We complain a lot in our society about women living in a “culture of thin” that overwhelms us with unrealistic standards of beauty and achievement. (At least I complain about it a lot, but then I tend to be a whiner in general.) Thankfully our church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, provides the antidote to this: “The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance but the Lord looketh on the heart.” 1 Sam. 16:7
From an early age we are taught that we will be judged, by God & our Savior only, on the intents of our hearts, our good works and our obedience. This is a wonderful concept, that when truly and fully lived, provides a full and happy life – even if we are not successful as the world defines success. I love the Church with all my heart and it has been the best thing to come into my life. I am grateful for it every day. I have no problem with the official Church doctrine.
I have a problem with Mormon culture. I know many will disagree with me but my experience living in Utah was that it cultivates a “culture of perfection.” And it is this culture that leads many of us, particularly women, to be depressed.
One of my Laurels in Edmonds summed up this issue quite succinctly. She had just finished her first year at BYU and was home for the summer. At the end of the summer she started getting anxious. When I asked her what was wrong she replied that she had so much to do to get ready for school. How I could remember those days! I asked her what she had left to do. Her list? Dye her hair back to blonde (she’s a natural brunette), highlight it, start tanning, get her nails French manicured, lose 10 pounds and get her teeth whitened. Appalled, I asked why on earth she felt like she needed to do all that. She answered sadly, “Because that’s what all the Utah girls look like. I hate being the ugly one.”inflatable tunnels
I know many of you would say that is typical college freshman angst – and probably some of it is – but in Utah we take it one step further. We have this idea that if we are righteous then it will show in our countenance. So we take the reverse as true, thinking that a beautiful countenance implies innate righteousness. We also know that when we are righteous then we will be blessed with riches and so, again, we make an erroneous assumption that the opposite is also true: if we have riches then that means we are righteous. I don’t believe this is a conscious thought process but more of a cultural rip tide.
It is this misconception, I believe, that is the reason that Utah leads the nation in personal bankruptcies. We have a desire to look perfect, no matter the cost, because it is a reflection on our spirituality. On a more micro level, this filters down to our children, especially our girls. I know there are many exceptions to this rule (heck, I was one) but picture your typical BYU co-ed. Blond? Probably. White teeth? Certainly. Thin? Yep. (Utah consistently has one of the lowest average BMIs in the country, even despite funeral potatoes and Relief Society pot lucks). Plays the piano? Check. Speaks another language? Check, sometimes double check. Holds a calling? Does their home/visiting teaching? Owns a home? Good job? Degree? Advanced degree? Married? In the temple? Kids? More?
We’re victims of our own success. So many of us are so good that when we fail we take it personally rather than an indication of our overall flawed nature. It also doesn’t help that in our culture of perfect, one of the rules is you can’t talk about your trials and struggles until AFTER they are over and you have learned your Very Important Lesson. THEN it is okay to bear your testimony about conquering alcoholism (years ago). Then it is okay to share in a Sunday School class how you had a hard time with your 3rd child (once he is safely on his mission). No wonder we’re depressed.
We are commanded to “be ye therefore perfect” and that is the fatal flaw of Mormon culture: we are trying to perfect ourselves instead of humbling ourselves and letting the Atonement work in our lives. Please note that this is the exact opposite of what the Church actually teaches us. Nowhere in the scriptures does it mention bleached teeth or rock-hard abs. I’ve never heard a general authority even say that you must have an advanced college degree to get into heaven (not that having one is bad). The Lord expects us to do our best. Our Mormon neighbors expect us to do their best. And the Jones’ best. And the Smith’s best. And so on.
I was raised mainly in Utah. I also had two major bouts of severe depression. I don’t blame my depression on the church. I don’t even blame it on the Mormon culture. But I do think the culture exacerbated my problems and made it much harder to get the help that I needed.
In high school, I was going through some difficult times with my family and a work situation. As the stress mounted and the cracks began to show, my fellow Young Women (and friends of several years) began to notice. And instead of embracing me or supporting me, they recoiled. They said, in essence, “You are not like us anymore. You are broken while we are still pristine.” Which, I suppose, happens in teen culture everywhere. But what happened next was uniquely Mormon. These girls assumed because I was no longer perfect on the outside (and unable to fake it despite desperately trying to), that meant that I was spiritually flawed as well. They stopped inviting me to their homes. They “forgot” to tell me about church activities. At school, in seminary, they pretended not to see me. Eventually it progressed to outright mockery led by several kids on the seminary council. Even their mothers started whispering among themselves that I was a “bad influence” despite having done nothing remotely bad nor even having any power to influence their daughters.
At last I rebelled. I figured if they thought I was different, then boy howdy would I show them different! I went goth. Black hair, black lips, black clothes. Dark music, dark boyfriend, darker mood. My friends were the other outcasts and it turns out they were pretty decent people. Sure they smoke pot but they never judged me for failing to be perfect – in fact they liked me for my flaws. The church kids in turn stepped it up a notch. They assumed from my clothing that I smoked and drank (I never did. Not even once.) They assumed that I was sleeping with my boyfriend (we never even french kissed). And it got to the point where I was so angry at their hypocrisy (some of them were drinking and sleeping around) that I considered leaving the church all together.
It was a crisis point in my testimony. But thankfully, through the unwavering love of my family and dedication of one truly Christlike friend, I was able to separate the culture from the religion. I slowly came to accept that I was a pariah in Mormon culture and most likely always would be. But that had nothing to do with my testimony. The Church is true. The doctrine is real and healing and beautiful. Still, it was a hard fought battle in every student ward that I was in – to show them that I was different but still good. Eventually I had a second major depressive episode after which I realized that for me to survive and thrive I had to get out of the culture of perfect. Which meant leaving Utah.used commercial inflatables for sale
My life has changed immeasurably for the better since moving away from Utah. Much of my depression has resolved. My IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) mostly went away. I was able to examine my feelings of inadequacy and imperfection without the glaring spotlight of every neighbor judging me. I felt safe enough (in Seattle, weirdly) to drop the Goth act and the angst and just be… happy. At church I was entrusted with important callings. Friends readily accepted me. Neighbors loved me regardless of my religion.
People from high school (when I see them, which is rarely) do not even recognize me now. And I like it that way. I do not like the person that I was in high school. In fact, I am terribly ashamed of her. But I am not ashamed of her for being broken. I am ashamed of her for not being strong enough to tell them all in a better way that they were wrong. I wasn’t strong enough to withstand that cultural pressure cooker. It nearly destroyed me. And despite my children already being smarter, stronger and generally all around better human beings than I ever was, I can’t in good conscience put them back in that place. Which is why my husband and I have decided that, barring direct revelation from God, we will not raise our children in Utah. It’s just too darn depressing.
Note: This was difficult for me to write. And I imagine that many of you will take issue with many things I said. Which is fine – this was just my experience. Please be gentle in your reprimands though:)
m did a good job showing the flaws in the depression article and I agree with every single one of his points. The article is horribly written. And yet, in a different situation I would probably say the same things as “Wendy.”