leaf. She would become beautiful. She’d show her husband and mother-in-law that they were wrong about her.

What unfolded then was a story of new clothes, new makeup, new hair, and the happiness that resulted for her and her husband as she cultivated a new coiffed and feminized appearance. Through careful attention, clothing choices, and makeup, she revitalized her marriage and found new worth in herself.

I found the whole story riveting as a fourteen-year-old girl. As was typical of the age, I was interested in romance and beauty. This sounded like a fairy tale—the ugly duckling who showed everyone the beauty that was always there. The message—that girls and women need to cultivate feminine, polished, and pretty appearances, or otherwise face the consequence of disinterested men—didn’t strike me as problematic at the time. I’m sure I thought this was great wisdom being disseminated.

Strangely (or maybe not so strangely), that was far from the only Young Women lesson I encountered about the importance of female beauty in my Mormon congregation. In fact, in my six years in the Young Women program, the only lessons I really remember are the ones about the importance of female grooming, clothing, and appearance. I always rather liked those lessons. They were practical and oriented towards something I was greatly interested in: male/female relationships and female roles and duties. Clearly, my duty was to make sure I was attractive and pretty.

As a forty-something year old now, I can’t help but wonder about the impact of these lessons on me, on my choices, on my self-conception. And to be fair, it probably wasn’t only these lessons that gave me angst about my appearance. No doubt mainstream media and my affluent Southern California town also gave me messages that a large part of my worth as a female was in my appearance. I look back now, and I’m sad for that girl who worried so much about being pretty enough. I’m sad for that girl who made the decision at seventeen to have a bump on the bridge of her nose surgically filed down. I’m sad I equated so much of my worth with my appearance.

In six months my only daughter will enter Young Women. Never having served in Young Women, I’m not sure how the curriculum has changed, but I worry for her. Will she also get messages about the importance of female beauty? Will she get lessons that orient her towards concern about her appearance, her clothes, her attractiveness to males? Is there any hope that she can escape modesty lessons, which in my view, ultimately reduce women to their appearance and their effect on males and therefore objectify them?

My great hope is for a Young Women program that will, among other things, orient her away from thinking about her appearance and about herself as the object of the male gaze.  If the body has to be mentioned in some way, please let it be about how terrific it is to have a strong body that can do things in the world. I hope Young Women teaches her about her infinite worth in the cosmos, about her potential to do and be anything. I hope it inspires her towards kindness and compassion, courage and wisdom. I hope it’s a chance to think big about the good she and others can do in the community. I hope it teaches her to find her voice and use it without apology, particularly to call out injustice or oppression. There’s enough in our world (and church) that will try to box her in and place limits around who she can and should be in this world. Please let our Young Women program expand her vision about her possibilities, not reduce her to gender roles and an attractive body.

I recently finished Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel centered on the wife of Jesus. We meet her at fourteen, a girl teeming with longings and ambition and brilliance. The prayer she writes for herself at fourteen, the prayer that becomes her mantra throughout her life is this: “Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. . . . When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.”

I wish I had been taught to embrace the largeness inside me at fourteen. I wish my religious community had done more to help me cultivate it. May my daughter–and all our daughters–learn to love the largeness inside them. May they find their voices and the courage to raise them.



Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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20 Responses

  1. Eleanor says:

    I’m so sorry, Caroline, but I’m afraid your daughter probably will be taught in young women about her appearance at some point, by some leader, possibly multiple leaders. She will most definitely be taught about her assigned roles, since they are virtually canonized in the family proclamation and in the temple. And she will be asked to recite the YW theme every week at church that emphasizes her influence in the home and family, yet makes no mention of her influence outside the domestic sphere. I wish I had better news for you. You can teach your daughter all those things, but the church likely won’t be much help. And even if some people in the church do try to help, they will be working against official headwinds.

    • Caroline says:

      Eleanor, I fear you are right. I may need to have a conversation with her YW leaders and ask them to inform me beforehand about any planned lessons on gender roles or modesty. I’d probably keep her home on those days.

  2. Chiaroscuro says:

    bless the largeness that is inside all our girls. keep us from squashing it and replacing it with false ideas of what is valuable and important. may our daughters keep their voices and grow their voices and may they be heard to speak truth to power and may they never be silenced, or cowed

  3. meri says:

    Interesting. I was raised in a very active church family. All family lines go back to the beginning. I don’t recall ever having any of this type of lesson or being involved in this type of teaching when I worked in
    young Women. I don’t remember hearing any of this type of thing as a wife and mother, grandmother,or great-grandmother active in church. I have lived many years in Utah and also many years in various other states where there was only a small branch. I think that there are many like me who did not hear that kind of message.

    I served a two-year mission. I did not hear anything like that there, ad I also never heard anything about the importance of going home and getting married, either there or during my undergraduate orgraduate work at BYU.

    • Wayfaring Stranger says:

      You somehow lucked out! Except for my first four years I’ve lived in Utah and received these lessons as a late Boomer. Because my parents wouldn’t let me skip YW unless I was sick or had a performance I lived through those lessons in agony. I began to go through puberty at age 8. I grew 8 inches in 4th grade which totally threw my sense of coordination off plus I had unruly curly hair and tons of pimples and huge thick glasses. In my original ward and school (where there was only one class per grade) my friends were cool and actually envious that I’d “graduated” before them because our 4th grade teacher had explained that I was just the first one to begin puberty. Then we moved in my 5th grade year. That’s when my life became hell until I left for BYU. The kids in my ward and at school, except for three dear neighbor friends, poked fun of me every chance they got. By then I was also wearing braces and had to wear a headgear 24/7. I was convinced that I was the ugliest person at church and school. Then when these “we have to be lovely for boys we date and our future husbands” nights came around I just wanted to dig a hole, lay down and die in it because I knew that there would be the usual crass comments about my looks and how nothing could help me. My parents said that I was being over sensitive, but my sister who was just younger than me stood up for me more times than I can count. My music was the only thing that kept me going so many times.

      Fortunately, as I got rid of the glasses and got hairstyles and clothing that actually made me look like my real self in college the comments stopped, but even at BYU our stake RS president felt like these “beauty lessons” were important for us girls to have on a fairly regular basis. I refused to go. When asked by our RS pres. why I wasn’t there (like it was her business!) I responded truthfully that I’d had enough through 6 years of YW to last several lifetimes and shouldn’t a potential spouse love me for more than my looks (which might change over time) or my body (which could also change over time)?

      Fortunately, I did find a wonderful man who loved me for more than my looks and my body. He also wasn’t active in the church when I met him, so perhaps that’s the reason he appreciated me for more than two external reasons. I dated several LDS men and they were totally into the looks and body thing.

      Later I found myself in a YW presidency as a counselor facing a stake YW Beauty Night. I was in charge of the Beehives and knew that they were all struggling with this topic and had told them about my own struggles. Other of our YW were struggling too. After much prayer and visits with the bishop we told the stake leaders that we felt that the activity was inappropriate for our girls and that our YW would be doing something else that evening. The other ward in our building was so impressed that they followed our example. There were no more beauty nights in our stake. As a BYU ward mom this subject was brought up again by this stake’s RS pres. for the exact same reason. Fortunately, this time I had other ward moms who felt as I did about the whole beauty thing. We found out that RS. pres. had been a beauty queen at BYU in the past and look how she snagged a star athlete!

      I’m sorry that this is a long post, but when I saw the topic I had to comment. Our YW are so much more than bodies and faces! How I wish that people would understand this in the church. We ought to be supporting these girls to discover who they are with ALL of their interests and talents and help them to grow. I fear that this won’t happen until women in the church are taken more seriously and are appreciated for more than their future reproductive abilities (or lack of them).

      • Caroline says:

        Wayfaring Stranger, Thank you for sharing your experience here! I admire you for speaking out against these beauty nights and working to change your local culture. Leaders like you give me hope that my girl won’t be subjected to this damaging focus on appearance.

    • Caroline says:

      You were lucky, Meri. I’m glad to hear that wasn’t your experience.

  4. Coffinberry says:

    “only lessons I really remember are the ones about the importance of female grooming, clothing, and appearance. I always rather liked those lessons.”

    Yeah, I remember those. Midwest and upper South, USA… 70s into 80s… but I thought they were insipid, stupid, and geared to the affluent only. Which I wasn’t. Always thought the only useful thing about YW was Girls Camp.

  5. Em says:

    We had Mary Kay beauty night when I was a Beehive. We were each supposed to tell our skin care regimen. At 12, I did not have one. So I said I used apricot scrub twice a day — we had some in the shower. This was not true but all the other girls seemed to have a lot to say on the topic. My mom was there and she later asked if Iwas really doing that (I’m sure concerned about how hard that would be on me). I told her truthfully I wasn’t. I know we had a modesty fashion show.

    When I was a YW leader and was resistant to teaching about modesty I was told that parents were relying on me to bring a message they might be resisting from their girlfriends. I still struggled to have anything to say about it that I felt would be true to what I felt. Being a YW leader brought me a lot of cognitive dissonance and eventually I couldn’t feel good about my own integrity while also being what I felt like they wanted me to be. So I asked to be released.

    YW is hard. As a leader, as a girl.

    Oh and in the MTC I was so very very excited for the “women only” meetings (RS, a fireside) — in the male-oriented training atmosphere I was desperate for something that wasn’t clearly intended for boys that I was allowed to attend. Turns out they were ALL about our appearance. We were offered makeup workshops, warned about GTC (gaps, thighs and cleavage) warned to mask our “headlights” (nipples showing through), told “immodest, I’m modest — the difference is in the details” “you are the billboards of the church” “You shouldn’t distract the elders.” It was all so ridiculous. As though the sister missionaries are the most sexually alluring females an elder might encounter as a missionary. As though my wardrobe even allowed for the possibility of being sexy.

    I think the MTC might have been a strong beginning to my feminist awakening. The sexism was more stark as a missionary than I have ever truly acknowleged as a young woman.

    • Caroline says:

      Oh, Em. Mary Kay night? Modesty fashion show? MTC women-only meetings that were only about GTC and appearance? Ugh. This sounds bad. I’m especially sad about the MTC meetings. What a way to reduce women to being sexual objects just as they go out into the world to preach the gospel. I’d want a young sister missionary to be thinking about her spiritual power, not her sexual power. (Though I am glad that the MTC tipped you into your feminist awakening. That’s a huge positive unintended consequence to such reductive messaging.)

  6. Marianne says:

    Oh how I wish this were not true! Worse to the message we give our girls, we allow our boys to believe the same. The other day, my son and I saw a young couple getting their wedding photos take at the ferris wheel downtown. The girl was “plus sized” and the guy was “normal” sized by the worlds standard. I thought in my mind about the message of “fat girls can’t get married” that I was subliminally and even overtly told growing up in the church. And I realized what a lie it all was. I pointed the couple out to my son and said, “What a beautiful bride! They both look so happy!” I want him to see beauty as something more than a body, something more than glamor.

    • Caroline says:

      Marianne, that is a great point. I’ve been focusing on my daughter and the potentially damaging messages she might get in YW about what women are and should be, but I also need to be wary of what my son is getting taught in YM. I need to have a conversation with him about this and find out if he’s noticed reductive teachings on gender, gender roles, appearances, etc.

  7. RoseE Hadden says:

    Stake YW fireside: the speaker was a former Mrs. Utah. She taught us how to pose so we looked skinny in pictures and regaled us with the story of how she lost the Mrs. America competition because she refused to support the wicked ERA.

    Ward YW activity: guest speaker was a man in the ward. I will never forget the embarrassment in his voice as he informed us all that we needed to look pretty in order to attract men’s interest long enough for the men to get to know us as people.

    MTC: the sisters could get out of regular class for half an hour to do a special workshop on how to look your best with makeup. I wanted to go … I was so sick of my language classroom I could scream … but my companions weren’t enthused so we gave it a miss. Still got plenty of lectures in Giant MTC Relief Society about the importance of Looking Our Best … you know, for the Church.

    Yes, this all really happened.

    • Caroline says:

      Wow. I’m especially horrified by your first example. It’s bringing it all to a new low when you bring opposition to the ERA into your church beauty night.

  8. Anon says:

    I really appreciated the posts and wish there were more women’s leaders like Wayfaring Stranger. It is so sad all of the time and energy lost on such trivial and inconsequential topics when young women and men could be learning life skills sometimes separately and sometimes together and really contributing to a much better world: organizing and executing service projects of all types—church, community, US, and international—Careers and interests and hobbies and how to prepare for a career, colleges and costs and how to apply and how to pay for (scholarships and grants and military and ROTC, etc), money and investing and budgeting, cleaning and cooking and shopping and planning menus, etc etc etc. If the young women and men start working on projects together as they are growing up, they can learn so much more about seeing each other as individuals and the enormous talents and skills and energy that each have to offer .

    • Caroline says:

      Exactly! So many useful and important life skills to delve into. The focus on appearance and gender roles that far too many YW encounter is so diminishing.

  9. Ziff says:

    Thanks for this post, Caroline. I have a daughter who’s just a couple of years from entering YW, and I also wish/hope she could be taught more useful things than how to put on makeup and how important divine gender roles are. I have a feeling I’m going to have to do a lot of damage control.

    • Caroline says:

      Yeah, Ziff. I’m afraid you will. You’ll probably need to keep a kind of close eye on what they are doing and teaching in there. I know I’ll be doing that.

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