Guidelines for (sister) missionaries

By March 28, 2013

As a non-Mormon studying Mormons, I’ve been visited by my fair share of sister missionaries. I enjoy their visits and love hearing about their experiences, even if I have remained firmly unconvertable up till now. For that reason, when the new age restrictions for missionaries were announced last General Conference, and I read about the dress and grooming standards for missionaries, I was curious, and spent an hour or so browsing the site. For my contribution to Women’s History Month, I’d like to tie together some of my thoughts on that front.

In her MA thesis, “Real, Live Mormon Women”: Understanding the Role of Early Twentieth-Century LDS Lady Missionaries,[1] Kelly Lelegren points to an interesting disparity between 19th century Protestant and LDS missionaries. Where the Protestant lady missionary movement can be considered a feminist movement for the opportunity it afforded participants to redefine womanhood, Mormon sister missionaries were sent off “with their own gendered purpose” (15) and cannot be seen in a feminist light quite so easily. While the main task of Protestant sister missionaries was to bring the gospel to the ‘heathens’ (if mainly heathens of the female and child persuasion, in keeping with their gendered spheres of influence), Mormon sister missionaries (“real, live Mormon women”) were sent off to dispel negative media images of Mormons and specifically the image of Mormon women as “oppressed, enslaved wives (5). And although in no way do I want to discount their service and sacrifice, to some degree, it strikes me that sister missionaries haven’t completely shaken off that burden yet.

One way in which I’d argue this is visible is the dress and grooming standards for missionaries on Their “dress and grooming” page has some general guidelines, including the following statements, “you are to wear professional, conservative clothing that is consistent with your sacred calling” because “your appearance is often the first message others receive”; furthermore, you should “never allow your appearance or your behavior to draw attention away from your message or your calling”. “Because of budget and luggage restrictions and limited closet space, you should plan and purchase your clothing carefully. … Clothing should be attractive … tailored to fit well, and conservative in style.” These standards seem like something every missionary should consider, yet they are only explicitly offered to the sister missionaries.The dress and grooming page leads directly to the subheading “sister missionaries” and does not include a corresponding page for elders. Thus offers a comprehensive guide to a missionary’s appearance, but only if that missionary is female.

The closest thing offers elders is the “physical and emotional health” section from the gender-neutral page “preparing to serve”.[2] And here, physical health only refers to missionaries being “able to endure the physical rigors of mission life”–not to their appearance.[3] 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,[4] and even underclothes, I am struck by the amount of micromanaging that goes into the appearance of sister missionaries.[5] 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 disparity in these two approaches to being a missionary makes me wonder if sister missionaries, today, have progressed beyond their 19th century function. While I hope prospective and current sister missionaries have not internalized these lessons, I am unfortunately quite cynical at heart. I cannot help but feel sad for all the sisters out there, working tirelessly out of love for the Church and, not unimportantly, a sense of a divine calling, yet at the receiving end of the message that their appearance is at least as important as their gospel knowledge.

[1] Lelegren, Kelly, “”Real, Live Mormon Women”: Understanding the Role of Early Twentieth-Century LDS Lady Missionaries” (2009). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations. Paper 415.
[2] Whether this is a truly gender-neutral page is left up to debate, as the five video links on the sidebar are male centric, in most cases not even mentioning the existence of sister missionaries. The one introductory page that does still refers to missionary work as a “priesthood duty”.
[3] There are weight guidelines for prospective missionaries: missionaries should have a BMI under 37. However,these guidelines are not in place to ensure a pleasing appearance, but because obesity often brings health problems to the table and may affect a missionary’s effectiveness in serving. I should mention, though, that the Church does not fall into the trap of equating a pleasing appearance with being skinny, as the models featured on the website includes a range of sizes. That, at least, is something to be grateful for.
[4] Coats, scarfs, and hats must “fit well, look professional, and be appropriate for the climate and condition of your mission.” Surely this isn’t gender specific?
[5] The micromanaging goes down to prescribing the color of sister missionaries’ bras (white or cream colored only), the length of earrings (no more than one inch below the earlobe) and the belts, purses, and headbands they are allowed to wear. In contrast, male missionaries apparently do not need help picking out scarfs, shoes, belts, or exercise clothes.

Article filed under Gender


  1. When I was a missionary, the church had very detailed instructions and pictures of grooming standards for male missionaries as well: haircuts must be short, but long enough to hold a part (basically impossible for anyone of us not descended from Scandinavia…) mandatory white shirt and tie, you must wear a suit unless it is too hot, etc. The idea that your appearance is your first message was definitely applied to men as well as women. I expect it still is, even if the website doesn’t reflect it.

    Comment by Bryan Catanzaro — March 28, 2013 @ 10:17 am

  2. I get that, Bryan. But isn’t the fact that the website doesn’t reflect it (at all!) problematic? I would say that sends a very clear message.

    Comment by Saskia T — March 28, 2013 @ 10:31 am

  3. Elders might need more instruction if their suits came in as many colors, cuts, and fabrics as women’s clothing, or if it were not understood that their shirts must be white, or if they had to choose shoe heel height and whether or not to bare their toes or wear straps, and whether their trouser cuffs could fashionably fall above the knee, mid-calf, or at the ankle, and how much makeup to wear, and …

    In other words, although I suppose you’re generally right, we should allow for the greater number of choices women have to make. Once you start writing guidelines for the bigger, more puzzling choices, it’s easy to go on making comments about the less important ones that would never have sparked a dress code webpage on their own.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 28, 2013 @ 10:36 am

  4. FWIW, the guidelines for elders are linked here.

    Comment by Justin — March 28, 2013 @ 10:48 am

  5. The sisters used to have a special “grooming” meeting in the MTC to reiterate those messages you see on the website (they probably still do), but that was the end of heaing about how I looked for me on my mission. 20 years ago, the “site” missionaries (Temple Square et al) also got make-up instruction–not sure if they still do.

    I don’t want to sound too defensive, here, but it is just much easier for men to get it right in the missionary wardrobe department because there is so little variation. Suit and tie: easy peasy–everyone knows it and has seen it their whole life.

    For women, it is so different. Many women in the Church don’t work and therefore have no business wardrobe as a model. Cultural and geographic variation is such that sisters appear at the MTC with what they think is a smashing conservative work wardrobe and someone else might view it as entirely inappropriate. Add to that the fact that many missionaries will engage in decidedly un-businesslike activities on their missions (walking and biking miles a day), and the clothing requirements become much more difficult to manage. I view the over-explaining in the guidelines as an effort to answer the many questions women will have as they prepare for work in a tropical/frozen/unknown climate.

    Comment by ESO — March 28, 2013 @ 10:59 am

  6. I served a mission after the next to last reboot on instructions for sister missionaries. I have to say I wore skirts, t-shirts, and Birkenstocks some days as I walked around Buenos Aires. Granted, my mission was not at all stringent in the dress code–my mission president’s wife told us she thought it was a little ridiculous for Argentina. But I had much more freedom in deciding how I wanted to present myself than the elders. As a result I was much less recognizable as a symbol of the faith than the elders, but I was also very happy in that freedom. If I had to wear nylons in Buenos Aires, I never would have made it.

    The removal of the rules regarding nylons are really interesting to me. I never thought I would see the day when sister missionaries on temple square were no longer required to wear nylons.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 28, 2013 @ 11:01 am

  7. So question: I’ve heard it rumored but have never checked to see if it’s true that the church application for missionary work requires you send in your photo. Is that true?

    Comment by Amanda HK — March 28, 2013 @ 11:17 am

  8. The same inequality exists Sunday mornings in our home. The range in color and style of my suits reminds me of Dorothy Parker’s acid comment about Katherine Hepburn’s dramatic range: they run the gamut from A to B. So, will it be navy blue, or charcoal gray. Muted stripe or muted Scotch plaid. Add a white shirt, some gray or black or navy socks, and some black dress shoes. Oh, and a tie. Any tie–they all match.

    My wife, on the other hand, faces a comparatively infinite number of choices.

    And it’s the same with the elders/sister missionaries. There just aren’t that many ways to go “wrong” when your choices are dark suits in conservative styles and white shirts.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 28, 2013 @ 11:23 am

  9. It was a requirement for both men and women when I served in the 90s.

    Comment by ESO — March 28, 2013 @ 11:24 am

  10. ESO, my sister recently got back from TSquare. She didn’t mention any makeup instruction, and since she’s as hopeless as I am with it, I think it would have come up in at least one letter. (Doesn’t mean they don’t still do it, though.)

    Amanda, yeah, they required a photo, basically a passport-type shot in I think two sizes. Or possibly I cropped my sister’s shot to two sizes and let her pick, it’s been awhile, I’m not certain. So at least for the sisters it’s true.

    Comment by seya — March 28, 2013 @ 11:31 am

  11. Thanks for all the thoughtful responses. I realize of course, there’s much more nuance than I can ever portray in a blog post, many of which is contained in the comments here.

    Comment by Saskia — March 28, 2013 @ 11:34 am

  12. Excuse me, much of which.

    Comment by Saskia — March 28, 2013 @ 11:34 am

  13. I know my MP used those photos that were sent in with the apllication for his transfers board. It must be all digitally done now.

    Comment by ESO — March 28, 2013 @ 11:40 am

  14. I think my point about missionary appearances is not that elders don’t have guidelines while sisters do, but that if one goes to the website as a potential missionary as an elder, one gets information about preparing for a mission and being worthy. Although sister missionaries do have access to that information, they get that information in a very male-centric manner. Any information they get that pertains strictly to them is all about appearance.

    Justin, thanks for the link to the elder guidelines. I would like to point out that it links to a 2 page document on the MTC website. The link to the sister guidelines goes back to the LDS missionary website, and is much more extensive, even when one factors in sisters needing more examples of what to wear since no suits=a variety of clothing choices. I can’t help but notice that elders are not told what kind of belts to wear, or which exercise clothes are appropriate, or which bags to carry like sisters are. Nor are they told that what they look like will impact their mission, only that they hold a sacred calling and need to wear something that will mark them as such. I do really think that’s quite a different approach, especially in light of Mormon modesty/purity culture.

    Comment by Saskia — March 28, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

  15. Very thought provoking post, Saskia. Thank you.

    I think it’s worth noting here that the assertion that men don’t have to think as much about their clothing or don’t have as many choices as women isn’t really accurate. Having a wardrobe that ranges from charcoal gray to navy blue, with only “muted” patterns, is a choice. All you have to do is look at the fashion section of the New York Times or look in the front window of your local Gap to see that men have just as many choices as women. (And since JJohnson mentioned Birkenstocks, let me just say that I can’t imagine my husband without his….)

    Comment by Cristine — March 28, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

  16. I think there are inequality issues in the church, but as far as missionaries go, these instructions seem fair.

    Sister missionaries are sent out all over the world, and most places in the world aren’t so enlightened in the way they treat women. Even in parts of Sydney, Australia, where I served, I wouldn’t want a pair of young, foreign women walking around after dark in less than conservative clothes if I were their mission president. Call me patriarchal, but there’s a worthwhile safety component here.

    Comment by DavidF — March 28, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

  17. Cristine #15 – as a proud male fop, I absolutely disagree. Next time you visit the mall count how many female clothing stores v. male clothing stores. As a male who likes clothes, trust me, its frustrating.

    Comment by DavidF — March 28, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

  18. DavidF… because the alternative to long skirts is automatically mini-skirts and bare midriffs?

    Comment by Amanda HK — March 28, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

  19. …And, I should add, if you think you have a limited choice of clothing, try being pregnant. There is usually one store in a mall devoted to maternity wear and maybe a few racks in Macy’s or Kohl’s. The emphasis on MAYBE.

    Comment by Amanda HK — March 28, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

  20. Amanda, check children’s clothing consignment stores, places like Once Upon a Child. Call first to see if they have a maternity section. If they do, the selection can sometimes be excellent.

    On the topic of missionary instructions, I suspect the difference may be because the male missionary uniform is so well-known.

    Also, previously many elders would get their entire wardrobe at stores like Mr Macs (Utah) or Pomeroy’s (Arizona) and that provided a lot of central control. I wonder if that will change with more missionaries going straight to MTCs in other countries and not passing through Salt Lake City on the way to the Provo MTC.

    On the topic of makeup, the sister missionary web site has detailed instructions. It says “If you choose to wear makeup, here are some basic tips,” but individual missions may have stricter rules than a vague “if you choose to wear makeup.”

    Comment by Amy T — March 28, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

  21. David, I’m pretty sure no sister missionary is going to go around in less than conservative clothes. After all, there are the garments to be kept out of sight, which automatically puts you in the conservative clothing bracket. Also, walking around in a long skirt after dark doesn’t decrease your chances of being raped. Personal safety is an important concern but doesn’t really have all that much to do with what you wear.

    A more general comment: I could actually understand the extensive guidelines if it was a “here’s a look at what’s appropriate for this climate and fits in with local culture yet still reflects Church standards” and were available per mission or even per continent. But the guidelines are much more micromanagerial than that.

    Comment by Saskia — March 28, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

  22. Amanda – The guidelines don’t mention “long” skirts and neither do I. I’m not sure where that came from.

    Saskia – Same comment applies. In fact, if the clothing instruction essentially reflects the garment line, then I’m not sure what’s troubling. More detailed instruction doesn’t mean more micromanaging, it merely implies an effort to be clear. As a side note, its a well known fact that if something is in the handbook, it’s because a missionary was doing something wrong, so I would be careful not to generalize too much about what sister missionaries may or may not do (same thing applies to elders, obviously).

    It would probably be worthwhile if the Church offered region specific guidelines. But maybe only just so. Like I said, Sydney has some pretty dodgy areas even though we might otherwise be inclined to think that the same restrictions wouldn’t imply.

    I don’t want my comments to come across as supporting controlling women, or anything remotly like that. I just see some wisdom in the church’s insistence on fitting, but conservatively dimensioned clothing, especially in foreign countries. There are just far too many “unenlightened” parts of the world. That’s all I’m saying.

    Comment by DavidF — March 28, 2013 @ 8:49 pm

  23. David-

    For me, long includes knee-length. What you are involved in is called “slut shaming” and “blaming the victim.” Basically, you are suggesting that women and the church should respond to violence against women by requiring women to dress their bodies in covered ways so that men don’t find them alluring. If someone gets raped, well, then, she shouldn’t have been dressed that way. I realize that you probably don’t actually feel that way, but that’s the implicit assumption behind your comments. Parts of Sydney are unsafe, so are parts of London, so are parts of Salt Lake City, so are parts of Blackfoot, Idaho. I’ve walked the streets of the last three in shorts that barely covered my a** and felt completely safe. Why? Because I am smart and don’t walk the streets late at night by myself. But you know what… I should be able to walk the streets whenever I want, wherever I want, in whatever I want, without feeling scared for my safety. And finally, let’s be honest, wearing a skirt to my knees or even to my ankles won’t keep me from being raped if someone wants to rape me.

    Comment by Amanda HK — March 28, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

  24. Just wanted to say that There is considerable region-specific variety in the clothing instructions. The region-specific instruction is providers in the packet sent out on that big white envelope containing the mission call. A couple of weeks later the mission president will send a letter with even more specific info based in what he and his wife have learned by experience.

    I have sent out three missionary sons in the last six years. Each went to different weather and social climates. Their packing lists were distinctly different (though all were variations on the theme of white shirt, tie, pants.) oh, and color, cut, and style were specified.

    Comment by Coffinberry — March 29, 2013 @ 12:10 am

  25. Amanda,

    You’re right. I don’t mean to blame the victim. I know that studies show that provocative dress doesn’t cause rape. But let me take an extreme example. If a foreign woman were walking around, say, Jordan, she would get sexually harrassed if she didn’t know the culture. Local women don’t have it nearly as rough, because they get it. Now, most places aren’t the Middle East, but I can see the wisdom behind the idea of having rules to keep young missionary women covered well enough to look good, but not distract with their bodies. Again, maybe instructions by region would be better.* If the church told women to do that at home, I’d cry fowl with everyone else. But to tell young women who will be abroad to do that, I think that makes some sense. But I’m getting repetative so I’ll bow out.

    *Coffinberry mentions that there are regional instructions, but from all I’ve ever heard, they are mainly about packing smart according to local temperature. And some minor instruction (we weren’t allowed to have pink or yellow ties…too loud).

    Comment by DavidF — March 29, 2013 @ 1:47 am

  26. I’ve actually been to Jordan. Your example may be true for other places in the Middle East, but the people in Jordan were the nicest I’ve ever met and certainly didn’t harass me, even when I took off my scarf for a minute or wore sleeves that were shorter than the locals would wear. I saw western women in shorts and a tank top that didn’t get harassed or even looked at twice. In very real ways, I felt less looked at in Jordan than I did on my first Sunday in Provo, where my clothes obviously marked me as a non Mormon.

    Comment by Saskia T — March 29, 2013 @ 2:52 am

  27. Okay one last point. Saskia, I chose Jordan very deliberately. How long were you there? I lived in Jordan on a study abroad, and I was there with a bunch of women. I can refer you to a dozen of them who were harrassed, some in some really scary ways. BYU’s dress requirements for women are even stricter than sister missionary requirements, and its because they’ve run this program for years and have had lots of problems over those years. I love Jordan and I love the people there, but the reality is that even in one of the most progressive Middle Eastern countries, women have to be careful. As I said, the Middle East is an extreme example, and not really relevant to the OP, but I think it merits its own point in the discussion.

    Comment by DavidF — March 29, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

  28. forgive the typos. I should have proofread.

    Comment by DavidF — March 29, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

  29. I know that in the mission I am heading to they said to bring a variety of colors for clothes. In some cities/towns it is perfectly fine to wear more bright outfits, and in others it is more dangerous. In some of these areas the bright and less conservative clothing does attract more attention (and not in a good way). There is a higher chance of being kidnapped if you look like you are a foriegner, and also look like you have money (especially if you are in a very poor town). In some cultures the bright colors give an impression of money. Its just a thought. I also feel like women tend to worry more about what to wear and ask more questions. This may not apply to everyone, but I know of more than one group of sisters always asking questions on the type of shoes to wear and what skirts they should bring,etc. Most men don’t worry as much as women do about clothing.

    Comment by Krystal — April 30, 2013 @ 2:26 pm


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