Boys will be boys

When I was an impressionable young teenager, President Hinckley issued forth a call for women everywhere to wear only one pair of earrings. I have no idea what the motivation or logic behind it was; it was probably something to do with modesty or something. Many women heeded the call. Others did not. And for some of those who did not (for whatever reason), there were consequences in store. Pretty serious ones, actually.

A little later, a speaker in General Conference told a story of a young man who had a girlfriend. When President Hinckley mentioned this rule, he waited for his girlfriend to remove her multiple earrings. She didn’t, and after a few weeks, this concerned him. Eventually, he broke up with her over this, because he wanted a girlfriend who would follow the prophet.

As an impressionable, young teenager, I thought to myself, “Way to go, nameless dude! Way to keep up your standards!” But as I grew older, I thought about the situation more and more until now, I wonder to myself, “Seriously, nameless dude? You broke up with a girlfriend whom you supposedly loved a lot and even considered marrying because she wore multiple pairs of earrings?” I know for a fact that I have a lot of flaws way more serious than multiple pairs of earrings, and I’m glad my wife chose to overlook them. If we all lived by such a harsh standard, no one in the world would get married ever. And, even more importantly, women around all of the global Church suddenly became stigmatized as openly in rebellion with God. What began as a simple fashion decision became conflated into an issue of obedience and compliance with the laws of Heaven at the utmost level. After all, this was a marriage deal breaker. That’s heavy stuff.

But this post is not about the deleterious effects of tolerating the sin of multiple earrings. My wife put a new spin on this when she mentioned this rule and said, “How come everyone remembers that commandment, but nobody remembers that in that very same talk, President Hinckley told all the guys to stop wearing baggy pants?”

This got me thinking. Why didn’t they codify baggy pants?

Here is the entry for dress and grooming standards from the Church pamphlet For Strength of Youth:

Immodest clothing includes short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and other revealing attire. Young women should wear clothing that covers the shoulder and avoid clothing that is low-cut in the front or the back or revealing in any other manner. Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance. All should avoid extremes in clothing, appearance, and hairstyle. Always be neat and clean and avoid being sloppy or inappropriately casual in dress, grooming, and manners. Ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?”

Notice the one line specifically addressed to boys: “Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance.” That’s it. The first half of the paragraph includes very detailed instructions on how to wear their clothes for women, including what can and cannot show. The rest of the advice applies to “all,” which means it’s not boy-specific. Yes, I suppose that baggy pants will count under “neat and clean” and avoiding “being sloppy or inappropriately casual,” but take into account that in the next paragraph, the one pair of earrings only rule is specifically referred to:

Do not disfigure yourself with tattoos or body piercings. If girls or women desire to have their ears pierced, they are encouraged to wear only one pair of modest earrings.

The really interesting thing is that if you asked people before the talk if baggy pants on young men bothered them, many of the older people (and even some of the youth, especially the young women) would say that baggy pants really, really bothered them. But if you asked them what they thought about multiple pairs of earrings, I would suspect that most of them would answer with either a “What about them?” response or an “If they are tasteful, I don’t mind” response.

So what gives? Why are the rules for girls intentionally specific, but the rules or boys incredibly brief and open to all kinds of interpretation? It wouldn’t have been difficult to come up with some kind of rule (“if your boxers are showing, for the love of Brigham’s hoary beard, buy a belt and learn to use it”), but the one pair of earrings rule is codified and the baggy pants rule slips under the radar.

So how did this happen? We obviously care if young men walk around in baggy pants. So why didn’t we put that in the For Strength of Youth pamphlet? And why did we latch onto the single pair of earrings rule so tightly, to the point where we modified the pamphlet to include this rule? Did the fact that it referred to women add more impetus to get it codified? With all of the problems we deal with on a day to day basis, both spiritual and temporal, was the earring rule really worth it? And now that this rule has become so entrenched within Mormon culture, will this ever go away?

Even if we ignore the sexist implications within this situation, it also brings up an incredibly important point: How can we tell which of the prophet’s counsel is important without the Church telling us so? The stock answer would be: All of it’s important, and there’ probably truth to that. Obviously, we shouldn’t disregard the sin of baggy pants, but what kind of message does it send when the Church legislates on the number of earrings you can wear but not on the number of inches you can show with your baggy pants?

Bonus question: It’s difficult for people to argue this rule as valuable on a purely spiritual level, either by avoiding sin or by increasing spirituality (at least I have not heard any real, convincing arguments; but if you have one, do post it in the comments!). It seems that this rule, while hardly based on a spiritual level, seems more on the level of a codified cultural rule (much like the no beards policy among church leaders and BYU students). When the Church begins to move into places such as Africa, where piercings are considered socially important, even sacred, how strongly is this rule enforced? Does anyone have experience with the Saints in Africa? Is this rule considered a big deal down there? Do they keep it, or do they simply shrug and ignore it, or do they even hear about that rule at all?

Also, no talk about how piercings are evil omg unless you can show evidence, please, like whether or not there are measurable levels of Holy Ghost Interference Units when metal is placed within the body (which spells problems for those with metal pins and braces in their bodies for medical reasons).

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Boys will be boys

  1. Jamie

    What’s a “modest” pair of earrings? Not costing more than $100? Covering most of the ear? When I look back at these for-the-strength-of-the-youth “standards” I’m amused by how much I used to care. Maybe teenagers need these kind of strict guidelines? I’m not a child psychologist, so I don’t know. They really seemed to matter to me then, but I’ve grown out of it.

    An elderly couple in my parent’s ward served a mission in Africa. According to them, some women came to church without shirts on, so I doubt they cared much about the piercings.

    • Ted

      Well! You’re probably right that if they don’t really care about shirts, piercings is the least of our Western problems there.

      I’m not actually sure if children require strict guidelines in order to bring about some kind of order. Perhaps it’s not necessarily that the children need order, but we as adults need to impose order on them? After all, it’s hard to relinquish so much agency to a child as a parent.

  2. justjillsblog

    What bothers me the most is how much they stress it. I have that pamphlet glued into my first set of scriptures. GLUED. And I have to say, it’s had a profound effect on me. I have a very hard time trusting both the church and myself these days. I know this is the result of a -lot- of different things, but a false sense of importance on things like earrings is a big part.

    I was the type of girl that decorated my room with Mormonads. I hung pictures of Jesus in my locker. I wore my Young Womenhood Recognition awards to school. And, as previously mentioned, I glued the standards into my scriptures–right at the end of the Book of Mormon. As if it was just as important.

    So years later, when I’m at college dealing with my inability to study and go to church without someone forcing me to, when I have spiritually uplifting experiences watching rated R movies, and saying hell just turns out to be funny rather than inappropriate…I look at that standards book glued into my scriptures and can’t help but feel lied to.

    That, I think, is the real danger. It’s not that men get away with showing their boxers. Or that women have to deal with yet another form of sexism when their boyfriends leave them (oh noes what will she do without her douche boyfriend judging her?!) because they want three silver trinkets in their ears instead of two (oh noes it’s the tinkling jingly whatevers that Isaiah prophesied about!1! D:). The real danger comes when we are all old enough to throw that whole standards guide into question. Because if you can still go to heaven with three earrings, what else will you still go to heaven for?

    • Ted

      I think you’re absolutely right. There’s a real danger in conflating unnecessary opinions into commandments or standards, because when we grow older and realize how silly some of these rules are, we can’t help but throw the entire rulebook out and start from scratch.

      The wifey is struggling with this, particularly. It also doesn’t help when we have really contradictory messages from our leaders, some advocating a less judgmental, bottom-up, basic approach, and some leaders who say that if you don’t take those earrings out this instant you may walk down a path of apostasy.

      In short, our religion is certainly a confusing one. The rigid social structure built around authority does not make it any easier, especially when said authorities can’t seem to make up their own mind.

  3. dteeps

    I like what Jill says. I had a seminary teacher who always told us “There are going to be a lot of surprised Mormons in the after life. Both those looking around at who else is allowed into heaven, as well as those who find themselves not in heaven.”
    I firmly believe that God is more merciful and liberal than we give him credit for. We get so caught up in our rules and regulations and our prescriptions for proper conduct, that we sometimes forget to have the Spirit of the Lord as our constant companion. We are told that the Spirit dwells not in unclean temples, so, for me, if I can regularly feel the Spirit in my life I know that I’m doing all right with God. And as I strive to have the Spirit with me, I will rely on his influence to know what I should and should not be doing. Some things the Church has codified, there is the Priesthood line of Revelation that Elder Oaks spoke about, but just as important in the Personal line of Revelation.
    And we need to stop judging and expecting others to be ‘perfect’. It is those people who are struggling to live the commandments who need the most love and support. I heard a Stake President say once, “Our church buildings should smell more of cigarette smoke! Those are the people who need to be coming to Church.” Christ said, “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17).
    But, I do see the other side of things as well. If someone cannot be obedient to such a small, simple commandment are they going to be willing to be obedient to larger commandments? There is a middle ground that needs to be found. How many people have started on their paths out of the Church because they felt they could disobey a ‘small, insignificant’ commandment?
    At any rate, everybody should be treated with love and respect and open arms, and never condemnation or rejection.

    • Ted

      Hah! I like that “Our church buildings should smell more of cigarette smoke” comment. That’s a good one. I’m going to have to agree with that one.

      The biggest problem I have is what you have said. What is the point of obeying or disobeying a “small, insignificant” commandment? After all, by its very definition, it’s, well, small and insignificant (tautology ftw). There are plenty of instances in the scriptures where obeying the small, insignificant things mean something (see also: Naaman) and plenty of instances in the scriptures where people who focus on the rules rather than the spirit are condemned as a whole (see also: entire history of Israel). There’s a balance here, I’m sure, but it is slightly difficult. Why? Because we do conflate “small, insignificant” commandments to the size and importance of “large, significant” commandments.

      Consider, for example, the rhetoric surrounding the single pair of earrings issue. It’s a marriage deal breaker! Consider some of the other sins many Mormons consider marriage deal breakers – spousal or child abuse of any form, pornography, infidelity, well, you get the picture. It’s the same thing with the Word of Wisdom; it’s inclusion in the temple recommend interview conflates coffee drinking with a disbelief in God, actively undermining the Church, or breaking the law of chastity.

      I don’t care if we have these standards that we think as good advice. But when we conflate it to the point of some very serious commandments, we lose perspective. It’s like inverting Christ’s condemnation of keeping tithes of mint and cumin but ignoring the weightier parts of the law. We keep both, but we think they’re both equal in importance. I don’t think this is necessarily true.

      Also, it’s all just an interesting thought to consider. How do we decide what goes into the For Strength of Youth pamphlet and what doesn’t? What makes the cut? How? Are there parameters? Why or why not? Fascinating.

  4. Ted… I want to talk to you for hours about this. I can’t type fast enough, nor do I have the patience to wait for your reply (prompt though it may be).

    I think the fundamental issue here is that within the church there is a tendency to not understand (nor discuss) the difference between POLICY and DOCTRINE.
    The For the Strength of the Youth pamphlet is POLICY. The principles behind the recommendations therein are DOCTRINE. Right? (If you disagree, by all means elaborate)

    This discussion could go on forever– but the personal decision to leave your girlfriend because she didn’t follow the prophets counsel is not really equatable to most of the immature reasons people leave their significant others.

    Instead, it is far more comparable to the personal decision to not date someone who you have a hard time agreeing with, or who’s mannerisms and comments remind you of that teacher you once had who was a total jerk, etc. These kinds of reasons are totally legitimate.

    Nowhere in the story that I had heard (or that you have related) did we have an explanation of how ‘close’ this couple was, or whether they were planning on engagement. We are not told how committed they were, so why would we assume that they are deeply in love and meant for each other? I guess all I’m saying is that it’s a personal decision where we draw our lines.

    Now… As to whether earrings are comparable to spouse abuse– you have a valid point. Let us recognize and be honest with ourselves– even if we do choose to only date girls with one pair of earrings. Let us say then, “I know it’s not a commandment, just my personal preference.”

    As for the sexism… this is touchy. I think the modesty section in the pamphlet is not inherently sexist. However, it does seem unbalanced. Instead of claiming that it’s sexist or rhetorically asking why no rules on baggy pants– let’s ask what the usefulness might be. Why would the church deliberately say things that are obviously targeting particular groups? My inclination is to say that we do this a lot with plenty of good reason. Men and women are different. Men wearing pants around their knees and women wearing 4 pairs of earrings have effects on themselves and others that are in basic nature similar, but in level of effect on themselves and others very different. Men are inherently more visual– this has been fairly well established by many studies. So men (sadly, maybe?) are more affected by women’s appearance than the other way around (again, I must insert the standard overlapping bell curve caveat– if you’re not sure what I’m referring to just say so and I’ll elaborate). In addition, women are more social than men– notice that they are far more prone to spread stylistic, social, and personal things much faster than men. And now my brain is tired, but you can see where the discussion could go.

    • Ted

      Here is my response that I’m sure you’re dying to hear. :p

      I have no problem distinguishing policy from doctrine; I encourage everyone to do so. The problem is, in real culture many people do consider policy as doctrine. Because of the human tendency to do this, I wish the entire modesty part of the pamphlet was summed up simply as:

      Ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?”

      Simple. To the point. Up to personal interpretation instead of arbitrarily enforcing strange policy rules that could be interpreted as doctrine. It’s akin to the beautiful simplicity of the 10% rule for tithing. 10% of your increase. What’s my increase? Whatever you decide. Beautiful.

      Anyway, as far as the story of the guy dumping his girlfriend goes, I could have sworn that he was engaged or thinking about it or something, but I’ll have to check my sources.

      As far as men being more visually stimulated than women, I agree that might have something to do with it, but all intents and purposes, we’d probably get further teaching men to learn to deal with their emotions instead of treating them like time bombs that will inevitably explode, agency be damned!

  5. I’m glad you encourage such distinction– and you have a point in that it is very common to conflate policy into doctrine. I grow frustrated with it myself (I live in Utah… I’m surrounded by it).

    I really wish that somebody would address the topic within the church on a sanctioned and organized basis– like one of those fantastic Dallin H. Oaks talks. I hope I haven’t unintentionally communicated that I think you were unaware of the distinction between policy and doctrine. I had only hoped to explicitly and clearly state the distinction, since I sensed the ideas presence within your post and within your general perceptions. However, it didn’t seem explicitly stated, and I wanted to note that large numbers of church members don’t understand the distinction– not because they can’t, but simply because they haven’t spent the time.

    This is exactly why I think policy is useful (as a general principle). Policy serves to assist members who have often not spent the time to clearly understand and interpret doctrine with their undoubtedly apt and capable brains and apply it to their lives. There are probably many better analogies, but I imagine that doctrine might be a large sign, with lots of information written on it to describe which direction to go. Policy is a small sign at the top with some wiggle, that can be adjusted from time to time– it indicates very simply what direction to go.

    Dang. This topic is very interesting. We should totally discuss this more. I think I’m going to make this a blog post of my own.

    • Ted

      Oh, no offense taken. Thank you for bringing the issue to the forefront because I think it’s an important distinction that, again, I know you are probably painfully aware of. Too many people ignore the two and it’s a problem.

      And with the track record Elder Oaks has been taking in his previous talks (priesthood lines vs. personal lines, doctrine about healing blessings), I think we may have a good chance of hearing him separate the two in General Conference. 🙂

  6. E-rock

    Agreed wholeheartedly! I confess I have lost many a night’s sleep worrying about this important issue! I demand equally specific rules for all genders!

    • dteeps

      I can just picture you lying in bed awake at night pondering the implications of two earrings or three. Or half-an-ich of buttcrack showing or a full inch. It is these little things that matter so much!

  7. Ted

    Someday, E-rock, you will find that special someone, and you will come to find that there is suddenly a myriad of gender issues in the Church that you never even imagined existed. :p

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