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).