What LDS women like — and dislike — about wearing temple garments

Many fully embrace the symbolic gesture but quietly struggle with practical considerations.

(Screenshot) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published this photo of women's temple garments, which faithful members wear beneath their clothes.

Latter-day Saint women believe that temple garments — worn beneath regular clothes and covering everything from shoulders to knees — are imbued with spiritual significance, but many grapple with the physical experience of wearing them.

They wrestle with garments during menstruation, pregnancy, nursing and other reproductive processes, while also balancing these two-piece undergarments with current fashions and society’s messaging about female bodies.

Though The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has published photos and videos explaining garments and temple clothing, most members remain hesitant to discuss anything related to the sacred ceremonies.

Nearly a decade ago, the church asked members about their feelings about garments and a 2016 poll of 1,100 Latter-day Saints, The New York Times reported, showed “just 14% of millennial church members said they believed it was acceptable to remove the garments if they were uncomfortable.”

In April, Larissa Kindred, a former Latter-day Saint and a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, created an online “snowball survey,” reaching out to women on a variety of Latter-day Saint-related social media sites with focuses on, say, motherhood, sexuality and marriage relationships.

Within two weeks, Kindred received more than 8,500 responses from current and former members — 2,062 who self-identified as “traditional/devout,” 2,623 “nuanced/progressive,” 2,998 “ex-Mormons,” 243 “believing but inactive,” and 655 “other” — to a list of 25 questions about how garments affected their fashion choices, body image, daily comfort, sexuality and spiritual experience.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

For those 5,340 who identified as “active” Latter-day Saints, the positive aspects of wearing garments included reminder of temple covenants, modesty, spiritual and/or physical protection, a chance to express a religious identity, and a feeling of being obedient.

That same group identified some situations, including menopause, exercise and sports, and physical intimacy as “making it more difficult to navigate with garments.”

Nearly half the active members (45%) believe there is a right and wrong way to wear the garments, and more than half — (59%) — said they felt judged for how they wear them.

“I was being judged”

“When I stopped wearing garments, I felt relieved and like I had body autonomy again but occasionally I would feel immense guilt or felt I was a bad person. Many people inside the church also took great concern for my lack of garment wearing — and felt free to tell me so. I knew I was being judged as sinful and/or that I didn’t understand the gospel (I was still active when I tapered off wearing them).”

Former Latter-day Saint, age 35 to 44

The church says the decision about when and how to don garments is “personal,” Kindred said in an interview from her home in Nashville, Tenn., but it’s clear that the underclothing carries a strong social aspect.

And there is a double standard.

The temple garments worn by men “show all the time and no one thinks twice,” the researcher said, while women are constantly tugging and tucking to hide theirs.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Women “want to feel validated in their experience,” she said. “They want autonomy in how they wear garments and how they relate to them.”

If the church allowed more “leeway” in garment wearing, Kindred said, these religious symbols “would have more value.”

Why she did the garment survey

(Screenshot) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published this photo of men's temple garments, which faithful members wear beneath their clothes.

Kindred came up with the idea for this survey during her classes on women and gender studies.

They were discussing Muslim women donning head coverings known as hijabs and the death of an Iranian woman in police custody for not wearing hers.

Drawing on her own experience, she felt Latter-day Saints should be part of the conversation about women and religious clothing.

Kindred wanted to include Latter-day Saints from a wide spectrum of participation as well as from multiple generations.

Some traditional members expressed concern that the narrative would be dominated by former members, so she reached out to those on websites for believers, including Young Women and women’s Relief Society leaders.

“Like a second skin”

“When I first started wearing garments, I was pregnant and it took a little while to get used to the additional clothing. After a very short time, wearing them was really like a second skin. I feel nearly naked without them.”

Nuanced/progressive, age 45 to 64

In all, she found a cultural shift.

“Most of the research on body images has happened since the ‘80s,” Kindred said. “Older women said garments had no effect on their relationship to their bodies, while millennials and Gen Zers are seeing garments through a different lens. They are trying to embrace their bodies and shun objectification.”

Especially in older age groups, many traditional members “indicated that Mormon women should look different and be set apart from other groups,” Kindred wrote in her college presentation on this research. “This idea was not present at all in comments from those in younger age groups.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Women from all these groups poured out their feelings in more than 2,500 personal comments attached to the survey.

“Now that I no longer wear them, I have regained self-confidence in my body,” one ex-member wrote. “I’m somewhat overweight, and the way garments fit me was a consistent reminder throughout the day as to where I carry that weight And how often I would have to shift at them and adjust them. Simply not having that factor has helped my self-esteem tremendously. I probably dress the same as far as modesty standards go, for the most part, but now I have clothing that is comfortable and accommodating for my body. I feel so much better overall.”

The perils of ‘social surveillance’

(Screenshot) Devout Latter-day Saints buy their temple garments at distribution centers like this.

One of the most intriguing and, frankly, troubling aspects of wearing garments, Kindred said, was the “social surveillance.”

It is more pronounced than institutional regulation, she said. “Body monitoring and a hyper-fixation on their bodies seems to come from modesty rhetoric that teaches women to make sure their clothing completely covers their garments.”

Many comments related to this.

“I would rather not have my religion dictate my garments or what I wear,” wrote a woman in the nuanced/progressive 18- to 24-year-old group. “I feel quite judged from women in my community about not wearing garments. I think it perpetuates judgment and shame and objectification of women’s bodies. It’s really frustrating when middle-aged men ask you about what underwear you’re wearing. It’s completely inappropriate.”

“A way to express physical intimacy”

“I don’t wear my garments during activities that would not merit wearing them, such as working out and hiking. I also frequently don’t wear them to bed (one to two times a week). Even if we don’t engage in sex, sleeping without any clothes on or in lingerie is a way to express physical intimacy.”

Nuanced/progressive, age 25 to 34

Many participants remembered positive feelings when they first donned the religious clothing “because they viewed garments as a symbol of in-group status,” Kindred wrote in her research paper. “Garments have been tied in Mormon discourse to ‘worthiness’ and many feel shame and anxiety over how they will be perceived by other members if they are not wearing their garments consistently.”

Why some ‘love’ their garments

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Richmond Virginia Temple, which was dedicated Sunday, May 7, 2023. Devout Latter-day Saints wear temple underclothing, typically called garments.

Many respondents, of course, celebrated their Latter-day Saint clothing and its symbolism.

“I love my garments. I really do. I feel like wearing garments is a small price for me to pay for me to be able to go to the temple whenever I want,” wrote an 18- to 24-year-old nuanced/progressive member. “As much as some little nuances get under my skin with garments, I feel like being endowed has been the biggest blessing to my life. Every time I put on my garments, it reminds me that I am endowed with priesthood power from my Savior. It’s the greatest blessing that I could ask for.”

“I just don’t believe God cares”

“People need to stop gossiping about other people’s underwear. I just don’t believe God cares about anyone’s underwear. If it’s meaningful for a person to wear them, then great. But that’s the only reason to wear them, in my opinion, not out of obedience or guilt.”

Nuanced/progressive, age 18 to 24

For Kindred, who wore garments for two decades, the results of the survey “indicate that the struggles Mormon women have expressed online about their garments are widespread, not coming from a fringe group.… Some women [like the example above] felt that wearing garments was a physical sacrifice that brought them closer to God, while other women stated that God doesn’t care what underwear you wear.”

Traditional members felt that the mandate to wear garments came from God, she wrote, “while nuanced members were more likely to view garment wearing as an institutional mandate that has no bearing on one’s relationship to God.”

Kindred’s purpose was to elevate women’s voices in this debate.

She is not “anti-garment,” she said, “just pro-woman.”

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