You can’t be what you can’t see
“Because Heavenly Father and Jesus are boys, there must be more boys on the earth.”
My sister said she wasn’t sure if there were more boys than girls, that the numbers were probably near equal. She also reminded him that we have a Mother in Heaven and she is part of our Heavenly Family. My nephew said,
“Yeah, but Heavenly Father and Jesus have powers and stuff.”
Not yet defeated, my sister explained that Heavenly Mother is powerful too, and we probably have sisters up there in heaven that we just don’t know about. Then my nephew wanted to know if he could pray to Heavenly Mother. My sister said, “Well, we’ve been asked not too, but you can think about her and remember her always.”
At the age of seven my nephew understands in the simplest terms that male is more. My sister is a powerful woman. She leads in gospel instruction in the home. Each night at bedtime she reads scriptures and The Friend magazine with my nephew (carefully editing the stories in The Friend Magazine when they diverge from a path of equality and empowerment). She tells him stories of strong women and has certainly never intentionally taught that male is more. How did her son become convinced that there are more boys in the world than girls? He is quite comfortable with a perception that the world in unequal and that he is part of the more privileged group.
I have thought about this conversation often as I prepare lessons for my primary class of three and four year old children. As a former elementary school teacher I have experienced the powerful instructional impact of images on young children. Watching the documentary Miss Representation on the impact of media on gender inequality I was struck by the quote, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
What does this mean at church? In LDS theology boys grow up to be like Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and LDS girls grow up to be like…? The images say we grow up to be like Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. But that is not true. Most females won’t become males as they grow up. In sidebar conversations we explain that LDS girls will one day be exalted like our Heavenly Mother. LDS girls are instructed to grow to be like someone they never see.
I make an effort to include many images with each lesson, including stories from Girls Who Choose God, illustrated scripture stories, and activities from Sunday Savers (not endorsed by the Church for use in Primary, but sold at Deseret Book). I try to use a balanced number of male and female images represented by a variety of races. But when it comes to teaching children about how they have a body in the image of God, I am stuck.
My Sunday Savers are filled with images of boys and girls who will grow up to be like Heavenly Father. Heavenly Mother is absent. Young children are all about the concrete. They know what they see, touch, taste, smell, and hear. They color an adult male and a child male and a child female. What does it do to a generation of women if as girls the only perfect heavenly bodies they see are male?
In the second week of Sunbeams a picture of Joseph Smith’s First Vision experience introduces the children to the concept that Heavenly Father has a body. We know the Father and Son have bodies of flesh and blood by an eyewitness account. Joseph Smith kneeling at their feet is a human male in the image of perfected males.
Although I tell the boys and girls that we have bodies like our Heavenly Parents and specify that boys can grow to be like Father in Heaven and girls can be like Mother in Heaven, the pictures recommended for this lesson only show male bodies. They shout a story far louder than my narrative of Heavenly Parents. Heavenly Mother is missing. The divine potential of a little girl is invisible. An empty space where mother should be.
Are we comfortable with boys imagining themselves in a female body? Do we expect them to mentally edit their anatomy to match the picture as girls are obliged to do?
Instead, the most readily available images say nothing of our missing Mother in Heaven as they proclaim that our Heavenly Father has a partner in the male bodied Jesus Christ. The “Heavenly Family Photo” looks a lot like my favorite California gay hipster couple with their beautiful adopted children. In a Church intensely focused on families led by heterosexual partners, the female body is strangely absent. There are no heavenly representations of Heavenly Mother in the Gospel Art Picture kit. No luminous art with an image of a wise loving Goddess. What would it be like if artistic depictions of our Heavenly Parents graced the walls of our Church buildings and provided illustrations for our lessons and magazines? Is it dangerous to imagine a perfected female body that is glorious and divine?
My class sits in the front row of the primary room facing a wall hung with the pictures of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Underneath the pictures of the Quorum of the Twelve are pictures of the General Primary Presidency printed from the Church media site (please e-mail the distribution site and request that they make them available for purchase). My class asks about “the lady apostles.” I explain that they are not apostles, but that they are the women in charge of Primary for all of the children in the world.
I hope that images of women who are good and lead may provide some hint to little girls of what they can be. I worry that the absent and silent Heavenly Mother represented in our lessons and images sends a message to girls that one day when they are exalted they too can be invisible. It tells my nephew that there are more boys in the world than girls. It tells him that men are more.
How do you teach children to be like a Heavenly Mother we can’t see in images or pray to directly? How do you help girls to see what they can be?