The Young Women Program and the Emphasis on Beauty: Lessons in makeup?

by Caroline

I don’t remember a whole lot about my YW experience, but I do remember one activity (fireside?) in particular. We went to a woman’s home in our stake. She was in her late 30’s and was a stay at home mom. She was dressed in a nicely fitted suit, beautifully coiffed  and wearing a lot of makeup. She was attractive, and she sat us down and talked to us about her journey toward attractiveness.

It all started when she overheard her mother in law talking to her husband one day. Her mother in law was complaining about how this woman didn’t make an effort to look attractive, didn’t wear nice clothes, didn’t wear makeup. Her husband replied to his mother, “Mom, some people just don’t have that much potential. Leave it be.”

This woman felt awful. Her own husband thought she didn’t have potential to be beautiful! She set out to prove him wrong. After buying new clothes and getting expensive makeup and hair cut, her husband was surprised and joyous over the transformation. She was beautiful after all, she told us girls. It just took some effort and some makeup.

By the end of the night, I had resolved in my mind that I would never get to the point where my husband would just shrug and think that I didn’t have that much potential physically. Like this woman, I was going to make sure I looked good for him.

As a 13 year old, I was intrigued by this woman’s story. As an adult looking back on it, I am more troubled. Is this what my YW leaders were trying to teach us girls? That it was important for wives to wear makeup and look attractive on a daily basis? If not, what were they trying to teach us?  And should this even be part of the YW program – to teach girls about the importance of beauty?

I suppose one reason (among many) that I’m uncomfortable with this practice is because concerns about this kind of manufactured beauty seem so culturally situated in middle to upper middle class American mores. I can’t imagine this emphasis on beauty resonating to some women in the developing world, women who work hard every day in back breaking labor to put food on their family’s table, women who have little access to cosmetics or hair stylists. I imagine these women might have a completely different idea of what it means to be beautiful, and even then, may not think that teaching that beauty to young women should be a high priority.

I also worry that such emphases alienate those Mormon women in our immediate areas that simply choose (out of principle or necessity or whatever) to not enter into that world of makeup and expensive clothing.  I wonder how much we should be trying to homogenize a particular look for Mormon women.

  • What were your experiences with lessons on beauty and makeup in YW’s? What do you see as the positives and negatives of teaching YW about female beauty?
  • What are the responsibilities of a spouse to look attractive for the other spouse?


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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30 Responses

  1. Alisa says:

    I think this topic is so interesting, and the story of this woman is so sad.

    Fortunately, I escaped this in my own YW experience. We never did much more than etiquette dinners, and those were combined with the YM. However, my MiL has had her YW class go to a beauty pageant coach, although I suppose the activity was planned thinking that it would be something the girls would enjoy, rather than a lesson they needed to learn. When I was in the YW pres of my current ward, I fought hard to prevent a combined activity prom night where the kids could wear their prom outfits at church – I worried how it would make those YW who didn’t get a prom invite feel. Even when it’s a “just for fun” activity, lessons about attractiveness still seep through.

    As far as responsibilities for looking attractive goes, I would hope that women and men would look attractive and healthy for themselves first, and that confidence and self-esteem would then become more attractive to others around them. Women especially worry so much about how they are perceived by others. If we started with a foundation of positive self-perception, I believe the rest would take care of itself.

  2. mraynes says:

    That story makes me sick to my stomach, Caroline. I too grew up in a ward YW’s program that put a lot of emphasis on physical appearance. We had countless activities and lessons on how to dress, how to wear makeup, what hairstyles suited our face, how to keep our homes clean and beautiful. I found a few of them interesting and helpful, especially the ones that focused on how to dress professionally. Unfortunately, most of the lessons and activities were focused only on the superficial; they were judgmental of those who did not follow the proscribed rules, devoid of charity or understanding about varied life circumstances. Eventually I stopped going to YW’s because I found what they taught irrelevant and offensive. I would say the long-term affect of these lessons on my life has been more damaging than helpful; yes I knew how to put together a professional wardrobe, yes I know how to fit into the upper-middle class culture of Mormonism but I also have the lingering feeling of never quite measuring up. I never feel like I have enough money, enough clothes, nice enough furniture when in all actuality, I live a more comfortable existence than 99% of humanity. These feelings of inadequacy, though unfounded, are something I fight every day.

  3. mb says:

    I cannot recall any lessons in YW about beauty or make-up either as a YW myself or as an advisor in YW. Perhaps this is a geographically specific occurrence. I do recall lessons on creating a clothing style that was appropriate to the occasion, attractive and modest, but that was as far as it went.

    My grandmother used to say that it was important to take the time to look nice out of consideration for anyone else (spouse, neighbor, grocery store clerk, child, passer-by on the street, anyone) you might encounter. She felt that if you were part of someone else’s surroundings either long-term or in passing, it was a thoughtful gift to them to help make their surroundings pleasant, and that being neat, clean and comely was such a gift.

    Focus on makeup, stylish clothing and responsibility for specifically being attractive to a spouse? I think that’s misguided. But being considerate of others’ environment and therefore neat, clean and comely is something that can be helpful for anyone to learn and consider. (And requires neither make-up nor the latest fashions.)

  4. anon says:

    We never had makeup classes when I was in YW, but I have taught how to apply makeup to the YW in our ward for one of their activities. It was right before prom. I don’t see a problem with it if its just something “fun” to do for the girls, and NOT centered on how to be attractive for someone else! Only how to teach them to use makeup correctly.

    I think this is important because a lot of girls never get that teaching at home, whether their mom is absent or just doesn’t take the time. Wearing gobs of makeup or the wrong shade of foundation can make you stick out like a sore thumb and be more prone to being bullied and made fun of. And whether we like to admit it or not, our appearance does affect the way others treat us. Being able too apply makeup appropriately for whatever function you’re attending (school, church, prom, a job interview, a date) etc is definitely a factor in being successful IMO.

    That doesn’t mean you need to wear makeup 24/7, or you look hideous without it, or no boy could ever love you, etc. In fact, I think these classes could combat that kind of thinking, if approached the right way.

  5. EmilyCC says:

    Great post, Caroline! I don’t remember getting more than 1 YW activity on homemade beauty products (like an oatmeal face mask and a salt scrub). But, I have orchestrated a few mani/pedi nights. These beauty nights have been helpful in giving s, as the leaders, an opportunity to address hygiene issues that some of our girls were not going to learn about at home.

    I think these beauty nights, when done well, can be help girls’ self-esteem. By showing them how to take care of their appearance by making hygeine (washing hair, body, and clothes) fun and adding a bit of novelty to it through some make-up or fashion exploration, we’re teaching them that they are beautiful daughters of God, and .

  6. kew says:

    I remember a Valiant Miss acivity when I was 10 where we used facial cleansing masks. The peel-off ones were AWESOME.
    When I was in YW it seems we had at least one makeup activity a year. This would be 97-03 in SoCal and Arizona.

    I think both partners need to feel attractive and confident in themselves. When I think I am pretty, then my relationship with my husband is better. The vast majority of the time I am not looking pretty for him, and his appreciation is just a side benefit.

  7. Azucar says:

    A YW lesson on beauty changed my life.

    I had terrible acne as a teen, especially on my forehead. At a beauty night, one of my YW leaders, who was a hairstylist by trade, did my hair and explained that the bangs I was wearing on my forehead, with their accompanying hairspray, gel, etc., were a major contributor to my acne. I grew out my bangs, took her suggestions to heart, and my severe acne problem was solved. It gave me immeasurably more self-confidence.

    It’s been 20 years and I’m still grateful.

    When I was a YW leader, I lead a “beauty” night. However, instead of the goal being attractive to men, it was teaching the girls how to take care of themselves. We diagnosed types of skin so that the girls would use the right kinds of soaps or lotions among other age-appropriate topics (No, they shouldn’t wear foundation, yes, with parental approval lip gloss is OK.) The girls were so thankful and excited. Very few of the girls came from homes where their curiosity about beauty/makeup were answered. And make no mistake, they are curious.

    I think you’re wrong when you say this is a middle-class North American concern. The desire to seek beauty crosses all cultures, socio-economic levels, and geographic particulars; one might even call it an evolutionary drive. Women braid their hair, wear strategic clothing, kohl their eyes, pinch their cheeks, use flowers to impart color to their faces, use mud or henna to draw a pattern, all in culturally-specific ways, and so do men.

    Even women who struggle to place food on the table will save for a bottle perfume, or a bit of blush. I could list my research on Soviet women and hair dye/makeup, or how women used makeup during WWII to maintain their femininity during factory work, but I won’t.

    Yes, ideas of beauty are specific to place and class. However, the desire to be beautiful and to seek to emulate beauty, whether in piercings or partaking in “manufactured” culture is so innate it’s inseparable from humanity. My grandmother told me about growing up in her poor, old world fishing village, and how she and her friends would scramble to find oil to do their hair, or dig up enough pennies to buy cosmetics.

    Women and men desire to be beautiful, we want to be attractive to find a mate and we shouldn’t ignore that drive. It’s what we say about beauty, how we feel about our faces/bodies, how we assign worth, and how we treat each other that can be fraught.

    I don’t intentionally look beautiful for my spouse. I try to look beautiful because I care about my presentation. My spouse has thanked me countless times for continuing to keep myself beautiful. I wish he were a little more conscious of his aesthetic impact, but hey, I knew he was a crummy dresser with crazy hair when I married him.

    Lessons on makeup aren’t appropriate for all girls in YW. We should do a better job of connecting beauty regimens to personal choice and emphasizing self-worth rather than cultural ideal.

  8. jks says:

    My daughter is 12 and is suddenly extremely interesting in “fashion” and wishes she could wear makeup. If you ask her for ideas on YW activities, she will ask for fashion and makeup activities.
    These activities should definitely be done carefully so they don’t send the wrong message.
    I do think that it is easy to be busy and not care about doing superficial beauty stuff. My husband thinks I am totally beautiful without it. However, I do think I benefit from taking some time with my appearance and he appreciates it too although he doesn’t even realize it. It’s a pretty perfect situation for me.

  9. Lulubelle says:

    I don’t think the desire to look beautiful is a bad thing. If we teach that it’s the “only” thing, that’s a problem. At that very awkward age of early teens, ANY advice I could get from ANYWHERE was so welcomed. They were my favorite activities– lessons on makeup, hair or dress. Anything to boost my confidence or self esteem. I was such an awkward kid that was so uncomfortable in my own skin. Becoming comfortable and feeling great about how I look (I’m not saying I’m gorgeous, but I feel good and confident in myself) translates to everything I do– how I approach my career, how I parent my kids, how I approached dating. I guess I see nothing wrong with it at all. And what is wrong with looking as good as possible for our spouse anyway? Isn’t phhysical attraction part of finding a mate?

  10. Starfoxy says:

    They say that even an old barn looks nicer with a fresh coat of paint. This is true, but if the barn is being eaten by termites and is one good windstorm away from falling down then arguing about the best color to paint it is silly.

    People come at these discussions all thinking about ‘barns’ that are in different states of repair, whether that barn is the quality of a marriage or a teen girl’s sense of self.

    If a marriage is based on love respect and mutual interest then there is no harm and probably a lot of good to be had from grooming to please one’s partner. If a marriage is based largely on how one partner looks then that is structurally unsound and dangerous. And if I’m in a bad marriage, grooming alone isn’t going to help anything. Grooming to further please a partner that you know loves and respects you is great. Grooming to placate a partner that you fear will leave you, or otherwise love you less leads to a whole host of marital problems. And the problem in that marriage isn’t the grooming, but the underlying mistrust and fear even if the grooming is all anyone can talk about.

    When teen girls have a good grounding in their worth, their relative importance to their peers, and their potential then a few instructive well placed advice on grooming are great. Without all that other stuff, then the grooming tips, no matter how reasonable, are just as useless as applying paint to a pile of rubble, then arguing that at least it’s a nice looking pile of rubble.

  11. leisurelyviking says:

    While some girls are interested in makeup, it’s certainly not universal. I know I always resented the YW lessons that focused on appearance and homemaking when I’d rather have been hiking and shooting like the scouts.

  12. Caroline says:

    Alisa, great ideas about confidence and self-esteem making a person attractive. I realize that makeup and nice clothes can sometimes for some people be tied up with those traits, but I can’t help but feeling maybe that’s the root of where we should be focusing – building confidence (that hopefully isn’t often tied to physical appearance).

    mraynes said, “I never feel like I have enough money, enough clothes, nice enough furniture when in all actuality, I live a more comfortable existence than 99% of humanity. ”

    Me too, mraynes. I wish that I could thrust myself out of that mind frame, and I would hope that our youth programs would help build against those feelings of inadequacy and competition. Perhaps that’s another reason why I question those YW meetings on makeup – they do seem based in a culture of consumerism.

    great points, mb. I like the focus on being neat and inoffensive to others, rather than on the necessity of makeup. And yes, I do imagine these concerns were geographically motivated. This was in Southern California.

    interesting comments, anon. I hadn’t thought of these YW makeup lessons as corrective (in terms of helping girls that were applying it incorrectly). I can see more of a place for it in that context.

    Emily, like anon, you bring up some other important factors. Using makeup as a draw to address important hygiene issues is understandable. A part of me is still uncomfortable with it, for all the reasons I wrote about above, but I can’t say that if I were a YW leader and dealing with these hygiene issues, I wouldn’t do the same thing. I would also be more open to mani/pedi nights, etc., if these were things the girls wanted to spend their time doing, since I would want to honor their interests.

    Kew, once a year doesn’t surprise me in SoCal. I don’t think I had them that often in 1990-95, but it could have gone up since then.

  13. Kelly Ann says:

    I hardly ever wear any make-up. This probably comes from the fact my mother never wore any and discouraged it as well as the fact I have good natural coloring. That and as a teenager, I had pretty sensitive skin so would react to metal (couldn’t wear a watch), lotions, soaps, etc. I had a fear of make-up at the time everyone gets the habit of wearing it.

    I remember a YW activity where our leaders surprised us with make-overs. We went over to the house of someone who sold it for a living and got all the basic instruction. However, they weren’t prepared to deal with sensitive skin. I flatly refused to let them put any on me for fear of breaking out and watched everyone else instead. At that point, I made the decision that it wasn’t for me for good and for bad. I still enjoyed myself that evening but I remember coming home and telling my mom that YW’s that evening was a waste of time. However, I will give them credit that if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have known the basics of wearing make-up for a long time.

    The other experience that comes to mind was on my mission. The mission president’s wife held a special sister’s conference (at the height we had over 60 sisters out of 200 missionaries). She addressed a lot of specific needs which was great and uplifting. However, she got a lot of flack for inviting someone in to show us all how to put on make-up. While I think some benefited from the reminder to dress nicer, she highlighted a sister and said we should aspire to present ourselves like her. However, all her companions knew that this sister got up at 4 o’clock in the morning to curl and do her make-up routine. It wasn’t a realistic or necessary goal.

    I’ll agree with the other commentators who state that if you do it for fun, that’s fine, but you have to be careful what lesson you are sending about female beauty.

  14. Caroline says:

    Azucar, I was referring to the link between makeup/nice clothes and beauty when I mentioned this as an American cultural thing. I agree that other cultures are interested in beauty, just often in different ways. I’m glad that lesson in beauty helped you so much. That seems to go back to the kind of corrective teaching that Emily and anon referred to. I liked your last sentence here. “We should do a better job of connecting beauty regimens to personal choice and emphasizing self-worth rather than cultural ideal.”

    jks, you do have a perfect situation with your husband!

    Lulubelle said, “And what is wrong with looking as good as possible for our spouse anyway? Isn’t phhysical attraction part of finding a mate?”

    Certainly it plays a part. I just wonder if emphasizing makeup is the way we want to teach our YW to be attractive. Like others have said, it’s also just a question of balance. I would hate to have looks be so big a part of a marriage that the marriage would suffer if a person lost his/her looks… I think Starfoxy’s comment also reflects that idea. (great points, Starfoxy)

    leisurelyviking, thanks for your comment. I have a lot of sympathy for girls like you who would be turned off by makeup nights. I hope your YW leaders also gave you lots of active adventurous activites.

    Kelly Ann, your comment meshes nicely with leisurely viking’s, as YW who weren’t interested or able to participate in these makeup lessons. Love that story about that sister in your mission who was lauded for her excessive beauty routine. 🙂

  15. Jana says:

    I’m curious…how many of you have heard of the YM holding weeknight classes to address their “hygiene issues” and to learn appropriate grooming techniques?

  16. Shea says:

    I believe that it is not just to look pretty for someone else. Every time I get dressed up it makes me more confident because I did something for myself. I don’t wear makeup for anyone else but me. The attractiveness that men look for is more confidence than actual physical ability to make yourself look better. It shows confidence and a sense of high self esteem when you do take care of yourself and men look for that. Just as long as you are happy with yourself then it shouldn’t matter what you look like. Also that story with the woman dressing up and the man being pleased kind of disturbs me how you took it. It does seem like that is the moral of the story but to me it seems like he was just happy that she was trying. He loved her enough to marry her so she didn’t have to. It is just one of those added bonuses of showing that you do care about yourself and what he thinks of you. In YW’s we were always told to look our best. That doesn’t necessarily mean to get formal every time we go out but to show some effort when we do. To show that we care about ourselves enough to make an effort to look presentable to others. I do agree that there should be less emphasis on it considering it is an expensive habit. The least that you can do is be happy with yourself, shower, comb out your hair and show happiness to others. Looks fade but personality stays forever.

  17. chanson says:

    I remember having at least one hair-and-make-up activity in YWs. Fortunately, it was not prefaced with such an awful story! It was presented more as “something fun that girls are interested in” like crafts.

    I don’t think the activity had much impact on my ideas about the importance of beauty. (I’ve never been interested in hair, make-up, and fashion, and I have a fairly positive self-image.) However, it probably contributed to my opinion of church stuff in general, as something that’s sometimes fun, sometimes painfully dull, and almost always a bunch of trivial fluff.

  18. EmilyCC says:

    Excellent point, Jana! I know YM leaders have talked about ways to deal with their kids hygiene issues, but I don’t know of any hygiene or mani/pedi nights 🙂

  19. anon says:

    Some girls may think its silly or boring to do a make up night, but you can’t please everyone all the time. Just like all the girls may not appreciate baking or hiking or watching a chick flick, or doing a book club night or learning to shoot a gun. So you just do the best you can, and try to mix it up.

    I have never heard of the YM doing hygiene nights, LOL. Although we do have the “manners” night, where the YW and the YM have an evening in etiquette, dating, and manners, and I think its discussed there.

  20. Azucar says:


    We did Hygiene nights, but we didn’t call them that. The last one I taught was how to take care of your skin–which soaps to use if you had sensitive, oily, or dry skin, etc. How you need to change your pillowcase and your towels. Basically, how to take care of yourself.

  21. Jana says:

    Fascinating! What percentage of the Young Men showed up & how engaged were they in learning about their skin type? What did you call your event, if not a Hygiene Night?

  22. Jill says:

    Ok, that story is terrible.

    However, the women in the developing countries that I have lived in (D.R. and Honduras) were much more focused on beauty than we are in the U.S. By the second year in Honduras I felt weird if I left the house without earrings on.

    I liked makeup activities personally, but more because they were fun bonding experiences than anything. As long as they intermingled with many different types of activities, I think that it is ok.

  23. Motion de Smiths says:

    Your story about the woman is horrifying and unbelievable (though I believe you, I’m still in shock). In general, I have mixed feelings about makeup lessons and hairstyling lessons. We had them in my young women’s and I think my leaders were pretty good at just making it a lesson in how NOT to look trashy while wearing makeup (as opposed to you should look good for someone else). The hairstyling lessons were not so much about every-day wear, but specific hairstyling skills. It depends on how it’s approached, and whether the teachers emphasize inner beauty and choice.

  24. Mhana says:

    I didn’t have this in Young Womens but when I went to the MTC they offered special makeup lessons to the sisters as “the billboards of the church.” I’ll never forget my first Relief Society meeting there. I was sure that AT LAST I’d here something tailored to the women who served, maybe even by a member of the General RS presidency! I was bitterly disappointed when I was greeted by a mannequin with nipples wearing a tight short and a stern lecture about “GTC — Gaps, Thighs and Cleavage” We were warned that we were to be attractive so people would listen to the message, but not so attractive that we’d distract the elders. I’m SURE that my garment-clad thighs were incredibly tantalizing when my slit slipped, but fortunately my sweat washed away my makeup and made the Elders able to resist.

  25. laurenlou says:

    mhana–i too was forever scarred by the nipple mannequin.
    also, while i was in the mtc they offered an optional “enrichment” class for sisters. my companion wanted to do it, and i’m always game for a good laugh, so we went. two orem women with the biggest hair i’d ever seen (and i grew up in utah) came in and did our makeup, made us promise we’d wear makeup every day on our missions, and wouldn’t let us leave until we looked into their talking pretty princess mirror that mechanically told us how beautiful we were and said thank you with a smile. shudder.
    on the other hand, a dutch elder in my district had to report a day early so he and the other international missionaries could get lessons in proper hygiene and the wonders of the modern bathroom. i think i’d much rather have it implied that i need a bit of makeup than that i need to learn how to use toilet paper…

  26. Caroline says:

    Oh my gosh, these stories are incredible. Nipple mannequins? Pretty princess talking mirrors. I’m speechless.

  27. Cari Clark says:

    I have been a wardrobe and image consultant for over 20 years. In American society, we simply cannot ignore the necessity of dressing appropriately and using good grooming habits. As a BYU graduate, and with young adult children, I feel it’s important that both women and men pay attention to their presentation to at least interest a person of the opposite sex! Whether fortunately or unfortunately, nobody (at BYU or enviorns) wants to get close to someone with poor hygiene and an otherwise unkempt appearance. I have consulted a lovely, intelligent woman, working at the MTC and pursuing her graduate degree, whose appearance was so without sex appeal that nobody dated her. (She still dressed like she was on her mission and never bought any new clothes, never wore makeup and didn’t bother with her hair.) I don’t have big hair or heavy makeup, but gentle guidance toward flattering clothes and some enhancement with makeup is necessary to compete in our society, both in the marriage and job market. Whether we like it or not, our appearance tells the world about what we do, our competence, and our intelligence before we open our mouths. While undue exaggeration of these things is not right (and I’m horrified by the experience of the lady missionaries at the MTC) basic attention should be paid to what we’re advertising.

  28. Ashley says:

    I do believe my young women leaders had good intentions with their makeup nights, but I was a little shocked at the comments they made. They pressured me into cutting and highlighting my hair, talked about how we’re beautiful as daughters of God-but makeup always helps. They dressed us up to accentuate bigger breasts, skinnier waists, and longer legs, assuming that was the image every girl wants. The hairdresser made sure we knew that oval was the shape of face you wanted, but there were things you could do if you had a circle or square face to make it look more oval. For the girls (including myself) that didn’t have a glamorous wardrobe, they gave us clothes and makeup. My friend and I talked later about how we both cried when we went home from this particularly intense makeover because of the pressure on us to change. We’re both chubby and usually fine with it, and it’s insulting when you get unwelcome comments like “you look great, are you losing weight?” especially from a woman you look up to. I’m sure they had good intentions and the other young women might have appreciated tips or comments like that, but I felt singled out and unaccepted as I was, and that was really wrong. I think if we are going to change the way the world looks at women, we’ve got to stop looking at ourselves like the world does.

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