This month’s Ensign contains a talk by Elder Douglas L Callister of the Seventy (a slightly edited reprint of a prior talk, actually) titled, “Our Refined Heavenly Home.” Some thoughts on reading over the talk:
1. Start with the good:
Horray for talks that encourage education, literature, and music. Horray for praising home libraries of 1000 books. Horray for “He referred to the grand masters of literature as the ‘minor prophets.'” Horray for a talk that singles out not just commonly cited literature in the LDS world (Victor Hugo) but also “Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin.” Elder Callister’s talk does all of these things. I loved those aspects of it.
2. The talk cites Oscar Wilde! Everyone’s favorite flamboyant bisexual playwright-poet, cited in the Ensign. Not bad.
3. There are some aspects of the talk that are . . . unusual. For instance:
“President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918), sixth President of the Church, owned few things, but he took care of them. He was fastidious in his appearance. He pressed his dollar bills to remove the wrinkles. He allowed none but himself to pack his overnight bag. He knew where every article, nut, and bolt of the household was, and each had its place.”
Pressing one’s dollar bills? One could argue that that crosses the line from admirable neatness into OCD. (Also, I want to know, did he shine and polish his quarters and nickels as well? Nobody wants a dinghy nickel!)
4. Let’s talk about awesome. Elder Callister takes issue with this word, writing
“God speaks all languages, and He speaks them properly. He is restrained and modest of speech. When God described the grand creational process of this earth, He said in measured tones that “it was good” (Genesis 1:4). We would be disappointed if God had used ‘awesome’ or other exaggerated phrases.”
I can appreciate the idea that we should use the right words, and not fall back onto tired cliches. But why excoriate “awesome”? Besides being an awesome adjective (grin), it also happens to be a word that President Hinckley used with some frequency (and President Monson uses as well). Other church leaders have used it even in its slang context — as in Elder Robert L. Backman’s message to youth, titled “They were awesome.” Is awesome really so bad?
5. And finally, the “gift of attentiveness to personal appearance.” Yep, here goes.
Many years ago an associate of mine decided he would please his wife by sharing with her a specific compliment each night as he arrived home. One night he praised her cooking. A second night he thanked her for excellence in housekeeping. A third night he acknowledged her fine influence on the children. The fourth night, before he could speak, she said, “I know what you are doing. I thank you for it. But don’t say any of those things. Just tell me you think I am beautiful.”
She expressed an important need she had. Women ought to be praised for all the gifts they possess—including their attentiveness to their personal appearance—that so unselfishly add to the richness of the lives of others. We must not let ourselves go and become so casual—even sloppy—in our appearance that we distance ourselves from the beauty heaven has given us.
I have mixed feelings on reading this. A number of friends of mine — mostly women, but some men also — found the idea that women have a “gift of attentiveness to personal appearance” to be extremely demeaning and offensive. I can understand the objection. Women do many things — thinking, writing, speaking, inventing, being musicians or scientists or lawyers or engineers or perpetual grad students — that do not necessarily involve looking pretty. Suggesting that looking pretty (a gift of attention to appearance) is one of womens’ special gifts potentially reduces women to nothing but a bunch of pretty faces, and at the same time downplays the many other achievements of many smart, talented, dedicated women.
On the other hand, I think that there it is absolutely a good idea to follow Elder Callister’s suggestion and tell one’s wife that she is beautiful. I know that my own wife always appreciates this. So do many other friends. Marriage counselors will say again and again the importance of affirming your spouse’s attractiveness. And I think that affirming appearance can be especially important for women.
I don’t mean this in a gender essentialist way. I don’t think that women are more naturally inclined this way, or anything like that. But the socialization of women in our society is such that extreme importance is put on women’s physical appearance. At the same time, supposed role models for female appearance are airbrushed anorexic supermodels. And so women get bombarded by a constant stream of messages: You’re not pretty enough. You’re not thin enough. You’re not physically perfect. (Plus, Mormon women get bombarded by contradictory messages. If they’re too pretty, then perhaps they’re walking porn for men. They need to somehow be very modest and at the same time beautiful, while also running a household and ironing the
clothes dollar bills. Yikes! They can’t win.)
What do we do? Obviously, it’s important to recognize the backdrop of massive pressure, conflicting messages that women receive. And these messages are particularly tough because society tells women that their appearance matters, in a way that male appearance doesn’t. So not only is it impossible to thread the needle of appearance, this is an area which tends to affect women much, much more than it affects men.
As a result, this area is really tough for many people to navigate. And everyone handles it differently. For some women, being reminded of their appearance is a reminder of the cultural baggage that women face in general. For other women, being told that they look good is an important way to ameliorate the barrage of negative messages that they receive so often.
So, where does this get us? Why is it that Elder Callister’s talk seems both accurate and wrong in this area? I would say that, for me and for many men I know, the “tell your wife she’s beautiful” advice is great advice. But we have to also recognize that this is often an act of amelioration aimed at countering negative messages about womens’ appearance — and we need to make sure not to inadvertently reaffirm those negative messages, like the idea that women are just pretty faces (which the second part of Elder Callister’s quote unfortunately seems to do). (At least the Ensign version of the talk was edited to remove the follow up line, “Every man has the right to be married to a woman who makes herself as beautiful as she can be.” Double yikes!)
My tentative conclusions on the topic, after kicking it around with some friends.
-It’s problematic to emphasize looks alone, such as complimenting a woman only on her appearance, while ignoring her other accomplishments. It focuses attention on women as merely pretty faces. The typical introduction of “Dr. Smith, the accomplished University President, and his lovely wife” is offensive, because reducing women to merely pretty faces is wrong.
-On the other hand, for many women, affirmation of their attractiveness is personally important to them. Their appearance is a very important part of their self-image and identity. Given in the right context, compliments to these women are a way to reinforce them and to counteract the invidious messages that they get from society.
Such statements have to be made in context. Saying, “Husband is smart and articulate and wife is pretty” would be demeaning to her. On the other hand, saying, “wife is smart and talented and beautiful” may be something that she appreciates, a lot.
-And every woman navigates this differently, which makes it tricky. I think that the key is getting to know the person before opining on her looks. “She is pretty” should _not_ be the first thing that anyone says about a woman; it totally marginalizes her other talents — intelligent and articulate and thoughtful and so on. On the other hand, once someone has acknowledged that a woman is intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, then I think it’s not per se inappropriate to say that she’s pretty, too. She may appreciate it; many women really do appreciate comments of that sort. (But if at that point she replies, “I prefer not to discuss appearance,” then that line of discussion should stop.)
Thus, my own mixed reaction to the talk. I think that the sequence of events in Elder Callister’s example is actually a pretty good one — the husband first compliments his wife on three substantive points, before getting to beauty (and at her insistence). But the general point which he extrapolates from it — in particular, that women have a special “gift of attention to personal appearance” — is too broadly framed, and seems to (probably unintentionally) reinforce negative cultural messages about the importance of women’s beauty.