7.03.2007

I weep for the future of the world

When you're an LDS teenage young woman you get told lots of good stuff. A few things I learned from my dear Young Women leaders:

You need to be getting 3-5 servings of dairy per day to prepare your bodies for childbearing

(They should have been telling me to save up for the egg-freezing procedure.)

You should go to Ricks (then a 2-yr LDS college, now BYU-Idaho) or the LDS Business College for a semester or two. It'll make you a better mother, and then you can type up your husband's papers for him.

(I applied to a real school instead. But I had to keep quiet about it because when people found out that's where I'd applied they got all concerned like they didn't want me to get my hopes up: "Well, you know, Rick's is really good too." I wanted to say, "I'm sure it is. And I'm sure your kids will be very happy there. But see, I'm actually smart." And humble.)

You should dress modestly because your body is a temple and it's how you show respect for yourself. And also because it's your fault if boys can't even control their thoughts when they look at you and then they go home and become porn addicts and serial masturbators.

(Yes on the first thing, and I will kick in the teeth of any man who tells me it's my fault he can't keep his mind out of the gutter. Go hum a hymn, you porn-looker.)

Note: Those bits of advice were not necessarily in the lesson manuals. Although it wouldn't surprise me if they were. Those things are so dated and simplistic and culturally narrow that it's not even funny. If anyone here has connections in the Church Curriculum department, y'all need to get on that. Stat.

BUT.

But.

One thing that those dear women spent hours and hours trying to drill into us is the concept that we are precious and loved daughters of God, that we have unlimited potential and important contributions to make to the world, and that there is more to life than teenage angst and worries about whether or not we're pretty or popular enough.

One phrase we had memorized was, "I am of infinite worth, with my own divine mission, which I will strive to fulfill."

Last Sunday in Relief Society I was intrigued to see the teacher write that phrase on the board. She said that she'd been told to pick the topic for the lesson (which, sorry, is so not the rules) and she really wanted to discuss the concept of individual worth.

I thought, "Okay. This could be really interesting. Let's see if we discuss this differently than the way we thought of it back when we were teenagers. Because we've grown and learned some things since then."

Only, as it turns out? Not so much true.

She opened by asking what are some influences that make us as women doubt our worth. A couple of girls mentioned the media, and how it gives us these unreal standards of beauty that we compare ourselves to.

I raised my hand and said that there are a lot of differing expectations out there for what makes a woman successful and worthy, even from well-meaning sources, and so we have to be pretty strong in figuring out with the Lord what His plan is for us and then sticking to that plan without worrying about what other people expect.

Then some more girls made comments about the whole "we don't feel pretty enough."

And then some more girls continued on that theme.

So I'm looking around and wondering when we're going to move on to something different, (like the "with our own divine mission, which we will strive to fulfill") only we never did. And The Pretty was All Anyone Talked About. And the more I thought about what I was hearing the more disturbed I became. In this group of about 75+ women--women in their 20s who are attractive, talented, and educated--all anyone talked about was how they don't feel pretty enough. And what they can do to feel pretty. And what makes them not feel pretty. And how if they're a daughter of God then that makes them pretty so they know they should stop worrying but it's hard.

One right-thinking girl tried to get us back on track by saying, "I think it's important for us to remember that there's a lot more to us than just what we look like. We've got a lot of other things going on in our lives as well." It was like she hadn't said anything.

I just wanted to stand up on my chair and shout, "Wait, what the crap is this? Is this really what you women are worrying about? Seriously?" I mean, I thought you come to this point after high school where you come to terms with that fact that the way you look is just the way you look. Sure, you can dress better, work out, stop doing those hideous bubble bangs that some women still inexplicably hang on to, and maybe address your eyebrows in some way, but that's pretty much where it ends. And then you move on.

Also, what does pretty have to do with having infinite worth? It has nothing to do with it! Pretty does not equal worthy! Pretty is one incredibly small and temporary facet of who you are. So if these women, who have been told from Day 1 that there is more to them than how they look and that what they have to offer is not defined by how pretty they are, and that their lives have meaning and purpose, if these women don't actually believe that then I'm not sure what else can be done. I'm not sure that anyone can say anything that would make them just accept themselves and move on and start thinking about the things that really matter.

And it's not that these girls are shallow, because I don't think they are. It was just alarming to see this dam of insecurities burst. I don't if it's because we're all still single and some girls are worried that The Pretty is part of that, and that maybe if they tried harder or dieted more then they would somehow deserve to find a nice guy. Except I think if you spent the first 30 years of your life worrying about whether you're pretty enough, getting married isn't going to just make all that go away overnight.

From conversations I've had with other girls since that lesson, I know I wasn't the only one who was disturbed. But in the face of this overwhelming thing I don't think anyone wanted to be the one to say, "You know what? This is silly. Let's move on." Because then they might just get turned on as a pretty girl who can't understand what the others are going through.

Also? Right now in our 20s, this is basically as good as it gets, looks-wise. It's all downhill and alpha-hydroxy acids from here on out. As my sister Jenny wisely said, "You go tell those girls to go home, get in front of the mirror, and take a picture of their boobs. And then treasure that picture, because they'll never look that good again."

I'm asking for a few minutes next week so I can do just that.

31 comments:

JB said... [reply]

Do you think they're really that upset about not being pretty or that it's a handy face to put on the real problems that they either don't understand or realize are there? Or maybe the real problems are more complex and have harder (and more uncertain) answers, so they stick to one thing they kind of care about but have an easy answer to?

FoxyJ said... [reply]

I was kind of thinking the same thing as JB, that in our culture we seem to have gotten the idea that "pretty" is something we have control over or that we can work hard enough on getting. And they're frustrated because it turns out that they have no control over it. Or, they're projecting other insecurities onto that issue because they think they should be able to control it (like they think they should be able to control other things that they really can't--like marriage, career, family, etc). I think we need more lessons on Taoism and accepting our present realities. We need lessons on "being enough".

Oh, and it doesn't go away when you get married. I hate it when women I know lament the shape of their bodies after having kids. Um, growing a baby in your uterus and then feeding it with your boobs is going to affect your body. I know I have a bubble tummy, but I also have two beautiful kids. Stretch marks are forever. And that's OK. (Of course there are the days when the kids and the body feel like a double curse, but most of the time that's not true). My life is too short to be worrying about whether my body is perfectly up to wordly standards of beauty or not.

Janssen said... [reply]

I'm in the Relief Society presidency in my ward and when we teach (the first Sunday of the month), we are responsible for picking our own topics. After you mentioned it, I was curious if that was the way it was supposed to be, and it turns out that it is legit: http://www.lds.org/pa/display/0,17884,5025-1,00.html

alishka babushka said... [reply]

I wish everyone had your mindset. I completely agree with you, and agree with the fact that pretty doesn't equal infinite worth, and I wish that all those complaining girls would come to understand that.

Nemesis said... [reply]

Janssen, do you mean that you chose topics as a presidency or that the one who's turn it was to teach just got to decide on her own? I've been part of a presidency where we decided on topics together, but we never just sent the teacher off with a "whatever you feel like teaching." (Which is the way it seemed like this lesson was.)

Anonymous said... [reply]

I love Jenny's comment!! So funny!

Janssen said... [reply]

We pick topics on our own. Maybe we are total rule breakers out here in Texas (what a shock THAT would be). When I taught this last Sunday, I picked whatever topic I darn well felt like and nobody ever even asked me what I was going to do it on. Perhaps I should have taught on something scandelous.

Nemesis said... [reply]

Janssen, you naughty rule-breakers. :-) Although, since you bring it up, maybe it's not actually a rule. Anyway, you should definitely start teaching some shocking lessons. We could start coming up with ideas if you want!

Janssen said... [reply]

Ooh, I welcome ideas. I'm teaching next in December and so far I have yet to see a beginning of December lesson taught on something OTHER than Christmas traditions and/or teaching your children the true meaning of Christmas.

Anonymous said... [reply]

No matter how ugly a girl may think she is there are always ways you can improve your appearance; if that's what is important to you.

And even if you are considered pretty it doesn't really mean jack crap.

The old saying goes something like this, "Looks open the door, personality keeps it open."

Why not always have your door open that way there will be no need to open it.

Ways to keep the door opened. Dress nicely, keep your hair and makeup looking nice, smile, be happy and enjoy life and pursue your interests. If you do these things:

People will notice
Guys will notice
You will be more confident

Liz Johnson said... [reply]

When I went to BYU, there was a serious scandal about women wearing backpacks/bags with straps that cross their chest, because they accentuate their boobs and cause men to become addicted to pornography and the like. Dead serious. It was a huge issue. And from then on I walked around with my strap crossed like that triumphantly just to be a snot about it.

I tend to agree with jb and foxyj that women use the "pretty" problem as an analogy for other problems that they don't feel like they should talk about... relationship issues, their true mission in life, struggles with things like depression or anxiety, etc. But then part of me feels like girls just don't feel pretty, and have lagging self-esteem problems for a long long time, sometimes their entire lives. And I think that can be perpetuated by the cookie-cutter mentality of some (not all) Mormons... that we all should obey the same commandments, and thus act the same way, and so logically we should all look the same way. Like skinny and blonde and with a poof artfully placed somewhere in our hair. And wearing oven mitts because we're about to pull out our fresh batch of cookies.

Nemesis said... [reply]

Bwah hah! Liz! I totally remember the one-strap backpack issue and almost mentioned it in the post. That was the most ridiculous thing ever. A poor friend of mine said she could see where they were coming from and I think I probably ranted at her for 30 minutes.

scienceteachermommy said... [reply]

Pretty is as pretty does?

All the girls are obsessed with looks because they have unwittingly told that is all men care about. I mean, isn't that the message we send when we tell people that a backpack strap will make them all porn addicts?

My mother and I have discussed lately how much we enjoy(ed) our thirties. Why? Because I think I have finally accepted WHO I AM in every aspect. In my twenties, even after a mission, a college education, a husband and a baby, I was still fighting what I am. No doubt the legacy of years of friends and roommates who had The Pretty.

I finally realize all I have instead.

.::still blinking::. said... [reply]

I wasn't going to comment anymore because I am pretty sure I say the wrong thing most of the time, but...

I like what foxyj said, "We need lessons on 'being enough.'"

I feel like the lessons we are taught by members and the manuals of the church are so off course. However, I feel like when we are taught at General Confrence, it is the plain, unaltered truth. Somehow, it gets all messed up in the transition between everyday members and the leadership.

I wish this is what we were teaching, it is from a General Confrence address from May 1999, by President Hinkley.

"Now, brethren and sisters, let us return to our homes with resolution in our hearts to do a little better than we have done in the past. We can all be a little kinder, a little more generous, a little more thoughtful of one another. We can be a little more tolerant and friendly to those not of our faith, going out of our way to show our respect for them. We cannot afford to be arrogant or self-righteous. It is our obligation to reach out in helpfulness, not only to our own but to all others as well. Their interest in and respect for this Church will increase as we do so."

You can read the entire talk here.

Scully said... [reply]

I just got called to teach Mia Maids, and I must say the lessons have changed. They aren't as fluffy and marriage&family focused as I remember them being. That being said, the woman who taught the YW lesson last week about fasting wouldn't stop saying how it was what she did when she was trying to decide who to marry. And she has to be at least because she has children in their mid-20s. Like nothing has happened in the intervening 25+ years that she would have to fast and pray about. Hello? UGH. This followed the comment by one of the counselors that I was the only one who could participate in the scripture activity because "we don't have scriptures on our laps, we have babies." Thanks for that.

Anonymous said... [reply]

Nem, I agree with most of what you said except for one thing. Being in your 20's isn't as good as it gets. I know many women who still look great and feel great in their 30's, 40's, and even in their 50's and beyond. Granted, it's not easy, it takes some work but I sure wish I had kept up with myself more during those years. Like Ed says, the body was made to move (read: excercise and work) and it will do so much more than most of us require of it. Being healthy and strong mentally and physically is everything Pretty will never be. And you have more control over it.

cm

Joe & Jeri said... [reply]

Sometimes I think we need to get one more generation out before a lot of these attitudes really change. Young women now are being raised by the women who grew up with the "go to school to get a husband" attitude. But they're also getting a lot of more positive lessons as well, especially from the church, about women striving for education, experience and to better themselves.

It's a change that needs to happen though. I get so tired of seeing other moms who view themselves as only "someone's wife or mom". How can you expect to raise a daughter with any self-respect when everything you do says to her "the only important goal you have is to find a husband". And how can you expect to raise a son who respects women when he sees that you don't respect yourself or your capabilities?

Sorry this got long, you just said some things that struck a chord with something that bugs me, pretty much on a daily basis.

And I loved your comment about "hum a hymn, you porn-looker". You crack me up.

Lady Steed said... [reply]

First: In my ward the first Sunday topic is the discretion of the Presidency member teaching. These are often my favorite lessons. June's lesson was all about Earthquake and Emergency preparedness--very applicable to our ward since THE BIG ONE should be hitting us any day now.

Second: How is it that you (and most of the LDS readers of this blog who went through the Young Women program) seem to be the only people that came out of the YW's Program with their heads on straight?

You, Miss Nem got the point of the lessons: 'You are a divine daughter of God, with Divine worth, so get out in the world and make a difference using all the divine potential you have within you. Don't worry about THE PRETTY. Marriage, family and such will happen according to God's timetable, so don't worry just move forward.'

Having been a Young Women leader in two different wards, I would say that the lessons are definitely trying to teach the Young Women to move past THE PRETTY and accept themselves for who they are. This of course is a hard thing for a teenager to accept, but that's why it gets taught over and over. So that, hopefully, girls come out of the Young Women program with a positive self image, ready to continue improving their mind and spirit.

How is it that this program seems to have failed so many?

Third: I truly hope you do get a few minutes next week. Let us know how it goes.

Fourth: What Jenny said about boobs is spot on. I truly wish I had taken a picture of them before kids. Because then I'd have a photo to show the plastic surgeon of how I want them to look after the surgery.

.::still blinking::. said... [reply]

Lady Steed! I love #4.

Anonymous said... [reply]

This kinda thing got a LOT easier once I was out of the young singles' ward and into the mid-singles' ward. At that point, we were all acknowledged misfits (thirty and still single!) and it was just easier. Course, it wasn't perfect. I remember one FHE where the guy's lesson was all about how none of us were dating cuz the guys were too shy and the women all too fat. Gotta love it.

Anonymous said... [reply]

I am so glad I don't live in Utah.

Jenny said... [reply]

I remember being in high school and standing in front of the mirror obsessing over my appearance.
Only then I got a life. I am so glad I'm not debilitated by what I think of my physical appearance and can move on and focus on more important things. I have enough issues and things that draw my attention away from what really matters, like being a good person.

I'm surprised they didn't bring in the TV and show that one part from 'MEAN GIRLS' where the girl starts talking about hugs and butterflies or whatever. It would have definitely made things more interesting.


Also, for crying out loud. Those girls should be grateful they have working bodies and all their limbs and eyes etc. Didn't they grow up with the 'God made your body and if you don't love it then you just don't love him?'bit of advice? I was always getting that lecture at church.

Shawn Econo said... [reply]

Ms. Nem (and your awesome readers/commenters):

Another insightful post and one which has gotten me a bit riled up as I've been reading it. I imagine I may be the only liberal, non-LDS, male Utah resident in your reading audience, so you can take what I say with a grain (or measuring cup) of salt.

I think that there are a couple of main reasons that the Infinite Worth mantra hasn't sunk in for the majority of young LDS women in the ways that it seems that you've understood and expressed it in your everyday life. One is geocultural and the other has to do with the very nature of gender roles in the LDS world.

First, please understand that I'm trying to reconcile my personal values and beliefs with an attempt to acknowledge my own detached "outsiderness" in making my observations. So again, please know that my comments are meant in a spirit of respect and mutual understanding.

It appears that many of the behaviors that you mention in your blog are uniquely Utahn. By this, I mean that many of the things that Utah Mormons say and do are different than those things said and done by LDS folk outside the state. I've lived in several states throughout the West and can say with absolute certainty that Mormons Here are different than Mormons Out There.

Because of the prominence of the Church in so many aspects of local culture (especially in more rural counties like good ol' Cache), I think Utahns in general have a unique and well-defined sense of identity that shapes their cultural and political mores and norms in ways that seem totally alien (and even alienating) to people from outside the state.

Also, because of a generalized lack of diversity, Utahns seem to have a kind of tunnel vision when it comes to the kinds of issues you've been addressing in your blog. In other words, folks around here are often totally oblivious to the kinds of societal change that you are talking about, merely because they don't come into contact with these ideas in their daily lives. Even though the (proto-feminist)idea of women's inherent self-worth and potential has spawned some extremely important changes in mainstream American society since the 50's, it doesn't seem that Utahns have been as quick to interface with the accepted consensus reality of people from outside the state. These kinds of incremental societal change tend to arrive in Utah more slowly than in other parts of the country and face substantial resistance as they arrive. We therefore have slow (and even multi-generational) changes in the ways that gender issues are dealt with in church meetings, teachings, and events, as Joe&Jeri stated.

The concern with The Pretty that you mentioned is not a uniquely Utahn issue, but I do think that the pressures to be beautiful and desirable are stronger here because they come from two different directions: the general mainstream American obsession with looks, and the pressure from the LDS culture to get married and have many babies at an early age. So it seems obvious that the aforementioned insecurities can truly overshadow other elements of the lives of young LDS women who feel these dual pressures everyday. I can't even imagine how hard it must be for you ladies sometimes.

The idea that a Mormon woman could possibly find happiness and fulfillment of their life's purpose as a career person instead of as a wife and mother just doesn't seem to be a part of the vocabulary of self-awareness for most Utah LDS women.

Much of this may also have to do with the very nature of the Church as a hierarchical institution with strong top-down power structures. I don't want to make any value judgements here (because I know that you and your readers could totally kick my trash) but you have to agree that the top rungs of Church leadership are populated by older men who came of age decades ago, when gender issues were not even a blip on the radar screen in the mainstream, much less LDS culture. Their understanding of these kinds of issues (or lack thereof) necessarily trickles down through subsequent layers of authority until it gets to the individual congregational level.

I think we'll continue to see positive social change in the Church in the future. The beauty of a faith based on continual revelation is that doctrine and practice can change over time. I've always thought this aspect of your faith is one of its greatest strengths.

Also, I'd like to thank Still Blinking for including President Hinckley's words, as they so eloquently state what all of us ought to be doing in our attempts to better understand not only people of different faiths, but the nature of our own selves and faiths as well.

Thanks for letting me ramble. I'd love to know what you think of my perspective, and I'm looking forward to reading more of these kinds of posts in the near future. Keep it up, please.

KimberlyKV said... [reply]

This post was inspired.

I just got out of the shower and was thinking, "Gross! Gross!", as I looked in the mirror. Then I started blow drying my hair and reading this post, and I was called to repentance. I lament that I am one of THEM.

This post was inspired.

Girassol said... [reply]

I've been kicking around some ideas of memorable things I can do to celebrate my 30th birthday, which is fast approaching. I think I will be taking a picture of my boobs on their last day of being in their 20s, and I will tuck it away somewhere so that if I ever do get married, I can pull it out and say, "Look, honey! This is what you could have had if you had bothered to FIND ME SOONER!"

Miss Hass said... [reply]

Wow. I am so grateful to have had parents who helped me to see beyond whatever level of The Pretty I may have. That's not to say that it never crosses my mind. Sure, I think a lot about what I can do to look and feel better, but I know that the way I feel and the confidence that I project come from something else besides The Pretty. It's sad that there are still so many women in the world who are convinced that pretty is the only thing they have. I think it's gotten much better in the last 20 years or so, but we have a long way to go.

Michael said... [reply]

Elder Oaks in the April 2005 General Conference:
And young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.


I don't think this type of thing is coming out of the manuals if it is in fact in there. I was quite bothered by this talk at the time because of this statement- but then later realized it was a very small portion of what he said and that the talk as a whole really did need to be given (which is a shame.)

Kristeee said... [reply]

I remember sitting on my bed as a young woman, singing to myself, "For I am of worth, of infinite worth. My Savior, Redeemer loves me..." and crying myself silly, wishing I could believe that I could become all he wanted me to be, because I didn't feel a sense of divine worth. It's been something I've really had to work on to get over. And, I hate to say it for the risk of sounding like a married snob, but it's been my husband who's really helped me get past feeling like I'm not enough. His loving insistence that I'm a good person has done wonders for my self image.

I think that a lot of the women of our generation grew up with criticism that we weren't good enough in some way; or that we were instilled with a fear of "well if I'm not____ enough, I won't find a good husband or be a RS President or live a happy life or whatever. The Brethren have caught onto this, as evidenced by Elder Holland's talk about abusing others with our words - how we should NEVER, even in jest, say that a child is fat or dumb or lazy or ugly, and how we shouldn't compare them to other children. I think a lot of us have deep-seated inadequacies of being left (hello high divorce rate) or not picked in the first place because we're simply not good enough. And it takes a lot of love to overcome that.

My little brother (8.5 years younger) told me when I was 20 that I would be a horrible loser if I were to turn 21 and not be engaged. Silly and juvenile, but I still cried on my 21st birthday when I wasn't, and secretly hoped that my guy friend would all of a sudden see how great I was and propose that night. Instead I cried myself to sleep. Cut these girls a little slack. And I maintain that it's more the parents' fault and not the YW program's.

Th. said... [reply]

.

We need to form a straight-talking brigade wherein those of us who don't have to pussyfoot stop pussyfooting and just tell it like it is: bring blogtalk into the classroom, basically.

Living in Berkeley is nice in that way because there is usually someone who will say That Is Crap (often in those exact words) And This Is Why. It's nice.

Because I suspect that the sheep in questions need to be told directly (and frequently) that the assumptions they've based their lives on are nonsense. But without clear and frequent words, it will never happen.

I'll put a good word in for you. We'll make you a Relief Society instructor yet.

Saxon said... [reply]

well if it makes you feel any better apparently being over 25 and not married makes a guy a 'menance to society'. So I guess that makes me a " Geeky menance to society then"

Kimberly Bluestocking: said... [reply]

"The concern with The Pretty that you mentioned is not a uniquely Utahn issue, but I do think that the pressures to be beautiful and desirable are stronger here because they come from two different directions: the general mainstream American obsession with looks, and the pressure from the LDS culture to get married and have many babies at an early age." - Shawn Econo

I think Shawn is spot on with this point. The Church leaders and YW program are trying like mad to teach girls that real worth comes from within, but it's hard for girls to remember that when six days of the week the media tells them there's something wrong with them if they don't look like supermodels with a crew of make-up artists.

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