Reclaiming my body from the Patriarchy

On November 12, 2000 then-President Gordon B. Hinckley gave a talk to the youth and the single adults at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. This talk is more commonly known as the 6 Bs talk. In the section “Be Clean,” President Hinckley cautioned the young women against having more than one piercing in each ear. He said:

As for the young women, you do not need to drape rings up and down your ears. One modest pair of earrings is sufficient.

When this talk was given I was already a married adult with a baby on the way. I was also not particularly active in the church. My husband and I were not married in the temple at this point (we were later sealed with our two oldest children). I grew up at the tail-end of generation X, just a skosh older than the oldest Millennials. I was in high school when grunge and flannel ruled and every girl I knew had several ear piercings, and piercings in other parts of the body were becoming popular. More than one piercing in each ear was never my thing. I did have a brief flirtation with the idea of an eyebrow piercing. Forty-year-old me is thanking 20-year-old me for never going through with that idea. I did, however, pierce my navel. By the time President Hinckley cautioned against multiple piercings though, my navel ring was long gone.

After this talk was given there was a definite shift in LDS culture. Many women I knew were taking out their multiple ear piercings as a show of obedience to the prophet. This cultural test was even used in a talk given by Elder Bednar just five years later at a BYU devotional about a young man who ended a relationship with a young woman he loved because she had multiple ear piercings and he couldn’t marry someone who refused to obey the prophet. There is no mention in this talk if this young man actually discussed this with the young woman first, or just made assumptions about her and her character before casting her aside. Regardless, cultural lines were drawn and it has been one of our cultural markers in the last 19 years to assess a woman’s worthiness and obedience by the number of holes in her ears.

I worked for the church for over six years. I wrote about a particularly troubling incident while I worked there. After that many years of having my worthiness judged based on my outward appearance I felt compelled to reclaim my body as my own. Even though a double ear pierce has never really been my thing, on April 12, 2014 I took myself down to the piercing studio and put another hole in each ear. Every time I put a stud in the second hole in each ear it’s a reminder to myself that my body is mine, and what I do with it is not based on the tastes and preferences of older men.

Right after the second ear piercing

I have many friends who have multiple tattoos and piercings who ask me why it is bad that they are altering their temple that way, but in Utah many women have plastic surgery or tattoo their makeup on their faces and that is never mentioned as a sin or disrespectful of their “temples.” The only conclusion that I’ve come to is that the alterations made to our bodies that make us more attractive to the men in charge (the patriarchy) are good and righteous, but the alterations to our bodies that make us less attractive are bad and unholy. I’m not judging those who have had plastic surgery. I’ve done it myself. It’s just an interesting cultural perspective on what is and what is not deemed as culturally acceptable in the church.

In the 6 Bs talk, President Hinckley went on to say this about tattoos:

I promise you that the time will come, if you have tattoos, that you will regret your actions. They cannot be washed off. They are permanent. Only by an expensive and painful process can they be removed. If you are tattooed, then probably for the remainder of your life you will carry it with you. I believe the time will come when it will be an embarrassment to you. Avoid it. We, as your Brethren who love you, plead with you not to become so disrespectful of the body which the Lord has given you.

I think of this quote and contrast it against a sermon the pastor of the nondenominational church I’ve been attending for the last couple of years gave the second to last Sunday in May. He was giving a sermon about what things are and are not okay to engage in as Christians. He specifically brought up tattoos and shared a few funny pictures of tattoos “fails.” He then went on to share a beautiful story of a woman in the congregation who had been battling breast cancer the last few years. Her small group has rallied around her and her family during this trying time. (A small group is a group of people who study scriptures together and minister to each other). The one word this woman is constantly uttering is “joy” – finding joy in the journey and joy through Him. The female members of this woman’s small group each got a tattoo of the word “joy” in her handwriting. I don’t think there is going to be a day where they regret that tattoo. The message of this tattoo is not disrespectful to their bodies or the Lord in the least. It’s a celebration of their friend’s love of Christ even in her darkest moments.

My oldest must have taken this message to heart because two days later on her 18th birthday she spent the day at the tattoo parlor. A few years ago she found my mother’s signature in a Harry Potter book that belonged to her. My mother wrote her name in every book she ever owned. She loved books. My mother died when my oldest was just six and the pain and the grief at the loss has been difficult for her. They were very close. When she found the signature she told me she was going to have it tattooed on her body when she was 18. And she did. There was a part of me that wanted to be upset that my child had permanently altered her body. I also realized I had no more claim over her body than the patriarchy does. Besides, this way her grandma will always be with her.

I was 35 years old when I reclaimed my body from the patriarchy. My daughter was 18. I don’t think either one of us is going to regret it.


Risa is a full-time social worker in child abuse prevention, a part-time graduate student, and a mother of 4. In her spare time she is a voracious reader, snarker, and subversive cross-stitcher.

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12 Responses

  1. Melissa Smith says:

    Last Saturday my 8-year-nephew and I were in the backseat of my parents’ car coming home from a camping trip. It was then that he noticed I had multiple piercings. “Aunt Lissa, you have two holes?!” Me to nephew, “I actually have three.” I then explained to him that I had them before President Hinckley made the piercing statement. They don’t close up, but they get dirty so I still have to clean them out.

    Someday I would like to tell him why I have them. They are not a beauty statement. Hole #2 came after my world had been turned on its head. It came the day of my grandma’s funeral, the same day I met the group of women would be my roommates on my first venture into adulthood as I moved away from my family and headed to Utah State, weeks after my parents had moved from the only childhood home I had ever known. Did I mention I had recently graduated from high school, one brother had returned from a mission and the other had gotten married? The second one came when I was trying to decide whether to drop out of college, whether I should go on a mission or not, and man troubles that foreshadowed how rocky my dating life would be in the future. This one I did myself while sitting at the end of my apartment hallway in front of the full-length mirror.

    Although I no longer wear earrings in them, I do not regret having them. I think they tell me “We’re still here and won’t close up because those experiences built you.”

  2. Allemande Left says:

    Thank you for a fuller picture of why some choose tattoos and earrings.
    In today’s culture some have tattoos of a deceased loved-one’s name as a way to memorialize them. It is part of grief and mourning. Who are we to judge?
    I know a young man who had his mother’s maiden name tattooed on his bicep when he turned18. His mother raised him and his brother alone after a divorce and she kept the married name in solidarity to her sons’ name. His action acknowledged her family name of support and belonging. It was empowering to him and very meaningful to his mother.
    So many times what starts as a suggestion turns into a commandment.
    Earings, tattoos, word of wisdom, R movies.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings.

  3. Dani Addante says:

    I remember hearing that story when I was in Young Women’s, about the boy who broke up with the girl who had multiple ear piercings. At the time, I thought the one piercing per ear thing was a commandment. But now that I look back, it seems so foolish that the boy broke up with his girlfriend just because of the multiple ear piercings. Ear piercings don’t determine a person’s character.

  4. Chiaroscuro says:

    I got a tattoo when I was 18, right before going to byu for college. it was a few years before president Hinckley spoke against them. but I did it in a place no one else ever really sees and it does the same thing for me, it reminds me that my body is my own.

  5. Lynne says:

    I chose to get a tattoo a few months ago after a life changing experience with the Divine. I felt compelled to mark that experience. It’s in a very visible spot and I’ve gotten some very interesting looks. But I don’t regret it one bit, and it’s a reminder to me daily of the experience that I had. And yes, it marks a turning point where I finally said to myself “enough is enough. This is my body and my choice.”

  6. Nichole says:

    What an insightful post and an empowering message. It’s hard to imagine anyone’s Higher Power of any denomination not loving and accepting that person for a physical, superficial form of self expression. I’d imagine the Divine has much more important things to contend with other than aesthetics.

  7. Anna says:

    When I decided at 50 something that the Mormon church was simply not good for my mental health, and that I was going forever inactive, I marked the occasion by getting that second set of holes in my ears. It was 100% rebelling against the patriarchy. It was more than just taking my body back, but taking my life back. I also started wearing a cross as my symbol of my Christianity. The cross didn’t last well as my symbol of unMormonness, but the second set of earrings did.

    I kind of think it is funny that a childish act of rebellion against Mormon leaders can bring me closer to God. But I had to get human men out from between me and God. I had to stop seeing them as “prophets” and see how they were trying to turn variations in what is in style into commandments from God. I had to really see that church leaders are not men with a bat phone to God, but just old men who want their opinion on style to be God’s opinion on style.

    You can see over time that human styles change. But all my life, it seems that the general authorities of the church want to fight the style changes. The style of music that younger generations like has been turned into a morality test. The style of how women wear earrings was turned into an obedience to God test. When I was a kid, I remember my mother being horrified that I wanted my ears pierced like my Catholic friend. She told me in her scandalized voice that only hookers pierced their ears, well, hookers and Catholics. She even quoted a general authority on how we shouldn’t pierce our bodies. By the time I was 16 all of my Mormon friends had their ears pierced, so she let me. Two years later, she had hers done. Them some general authority wants to make it a commandment that thou shalt have no more than one hole punched in your ears. It was no problem to have a beard from Brigham Young until beards went out of style. But then 60 years later when beards come back in style, suddenly they are evil? If God didn’t think beards were evil in 1890, why would God think they are evil in 1990?

    Sure, we shouldn’t be slaves to fashion. We shouldn’t go overboard on the latest style fad. That is getting our priorities in the wrong place. Going overboard on anything is not modest. But the opposite of condemning people who do change style of clothing or grooming is just as bad, if not down right cultish. FLDS as an example. Going overboard on avoiding the changing styles is also immodest, just not in the way Mormons think of modesty.

  8. Sally says:

    Thank you for helping me think about all the ways I can in my own life. The one thought I keep coming back to in all the many stages of my faith evaluation is “I get to choose?!”.

    I get to choose.

    • Sally says:

      There’s a word missing. I originally typed “all the ways I can “…. I guess fake html memes aren’t allowed, haha

      All the ways I can end patriarchy in my own life.

      • Sally says:

        The greater than symbol and the lesser than symbol and the forward slash were omitted both times I typed them into my comment. Weird. I typed the exact symbols and letters as the image above the post.

  9. Greg Jackson says:

    Well said.

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