Polygamy: It’s a Look

Jane Pojawa

Not so long ago, soon after the Yearning for Zion Ranch scandal broke, an article surfaced that really made me think the media could go no lower in trying to make a feature story out of a non-event. This Associated Press offender was “Polygamist Wives’ Clothing Looks to Past” by Hillary Rhodes. Allegedly abused women are being forcibly separated from their children who are in turn being moved to inadequate shelters. Freedom of religion is being weighed against the common good and apparently half of the teenaged boys from the compound are just plain missing. But Hillary Rhodes wants to know what they’re wearing.

On many levels, this is a case of “same planet, different world.” I don’t have a “look.” I have been dressing for comfort for several years. I own some girl shoes, but I don’t wear them. They look nice in my closet. I have an outfit for funerals and another one for job interviews. I have noticed that in order to look truly unfashionable one must do it deliberately. The Mr. Blackwell’s Worst-Dressed List is populated by women with perfect bodies and $10,000 to spend on an ugly dress. That’s why it’s fun to see them exposed for the trashy idiots they are. But. making fun of a Mormon? Isn’t that going a little too far? I suppose if they tacitly support child molestation they’re fair game, so let’s imagine this scenario:

You, three of your sister-wives and 27 of your combined children are shopping at Wal-Mart. Before you even know what is happening, your 15-year-old daughter has grabbed a copy of Vanity Fair and is looking at Miley Cyrus’ photograph with shock and awe on her stunned face. Mom, you’ve got to act fast! You snatch that magazine out of her hands, remind her that if she ever tried to join the outsiders they’d make her cut her hair, wear makeup and have sex with a lot of men. If she doesn’t believe you, then that picture is all the evidence she’d ever need. Then you remind her that her 56-year-old uncle is pretty hot and she’ll be lucky to become his “wife number five” in a few weeks. She nods, accepting her fate, and you breathe a sigh of relief. That was close!

In the meantime, Rhodes is vicariously going through the wardrobes of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [FLDS] to find the “why” behind the “what.” John Llewellyn, a polygamy expert and retired Salt Lake County sheriff’s lieutenant, is quoted as saying that the women cover themselves “so that they’re unattractive to the outside world or other men.” But that doesn’t really explain the dress. It’s not about being unattractive; it’s about being differently attractive. It’s a uniform and it’s pretty clear whose team they’re on. Anyone can see – pastel colored dress/no skin/ puffy sleeves equals “I’m a polygamist cult member, leave me alone.” If you’re on that team and in the market for a teenaged wife, it says “Hello, Sailor.”

Additionally, Janet Bennion, an anthropologist who studies polygamist women at Lyndon State College in Vermont is cited as saying that the clothing is also stitched with special markings “to protect the body and to remind you of your commitment,” which adds a proactive malevolence which is strangely appealing when one thinks of the women as “victims.” There’s some Girl Power, prairie-style, with a little voodoo thrown in. Now who’s passive in pastels?

Looking back at Miley, isn’t her 15-year-old butt on the auction block just as much as any of these FLDS teens? Shouldn’t she be taken into protective custody since her parents’ beliefs are clearly preventing her from growing up normal? Hmmm, sex object. makeup. devoid of spiritual meaning. When you look at it this way is it wrong to fault the Yearners for raising their kids more conservatively?

And then there’s the hair. Apparently the FLDS ladies have a belief that they’ll be using it to wash Jesus’ feet in heaven, and if that’s not realistic, then Paul’s letter to the Corinthians states “Judge for yourselves: Is it comely that a woman should pray unto God uncovered? Doth not even nature itself teach you that if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her, for her hair is given her for a covering.” This not so subtly indicates that if women don’t want to cruise around in burqas they should at least cover up with hair.

Different world. To me “no towels and an urgent need to wash feet in heaven” makes as much sense as wearing a “God loves me second-best” happy face t-shirt to church. One would think that hair length would be the last of Divine concerns – at least coming after global warming, war and pestilence. But at least I’m covered – with enough hair to get through a pair of size 13s. So even without the pompadour/French braid hair helmet, I can get past St. Paul’s golden tape measure of worthiness.

And so Rhodes predicts an anti-pastel fashion backlash. Oh my. Another set of fashion rules to memorize: “Orange is the new pink” was the dictate a few years back. I suppose it will be replaced with “Pink is the new ‘I was put on this earth to breed,” and fire engine red sends the message ‘One man, one woman, two kids.” Pastels would be as “out” as long dresses with Peter Pan collars. Unless they’re exonerated. Here’s my fashion prediction: To be on the safe side, wear paisley.

Election Update:

Utah polygamous communities produce voter’s guide
Sunday, November 2, 2008 9:00 PM EST
The Associated Press
By JENNIFER DOBNER and BROCK VERGAKIS Associated Press Writers

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – One of Utah’s original voting blocs – polygamists – is attempting to re-establish its political influence after more than a century of largely trying to go unnoticed.

Communities in Harmony, an alliance of representatives from various Utah polygamous groups, has issued a voter’s guide to assist Utah’s polygamists with Election Day decision-making.

“We need the candidates to know that they are just as accountable to us as they are to other constituents,” Carlene Cannon, the group’s spokeswoman and a member of the Davis County Cooperative Society, which practices polygamy.

Polygamy is a legacy of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The faith brought the practice to Utah in the 1840s but abandoned it in 1890 as a condition of statehood. Self-described fundamentalist Mormons continue to believe the principle brings glorification in heaven and maintain the practice mostly in secret.

But recent events have many fundamentalists placing a renewed focus on participating in the political process. In 2005, Utah courts took over a polygamous church’s property trust, and this year a highly publicized raid on the same sect’s ranch at Eldorado, Texas, put more than 400 children in state custody.

The voter’s guide questioned political candidates at all levels of state and federal government on political ethics and civil rights.

“Those of us watching at home in disbelief tried to comprehend that here in America; the land of the free, our own people were treated as if they were cattle and hauled off by military force – a picture of hate for a people misunderstood,” a section of the voter’s guide says. “The iron fist the state of Texas extended was not an accident. Our own public officials bragged about the assistance they gave to Texas officials.”

According to Cannon, about 37,000 polygamists and their children live in Utah, which has a population of about 2.7 million.

The voter project grew out of advocacy work begun about six years ago by polygamous women who sought to forge a better relationship with state officials and agencies.

In all, more than 150 candidates were polled. Among the questions: Should candidates accept funds from lobbyists who in turn ask for political favors; should consenting adults in polygamous families be considered criminals; and should the government spend public safety funds disproportionately to target one group of people?

Candidates were rated on a 1-5 scale on ethics and equal civil rights for their answers, with 10 considered a perfect, or positive, score.

More than 90 candidates for state offices did not respond by the Oct. 18 deadline.

“Obviously, this is a highly contentious issue and with the exception of a very few offices, most obviously being something like attorney general, it’s not something most elected officials or those running for office see as a crucial part of what they’re doing,” said University of Utah political scientist Matthew Burbank.

Among the no-shows was Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff who is seeking re-election and has worked closely with polygamous groups. His Democratic challenger Jean Hill did answer and earned 9 points and a thumbs-up for her responses.

Hill contends the state’s bigamy statutes are unconstitutional in the wake of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling Lawrence v. Texas. That case struck down a Texas sodomy law, saying it violated the due process clause and that the state has no justifiable interest intruding into the private lives of consenting adults.

Shurtleff says the state’s bigamy statutes would be upheld, but it is unreasonable to prosecute thousands of families and place children under state care.

Cannon said the survey is widely anticipated and used by the polygamy community. The completed surveys are also distributed to candidates.

“I think (the survey) has helped us help them realize who we are and what we contribute,” Cannon said.