I’m sitting here plunking away at my computer wearing sweats, with no makeup on. Since I no longer have to dress for an office job, I’ve been delighted not to have to spend much time on the ever-more-difficult task of trying to look good.
Fashion trends are the least of my worries. So why did our combined Relief Society and Young Women meeting based on Elder Holland’s October 2005 general conference talk “To Young Women” have such an effect on me? By no stretch of the imagination am I a young woman, yet I sat mesmerized. Many of the words reached me in a deep, hurting place that is hard to admit exists. As we read Elder Holland’s talk and listened to the bishop’s frank and caring commentary, a new recognition hit me hard.
Elder Holland indicates that we are brutally bombarded with the message that looks are everything – and that only one size and “look” is optimum. This message is impossible to miss in movies, television, fashion magazines and advertisements – and leaves most women feeling a terrible sense of not measuring up.
What if there is a spiritual and behavioral equivalent to the appearance focus that is just as full of lies and myths? If Satan can’t tempt righteous LDS women to believe the worldly myth (“If your looks are good enough, your life will be glamorous and you will be happy and popular”), what if he sneaks in there with another myth: “Only if you do enough good works and are good enough to fit a narrow definition of ‘ideal’ will you be happy and earn the approval and love of others and of Heavenly Father.”
This myth encompasses the “accomplishment = worth” myth and the “if every member of your family doesn’t make it to the celestial kingdom you won’t either” myth.
Ever since I heard the bishop’s talk I’ve been thinking about the striking parallels between the fickle world of fashion and the mythical goal of being the “ideal Mormon woman.”
Pursuing the Impossible “Ideal Appearance” Goal
Since only about 2% of all women even approximate the body shape, face shape, and “look” that is painted as “ideal” in our current society, the rest of us must scramble to get anywhere close.
And whenever we think we are closing the gap between ourselves and the goal of the look that’s “in,” the goal may change. (Think of big blocky shoes giving way to pointy-toed spike heels.) In a matter of months a whole wardrobe or makeup kit may be dated.
If the focus is on having the home be a fashion statement, the house décor may be dated. So we can be off and and running again – focusing time and money and attention on the elusive goal of being “in” and gaining approval from an undefined audience we assume is judging us according to our conformity to the latest trend. This obsession has the potential of totally sidetracking us from the “weightier matters” of the gospel.
Pursuing the Impossible “Ideal LDS Woman” Goal
Instead of following the fickle fashion trends, how many are sidetracked by catering to Mormon mythology – trying to look good in another way? What if the Molly Mormon “ideal image” is as impossible and elusive and fictional as the “Super Model look,” or being a “Ten” physically? What happens if we devote the major part of our energies seeking approval of those we imagine judge us according to our ability to conform to this equally elusive goal?
The “Never Enough” Trap
To those pursuing the unreachable goal of the physical ideal, Elder Holland suggests that even though we have a “great and spacious makeup kit to compete with beauty as portrayed in media all around, yet at the end of the day there would still be those ‘in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers’ as Lehi saw, because however much one tries in the world of glamor and fashion, it will never be glamorous enough.”
“Never enough.” Isn’t that the way I’ve felt a million times as I’ve chased after the “goodness ideal”? The mocking and pointing fingers may be only in my mind, but they feel real. The point is that however hard one tries in the world of checklists and “doing” and “appearing” no number of good deeds ever feels “enough.” In my early life, the more I pushed myself with the misguided motivation of trying to prove my worth or earn points to appear righteous, the less peaceful and the less okay I felt inside.
I can look back and recognize that sometimes I was doing the behavioral equivalent of nipping and tucking and implanting and using a great and spacious spiritual makeup kit trying to appear whole and happy and righteous and all together. The effort was exhausting and it was never enough. I could never do enough, be “excellent” in enough areas to feel “okay.”
Yes, perhaps I was an excellent writer, but I certainly wasn’t an excellent cook. Yes, perhaps I could teach an excellent lesson, but I was still getting failing marks in reflective listening. And on and on. How opposite all this judging and self-consciousness is to the substantive spiritually-based life of seeking the Spirit, seeking charity, seeking to walk in the Savior’s footsteps.
Both of these obsessions represent a counterfeit of something valuable. There is innate in most women a yearning for true beauty. A beautiful countenance is desirable – but it comes only from cultivating a beauty of spirit. “For man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Good works are desirable; righteous behavior is desirable, but the motivation must be to follow the example of the Savior and love as he loves – not to get good enough to earn our own salvation not to need Him and the Atonement.
Perhaps obsessing with appearance is the counterfeit of cultivating natural beauty, and perfectionism is the counterfeit of righteous striving for perfection. One definition of perfectionism is “an obsession with appearing perfect.” Perfectionists major concern is how they appear and how others judge them. How different from the solid value of having Christ-like concern for the well-being of others. How opposite is the desire to impress others from the desire to help bring others to Christ.
Satan’s Many Deceptions
To illustrate the implications let me introduce you to two friends whose names have been changed.
Debbie is anorexic and bulimic. When I first met her, years ago, she was a normal weight and it was obvious she had been born beautiful and was concentrating on making the most of it. When I saw her recently I was shocked. She was gaunt, skeletal, pale. Yet she says, “Every time I look in the mirror I feel fat.” Greatly alarmed, her family would like to commit her to a rehab program, but Debbie is over twenty-one and does not want help. Her family knows that if she does not choose to change her direction, she will not live many more years.
Is there a more graphic illustration of Satan’s deception? I’ve often wondered how the adversary can twist a person’s thinking to believe something so contrary to what their eyes see. Yet no amount of talking can convince Debbie that she doesn’t need to lose more weight.
Joan, on the other hand, is a behavioral perfectionist. She says, “How many times have I looked at the facts about my behavior and not believed them? I see that I have done many good and worthwhile things, that I have tried as hard as I could, worked to the full limit of my strength, and done my very best. Although I’ve fallen into sins of ignorance or poor judgment, I can’t think of a time that I have on purpose done the wrong thing. Yet I feel inadequate, inferior, and not enough. I never think my best efforts are acceptable and this makes me miserable. I constantly fight discouragement and depression. I have no assurance that I am going to ‘make it.'”
Isn’t Satan’s deception just as graphic in Joan’s case as it is in Debbie’s?
Misery is Satan’s Goal
Satan wants to make us miserable – and he doesn’t care how. “Because he [Satan] had fallen from heaven, and had become miserable forever, he sought also the misery of all mankind.” (2 Nephi 2:18)
Satan doesn’t care how he makes Joan or Debbie miserable, only that he does. If he can’t drag Debbie into misery through blatant temptations, he laughs if he can make her truly miserable because of imagined extra pounds. He is just as pleased to inflict misery on Joan by tempting her to believe the lie that her very best efforts are not enough. If he can tempt her to believe she will never make it to the celestial kingdom no matter how hard she tries, he can pull her one step further down to the belief that “since I am never going to make it I may as well give up trying.”
And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil, for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself (2 Nephi 2: 27).
It is easy to see how addictive choices such as the choice to do alcohol or drugs can lead to captivity of the spirit and result in death. Illnesses such as anorexia – which are based on the “appearance is everything” lie – can just as surely destroy the physical and spiritual well-being of beautiful daughters of God and make them miserable. What if perfectionism and obsessing over our behavior and never feeling good enough can be just as damaging? What if all these traps are meant to keep us from seeking and accepting the great gifts of the Atonement? To keep us from choosing liberty and eternal life through the great Mediator of all men?
Letting Go of Unrealistic Expectations
Elder Holland counsels young women to let go of the “fictional (to say nothing of superficial) standard.” He suggests they, “be more accepting of themselves, including body, shape and style, with a little less longing to look like someone else. We are all different. Some are tall, and some are short. Some are round, and some are thin. And almost everyone at some time or other wants to be something they are not!”
Parallel idea: Can we apply Elder Holland’s counsel to behavioral perfectionism? Can we let go of the fictional standard of being excellent at everything and be more accepting of ourselves – including our individual talents, strengths, and weaknesses?
I have often been comforted by the Apostle Paul’s discourse in 1 Corinthians 12, where he compares individual strengths and gifts to the different parts of the body”
Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit… For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? . If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him . And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee … but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked … Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular (1 Corinthians 12: 4,14, 15, 17, 21, 24, 27).
I take the analogy to mean that God has given us all different gifts and callings, that he has a great purpose in giving us those differences, that we may all contribute different strengths to each other and the Kingdom. We can’t say that one gift is greater than another – they are all needed, all important, all a part of the Plan. The danger lies in discounting and neglecting our own gifts if we never think they are enough and spend our time worrying that we should also have the gifts someone else has been given. 1 Timothy 3:14 warns us “Neglect not the gift that is in thee.” That gift is enough.
What kind of God would decree that your best is not good enough? That your most earnest efforts are not acceptable? In concluding his presentation, my bishop stood and looked us all in the eye and said, “The Lord wants me to tell you today that you are good enough. That your best efforts are good enough. That you can let go of the never-ending quest to do better than you can do or to look better than you can look. How He has made you is just right. The weaknesses and strengths you work with are just what you need to learn the lessons He wants you to learn. You are his beloved daughters, and you are good enough.”
I bear testimony that his words are true for each of us.