BYU Skinny Jean Controversy: Sexism, Sizeism, or Standards?

The booting of a Brigham Young University-Idaho student from a university facility for wearing “skinny jeans” is provoking renewed discussion among Mormons about the religion’s increasing emphasis on conservative dress standards.

On Wednesday, the BYU-Idaho student newspaper published an account of a senior psychology major who was not permitted to take a university examination at the school’s “Testing Center” when a Testing Center employee told her that her “pants were too tight.” The student, who holds a position of responsibility in her local LDS congregation, had just come from a meeting with her LDS bishop to discuss congregational business. Apparently, the pants were not too tight to wear to a church meeting, but they still drew the enforcement attention of Testing Center employees.

“There were skinny girls who were wearing tight pants who were getting admitted, but I’m curvy so my regular-fitting pants were a little bit tighter on me and he wouldn’t let me in. It was offensive and humiliating,” she told BYU-Idaho’s Daily Scroll. Other students and Testing Center employees came to the defense of the young woman, but they were overruled.

LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University campuses in Provo, Utah, Rexburg, Idaho, and Laie, Hawaii have long had dress codes requiring students to dress conservatively, prohibiting shorts, skin-baring cropped tops, and “form-fitting clothing.” The popularity of leggings, jeggings, and skinny jeans (even Mitt Romney has a pair) has produced new attention in LDS communities to how those dress code boundaries are enforced and who bears the brunt of the enforcement.

Beginning in November, the BYU-Idaho testing center (responsible for administering academic examinations for many classes, especially large General Education courses) started interpreting and enforcing the school’s dress and grooming standards as a ban on “skinny jeans.” A flyer was posted by university employees instructing students who felt that “skinny jeans” might be permissible to “go home and prayerfully visit with your Heavenly Father and recommit yourself to being a true disciple.”

The flyer was removed within a few days. On Wednesday morning, BYU-Idaho issued a statement on its Facebook page clarifying that skinny jeans are “not singled out or prohibited” and that the Testing Center situation has been “corrected.”

The controversy over skinny jeans reflects increased emphasis on and internal policing of dress standards in Mormon communities. Conservative dress appears to be taking on new prominence as a boundary marker for Mormons, separating observant from non-LDS and less observant LDS people. The Word of Wisdom—the Mormon dietary code that prohibits consumption of tea, coffee, alcohol, and tobacco—was upgraded from recommendation to commandment in the early twentieth-century, at a time when formerly isolated LDS communities in Utah were experiencing increased interaction with non-Mormons through travel, commerce, and media. Today, increased emphasis is being placed on conservative dress standards, described colloquially in Mormon communities as “modesty.”

The new emphasis has been a point of reflection for Mormon bloggers and commentators—especially parents and those who work with young people and who observe that dress standards enforcement often places a disproportionate burden on LDS young women. Young women in some local congregations have been told by local leaders, for instance, that the way they dress constitutes a sexual temptation to young men, or that their dress choices constitute a walking form of “pornography.”

One Mormon blogger recently wrote, “I don’t want my daughters equating ‘modesty’ with how much skin they choose to reveal or to cover. Sure, I’d like them to be modest, but modesty encompasses so much more than how much leg or cleavage, or, okay, shoulder, you reveal. Modesty is about attitude, demeanor, dispositions. It’s about moderation. It’s about avoiding extremes. It’s about feeling comfortable in your own skin. My kids are being bombarded with messages about modesty at church. This message is being touted in our church magazines for kids and teenagers, our weekly Sunday lessons, our Especially for Youth camps, girls camp, our official church website, church publications, our instructions for 21 year-old female missionaries. It’s starting to feel like a founding principle of our religion. I’d love to see us . . . get back to the good stuff. This is not our good stuff.”

Some Mormons emphasize the importance of obedience for obedience’s sake as a key principle. Others ask whether disproportionate attention to dress standards sends the right message about the relationship between appearance and spirituality to LDS youth, especially when the brunt of conservative dress standards enforcement falls on young women, and particularly on curvy young women or young women of size. Curvy girls bear a burden of attention—negative and positive—to their bodies anyways. Faith-based “modesty” enforcement compound those body issues among young women.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.