As a non-Mormon studying Mormons, I’ve been visited by my fair share of sister missionaries. I enjoy their visits and love hearing about their experiences, even if I have remained firmly unconvertable up till now. For that reason, when the new age restrictions for missionaries were announced last General Conference, and I read about the dress and grooming standards for missionaries, I was curious, and spent an hour or so browsing the site. For my contribution to Women’s History Month, I’d like to tie together some of my thoughts on that front.
In her MA thesis, “Real, Live Mormon Women”: Understanding the Role of Early Twentieth-Century LDS Lady Missionaries, Kelly Lelegren points to an interesting disparity between 19th century Protestant and LDS missionaries. Where the Protestant lady missionary movement can be considered a feminist movement for the opportunity it afforded participants to redefine womanhood, Mormon sister missionaries were sent off “with their own gendered purpose” (15) and cannot be seen in a feminist light quite so easily. While the main task of Protestant sister missionaries was to bring the gospel to the ‘heathens’ (if mainly heathens of the female and child persuasion, in keeping with their gendered spheres of influence), Mormon sister missionaries (“real, live Mormon women”) were sent off to dispel negative media images of Mormons and specifically the image of Mormon women as “oppressed, enslaved wives (5). And although in no way do I want to discount their service and sacrifice, to some degree, it strikes me that sister missionaries haven’t completely shaken off that burden yet.
One way in which I’d argue this is visible is the dress and grooming standards for missionaries on missionary.lds.org. Their “dress and grooming” page has some general guidelines, including the following statements, “you are to wear professional, conservative clothing that is consistent with your sacred calling” because “your appearance is often the first message others receive”; furthermore, you should “never allow your appearance or your behavior to draw attention away from your message or your calling”. “Because of budget and luggage restrictions and limited closet space, you should plan and purchase your clothing carefully. … Clothing should be attractive … tailored to fit well, and conservative in style.” These standards seem like something every missionary should consider, yet they are only explicitly offered to the sister missionaries.The dress and grooming page leads directly to the subheading “sister missionaries” and does not include a corresponding page for elders. Thus missionary.lds.org offers a comprehensive guide to a missionary’s appearance, but only if that missionary is female.
The closest thing missionary.lds.org offers elders is the “physical and emotional health” section from the gender-neutral page “preparing to serve”. And here, physical health only refers to missionaries being “able to endure the physical rigors of mission life”–not to their appearance. If we contrast that to the guidelines for sister missionaries, which not only makes mention of blouses, tops and skirts (which seems reasonable, given the diversity of clothing choices out there), but also outerwear, and even underclothes, I am struck by the amount of micromanaging that goes into the appearance of sister missionaries. I am left to wonder about the emphasis on female appearances, leading to statements such as this, “you should strive to look your best, especially at zone conferences, in Sunday meetings, at visitors’ centers and historic sites, at baptisms, and when working with local leaders.” This is something elders apparently do not have to think about, most likely because their worth lies in something other than appearance.
The disparity in these two approaches to being a missionary makes me wonder if sister missionaries, today, have progressed beyond their 19th century function. While I hope prospective and current sister missionaries have not internalized these lessons, I am unfortunately quite cynical at heart. I cannot help but feel sad for all the sisters out there, working tirelessly out of love for the Church and, not unimportantly, a sense of a divine calling, yet at the receiving end of the message that their appearance is at least as important as their gospel knowledge.
 Lelegren, Kelly, “”Real, Live Mormon Women”: Understanding the Role of Early Twentieth-Century LDS Lady Missionaries” (2009). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations. Paper 415. http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/etd/415
 Whether this is a truly gender-neutral page is left up to debate, as the five video links on the sidebar are male centric, in most cases not even mentioning the existence of sister missionaries. The one introductory page that does still refers to missionary work as a “priesthood duty”.
 There are weight guidelines for prospective missionaries: missionaries should have a BMI under 37. However,these guidelines are not in place to ensure a pleasing appearance, but because obesity often brings health problems to the table and may affect a missionary’s effectiveness in serving. I should mention, though, that the Church does not fall into the trap of equating a pleasing appearance with being skinny, as the models featured on the website includes a range of sizes. That, at least, is something to be grateful for.
 Coats, scarfs, and hats must “fit well, look professional, and be appropriate for the climate and condition of your mission.” Surely this isn’t gender specific?
 The micromanaging goes down to prescribing the color of sister missionaries’ bras (white or cream colored only), the length of earrings (no more than one inch below the earlobe) and the belts, purses, and headbands they are allowed to wear. In contrast, male missionaries apparently do not need help picking out scarfs, shoes, belts, or exercise clothes.