Our Changing Standards . . . or Not

By: hawkgrrrl
August 6, 2013

Timeless standards transcend the boundaries of culture and context.

I recently posted on the observation that the standards in the 1965 For the Strength of Youth are somewhat silly and dated, not really timeless, when compared to today’s.  A comment was made that the themes (if not the specific standards) are consistent throughout the decades.  I went back through the pamphlets from the 1960s and contrasted it to what is taught today to see what common themes emerge.

At first, it was difficult to see them because the earlier pamphlet is so steeped in cultural norms of the 1960s.

Casual vs. Dressy 

There’s an element of “appropriate” for the occasion, but anything considered too casual is definitely decried in the 1960s standards. In the current church, it seems we still have this tendency (we dress up more than others when we go to church and dances and at BYU), but it has come down quite a bit (denim and jersey knit skirts at church, sandals). There are those who really want to cling to the “dressy = better” thinking, though (e.g. requiring nylons, banning flip flops or open toed sandals). Likewise, the BYU clean-shaven look seems to be motivated by this theme as does the encouragement of some stakes to wear suit jackets to pass the sacrament.  Examples of this focus from the earlier 1965 pamphlet:

  • “When at home working in the yard, hiking, traveling in the mountains, camping, or participating in active sports, girls or women may appropriately wear slacks.”
  • “Young men should always dress appropriately for the place and the occasion.  For special school or church dances, they should wear a suit with dress shirt and tie, but never tennis shoes or “T” shirts.  Sports jackets or dressy sweaters are appropriate apparel for the more casual dances.”
  • “Pants for young women are not desirable attire for shopping, at school, in the library, in cafeterias or restaurants.”

Girls are right.

This was an interesting one. We really don’t hear much gender essentialism in dress guidelines any more like we did in the 1960s. Dress is more unisexual now (all people commonly wear jeans, tee shirts, sweaters).  However, there is plenty of gender essentialism talk in the church still.  It is mostly implied rather than stated now.

  • “Girls should always try to look feminine in their dress.  They should not dress like boys or try to give a masculine appearance.  Dress often determines their actions.”

Body Shaming

I was actually a bit shocked by the comment about women looking ungainly or bony in backless evening gowns. It reminded me of a friend who used to point out women who were wearing bikinis and say how ugly it made them so that this daughters would not want to wear them. I questioned this parenting tactic for several reasons: 1) his daughters would have to see he was wrong about the “ugliness” – many of the women were stunners, 2) it contributes to believing that female bodies are inherently ugly and must be covered up (that’s not the right reason to cover up), and 3) it was very judgmental and mean toward these women who were not doing anything wrong, and it encourages his kids to treat others poorly based on how they are dressed or their lack of adherence to Mormon standards even when they are not Mormons.

  • “Few girls or women ever look well in a backless or strapless dresses.  Such styles often make the figure look ungainly and large, or they show the bony structures of the body.”
  • “A “real lady” does not go out in public, to the market, or to shops with her hair in curlers.”

Golly, the holy ghost is about to go to bed!

The good dancing part seems to be about cultivating talents related to courtship, another theme we still hear but in a much different way. The type of dancing they are encouraging (clever footwork) is also more structured and partner-focused vs. the individualized free form dance styles that have since become more popular. That could easily be a metaphor for dating.

  • “The dance should not be a grotesque contortion of the body such as shoulder or hip shaking or excessive body jerking.”
  • “Members of the church should be good dancers.”
  • “Extreme body movement should be avoided, and emphasis should be placed more on styling and clever footwork.”

Modesty Focus

The guidelines in the 1965 pamphlet are less directly about modesty than we hear today, IMO. But that’s partly because these older guidelines were more scattered in focus.  As we’ve de-emphasized things like gender essentialism and dressiness, we’ve instead pushed ever stricter standards of modesty in terms of how much skin is covered, particularly for females.

We’ve gone from requiring structured dancing when the world moved toward free form dancing to upholding more structured boy-girl dating as society prefers hook ups and hanging out.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

In general, these standards have gotten more reasonable, not less, but the written focus has shifted toward modesty and away from dressiness.  Likewise, the standards have expanded to cover spiritual topics in far more depth, another big improvement.

  • Does this look at the themes of the older standards help explain why we tend to prefer dressier clothes rather than casual?
  • Do you think the body shaming is less of a concern now that it is no longer in the written standards or is it still part of the culture?
  • Do you think these themes are timeless or that they are relics of the past?  Why do you think as you do?
  • Is our focus on structured courtship better than the societal trend to “hang out”?  Why do you think as you do?



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20 Responses to Our Changing Standards . . . or Not

  1. Roger on August 6, 2013 at 6:50 PM


    For those of us approaching the Ancient of Days in terms of longevity, that was quite a march down memory lane. I vividly remember that brochure; copies were thrust into our hands or discreetly left in our seats at seminary.

    I remember my mother suddenly being summoned to a surprise interview with Elder Spencer W. Kimball in 1974 inasmuch as my father was being called into a stake presidency. It was a Saturday afternoon, other RS sisters and she were doing a massive spring cleaning of the stake center’s kitchen appliances. She was dressed in smooth denim pants and one of my sweatshirts. She was physically sick at the prospect of meeting him in such attire. Sweet Brother Kimball saw past any attire issues and reassuingly looked upon her servant’s heart.

    How did we get away from

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  2. Hedgehog on August 7, 2013 at 6:46 AM

    I’m glad I’m not expected to wear a skirt in the library. Back when I spent much of the working day in a library, trousers were much safer for going up and down ladders to fetch volumes from the top shelves.

    As I child I do remember that some women did nip down to the corner shop of a morning with their hair still in rollers, and a headscarf on top.

    At what point does unisex style clothing move from ‘feminine’ to ‘dressing like a boy’ I wonder -perhaps when boxers are on show, and the jeans falling down?

    Back when I first attended RS – I think it might have been as a laurel – we got to attend RS once a month to aclimate us – the lesson was about teaching children about gender. One sister said something about always dressing little girls in dresses and skirts. I was horrified. My daughter mostly wore trousers for sheer practicality. It was bad enough Sundays telling her to sit so as not to be showing off her underwear. And I didn’t see why little girls needed to be so constrained by their dress, on any other day of the week, in a way that boys are simply not. she still prefers trousers.

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  3. Martine on August 7, 2013 at 7:18 AM

    It funny how we can read the same thing and get a different message from it. I have a couple of copies of the FTSOY and I’ve noticed the body shaming, but now I can see how someone could read it that way. For me, in the same Dress section it’s the “Strapless dresses and spaghetti straps are not acceptable either on sun dresses or evening dresses,” that gets my attention because it leaves out any reference to “covering shoulders.” Sundresses, sleeveless tops WERE acceptable attire for Mormon girls and young women in 1965, just not with spaghetti straps.

    And, yeah, the body shaming is bad.

    Another 1965 left over is the “rule” many older members have against women entering the chapel in pants. “shorts or athletic costumes of any kind should not be worn in the chapels of our church.” Several older women in my ward will not walk in the chapel in pants–ever–even on a weekday choir practice or scout function.

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  4. hawkgrrrl on August 7, 2013 at 9:11 AM

    Martine, that reminded me of when I was a YW at the church on a weeknight. We were told to go get some hymn books from the chapel. Since we girls were wearing jeans we had been told we shouldn’t go in there wearing jeans before, but the boys went in wearing basically the exact same pants. That’s when I decided that was a stupid rule we had been taught.

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  5. Howard on August 7, 2013 at 4:08 PM

    LDS modesty standards are not anchored to anything, they are NOT eternal and there is NO scripture when taken in context supporting them. They began with President Kimball in 1951 and have evolved since then. See: A Style of Our Own”: Modesty and Mormon Women, 1951–2008

    President Kimball spent months on his knees to receive the OD2 revelation and regarding it he said in a letter to his son: “Revelations will probably never come unless they are desired. I think few people receive revelations while lounging on a couch…I believe most revelations would come when a man is on his tip toes, reaching as high as he can for something which he knows he needs, and then there bursts upon him the answer to his problems” Since there is no mention of him spending months on his knees regarding a dress code it is fairly safe to conclude that the 1951 dress code was NOT revelation but inspiration at best.

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  6. Heber13 on August 8, 2013 at 12:34 AM

    “Members of the church should be good dancers.”

    …well, none of the Young Men have ever met this standard in the guidebook. Not even close.

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  7. Geoff - A on August 8, 2013 at 8:16 PM

    I don’t think that the modesty described in “For the strength of Youth” is the problem. the problem is the way it is extrapolated to cover all sorts of things not mentioned.

    We have had a couple of these youth things originating at BYU, and now youth conferences and YSA activities require no facial hair, no more than one ear ring per ear per female, and none for males, no tats, and womens swim wear which in 65 was one piece suit, now requires that to be covered by a loose top and board shorts to the knees. No artificial hair colours either.

    The strength of youth has one standard, the temple has another, and we now require a much higher standard from our single women. Are we trying to drive them away?

    Neither my wife or myself would be acceptable at youth camp or YSA conferences anymore, and yet we are welcome in the temple.

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  8. Douglas on August 8, 2013 at 11:55 PM

    Not that I would have necessarily minded being raised LDS (I joined at age twenty, back in the ‘disco’ era, and why the Good Lord didn’t just put us out of our collective misery then I don’t know)…BUT…part of me is glad I was spared all that.

    What was my “counsel” as a strapping lad?…”better to spend a couple of bucks on some Trojans than get stuck with twenty years of child support, kid!” I never actually gave my parents too much grief…always went off with my friends (usually up to Friant Dam near Fresno) to smoke pot, but between work and school the partying and carousing, WHEN I could spare the time and dough, was confined to the weekends. And as I was an engineering major at good ol’ “Bulldog U” (Fresno State), some weekends were actually spent in the library with my then g/f, and we did study more than human sexuality!

    Methinks the real “moral of the story” in encouraging moralistic behaviors amongst the “yutes” (see “My Cousin Vinny” for a definition of a “yute”) is to keep ‘em busily engaged in constructive behaviour and get them to see the benefits of wise choices. Better, IMO, than constant nagging, hag-riding, and micromanagement. Having done the “Dod” thing for three decades and change, there’s a time to provide quiet words and positive encouragement, and sometimes ya gotta apply boot to backside. Lord give me the wisdom to know the difference and have the fortitude to follow through with what’s timely and appropriate.

    I agree with some of the other posters that perhaps the “standards” are so rigid that they’re driving kids away that could be persuaded to get and/or stay active. Even in my first year of membership as a young adult I went from shoulder-length hair to a disco-era crewcut to a Mohawk (I had to be persuaded to grow it out by my then bishop so the Stake Prez would sign my mission papers). It’s what youngsters do. It’s part of finding ourselves, and looking back, we realize how ridiculous we probably looked to our elders in our fads of the time. I’m glad that few, if any, got on my case, I was learning quite a bit and didn’t need flak about my hair. Now my “Angels Flight” suits? Criticizing that was probably an act of mercy!

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  9. Jeff Spector on August 9, 2013 at 7:12 AM

    The ultimate problem with standards is that they are not standards if they are in the eye of the beholder. And if we hold youth to one standard, adults to another, BYU attendees to yet another, temple goers to a standard, men to a standard , women to yet another standard, do we in fact, have any standards at all?

    I recently sat next to a guy in a temple session that had neck tattoos, arm and hand tattoo, did that make hi any less worthy to be there than me? Of course not.

    As we take the Gospel to “all the world,” we are apt to attract people that may have made choices that we may not agree with concerning their appearance. Are they any less welcome in the Kingdom of God? No.

    So we need to get over ourselves a bit and come to grips with a set of standards that both make sense and apply in this new context we find ourselves in.

    That does not excuse the need for some element of modesty that the Scriptures talk about.

    What Church leaders worried about 50 years ago seems silly in light of today’s worldview of things.

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  10. Douglas on August 9, 2013 at 8:26 PM

    A quick perusal of a comic book from my boyhood (Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #52) from 1968 shows not only in the story itself but also in the ads shows dress and groomig standards similar to the imagery from the 1965 LDS “Yute” manual. A particular ad for an acne cream depicts a well-scrubbed pair dancing, the girl wearing a dresss that doesn’t show cleavage and hemline below the knee, no excess makeup or jewelry. The boy has a “high and tight” haircut, jacket and tie, conservative slacks, shined shoes. Could it be that the “world” (or at least American society), has changed markedly, and not necessarily for the better, rather than the Saints?

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  11. Ziff on August 13, 2013 at 11:26 AM

    This line made me laugh:

    “Few girls or women ever look well in a backless or strapless dresses.”

    They don’t look well? “Pardon me, ma’am. Are you feeling well? I noticed your backless dress.” :)

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  12. Sandy Liscom Emmons on August 14, 2013 at 12:28 AM

    I have two brief comments, however, they are not directly pertaining to the pamphlets mentioned. Comment one. In relation to the changes in dress standards throughout time I have been told by a Bishop that I must wear my garments when I work out. This is apparently a newer directive. When I was in the MTC back in the 80′s we were told not to wear our garments while working out because it was desecrating them by getting them soiled and smelly. This new directive seems much more stringent than the previous one. I would love to hear comments on this. Comment two. I would love for someone to compare the old “Fascinating Womanhood” and “Fascinating Girl” publications put out by the church in relation to this topic.

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  13. Jack Hughes on August 14, 2013 at 8:27 AM

    Wearing garments while working out is excessive, and NOT a Church directive. Intense physical activity while wearing Gs is impractical, and in some cases dangerous. I know in recent years there has been a stink about keeping Gs on during yardwork, but your bishop is taking it too far. Take a look at the various athletic teams at BYU, most of whom compete in uniforms that would not accommodate garments.

    Ask your bishop to read the passage in the Handbook about appropriate wear of garments, where the last line says something to the effect of “the individual member has final discretion in how and when the garment should be worn”. As a marathoner and sometimes-triathlete, I’ve dealt with this attitude before from Church members; not surprisingly, this criticism usually comes from those of older, less fitness-conscious generations and sedentary lifestyles.

    Also, that whole notion of “desecrating” garments by sweating in them is folk doctrine; they are underwear, after all. In the Church, and the nation at large, we have widespread obesity and diabetes; by using false doctrine to make people too afraid of breaking the rules (working out with or without Gs on), many folks unfortunately take the path of least resistance and avoid any exercise at all.

    You will have to decide for yourself which is the higher law. Is it taking proper care of your physical body, or is it obeying arbitrary interpretations put forth by cowboy bishops?

    Garments themselves are not covenants, they are only symbolic of them.

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  14. hawkgrrrl on August 14, 2013 at 9:51 AM

    Sandy – our SP’s wife is a runner and is out in the neighborhood daily wearing running shorts and a tank top. She would probably die of heat stroke if not. I agree with Jack Hughes. Local leaders want to out-righteous each other, and especially those with a sedentary lifestyle think it’s no big deal to ask you to wear them all the time. It may be a work out to some of them to pick up the TV remote.

    I found a few articles on Fascinating Womanhood. By Common Consent had the following to say:

    To quote author Aaron B: “when these antiquated, noxious messages are perpetuated in current curricular materials designed to indoctrinate our modern Mormon youth, some vigorous and vocal objections are in order.”

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  15. hawkgrrrl on August 14, 2013 at 9:58 AM

    Just to add on Fascinating Womanhood, it was originally published the same year as the Feminine Mystique, the tome of 2nd wave feminism. Second wave feminists are the ones who pushed for equal pay for equal work, legal rights for women in domestic situations (anti-abuse, anti-rape, and divorce laws), the right for women to participate in society outside the home, and the right to an identity for women that was not based on relationships to others (children and husbands). Fascinating womanhood was the anti-feminist pushback against second wave feminism, and the church touted it far and wide. It had another resurgence in the early 1980s. Nowadays, most church members reading it would laugh their heads off because it is so awful. Those from older generations may still like it if they somehow missed the benefits of second wave feminism and still think it’s OK for women to be chained to the kitchen. Even a few Nicholas Sparks fans might feel a sense of nostalgia for the view of women it presents.

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  16. KLC on August 14, 2013 at 10:03 AM

    Like Douglas in #10, I’m old enough to recognize that many of the LDS standards expounded in the 60s pamphlet were really just 1950s middle class American standards.

    They sound as if Ward Cleaver had sat down with his oldest son for a man-to-man talk in an episode of Leave it to Beaver:

    “Wally, young men should always dress appropriately for the place and the occasion. For special school or church dances, they should wear a suit with dress shirt and tie, but never tennis shoes or “T” shirts. Sports jackets or dressy sweaters are appropriate apparel for the more casual dances. Now let’s go to the kitchen, your mother has finished dinner.”

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  17. Ziff on August 15, 2013 at 1:56 PM

    Also, the quotes around “T” in T-shirts are great. So-called “T” shirts are a tool of the devil, young people! They are worn by so-called “intellectuals”!

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  18. Sandy Liscom Emmons on August 15, 2013 at 6:14 PM

    Jack and Hawkgrrrl thank you for the input. I have been working out in my yoga pants, t-shirt and yes, begrudgingly, my garments. It was an adjustment that was very uncomfortable. I even got rid of the “real world” panties I wore instead.The Bishop actually pulled out a piece of paper and read aloud regarding the recent crack down on garment wearing. I don’t recall whether it actually named exercise specifically of whether the Bishop led me to believe it had been clarified to include work outs, but he said it was a recent edict. I appreciate your insight. It wouldn’t be the first time a Bishop has an agenda of his own and tried to inflict it on me. Boy do I have stories. Someday we will have to discuss how the church is the same no matter where you go, except in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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  19. hawkgrrrl on August 15, 2013 at 9:53 PM

    The statement he read is probably the one read in the TR interview. The statement ends with: “‘The garment should not be removed, either entirely or partially to work in the yard or for other activities that can be reasonably be done with the garment worn beneath the clothing. Members who have made covenants in the temple should be guided by the Holy Spirit to answer for themselves personal questions about wearing the garment.’” Here’s an article on the changing ‘garment instruction’ document: http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/04/20/temple-garments-and-the-don-draper-effect/

    The simple fact is that the statement still ends with the member being guided by the Holy Spirit to answer for herself how they should be worn. Wearing them for vigorous cardio workouts sounds ridiculous to me and most of the members of my ward, many of whom I have encountered at the gym, always dressed appropriately for working out, not in garments.

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  20. jspector106 on August 16, 2013 at 5:50 AM

    That statement has been around for at least the last 15 to 18 years. I remember being in the bishopric when it came out. I think the key term is “reasonably.” For me, in the winter if I am wearing sweat clothes to workout and going right home to shower, I might wear them under my clothes. But in the summer time when I might workout in shorts and a t-shirt I usually remove them. In my gym, they have a private room that I can change in, so I usually put them on if I’ve showered at the gym.

    Again, it is reasonable. and ultimately, it is up to us to decide much like everything else.

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