In March, I wrote about the disrepancy in the guidelines for male and female missionaries. In light of the new guidelines, recently released, I’d like to revisit that post. In a nutshell, I argued that the disrepancy in guidelines demonstrated a difference in thinking about male and female missionaries. Here is a one-paragraph extract from that post:
The closest thing missionary.lds.org offers elders is the “physical and emotional health” section from the gender-neutral page “preparing to serve”. And here, physical health only refers to missionaries being “able to endure the physical rigors of mission life”–not to their appearance. If we contrast that to the guidelines for sister missionaries, which not only makes mention of blouses, tops and skirts (which seems reasonable, given the diversity of clothing choices out there), but also outerwear, and even underclothes, I am struck by the amount of micromanaging that goes into the appearance of sister missionaries. I am left to wonder about the emphasis on female appearances, leading to statements such as this, “you should strive to look your best, especially at zone conferences, in Sunday meetings, at visitors’ centers and historic sites, at baptisms, and when working with local leaders.” This is something elders apparently do not have to think about, most likely because their worth lies in something other than appearance.
The new website offers all missionaries the same kind of help: now both men and women will have examples to keep in mind while they select their own skirts and tops (sisters), suits and sweaters (elders), coats, scarfs, hats and sportswear, and figure out how to do their hair. Where sisters have a section on make-up, elders have a section on how to tie a tie, and how to use an iron. The updated website means that the elders no longer have to rely on a couple pages of guidelines, but can scope out styles to their hearts’ content, something the sisters have been able to do for a while.
If you look closely, there’s still a difference in how these clothing choices are talked about. The sisters are given the following Thomas Monson quote that emphasizes their attractiveness, “You can dress attractively without being immodest. Within the Lord’s guidelines, there is room for you to be lively, vibrant, and beautiful both in your dress and in your actions.” Elders, on the other hand, receive a different one, also by Thomas Monson, “Servants of the Lord have always counseled us to dress appropriately to show respect for our Heavenly Father and for ourselves.” If you read these statements carefully, it’s clear that women are expected to dress themselves in a manner that is pleasing to others, while men’s dress choices are to be made out of respect to their Heavenly Father and themselves. This kind of discourse, that equates modesty with externally-judged attractiveness, and places the burden of both squarely on female shoulders, is problematic, especially in a missionary context. And although you could argue that reducing the micromanagement of missionary appearances is more helpful than increasing it, I understand the (felt) need for and rationale behind these guidelines and don’t expect them to go away any time soon. With that in mind, I’d argue that having similar guidelines for sisters and elders levels the playing field, if just a little bit, and makes it a little more likely that all missionaries will one day be seen more for the message they carry than their appearance, no matter their gender.
 Given the ubiquitousness of white shirts in many Mormon environments, I was kind of surprised that such help was needed. Male readers: how many of you reached mission age without knowing how to iron your own clothes?