The Day I Bought My Own Underwear

Trying to explain to someone who isn’t Mormon how difficult and also liberating it is to go to the store and buy your own underwear for the first time in nearly thirty years is, well, weird. I’ve worn Mormon temple garments as my main underwear (yes, I wear regular bras in addition, but rarely panties) since I got married in the temple in December of 1990, when I was twenty years old. I am now forty-eight. I’ve worn garments every day in between, including the days I gave birth, was in the hospital for a kidney stone surgery, through hundreds of periods, hot weather, cold weather. And now I’m not wearing them anymore. On the one hand, it seems like a ridiculous topic for an essay, right? Who cares about underwear? Just keep it to yourself. But it’s an important part of Mormonism.

Mormon temple garments are only for people who have been “endowed” in a specific Mormon ritual in a Mormon temple. In order to get a “temple recommend” for the endowment you have to be able to pass an interview with a series of questions. Some are simple, like if you believe in God and Jesus. Others are more complicated, like if you are honest in your dealings with your “fellow men.” There are also questions about paying child support, not abusing your spouse, and believing in Joseph Smith and the current prophet, but not believing in polygamous offshoots of Mormonism.

Temple garments are a marker that distinguish adults from children, but also more committed members from less committed or junior members. You have to be a member for at least a year to qualify for a temple recommend. A temple recommend is the gateway to Mormon wedding ceremonies, which seal the participants “for eternity” rather than simply “til death.” For many Mormons, this is the pinnacle of church participation, and in the last couple of decades, the church has tried to encourage members to attend at least monthly and to bring the names of their ancestors with them to seal them all together into an extended “eternal” family.

For most members, the two biggest difficulties of a temple recommend interview are tithing and Word of Wisdom (no coffee, tea, tobacco or alcohol). I stopped paying tithing in 2017, in the wake of the BYU rape scandals. I was a student of BYU and a proud Ezra Taft Benson scholar in 1988 (this is a scholarship give only to twelve young men and twelve young women who are examples not only of academic excellence, but also church service and devotion). I taught at BYU after I finished a PhD at Princeton, though I never got the full-time position I’d hoped for. None of my children attended BYU, despite my encouragement for them to do so. But when I realized that BYU’s Honor Code, something I’d never struggled with, had been used to shame young women who had been raped into not reporting it or if they did, to kick them out, I could no longer in good conscience send money to the church, since I couldn’t know it wouldn’t end up at BYU. Other problems with the church’s use of money followed, as I paid more attention to the lack of transparency at the top.

For me, growing up Mormon, I’d never tasted tea or coffee or alcohol and I’d always hated the smell of cigarettes, so these were not temptations. I even grew up in a family where Coke and Pepsi were outlawed because of caffeine and to this day, I hate those flavors even though I use them when I’m on a long drive to stay awake, and I use other caffeine (which is now clearly explained as not against the Word of Wisdom) for my Ironman races and other events I participate in.

I’ve heard all the questions about Mormon underwear you can imagine. People are infinitely curious, which must be what Mormon leaders intend, since they have kept our holy underwear patterns secret for a century or more. Some of those questions have included:

1. What happens if they get dirty? (you wash them — they’re just underwear)

2. Aren’t they uncomfortable in heat? (they can be, yes, but you can also get different fabrics and styles, like thermal ones that work well in cold weather and mesh fabric that work well in heat)

3. Do you know if other Mormons are wearing them? (Some Mormons claim they never look for the knee line under pants or the smile under a shirt, but I don’t believe them. Also, for women especially, there is a lot of policing and women hear if anyone can “see” their garments. A typical “funny” phrase for this is “your testimony is showing.”)

4. What do you do when they get worn out? (you’re supposed to cut them into tiny pieces first so no one knows what they were.)

5. Where do you buy them? (at a special church-owned store)

6. Can anyone get them? (no, you have to show your temple recommend or your church ID — yes, I’m serious)

7. How many layers do women have to wear with garments on? (in the summer, I’m always wearing at least three layers: bra, garments, shirt, but in the winter, it may be five layers: bra, garment, shirt, sweater, coat)

8. Do you wear them over or under other underwear? (you can do either, whichever is more comfortable)

9. What about when you get your period? (if you use tampons, you probably won’t have a problem, but if you use pads, they are virtually impossible to stick onto any garment bottom I’ve ever tried. They shift and bunch and blood gets everywhere, so you have to wear regular panties and then garments on top, which is really bulky and uncomfortable)

10. What if you get yeast infections from your garments? (this isn’t a problem I think anyone has tried to solve, though they try to make sure garment bottoms for women always have a cotton crotch strip)

11. Who designs the new styles of garments as they come out? (I’m sure there’s a department that oversees this, though am dubious about how many women are involved. The church periodically tries out “test” garments in new styles and sends them to a test audience to ask for responses. They also sometimes send out surveys to be filled out about problems with garments, so you can give responses)

Of course, it’s easy now to go online and see what they look like (which is a T-shirt with knee-length boxers). Let me just say quickly here that garments serve two purposes:

1. To remind us of specific covenants (promises) made in the temple which are associated with the four embroidered (or now silk-screened) marks on the garment on stomach, both breasts, and on the right knee.

2. To keep us wearing modest clothing. Since “modesty” is a temporal line and is constantly moving, temple garments have also changed over the years. The current style of women’s garments are sleeveless (a recent change) though they don’t have spaghetti straps or anything that scandalous. And they go down to the knee.

[Old style Mormon underwear went to ankles, neck, and wrists. Many fundamentalist Mormon groups still wear these and make them themselves, and they’ve moved to having children wear them, as well. Traditionally, Mormons only put on garments after they were adults and endowed in a temple ceremony. The rules of when you are allowed to take them off are hotly debated. My grandmother used to keep one foot in her garments even when she took a bath. Mormon Millenials tend to wear them less than the “day and night” rule I was given. My parents’ generation tended to wear them even during heavy exercise and they chastised me when I wore more typical gym workout clothing.]

My problems with Mormonism didn’t begin as the bulk of those I’ve since connected to online, which I would very loosely put into two groups: social issues (lgbt, women’s ordination), historical issues (The Book of Mormon historicity, polygamy). But my first problems with Mormonism were about the Mormon description of God. When my daughter died in 2005 at a stillbirth, I found that those around me who tried to give me comfort through Mormon teachings ended up hurting me instead. Telling me that this was a “test” or that “God’s way to teach a lesson” made me see the Mormon God as one more interested in demanding obedience rather than love. I’ve turned to a god more of love, though I haven’t found a specific institution that I’m interested in moving my devotion to. I write about Mormonism still and find it difficult when I hear critics talk about it as a “cult,” though I see some cult-like features. Many of my family and friends are still firmly committed to the church and I try hard to honor their choices.

But for me, taking off the holy Mormon garments was a moment of finally admitting to myself that I just can’t fit myself into Mormon theology and that I don’t think there are any changes that will happen in my lifetime that will make it possible for me to fit again. First and foremost, I don’t believe that other people would be designated by God to receive revelation for me. Secondly, I don’t believe in a God who cares what I eat or drink, what I wear, or any other of a hundred things that Mormons believe on a daily basis help them to become more holy. While for many years I hung onto both my Mormon garments and my hope that things would change for the better in the future within the church on issues I cared about, taking off my garments this week was an admission that I need to move forward in my life and stop making myself smaller for Mormonism.

What did it look like? It looked pretty simple. I went to the local Walmart and bought myself a set of panties in a package. I wanted all white panties, but I couldn’t find any like that, so I had to settle for a multi-pack of all colors. I bought myself the same style (bikini) that I used to wear in college and that I liked. I could have gone to a high-end store in the mall and bought more expensive panties. I may yet do that. But for now, it made it easier to have fewer choices rather than more, and it made sense to go back to something that I used to wear rather than any of the new styles or fabrics that have come out since then. I already have bras, so I didn’t have to buy those. I bought these items along with a bunch of groceries, concealing them in a way, from any curious eyes. And then I walked out, feeling as if I was having a panic attack.

I felt my heart thumping hard in my chest. I felt dizzy and nauseated. I felt like I couldn’t feel my own body properly anymore. And this was all before I even put on the new panties. I was still wearing my Mormon underwear at the time.

I drove home, took all the groceries out, put them away, and then, finally, went upstairs to take off my garments and put on regular underwear. This all seems silly to write down, as if putting on a pair of panties was some grand moment of liberation. It wasn’t that. I didn’t feel a glorious new sense of freedom in my skimpy underwear. But it was a moment of huge change, from trying to fix Mormonism from within, to deciding I wasn’t going to do that anymore. I was just going to be me.

There was no fanfare, though I did text my older sister, who left Mormonism about ten years ago, about what I was doing. I’d talked to her three weeks before and told her about my countdown. Yes, I planned this three weeks before. I don’t know why I chose a specific date, but I felt like I needed to make some kind of plan for the future or I’d keep putting it off simply because it was easier not to change and go through all of the explanations from family members and friends about why I’d done this terrible thing that would sever me from all my temple blessings and my eternal sealing to my family.

All that day, I continued to feel symptoms of panic attacks. My vision went dark at times. I felt like I was going to fall over if I tried to stand. I continued to feel heart palpitations and as if my breath was too weak for my needs. I texted my sister and she sent me some funny videos. I texted another friend who had Facebooked years before about the day she took off her temple garments and cried for a full day about it (which at the time I thought was excessive and never something I would do). Finally, I went to bed. In the morning, I woke up and felt, well, fine.

Nothing terrible had happened, despite my premonitions of imminent danger. Mormons are told that garments are a “protection and a shield” and though these days we’re told that isn’t necessarily literal, there are a lot of urban legends running around in the guise of faith promotion about people in car accidents who were burned everywhere their garments didn’t touch. I thought myself far too scientific to fall prey to such silly thoughts. I didn’t think anything bad would happen to me. But I did feel like Mormon God was watching, and since I don’t have a good relationship with that God, I worried He’d send down some punishment to me. In my normal brain, I know that’s not how it works. I have a good relationship with what I think of as the real God, who is not like this at all, but somehow there is a default in my brain that tells me God is vengeful and I better watch out.

Because I’m a writer, I knew that the first thing I would do this morning would be to sit down and write an essay that would hopefully help me sort out my own feelings, process them, and take another step forward. I have a list of things I’m going to do before the new year that will help me find the right space for my own spiritualty in the world, away from Mormonism. Did I have to make this choice? No, I didn’t. I could have kept trying to stay. I have many very dear friends who are still trying to stay. I honor their choice.

But I also am not alone. I have many very dear friends who tried to stay and eventually realized that they couldn’t, that their conscience and their authenticity demanded they leave. I know very well the cost of inauthenticity. I know the suicidal thoughts that came to me when I tried to live the life of the faithful orthodox Mormon woman I had once been, when I was no longer that woman. I know how it feels to want to shout at everyone you know — this is not the real me! How can you be fooled into thinking it is? I remember how I was angry all the time that no one could tell that I was lying, angry also mostly at myself for not having the courage to tell people the truth for fear of how they would react. So I’m not going to choose that path. I’m choosing this path. My own path.

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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