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New Guidelines for Missionaries

By: Saskia T - July 19, 2013

In March, I wrote about the disrepancy in the guidelines for male and female missionaries. In light of the new guidelines, recently released, I’d like to revisit that post. In a nutshell, I argued that the disrepancy in guidelines demonstrated a difference in thinking about male and female missionaries. Here is a one-paragraph extract from that post:

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 new website offers all missionaries the same kind of help: now both men and women will have examples to keep in mind while they select their own skirts and tops (sisters), suits and sweaters (elders), coats, scarfs, hats and sportswear, and figure out how to do their hair. Where sisters have a section on make-up, elders have a section on how to tie a tie, and how to use an iron.[1] The updated website means that the elders no longer have to rely on a couple pages of guidelines, but can scope out styles to their hearts’ content, something the sisters have been able to do for a while.

If you look closely, there’s still a difference in how these clothing choices are talked about. The sisters are given the following Thomas Monson quote that emphasizes their attractiveness, “You can dress attractively without being immodest. Within the Lord’s guidelines, there is room for you to be lively, vibrant, and beautiful both in your dress and in your actions.” Elders, on the other hand, receive a different one, also by Thomas Monson, ”Servants of the Lord have always counseled us to dress appropriately to show respect for our Heavenly Father and for ourselves.” If you read these statements carefully, it’s clear that women are expected to dress themselves in a manner that is pleasing to others, while men’s dress choices are to be made out of respect to their Heavenly Father and themselves. This kind of discourse, that equates modesty with externally-judged attractiveness, and places the burden of both squarely on female shoulders, is problematic, especially in a missionary context. And although you could argue that reducing the micromanagement of missionary appearances is more helpful than increasing it, I understand the (felt) need for and rationale behind these guidelines and don’t expect them to go away any time soon.  With that in mind, I’d argue that having similar guidelines for sisters and elders levels the playing field, if just a little bit, and makes it a little more likely that all missionaries will one day be seen more for the message they carry than their appearance, no matter their gender.

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[1] Given the ubiquitousness of white shirts in many Mormon environments, I was kind of surprised that such help was needed. Male readers: how many of you reached mission age without knowing how to iron your own clothes?

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13 Comments

  1. Thanks for the update, Saskia, and especially your astute analysis of tone in the two sections.

    Comment by Ben P — July 19, 2013 @ 8:29 am

  2. It’s no coincidence that the most attractive sister missionaries end up at temple square.

    Comment by Jake d — July 19, 2013 @ 8:35 am

  3. Thanks, Saskia. Very interesting.

    Comment by David G. — July 19, 2013 @ 9:32 am

  4. Male readers: how many of you reached mission age without knowing how to iron your own clothes?

    Despite my decreasingly frequent attempts, one could argue that I still don’t have that skill. I ironed exactly zero shirts on my mission and I don’t recall any of my companions doing so. Sometimes we paid for the service, sometimes a member volunteered, but mostly we just wore what came off the clothesline and let the humidity do its job.

    Comment by Last Lemming — July 19, 2013 @ 9:50 am

  5. To answer the question posed in the footnotes, I knew how to iron before leaving on my mission, but I certainly got a lot better at it as time progressed. I served in Spain and found that I couldn’t readily buy the “wrinkle-free” white shirts I was used to so I had to basically iron every day. I actually enjoyed the few minutes of routine in the mornings and the crisp feeling it gave, even as the shirts themselves wore out.

    I too am saddened by the ever-present emphasis on women’s appearance as it applies to their “beauty.” I think if the Thomas Monson quotes were reversed, people would find it ludicrous but because our culture places so much importance on the “attractiveness” of females, I guess we just give it a pass. So much for being “in the world, but not of the world.”

    I guess the new guidelines (and pictures) for men sort of levels the playing field. So that’s something. I personally hate the look of khaki pants with white shirts, so I could have done without that particular new offering, but oh well.

    I find the “hairstyles” section for men interesting. Ten years ago, when I was in the MTC, we were drilled on the fact that we had to have a highly visible part in our hair, no matter what. That was re-emphasized when I got into the field. In the example pictures posted, I don’t see a single elder that would have passed muster ten years ago. I thought the required hair parted look (even though I wore it for two years) was really strange and unnecessary, so I’m glad to see a loosening up of that at least.

    Comment by Cameron — July 19, 2013 @ 11:25 am

  6. “no coincidence that the most attractive sister missionaries end up at temple square”

    I don’t know anyone who would argue that point. The landscaping is attractive and well-kept; the sisters are as well.

    It may be of interest that in at least some areas of the church, the members provide policing on dress standards and grooming.

    We had an elder in our ward recently who was an amazing missionary — one of the best we’ve had for years — but he had some difficulties with the expected missionary uniform. To be specific, his shirts had gotten rather worn. My husband and I meant to replace the shirts, but in the few weeks that intervened during a very busy time in our lives, someone else took care of it.

    I also remember the time very early on my mission that one of the sisters in the ward raked my companion over the coals for appearing in public with a dilapidated umbrella. Replacing worn clothing and accessories could be a real burden; writing letters to family and friends and shopping for groceries and getting to the town center to find new clothing, shoes, and umbrellas all in six hours (is that how long “p-day” was?), let alone participate in any recreation or sightseeing, could be a real challenge, but that lecture did make quite a lasting impression on my companion and me.

    Comment by Amy T — July 19, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

  7. Micromanaged, indeed. Down to the color of their bras.

    Comment by Moss — July 19, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

  8. There’s no mention of attractiveness for male missionaries because there is frankly not much you can do with a suit and white shirt to make yourself attractive. The best that you can hope for is to not make things much worse.

    The variety of sisters’ clothing gives a lot more options. And the guidelines properly suggest that there’s no reason for sister missionaries deliberately to choose clothing that will make them look frumpy.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 19, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

  9. Mark, I get your point, but you only have to look at young businessmen to know that it’s possible to dress attractively in professional attire. The very fact that that isn’t even considered is very telling of the different kind of discourse surrounding both groups.

    Comment by Saskia — July 19, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

  10. Thanks for the update, Saskia. These are conversations worth having!

    Comment by J Stuart — July 20, 2013 @ 9:18 am

  11. Nick Lindsey, in a guest post for Young Mormon Feminists, writes about this too; he’s likewise troubled by the discrepancies between men and women, and especially at the “containment” messages for women. His final sentences are worth re-quoting here:

    This anxiety [about women's bodies, in particular] is full of paradoxes: there is an explicit refusal to acknowledge sexuality, yet the fundamental premise of the entire “Dress and Grooming” section hinges on women’s ability to sexually attract and please men; there is a sustained effort to avoid speaking about women’s actual flesh, yet the focus of these webpages is entirely placed on the physical appearance of women’s bodies. In all of this, there has been an alarming amount of time, energy, and resources dedicated to acts of defining, limiting, and restricting our women, and very little toward celebrating, discussing, or empowering them.

    On one level, the tension between equality and inequality becomes almost too much to bear on these pages, when analyzed with cultural theory lenses; on another level, though, the intended audiences aren’t using those lenses and to a large extent are mercifully insulated from this raging argument – as a mother preparing a son for his mission and with many friends preparing daughters as they’ve now been called to serve missions, in my (limited) experience, there is (as one would hope) FAR more emphasis on inner and spiritual preparation to serve. The exterior is almost irrelevant. I don’t disagree that the messages the church sends its members on its websites are important objects of study in their own right – I would just say that of the many in my acquaintance, the missionaries getting ready to serve seem to be keeping this advice in proper perspective.

    Comment by Tona H — July 21, 2013 @ 7:16 am

  12. Tona, that is a good point and important to keep in mind. I do think, however, that these messages are common enough in the church as a whole that they often get internalized and are harmful in that way. (In the same way that people often aren’t aware of the misogyny or racism etc in mainstream media until they’re pointed out, but are still influenced by them.) But it wasn’t my intention to shortchange any missionaries’ preparations or mindset or anything else, so thanks for the reminder!

    Comment by Saskia — July 21, 2013 @ 9:38 am

  13. I hope the fact socks aren’t worn don’t harm those in walking areas/biking areas due to possible extra stress on the feet. And the guidelines say backpacks are unprofessional- but are some sisters being setup for a lifetime of painful shoulder problems due to too much stress on one shoulder by carrying a heavy backpack? I think these are something worthy of consideration.

    Comment by steph — July 28, 2013 @ 5:26 pm