Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Drama of Pants

Did everyone survive National Mormon Women Wear Pants to Church Day?

I sure hope so.

It’s been an interesting day for me to observe… because that’s what I do as a writer: observe, then try to capture. After all, I have characters in my brain who definitely would wear pants to church, and others who absolutely would not, and it’s my job to describe both individuals (and everyone in between) equitably.

What I don’t frequently like to do is describe what I think.

So I’m going to do that today on this hot-button subject. Someone will be offended, no doubt. This is unavoidable, but oh well. This once I will join the crowd of turning a molehill into a mountain—which is almost always regrettable. But maybe it’s time I learn that lesson again, because here I am…

First, let’s start off with the fact that I have never worn pants to church, nor do I have plans to. This may shock those who know me and have observed that I hate dresses and only wear them in religious buildings. I don’t wear them to any other formal events, dances, or anywhere else 99% of other women wear dresses.

Why not?
3 year-old me in a dress. As you can see,
I was less than giddy about them from
an early age...

Simple: Dresses do not make me feel pretty or feminine. They make me feel confined. Additionally, I also don’t like wearing shoes that damage my feet or disrupt my balance. Whether clothing or footwear, I like to wear clothes that allow me to move, run, climb a fence, stand in the same spot for ten minutes without feeling pain, or let me to kick without tearing or exposing something.

That’s what I like, but I know many other women prioritize being beautiful over practicality. I totally get it. And as long as I don’t force them to dress like me, and they don’t force me to dress like them, there can be peace.

All that said, I’m fine wearing a skirt to church if it makes everyone around me more comfortable. No biggie. It’s not asking a lot, and if I really cared I would wear pants and let the blowback move past me without giving it much thought.

What fascinates me about this day, however, is the discussion around it—varying from everything from “there is no dress code at church” to “these women obviously have no testimonies to show such open rebellion and defy leaders.”


Both statements are obviously untrue. There are dress codes at an LDS church. Members have been specifically instructed not to wear anything they would wear to the beach, such as sandals or flip flops. On a similar note, clothes should be modest and not show body parts like shoulders. All men know better than to line up to pass the sacrament wearing anything other than a white shirt and a tie. And women know they are to wear a dress, unless they do not own one. This is most particularly true in Utah.
By and large, women are expected to wear the same clothing to church that they would wear when visiting the temple. I think most of us can agree on that.

On the claim of wearing pants being outright rebellion that is indicative of a depleted testimony is also false. Many of the women I know wearing pants today are very devout women. To claim that any woman wearing pants today has a weak testimony is also a false conclusion. 

Then there is everyone in the middle, and all the people who could really care less. I would have put myself in the last category until I saw all the posts and comments by my diverse friends. Then I started to care, because the more comments I read, the more I realized why Wear Pants to Church Day happened.

On the side of people who very purposefully upheld the status quo and wore pants today, the attitude fit (generally) into one of two categories:     
  • They wore a dress to show respect for the unofficial dress code, or   
  • They wore a dress because that’s how they feel prettiest.

Some were pleasant about it, some were preachy, and others a bit confrontational—as if challenging a pants-wearer to a debate.

Such emotions on something so simple as a traditional article of clothing? No wonder the event has been compared by some to Muslim women who choose to stop wearing burkas. Comparing pants to burkas is a gross exaggeration, of course. The social pressure of wearing dresses to church is no comparison to the social and societal pressure to uphold the tradition of the burka, but still, I understood the motive behind the allusion as I read some of the hateful comments.

Tradition is powerful. Especially when it comes to the behavior of women. A person would have to be pretty uneducated to deny that.

So back the pants thing.

All the posts took me from being ambivalent, to being frustrated at all of the clearly false claims being thrown around.

“Women can wear anything they want to church. No one is stopping them!”


Sure. A woman might not be kicked out for wearing pants every week in Utah, but do you think she would receive the same callings as a woman who wore dresses? 

Be honest here. 

In Europe and in many areas outside of Utah, I would say that the answer to that question is yes, they would be perceived and treated the same. In Utah, I would make the opposite reply based on my personal experiences. Others may have different experiences that lead them to disagree with me, I’m sure, but I would guess these people are in the minority.

My best shot from my mission days. Not bad!
...although the hat was contraband. Shhh.
This debate, and the direction of it, goes somewhat hand-in-hand with my experience as a missionary. When I went on my mission the dress code required that sister missionaries wear muted colors, and skirts that reached approximately four fingers above the ankles. All the way to the ankles was too long and six inches below the knee was too short. Blazers and sweaters were encouraged, no form-fitting clothing was allowed, and all shoes needed to be closed-toe and suitable for walking—which in many cases turned out to be a man-like dress shoe, which the sisters were instructed to wear with nylons, rather than socks.

The visual result was frequently a sister missionary that looked something like a hybrid between a nun and granola lesbian (and there are thousands of pictures to prove it). In fact, many of the people in my mission thought we were nuns based on our clothing, and they weren’t the only ones to notice our lack of appeal.

Each time an Area Seventy or even one of the Twelve came for a Zone Conference, they had the same comment, “The sisters look dismal. Their clothes are drab and masculine. Tell them to spruce up a bit.”

Sometimes these instructions were given over the pulpit before they were pulled to the side and told by the Mission President that the sisters were all abiding by the required dress code, and the instructions the Seventy had just offered as a helpful suggestion would put the sisters in breach of the dress code.

This happened several times, and each time the Mission President corrected the Seventy, the Seventy didn’t nod and go, “Oh, okay. Sorry, I didn’t know.” In each case his response was, “Well, then, something needs to change because we’re never going to get any men in the church with our sister missionaries dressed like that.”

Sister missionary wardrobe before the wardrobe change (image used with permission)

That’s pretty much a direct quote, so don’t think I’m exaggerating there. Besides, the proof is in the history. A few years after my mission was complete, the sister missionary dress code changed to this:

Sister missionary wardrobe after the change.
Sister are now allowed to wear bright colors, form-fitting silhouettes, knee-length skirts, and feminine shoes. They are now instructed to look pretty, and decidedly not drab.

Based on my personal experience, I know that the words I heard from multiple Area Seventies and the policy changes a few short years later are not a coincidence.

About the same time that changes were made to the sister missionaries’ dressing guidelines, I was a returned missionary at a young adult fireside. The speaker was an apostle and his address was much more upbeat than most in attendance had been expecting. It was all about us getting married and how we twenty-somethings were sabotaging ourselves. He lectured the men for a good long while about “hanging out” and not taking girls on traditional dates before turning on to the women and saying (paraphrased): “And women, don’t think you’re getting off free here. Put on some lipstick and give these guys an excuse to ask you out! Some of you look like death warmed over.”

That night, in that sermon, the men were counseled by an Apostle of the Lord to modify their behavior; the women were counseled to modify their appearance.

It is a constant message women receive in social, professional, media, and religious circles, and to deny the message is persistently sent from all sources is a disservice to both men and women. And let’s face it, the majority of people agree with this Apostle’s counsel. It is a rare person who would argue that a girl shouldn’t pretty herself up if she wants to be asked out. That is the cultural norm. And when a homely girl who doesn’t even try with makeup comes crying to us on how no one is asking her out, the majority of people think, Man, she just doesn’t get it. If only she would try…

It’s how we’re trained.

And it is also why women wear dresses to church: because that’s when men think they are at their most beautiful, and women who want to please God should look their best and be proud to do it.
^^^ Status quo

This is the status quo.

Maybe other people might say it differently, and even I might say it differently on a different day, but the fact remains that the status quo of what women should and should not wear to show respect when they worship is decided by men. And that, I think, is the point of Wear Your Pants to Church Day. There are women who care that their respectability and acceptability before God is based on standards of appearance decreed by male leadership,and not female leadership.

I know, I know, men have a dress code, too. I get that. And it’s a moot point, really, because in that case it is male leaders telling men how to dress while those male leaders dress is the exact same way, making things equitable. It would be like if the women dictated what the men wore to church without wearing a single article of the same clothing. From the feminist perspective, it’s apples and oranges.

The overall question here is whether or not we believe women are capable of choosing what is appropriate attire to worship their God, or if that decision must continuously be made by men for them?

That is the question to ponder here, and it is my opinion that everyone is entitled to their own answer and opinion. Whatever your opinion, though, as devout lover of pants, it’s my opinion that the church’s stance on the subject isn’t going anywhere, so whatever your opinion, simply find the answer that works for you. Then go with it without throwing rocks at anyone else.

As for me, skirts and dresses make me feel vulnerable and immobile, but I will still wear them when I go to church simply because it’s one of the few things I can do that I know will make my mom happy. Even if she’s not there to see me, I know her feelings on the subject and since I don’t have strong feelings, I defer to what she taught me.

That is my choice. It is not an instruction to anyone else or a lecture on the Fifth Commandment. It’s what I choose to live with.

What is your choice?

And whatever that choice is, do you have enough peace with it to allow others to do differently without judging them for it?


  1. My experience attending church in Utah: I rarely wear white shirts to church. For many years I had hair past my collar. Neither of those stopped me from receiving callings large or small (if there is such a thing) including being part of a bishopric. I've also never received any negative comments on my dress or my hair. Maybe I've lucked out on wards but that's been my experience.

    Also, they've removed the part of the handbook about people passing the sacrament having to wear white shirts. You can still pass it as long as you look nice. Color of the shirt doesn't matter.

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Abel. Also, I didn't know the part about colored shirts being okay. Neither did anyone I saw commenting on FB. That's a good update to have. Thanks!

  2. Nicely put, Sheralyn. It's the vicious attacks that get to me. After a while, I just have to concede that people can be weird about things and that's not going to change. But it's difficult to see the hatred.
    Also, as a man, I'm never going to fully understand this issue, even if I'm supportive. It's just not something I have personally ever had to go through from the female perspective. Though sporting my beard, ponytail, and trench coat at church has given me some fun stories.

    1. I'll bet :) You do make an entrance.

      And yes, it was the attacks that got to me, too, and the heartfelt explanations as to why the status quo is holy and not to be messed with... until, of course, leaders announce that it is permissable to mess with it. Then it is acceptable and even passe to act according to your best judgment. Very interesting.

  3. First of all, I think the poor people who organized the Great Wearing of Pants to Church Day must be slightly disappointed. I don't think their original intent was to focus on the actual controversy of whether it's appropriate to wear pants to church. I think they wanted to call attention to many other issues regarding gender roles within the church, and to have people focus solely on the Sunday dress code while overlooking the overarching intent of the exercise has got to be fairly frustrating. I think the majority of women in the church don't have a problem wearing dresses to church. It's really a non-issue. And I think it's a pity that that's what's getting the attention here.

    What should be receiving the attention are the cultural norms within the LDS church that are indeed remnants of a more chauvinistic era. I'm not even talking about stuff like women getting the priesthood or having a woman at the level of the apostles or anything. I mean stuff like having twenty men and one woman speak at general or stake conference. Having bishops insist that women can't say the closing prayer, or that when a couple is asked to speak in church, that the wife always speaks first and the husband second, as if he were the more important speaker. Things like the stigma against having male Primary teachers, that somehow that is the lowest position a man can have in the ward.
    I really have no problems with the current setup of the church hierarchy. I have been the wife of a member of the bishopric and seen what both he and the bishop have to do as part of their calling, and believe me, anyone who aspires to that position as a desire for more power or influence has no idea what is truly involved when undertaking that mantle of authority. It is a huge burden and demands hours of selfless service. Personally, it's not that I would ever ask for.

    So, yes there are some things that bother me, but the fact is that change within the church happens slowly, but it does happen. I think that as the older church authorities, er, move on, and younger ones take their place, we will see a lot of changes in women's role and treatment within the church, and till then...come on, people, you're hardly getting whipped for showing off your ankles.

  4. It's not about pants people. What I think is interesting is how quickly members respond with statements like, "If you have an issue why don't you go somewhere else" Really? The institution commissioned to spread salvation to the world would have anyone with a cultural conflict leave over something so small? Of course they wouldn't, but half the membership would apparently. Where should these discussions be happening then? What space has been provided for open discourse on this topic?

    A little historical context:

    1978: Women are allowed to pray in sacrament meeting
    1980: Relief society permitted to sit on the stand at general conference
    1984: Women allowed for the first time since 1930 to speak at a general conference.

    Under Joseph Smith women were ordained to heal the sick. This was changed under Brigham Young. They are not currently allowed to do so.

    "If God gave his sanction by healing...there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water"

    "If the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues"

    -Joseph Smith.

    When Joseph Smith organized the relief society he gave sisters autonomy which does not currently exist in the structure. He instructed sisters to elect their own president who would then select her own counselors. Leadership in the relief society is now selected by the men and they are given final veto power in all church-related issues. These are just a few random points.

    Look, there is stuff to talk about here. I am so surprised how opinionated so many members are that don't seem to have any sort of historical grounding. People are also straight up rude and disrespectful as though their personal job is to silence any signs of uncorrelated behavior ("stupid"? really?).

    There is nothing wrong with provoking discussion. This is an opportunity to listen. No one gives up anything by listening to grievances. No one is forcing others to do so. They just want to be recognized . There's always some members who have some far out views or paradigms but it is not a threat to the church institution to allow that freedom. The High Priests are full of these types but we still embrace them as part of the family. We appreciate their perspective. Often times the cultural-based popular perspectives on doctrine are offensive to me when I find it to not be scripturally-based but I just let it represent one voice, One person who has experienced something different from me. Lets pride ourselves on being thoughtful and open to new insights and not respond so defensively to stuff like this. It hurts feelings. We should not pretend to understand what all other women are experiencing within our church. Those experiences are diverse and if someone needs to speak we should just listen damn it.


    1. I love this comment on so many levels. I think looking at the historical context answers a WHOLE bunch of the questions we have about why we do what we do and how we got where we are.

      That said, I would argue that it's a *little* about the pants, and clothes in general. After all, if you can control what another person puts on their body, it's all the easier to control behavior. Employers do it to employees, military does it to soldiers, etc. If one group can dictate the uniform of another without adhering to it themselves, then that definitely does point to who is in charge in the situation.

      But you're right to ask the question of where it should be safe to talk about concerns like this without disrupting church services and without casting stones. It's a very valid question.

  5. I like you, Sheralyn. Thanks for your thoughts. I tend to be very conservative. I like the patriarchy. It feels right to me. I'm okay with that. That said, I'm really grateful for all the controversy because it's allowed (forced) me to examine my beliefs and weed out the false/self-righteous ones. That I didn't even know I had until now. Progress! :)

    1. Thanks! Pretty sure I like you, too ;) And I think it's important to say that happily being conservative is as valid a choice as pushing the envelope. We all just have to be happy living in our own shoes, and one of the signs that we are truly happy is that we don't have to defend ourselves or argue with people who are differently minded. Our happiness ceases to rely on other people agreeing with us, or by counting ourselves as part of a majority and thereby taking comfort in being protected by it. It stems from making choices that bring happiness.

      At least that's my thought on the matter. But way to be proudly conservative either way :)