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.