Image Courtesy of Aslan Ntumba | InQuire Photography
Every young girl dreams of her wedding day; the Cinderella dress, the big party, and the groom. They make endless Pinterest boards on colour schemes and mull over the length of a veil. Not all girls go to church every Sunday and are told that marriage is essential. Or that you need to get married to be allowed into heaven. Marriage is what you are aiming for.
This was the reality of my childhood to when I turned eighteen. As a member of the Mormon church, I felt as if my biggest achievement in life would be getting married to a Mormon boy and living happily ever after.
Mormonism is essentially Christianity, but with an extra set of beliefs that are founded from The Book of Mormon; a scripture written about Jesus by men in the Americas. Mormons believe that the Bible and The Book of Mormon go hand in hand, helping people to understand God and his teachings.
Mormonism has always been a patriarchal religion focused on marriage. Previously condoning polygamy, male members have had control over women and marriage since the beginning. Only men can receive the priesthood, the power, and authority of God, meaning men have to lead the congregation. Although polygamy is no longer permitted, the traditional principles remain.
I left Mormonism for many reasons, but the most significant issue I had was the way it made me feel.
I grew up believing that my goal in life was to marry and be ‘sealed’ for eternity in the temple. Sealing is a ritual that married couples complete in order to be bound together forever, even after death.
This idea of marriage being vital was ingrained in me when I was eleven, attending my first youth activity. A youth activity is a chance for Mormon girls and boys, ages twelve to eighteen, to socialise. Usually, the boys and girls are split up into Young Women and Young Men and take part in different activities each week. In my experience, the boy’s activities always revolved around sport, whereas the girl’s activities were usually sewing, baking, or arts and crafts.
The youth leaders decided I could attend my first activity as it was a few months until my twelfth birthday. I had never rushed out of the door faster. I had butterflies in my stomach from a mix of excitement and nerves. I was so happy that I was finally able to join my older friends in the Young Women’s and be considered just that – a young woman.
When I arrived at church, ten wedding dresses varying in style were laid elegantly on the floor. It was as if I had walked into a bridal shop. The dresses had been lent by married women from the church for us to try on and take photographs in as if we were actually getting married. I was ecstatic. Eleven-year-old me could not have thought of a better first activity. All the girls took turns getting their hair curled and their makeup done, and we jumped into the dresses as if we really did have a Mormon groom waiting for us.
I remember choosing what I thought was the prettiest dress I had ever seen. It was the purest ivory colour with a huge ruffled skirt that flowed out behind. I grabbed it and put it on before any of the other girls could take it. Wearing it, made me feel like a princess. I kept it on an entire night, not letting anyone else have a chance in my dress. The dress had no sleeves. It had been worn previously by a woman who married in it before she converted to Mormonism. With my shoulders out it was deemed immodest. I was told I had to wear a vest underneath and a cardigan over the top so that there was no chance of my shoulders being shown; a respectful, virtuous Mormon girl would never display her shoulders, especially on her wedding day.
Once we were all dressed in white with our hair in braided buns, we had a photo shoot. The photographer, instead of asking us to say ‘cheese,’ told us to say what temple we wanted to get married in. Most girls shouted out “Salt Lake City!” A temple located in Salt Lake City, Utah, known for being the largest Mormon temple in the world. I remember the parents and youth leaders laughing when I told the photographer to wait one second so I could think about which temple. I did not have an answer. The adults saw it as endearing that I had no clue, but I found it confusing. The other girls sounded so sure about what they wanted, but I had never thought of it before.
As I reflect on that day now, I realise how damaging it is to encourage young girls to only strive towards marriage. Many girls plan out imaginary weddings when they are young, but for me it was different. Due to the church and the adults who guided me within it, I grew up believing that I would not be good enough unless I got married as soon as possible. As a teenager, this led me to fixate on male opinions of myself and whether they liked me enough to want to be with me. My self-esteem was rooted in men. I only felt validated and worthy of God’s love if I knew that there was a boy who wanted me. By being taught that God’s plan was for me to marry and churn out as many children I could, I made it my agenda to search for someone who could give me this. Since most Mormons get married young, I felt my time was limited.
Sixteen is the appropriate age to start dating, according to Mormon teaching. Even then, you should only group date rather than be alone with the opposite sex. When I turned sixteen, I imagined being asked out immediately because I was finally available. Yet, nobody did ask me. I felt worthless and insecure. Was something wrong with me? How was I supposed to marry and get into heaven when nobody would even ask me out on a date? To this day, I remember those feelings of hopelessness. I think of how ridiculous it was that I felt unworthy because I could not get a date at sixteen.
Before attending a weeklong, teenage convention called For the Strength of Youth (FSY), my family and friends from church told me that FSY might be the place where I find my future husband. As a seventeen-year-old, who had been on one date, I was full of hope that I would find someone to be my eternal companion. I was ready to be worthy in God’s eyes to return to heaven. I had a crush on one boy the full week. Most people would call their crush their COW (Crush of the Week) because the romance would only last for that week. Nonetheless, I believed my crush would last forever. I thought my situation was different from others because I had been praying every night to God, begging him to help me get him.
As I knelt and prayed, I would ask God: “Please send me someone who would love me.” This would usually evoke high emotions and I would cry about how lonely and insecure I felt. All I wanted was to be loved. I felt this way because I did not love myself. I believed this void could be filled by a man because that meant I had completed God’s plan; which meant I had received an abundance of blessings and happiness. I told myself repeatedly that the only reason I had not found someone was because God was saving me for someone special. I hate that I had to reassure myself when it was normal not to be dating at the age I was. Besides this lack of self-worth, I also felt conscious about my body and sexuality.
I was taught to always dress modestly; do not show your shoulders, your knees, your stomach, or any part of your body that could be interpreted as ‘sexual’. Luckily, I did not have strict parents who made me wear turtlenecks and skirts down to my ankles. However, I was not allowed to wear anything too low-cut or high above the knee. I felt uneasy when I did wear immodest clothing because showing my skin was wrong.
Alongside this, the Sunday School classes about intercourse taught me that having sex before marriage is a serious sin; if you do you are impure and unworthy of heaven. I was told that the reason for abstaining from sex was because the purpose of sex was for procreation. However, as I got older, I wondered how I was supposed to form a meaningful relationship when I was taught not be alone with the same boy frequently or put myself in any situation that may lead to temptation.
My understanding of dating came from a guidebook called ‘For the Strength of Youth’. It advises young Mormons on what they can and cannot do regarding topics like sexual purity and dating, amongst others. I was fearful of disobeying the guidelines that said even acts like masturbation were sinful. This meant that I was afraid to explore my own body, but also to be intimate with others. I saw it as dirty and I looked down upon people that had premarital sex, viewing them as unclean and lesser than someone pure.
Mormonism preaches that your body is a temple that should be kept away from worldly things like alcohol, drugs, and sex; but they forget that your body is your body. I can do whatever I want with it; it is not something that belongs to God. The activities I choose to partake in are not to be dictated by men who have created these rules for me to follow.
I felt uncomfortable in my body because I did not understand it. I was taught not to explore it, so I avoided it completely. This led to a lack of understanding of how my body works.
When I came to university and I was exposed to relationships and sex, I struggled with the guilt of wanting to do something I had been taught my whole life was a sin. I was afraid of intimacy because it was taboo, so I was anxious in situations it would arise in.
The guilt I would feel in the first few months post-Mormonism made me more bitter towards the religion. I hated that I felt condemned for doing normal things like drinking alcohol, swearing, and even drinking tea. I was afraid of the judgement I would face from church members when they realised, I was not coming back to church. I was scared I would be labelled a ‘sinner’.
Mormonism teaches free agency, the ability to make your own decisions, but it also teaches that there are consequences to every choice you make. I was wary of these consequences, believing that by having one sip of alcohol I would be struck down by lightning. I was confused by why I was so afraid of God punishing me when I had been told my entire life that God is loving and kind. If God loved all his children, as Mormonism teaches, then surely, he still loves me now? However, it is hard to feel someone’s love when you are burdened with the guilt that you have disappointed them. Additionally, you are taught that repentance does not count unless you genuinely feel bad.
Every day the guilt lessens when I participate in activities, I once considered a sin, but I still battle with the teachings that were implanted in me from childhood. It is difficult to forget what you were raised to believe and to disregard a religion that was your youth. I continue to respect the religion as many of my family members still follow it and I have not erased the good memories I had with friends and family in church settings.
Regardless, coming to university has given me independence, allowing me to exercise an opinion that is, and will always be, my own. I began to think for myself and I was able to express who I was without the restraints of religion holding me back from my true desires.
From educating myself, meeting new people, and becoming influenced by my new freedom, I have realised that the Mormon lifestyle was not for me. I disagreed with many of the teachings of the church and no longer wanted to associate myself with it. I wanted to be free to make my own choices without the feeling of guilt. I wanted to feel comfortable in my body and be content with the fact that I was not going to be married by twenty-one.
When I look back on my Mormon life, it feels like a distant memory. I know, however, that religion will always be a part of my identity. For eighteen years of my life, I went to church every Sunday and believed in something that turned out to be something I opposed.
I am happy that eleven-year-old me was content with wearing a wedding dress that looked like a cake topper, but I am happier that she grew up to become someone who decided for herself what was right. I hope I can continue to form my own beliefs and live a life I want to lead, not as a ‘young woman’, wife, or mother, but as a human being.
Image Courtesy of Aslan Ntumba | InQuire Photography