“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful”: Random thoughts about Elder Callister’s Ensign article

This month’s Ensign contains a talk by Elder Douglas L Callister of the Seventy (a slightly edited reprint of a prior talk, actually) titled, “Our Refined Heavenly Home.” Some thoughts on reading over the talk:

1. Start with the good:

Horray for talks that encourage education, literature, and music. Horray for praising home libraries of 1000 books. Horray for “He referred to the grand masters of literature as the ‘minor prophets.'” Horray for a talk that singles out not just commonly cited literature in the LDS world (Victor Hugo) but also “Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin.” Elder Callister’s talk does all of these things. I loved those aspects of it.

2. The talk cites Oscar Wilde! Everyone’s favorite flamboyant bisexual playwright-poet, cited in the Ensign. Not bad.

3. There are some aspects of the talk that are . . . unusual. For instance:

“President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918), sixth President of the Church, owned few things, but he took care of them. He was fastidious in his appearance. He pressed his dollar bills to remove the wrinkles. He allowed none but himself to pack his overnight bag. He knew where every article, nut, and bolt of the household was, and each had its place.”

Pressing one’s dollar bills? One could argue that that crosses the line from admirable neatness into OCD. (Also, I want to know, did he shine and polish his quarters and nickels as well? Nobody wants a dinghy nickel!)

4. Let’s talk about awesome. Elder Callister takes issue with this word, writing

“God speaks all languages, and He speaks them properly. He is restrained and modest of speech. When God described the grand creational process of this earth, He said in measured tones that “it was good” (Genesis 1:4). We would be disappointed if God had used ‘awesome’ or other exaggerated phrases.”

I can appreciate the idea that we should use the right words, and not fall back onto tired cliches. But why excoriate “awesome”? Besides being an awesome adjective (grin), it also happens to be a word that President Hinckley used with some frequency (and President Monson uses as well). Other church leaders have used it even in its slang context — as in Elder Robert L. Backman’s message to youth, titled “They were awesome.” Is awesome really so bad?

5. And finally, the “gift of attentiveness to personal appearance.” Yep, here goes.

Many years ago an associate of mine decided he would please his wife by sharing with her a specific compliment each night as he arrived home. One night he praised her cooking. A second night he thanked her for excellence in housekeeping. A third night he acknowledged her fine influence on the children. The fourth night, before he could speak, she said, “I know what you are doing. I thank you for it. But don’t say any of those things. Just tell me you think I am beautiful.”

She expressed an important need she had. Women ought to be praised for all the gifts they possess—including their attentiveness to their personal appearance—that so unselfishly add to the richness of the lives of others. We must not let ourselves go and become so casual—even sloppy—in our appearance that we distance ourselves from the beauty heaven has given us.

I have mixed feelings on reading this. A number of friends of mine — mostly women, but some men also — found the idea that women have a “gift of attentiveness to personal appearance” to be extremely demeaning and offensive. I can understand the objection. Women do many things — thinking, writing, speaking, inventing, being musicians or scientists or lawyers or engineers or perpetual grad students — that do not necessarily involve looking pretty. Suggesting that looking pretty (a gift of attention to appearance) is one of womens’ special gifts potentially reduces women to nothing but a bunch of pretty faces, and at the same time downplays the many other achievements of many smart, talented, dedicated women.

On the other hand, I think that there it is absolutely a good idea to follow Elder Callister’s suggestion and tell one’s wife that she is beautiful. I know that my own wife always appreciates this. So do many other friends. Marriage counselors will say again and again the importance of affirming your spouse’s attractiveness. And I think that affirming appearance can be especially important for women.

I don’t mean this in a gender essentialist way. I don’t think that women are more naturally inclined this way, or anything like that. But the socialization of women in our society is such that extreme importance is put on women’s physical appearance. At the same time, supposed role models for female appearance are airbrushed anorexic supermodels. And so women get bombarded by a constant stream of messages: You’re not pretty enough. You’re not thin enough. You’re not physically perfect. (Plus, Mormon women get bombarded by contradictory messages. If they’re too pretty, then perhaps they’re walking porn for men. They need to somehow be very modest and at the same time beautiful, while also running a household and ironing the clothes dollar bills. Yikes! They can’t win.)

What do we do? Obviously, it’s important to recognize the backdrop of massive pressure, conflicting messages that women receive. And these messages are particularly tough because society tells women that their appearance matters, in a way that male appearance doesn’t. So not only is it impossible to thread the needle of appearance, this is an area which tends to affect women much, much more than it affects men.

As a result, this area is really tough for many people to navigate. And everyone handles it differently. For some women, being reminded of their appearance is a reminder of the cultural baggage that women face in general. For other women, being told that they look good is an important way to ameliorate the barrage of negative messages that they receive so often.

So, where does this get us? Why is it that Elder Callister’s talk seems both accurate and wrong in this area? I would say that, for me and for many men I know, the “tell your wife she’s beautiful” advice is great advice. But we have to also recognize that this is often an act of amelioration aimed at countering negative messages about womens’ appearance — and we need to make sure not to inadvertently reaffirm those negative messages, like the idea that women are just pretty faces (which the second part of Elder Callister’s quote unfortunately seems to do). (At least the Ensign version of the talk was edited to remove the follow up line, “Every man has the right to be married to a woman who makes herself as beautiful as she can be.” Double yikes!)

My tentative conclusions on the topic, after kicking it around with some friends.

-It’s problematic to emphasize looks alone, such as complimenting a woman only on her appearance, while ignoring her other accomplishments. It focuses attention on women as merely pretty faces. The typical introduction of “Dr. Smith, the accomplished University President, and his lovely wife” is offensive, because reducing women to merely pretty faces is wrong.

-On the other hand, for many women, affirmation of their attractiveness is personally important to them. Their appearance is a very important part of their self-image and identity. Given in the right context, compliments to these women are a way to reinforce them and to counteract the invidious messages that they get from society.

Such statements have to be made in context. Saying, “Husband is smart and articulate and wife is pretty” would be demeaning to her. On the other hand, saying, “wife is smart and talented and beautiful” may be something that she appreciates, a lot.

-And every woman navigates this differently, which makes it tricky. I think that the key is getting to know the person before opining on her looks. “She is pretty” should _not_ be the first thing that anyone says about a woman; it totally marginalizes her other talents — intelligent and articulate and thoughtful and so on. On the other hand, once someone has acknowledged that a woman is intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, then I think it’s not per se inappropriate to say that she’s pretty, too. She may appreciate it; many women really do appreciate comments of that sort. (But if at that point she replies, “I prefer not to discuss appearance,” then that line of discussion should stop.)


Thus, my own mixed reaction to the talk. I think that the sequence of events in Elder Callister’s example is actually a pretty good one — the husband first compliments his wife on three substantive points, before getting to beauty (and at her insistence). But the general point which he extrapolates from it — in particular, that women have a special “gift of attention to personal appearance” — is too broadly framed, and seems to (probably unintentionally) reinforce negative cultural messages about the importance of women’s beauty.

83 comments for ““Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful”: Random thoughts about Elder Callister’s Ensign article

  1. Because of sexual harassment concerns, workers are advised against saying anything about a woman’s appearance, for fear that anything good you say will be taken as sexual harassment, and anything negative you say will be taken as creating an oppressive and demeaning environment. So praise your wife or daughter on their appearance, because they aren’t going to hear it at work.

  2. I had much the same reaction to the talk and have thought about it a lot, although I think I ultimately in more negative territory than you did. Why? Because I think that when we look at where most LDS women are on this issue, they don’t need to hear the bit about God being disappointed in you if you don’t keep yourself (make yourself?) attractive–they need to hear Elder Holland criticize the “great and spacious make-up kit” culture.

    While a certain emphasis on physical appearance is justifiable, I don’t think there are many LDS women in danger of under-emphasizing their appearance, but a great many giving it too much thought. So I prefer Elder Holland’s approach.

  3. This is probably just me, but I didn’t get that offended by it. If someone introduced me as my husband’s lovely wife, it wouldn’t bother me. I don’t take “lovely” as being firstly about looks. I take it as being more a lovely person as a whole. Plus, I appreciate the compliment and it’s intention. I try not to get too bent out of shape about things.

    Sometimes I feel sorry for men if they want to give a compliment to a woman. It seems like there is a veritable minefield for them to maneuver. Should it really be that hard? Or do that many people not have enough common sense to realize the basics of a compliment? I’m not familiar w/ Elder Holland’s talk.

    I agree, Kaimi, that our society focuses on the wrong kind of beauty for women, and we have some pretty sad physical role models. I remember seeing casual nudity on tv in france and it didn’t bother me. But I don’t want it in America. Why? Because it would turn into a soap-opera, airbrushed, unrealistic type of beauty that would do more harm than good. I don’t trust us to be able to portray it naturally and casually. But I will stop there so I don’t get too far off down the wrong tangent.

    Anyway, I take pride in my appearance. I try to look nice. However, I spend about five minutes on make-up and there are no designer clothes in my closet, so I don’t think it’s the focus of my life. And I do have accomplishments and talents to offer.

    I do think about this…but I don’t want to overanalyze. does that make any sense?

    I heard Elder Callister speak once in our stake and thought he was totally awesome. I live in Florida. I’m not giving up that word.

  4. Great post, Kaimi.
    I have to admit that I haven’t had time to read the talk, so my comments are based on your assessment.

    I like the balance between complimenting your wife’s skills and talents before complimenting her beauty. You can even do it in the same breath, “How did I get so lucky to get a wife that is a great singer, writer, and also gorgeous?” It’s important to not just compliment women on what they do for you or others (cooking, cleaning, raising children).

    Also, it helps to recognize that (for many women) it takes money to make a woman beautiful. Make-up, creams, waxing (heaven help us), highlights, and much more. Even for low maintenance women, there are still additional costs compared to men. My husband likes my hair highlighted, so I remind him that when he checks the bank statement and sees the cost.

    So, if this is just about husbands and wives, this makes sense.
    But, like the first commenter, is it also about co-workers? What about extended family or ward members?
    How do you compliment the beauty of those around you?

  5. It will never, ever, ever hurt anybody, male or female, to acknowledge when a wife, mother, sister, daughter, or, in most cases, a personal friend, has made a special effort to look nice.

    If your feminist angst keeps you from saying “You look nice” when she has a new haircut or a new shirt or has taken unusual care with her grooming, then your ideology is a cancer that has overtaken your humanity.

  6. This talk really bugged me when I heard it given, because of a section where he spoke about how a date to the ballet was so much more refined than going on a date to a sports event. Personally, I prefer ballet to sports, but the tone felt so supercilious to me–very much a “holier than thou” kind of talk. I see that part’s been removed! Funny.

  7. I think Elder Callister is right, that women do generally have a gift for personal appearance that cannot simply be chalked up to societal constructs.

    Even in today’s world of metro-males and advertisements geared toward male appearance (including hair & weight products) one still finds far more male slobs than females. These include clueless guys with Dennis-the Menace-cowlicks and lint on the back of their pants.

    Of course, advertisements have tremendous power and I don’t take an all-or-nothing approach to the nurture-nature debate.

    But we are fully aware that certain elements in media overindulge us on superficial notions of female beauty and I draw a sharp contrast between these glitzy messages and our interpersonal communication. In our various attempts at fighting harmful messages, we have overcorrected in various ways. For example, we have created a false dichotomy between “looks and personality” when in fact, one’s looks are often an essential part of their personality (think Abraham Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones, Katherine Hepburn, and Michelle Obama). Some have also tried to assume that focus on a woman’s appearance somehow denigrates other great things about her. I dispute that view. The fact that Lincoln was a great humorist does not denigrate the fact that he was also a great philosopher, nor does the fact that Michelle Obama has a striking appearance lead me to forget her intellectual and professional bona fides—in fact, I believe these traits complement each other in meaningful ways.

    One reason I enjoy the changing of the seasons so much is that women tend to change their appearance to complement nature and I believe that it is a form of art. Men and their clothing also have aesthetically pleasing qualities, but they pale in comparison to those of women. Ironically, it is usually women who complement other women in both the workplace and at home and while that is OK I feel it is also somewhat unfortunate. I try to complement women on their appearance in positive ways as much as seemingly appropriate but it’s still not often. But those few times I have done so I have never—I repeat never—received a negative response. I think that says something.

  8. In my opinion it means the world to a woman to have her husband tell her that she is beautiful. All the other positives about her are important and should never be neglected. But it is a fact that most women want to be perceived as beautiful to the man they love.

  9. In comparing the version published in the Ensign with the transcript of the devotional (to which the online Ensign has a link), it’s interesting to consider what was included and what was edited out of the Ensign version.

    What does it say about Elder Callister and about the Ensign editors that they chose to leave some of the oddities (ironing dollar bills, ‘musical french fries’) in, while removing some of the other oddities (“Every man has the right to be married to a woman who makes herself as beautiful as she can be.”)

    And after watching the Queen of England sit down to tea at a country farm without making the hosts feel uncomfortable that their surroundings were not as regal or refined as those the Queen usually inhabits, I have to believe that a perfect God would be able to do the same for each of us. After all, if God speaks and understands each language perfectly, it seems clear that that same God would understand the difference between “good” and “awesome” and would not fault the user for saying it, much less treat the speaker with derision or “unspoken disappointment”.

  10. Amy S said “This is probably just me, but I didn’t get that offended by it. If someone introduced me as my husband’s lovely wife, it wouldn’t bother me. I don’t take “lovely” as being firstly about looks. I take it as being more a lovely person as a whole. Plus, I appreciate the compliment and it’s intention. I try not to get too bent out of shape about things.”

    I too take “lovely” as being more about the whole person than about looks. It seems to me to connote good character, dignity, and a dollop of intelligence as well as looks. When I say “she’s a lovely woman” I’m not thinking of her physical appearance.

  11. She expressed an important need she had. Women ought to be praised for all the gifts they possess—including their attentiveness to their personal appearance—that so unselfishly add to the richness of the lives of others. We must not let ourselves go and become so casual—even sloppy—in our appearance that we distance ourselves from the beauty heaven has given us.

    Here is how I broke down that last paragraph

    Wife says to husband – thank you for the compliement – but I need you to tell me I am beautiful.

    It is ok to praise women for their “attentiveness to their personal appearance” (notice not, “smoking hot bod” or “fine figure” or “perfect hair” or “body size”)

    We need to take care of ourselves and maintain the things that we have. Brush those teeth, don’t wear sweats in public, excessive makeup, torn jeans, vulgar clothing etc.

    —End interpretation —

    In that vein it doesn’t feel offensive. But now I will have to go look at the talk more.

  12. Good post, Kaimi. Agreed with your conclusions. BTW, the original address was far more problematic in those central paragraphs you cite.

  13. I’ve always been astonished at the lengths that women go to to make themselves attractive. My heart both melts and pains for them. Especially when they don’t get it exactly right, and are in some way awkward, I love them so much and want so badly for them to feel accepted and loved.

    I could do a lot more to watch my physical appearance. For instance, I could do a much better job trimming my nose and ear hairs. ~

  14. Let us not forget that sometimes men too need to be reassured that they are attractive physically. Because I often get annoyed when my wife compliments me on how strong I am or how I am “the smartest person in the ward” or how good I am at everything I do. Because that is nice to hear, but I already know all of that. So I sometimes say to her “I just want you to tell me I am good looking.”

    At which point she usually just changes the subject or pretends she is choking on something.

  15. Yeah, Kaimi, I thought he was going down the right path at first–of course a wife wants assurance that her mate finds her beautiful (just as a husband would want the same assurance–I know that I do). This is the kind of subjective beauty that we see in our spouses.

    But then instead of leaving it there, he turned it into a right to have an objectively beautiful spouse; that a wife has an obligation to make herself objectively beautiful. And that is where I think he went off the rails. It should be enough that a husband finds his wife beautiful (and presumably he should, since he’s the one who married her); he has no inherent right for her to look like Angelina Jolie (i.e., objectively beautiful by some worldly standard).

  16. I wonder how this sort of article plays out with the international membership (or if it makes the Liahona)–it’s one thing to be a temple president admiring the chandeliers, and another to be the Kenyan saints living in mud huts without electricity or plumbing and walking two hours to church.

  17. Elder Callister was our Area Seventy when I served between 2000-2002. This article reads like a Zone Conference. He was intense, seriously. He called classical music the music of the gods and encouraged us to listen to it. I say this not as criticism but as an observation. Keeping some of those intimidating Zone Conferences in mind, this article has much more context. Just my 2 cents.

  18. Thank you for bringing up this article. I was rather disturbed by it and was just last night discussing it with my husband. What bothered me was not so much the bit about focusing on a wife’s appearance, or the husband deserving a wife who looks attractive, but *Callister’s ideas about who God is*. I was bothered that he claims that God is a being of “measured tones” based solely on the Genesis quote (“it was good”), and that “we would be disappointed if God had used “awesome” or other exaggerated phrases.” (No, I wouldn’t be disappointed, not at all. Stop speaking for me.)

    Really, I don’t think God is as limited and boring as the scriptures (and Callister) make him out to be, and I hate anyone telling me how God is–I don’t think Callister, Seventy or no, has any greater understanding of God’s temperament and personality than I do. I hate this whole theme in the church that men of heirarchy have a better understanding of God than those of us at the low end, and can tell us who God is. Interestingly, in those cases, God often seems to reflect the personality of the speaker, and not the other way around.

  19. Thanks for this. I really did like some of the ideas in the article, and I can see some areas where I ought to raise the bar culturally speaking.

    However, the thing about God speaking in measured tones was asinine. First of all, do we really think that Genesis is some kind of accurate transcript of conversations in the celestial control center during the creation? Even more bothersome is this comment: “We would be disappointed if God had used ‘awesome’ or other exaggerated phrases.” Really, Elder Callister? REALLY? You would be DISAPPOINTED? IN GOD?! What would that even sound like, “I’m sorry, O Lord, I just wish you had read more Strunk and White––I really expected better from you, God?” REALLY? Gimme a break.

  20. I found it interesting to compare the Ensign version with the transcript of the entire talk. For what it’s worth, the Ensign editors don’t take out material just because they don’t like it—often it’s merely a space consideration. They almost never have enough pages in the magazine to print an entire BYU devotional talk.

    In the full transcript, Elder Callister talks about both women AND men paying attention to their personal appearance. He devotes just as much space to the idea that men shouldn’t “let themselves go.” I wish some of that had been preserved in the Ensign version.

    Also, regarding God and the word “awesome,” the Ensign left off the end of a phrase used in Elder Callister’s talk. The original quote reads, “We would be disappointed if God had to use ‘awesome’ or other exaggerated phrases IN EVERY PARAGRAPH.” (Sorry about the caps, but I don’t know how to use italics here .) That changes the meaning somewhat.

    Also, regarding comment #6, Elder Callister didn’t say a date to the ballet was superior to an athletic event. He told the story of an athlete with no previous exposure to cultural events who was enthralled by a ballet while on a date. In another anecdote, he told a young man that a woman who could enjoy a cultural event on Friday and an athletic event on Saturday might be someone who would be a good fit for him.

    I hadn’t read either talk before seeing this post, and I was prepared to dislike the original—but it was actually pretty good, I thought. Doesn’t mean I’ll be ironing my dollar bills anytime soon.

  21. Wait, with all due respect to the numerous comments about women’s appearance, I thought the most startling bit was the mention of Oscar Wilde!! That could be the start of a good spitting contest. I once mentioned Truman Capote in a talk, but when no one blinked I realized I wasn’t as brave as I thought.

  22. Back when I was a senior in high school, and a little more adventurous, I gave a talk based on Tolstoy’s What is Art? Don’t know if that’s the Tolstoy Elder Callister had in mind, but the talk itself was probably less a function of bravery than obliviousness.

  23. I’m with Ardis (5). I don’t see anything objectionable about encouraging people to take care of their appearance, as long as the counsel is given equally to both genders. Where is the original talk?
    As far as the word awesome goes, those of us who were raised in Southern California might take issue with that part of his talk, but rather than get angry about it, I would encourage Elder Callister to come to Los Angeles, mingle among us, have some In ‘n out, and learn to see the beauty in how we live.

  24. Dan (24): I suspect Elder Callister already sees the beauty in Southern California. According to his bio in the Ensign (May 2000), he was born in Glendale, attended USC, and was living in La Cañada at the time of his call to the Seventy.

  25. Classical music is great, but there’s gotta be a place for Led Zeppelin in the celestial kingdom too.

    I encourage my wife to use makeup less; if I had it my way Sundays is enough. I encourage even women with those ‘plain’ faces to use less makeup too. It takes longer to see the beauty, but when the inner light finally comes through you don’t notice the difference any more.

  26. In the spirit of being OCD (and as a digression from the excellent substantive discussion above), I think you mean hooray rather than horray, and dingy rather than dinghy (although it never hurts to have some spare change available during an oceanic emergency).

  27. more mixed messages. How can one person praise beauty in once sentence, yet another can call some “walking porn”?

  28. Kaimi, for my money you’ve chosen the least interesting part of the talk to chew on here. The two sentences you’ve picked out will evoke utterly predictable responses from feminists and from their critics, and indeed nary a new idea has raised its head in the ensuing debate. (That’s not your fault, of course.)

    I think it would be much more interesting to compare Elder Callister’s vision of the divine as haute culture with, say, Levi Petersen’s in “The Backslider,” in which the protagonist experiences a vision of Christ as a slovenly, smoking, taciturn cowboy. Petersen’s approach is moving in its context, but the liberal vision of Christianity and salvation that underlies it is foreign—even hostile—to some aspects of Mormonism. On the other hand, Mormonism is also a thorough melding of the sacred with the earthy (a la Givens), and so in some ways I think Elder Callister’s vision is blind to our history.

    To make things really interesting, you could talk about the way that haute culture has, in modernism and some forms of post-modernism, rejected the notion of the “beautiful” as a moral category. In many ways, Levi Petersen’s “Backslider,” with its embrace of the broken, the dirty, the repugnant, is a classic specimen of the modern literature “of good report.” And so in urging us to seek out the best of Western art, Elder Callister is urging us into the arms of Petersen and others.

  29. I know I am in permanent moderation but I’ll say it for Kaimi’s benefit.

    This talk has been wrested out of its original context and you have made it too general. This sort of wresting is a tired cliche of pseudo-intellectuals.

  30. May I point out that the phrase “walking porn,” often wrongly attributed to Dallin Oaks, actually originated with his critics.

  31. Rosalynde: I disagree. To say that because modernism exalts the broken and profane is a stretch. To carry it further and to say that because modernism sometimes produces work of good report (also an argument to proven) that we ought to model what we see is ludicrous.

    Example: T.S. Eliot. The point of the Waste Land was NOT to encourage people to create waste lands; rather to bring health and vitality back into living though universal good.

    Seeking out what you call “haute culture” is fundamentally designed to show the greatest reverence for the life of Christ because even though he was humble and poor, his message was to be clean and simple. To present him in any other way would be disrespectful to the goal of the Atonement. He died that we might be CLEAN and truly sober.

  32. 18 – You’ve gone straight to the real problem with the talk. Thank you. It’s unfortunate that even those in the Seventy can approach God and leadership in this manner.

    But hey, look at it this way – at least they’re not plotting to take over the church, betray the prophet, or whatever else has gone on in church history. Every age has its challenges; hopefully today’s are less damaging to the progress of the kingdom.

  33. Rivkah’s (#21) insight is, I think, the most important message of this conversation — what we read in the Ensign and what Elder Callister actually said are two very different things. Does it really make any sense for us to be discussing Elder Callister’s talk at all if it’s not really Elder Callister’s talk?

    I know that Rivkah mentioned that “the Ensign editors don’t take out material just because they don’t like it—often it’s merely a space consideration,” but even in cutting material for space considerations an editor makes value judgments. If the original talk gave equal space to both men and woman on the matter of “attentiveness to personal appearance”, then the article’s focus on it as a female trait tells us more about the editor’s paradigm than it does about Elder Callister’s.

  34. But Dane, (and Rivkah), I think the fact the that this version of the talk is in the Ensign is more, not less damaging.

    What a single Seventy says at a BYU devotional can be overlooked or dismissed as personal opinion. But what is published in a magazine that passes correlation is harder to set aside. I think we are stuck with thinking that the Ensign brought out the most important points, and that the parts that were edited were unimportant.

  35. Mark (35), I don’t disagree with you, I just feel that some of the criticism here may have been misdirected.

  36. Okay, I am not sure what some of you are talking about. Let me put it this way. My wife is super-duper, smoking hot. I think she is more beautiful than the day we married and I can’t imagine how that is anything other than AWESOME! Someone who is upset or disappointed for the emphasis placed on looks is probably just a very unattractive person and very insecure about it.

    I assume that the reason I find her so attractive now is that my love for her has reached greater depths as we have been together, raised children, had joy and pain and worshipped together these years. For me that has translated into her appearance being more appealing to me even though we are both older and well…..let’s just say few twenty year-olds would be wanting to date either of us now. If a woman does not get that from her husband, I understand her anger because he does not love her, not totally. If a man does not feel that for his wife, he might be angry because he feels guilty for not loving her the way that he should. I feel sorry for them both.

  37. Also, #18 – your obvious anger over this talk speaks to something outside of this talk. It also seems really out of proportion for a talk in a magazine, even the Ensign. Sorry you were so offended.

  38. Just as a side note……my grandparents ironed their money also. It set the ink so it wasn’t as dirty to handle(they said).

  39. We truly have reached the pinnacle of our take-offense-to-everything culture if we are now finding compliments on our appearance “demeaning.”

  40. Dane (#34), yes, you are right–editors must make value judgments when they decide what to cut.

    Mark (35), you said, “The Ensign brought out the most important points, and . . . the parts that were edited were unimportant.” The reality is more likely that the editing was left to the judgment of the individual editor rather than the entire staff. The staff doesn’t have time to discuss what to preserve and what to cut, and certainly the correlation committee doesn’t have time to compare the edited version with the full version of every general authority talk that is published in the Church magazines. Even the general authorities themselves probably don’t have time to carefully consider all of the edits made to their talks. So again, a lot of the editorial decisions would be left up to the individual editor.

  41. Melanie2 (25),

    Interesting- Elder Callister’s Southern California roots may have a lot to do with why I don’t find anything he said to be offensive. I am still surprised at his frowning upon the word awesome, though, but maybe he heard that evangelical anthem Our God is an Awesome God and felt the same way I did, that that song is one I would be embarrassed to sing about the God of the universe. Who knows…

  42. Julie #2–Add Susan Tanner’s talk to Elder Holland’s–both given in the same year.

    Almost every semester, I have students write essays about their eating disorders, cutting, self-loathing, obsession about appearance, etc–either their own or a sibling’s. I’m afraid the culture which supports thinking like what’s behind this talk produces tragic consequences.

  43. I agree with 2, 18, and 29. Moreover, I think that when the scriptures say that God speaks to us in our own language, it means God may use “awesome” in every other sentence, or may appear in the way The Backslider portrays the vision of Jesus, if that, in God’s judgment, is the best way to communicate with us.

  44. #43 – I understand your sentiment but I think that sexual and physical abuse is far more prevalent a contributor to the problems you are citing than anything addressed in the referenced talk. I have worked with cutters and others with severe mental health issues for several years and if we eliminated abuse I would be out of work immediately.

  45. When God described the grand creational process of this earth, He said in measured tones that “it was good.” We would be disappointed if God had used ‘awesome’ or other exaggerated phrases.”

    You mean even CREATION isn’t “awesome”? Apparently he can call it “grand”–rather than the measured “good”–but we can’t say it was awesome? If that ain’t awesome, I don’t know what is.

  46. Julie Smith wrote:

    While a certain emphasis on physical appearance is justifiable, I don’t think there are many LDS women in danger of under-emphasizing their appearance, but a great many giving it too much thought.

    I thought your input was very good. I understand this sentence, as I’ve seen what I would consider too much emphasis, but I probably see more LDS women with almost no emphasis on appearance than those who are obsessed with it.

    I travel around the country speaking at homeschool conventions (I spoke at one here in Salt Lake today)–often for specifically LDS groups. In that subset of adult women (both LDS and not) I do see a lot of women who would fit the latter category.

    It’s tough when you’ve got the usual homemaker things going AND you’re schooling your billion kids. I know that. But I’ve found it funny how for years one of the responses I’ve received most from attendees is that they just loved how I was “a homeschooler and still so professional!” All I ever did was fix my hair, wear my usual makeup, and usually a feminine dress/jacket combination or a dressy skirt with a nicer blouse with hose and heels. Nothing fancy at all.

    Initially it surprised me. My thought was, “Well, what ELSE would I wear to speak at a big convention?” But as I walk around, very often even many of the speakers just have on jeans/t-shirts or a denim skirt and birks or something. Although I have noticed a bit of an upward trend lately.

    Really though, most of the LDS women I know are clean, reasonably up-to-date, and otherwise take reasonable care with their appearance. Not at either extreme.

  47. Hm. The article itself seems much less intense than this post reflects, imo. I think it needs to be read as a whole, rather than (over-)dissecting individual lines.

    I don’t think he was just focusing on women when he said: “We must not let ourselves go and become so casual—even sloppy—in our appearance that we distance ourselves from the beauty heaven has given us.” Pres. Hinckley talked often to the young men about not being sloppy, too.

    IMO, Alison’s comment #47 is an example, imo, of why we need both Elder Holland-like talks and talks that remind us that appearance does matter at some level — not to live up to some arbitrary cultural standard, but in a way that is consistent with who we really are — children of God. It seems to me that that is what he is saying.

    Finding the balance between being neat and comely and not overempasizing appearance is, of course, an individual journey. But we can’t swing too far to either extreme and find truth, imo.

    As to correlation, I’m pretty sure that it’s never one person working on an article, so decisions are reached by mini-committee, not just by one individual. FWIW.

    (As to ‘awesome’ — I think there is a refined way to use that word, and a pop-culture-like way to use it. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of reason to say that we ought to try to remove the use of lazy or pop-culturey language.)

  48. “But as I walk around, very often even many of the speakers just have on jeans/t-shirts or a denim skirt and birks or something.”

    Perhaps one reason they can afford to dress that way is that they ARE home schoolers. When my last babies were little, I had to start dressing a bit better in order to deal with the high school for my older children–nothing spectacular, but no jeans.

    I had to go in to talk to school administrators in order to persuade them to let a daughter take the second semester of Latin without having the first, let them take the AP exams for the year we were homeschooling in Brasil, find a way for our son to get a passing grade in AP American History so he wouldn’t lose his National Merit scholarship, etc. This might not happen every place, but I found they treated me more seriously when I dressed a bit more seriously.

    It was during that time that I started sewing a bunch of just-below-the-knee split skirts that are great for sitting on the floor with toddlers and now riding my bicycle 5 miles to my office. They are the foundation of my wardrobe nowadays.

  49. Here is another point that hasn’t been brought out yet. The definition of refinement as outlined in the article is a shallow one, concerned with appearance and superficiality. C.S. Lewis (I can quote him here, right? He’s good enough for general conference, so he’s good enough for T&S.) says that the devil himself is a refined gentleman who always uses just the right word and who gives careful attention to dress, grooming, and manners. Elder Callister gives us no tools to distinguish “good” refinement from “bad” refinement. Remember, In Kirtland and Nauvoo, refined people got their noses out of joint and left the church because they were so disappointed in the rough, uneducated, and unrefined hayseed who purported to be a prophet and speak for God. It is easy to be fooled by externalities.

  50. Tolkien (not quoted as much as Lewis in conference, but the guy who helped convert Lewis to Christianity) had an interesting note on the subject. Frodo, after seeing Strider (Aragorn), says that a spy of the enemy would “seem fairer and feel fouler.” I see the enemy as representing the devil, and Strider as Christ (although that symbolism is certainly open to interpretation). I’m sure those most adequately representing the devil wear very nice clothing and groom meticulously. I’m pretty sure Christ dressed simply. And we know from the Book of Mormon of the signs of a prideful people–including their manner of dress.
    We need to avoid the extremes, and seek a good balance somewhere in the middle.

  51. Wow–I think some of you guys are really looking beyond the mark here. I’m wondering how many of you actually read the article, or at least read it without an agenda. I hope, for my own sake, you never hear a sacrament talk I give–I’m sure you’d hear all kinds of offensive messages I never dreamed of sending.

  52. This sort of post-modern hand-wringing is becoming more and more common on this site. It makes me question whether visiting this site is worthwhile any longer.

  53. My wife brought my attention to the article and this blog post. I didn’t find the bit on the sexes offensive (I glossed over it), but what stood out to me was that he makes heaven seem like a visit to your grandmother’s stuffy parlor where you couldn’t touch anything and you have to sit with your back straight up (no slouching, for slouches are good for nothing) and not look to the side or make any crumbs.

    There are a lot of wonderful things in the world that I hope have the Lord’s approval that wouldn’t make it into the heavenly salon envisioned by Elder Callister. I’m not advocating for an anything goes attitude, but if Elder Callister has really pulled back the curtain of heaven and let us peak in, I’m afraid it’s a bit of a fusty place where you don’t dare touch anything or move the furniture.

    Is heaven really a parlor where we sit still and enunciate our vowels properly?

  54. Could our society today produce an Isaac Newton or a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?

    In the case of scientists, the answer certainly is yes. When I mentioned the Mozart bit to my wife her response was “Mozart was a prick.” Which surely gets to the point: Much of what he cites as greatness was made by people who certainly wouldn’t get past the door of his celestial salon. Often they were great precisely because of their weaknesses. Some of what he cites or would envision now was considered terribly vulgar in its day.

  55. Perhaps one reason they can afford to dress that way is that they ARE home schoolers.

    I’m unsure what that means except to say that homeschoolers can “afford” to be sloppy because they rarely go out or see anyone. In my experience homeschooling parents are in public more than most other stay-at-home parents–though, granted, not lunching with friends or playing mahjong–so it wouldn’t necessarily lend to a more relaxed style than other moms who have kids in the home.

    The point being that even in settings that are generally considered professional, many women didn’t seem to find that it called for anything more than hanging out at the park. And it DID affect how they were perceived by the audiences.

    The first time I spoke at a major convention I got the highest marks in the attendee surveys. I was stunned and can’t imagine that was really due to my incredibly dynamic speaking, particularly at that point. I attribute a great deal of it to the fact that I was one of the few who made an effort at appropriate and professional presentation.

    By contrast, I’d say 90% of the men who speak at homeschool conventions (not vendor workshops, but the general speakers) wear a suit and tie.

    I suppose I think that if there are particular areas that guys often need to be nudged about, maybe there are areas that women also need to be nudged about. Of course I don’t want appearance the primary judgment of our character. But if we are generally slacking in that area, I think we can be reminded about it without getting too offended.

  56. And yet, how and what we compliment each other can have a big impact. There’s a great article from NY Magazine (Feb 2007) titled, “How Not To Talk To Your Kids” that delves into how effort praise encourages children to explore and expand, while ability or status praise inhibited children from exploratory actions due to fears related to inability to perform.

    I feel sorry for Callister’s associate, who was trying to value this things she did. Fine if his wife needed and acknowledged that she needed something different, but it seems as if the husband was on the right track by actually seeing and praising the service she provided for the family.

  57. I think that the intent of the talk (and the resulting ensign article) was noble, but the execution of that thought was nothing short of laughable.

    The tone was presumptive in the extreme. I’d like to know how he gained his insight into God’s taste in all things artistic. The points he makes have been much better stated by many others.

    After reading it I was stunned that someone who seems to care so much about education and refinement could display so little intellectual refinement as to say what he said. I actually stewed for a little while over these questions:

    How did this guy get to be a GA?
    Who thought that this was worthy of an Ensign spot?
    Is this indicative of the state of mind of other GAs?

  58. That evangelical song about how “awesome” God is– think about it. They are actually using the word correctly. When I first heard, it purely by accident, it moved me to tears as I thought of our vast universe, who He is, all that He does ,all that He knows, etc. It is “awe” inspiring. When Moses looks into the heavens and can’t begin to comprehend what he sees so yes, our God is an awesome God –especially compared to the Greek Gods, Idols, etc.

  59. #59. I agree with you entirely. I’m not into Christian contemporary, but Rich Mullins, who wrote that, was often though-provoking and interesting (and someone who really took some of Jesus’ more difficult teachings about money and worldly possessions seriously and tried to live them). If anyone actually listens to those lyrics rather than taking just the title or a few words, it’s clear that he isn’t saying, “our God, he’s like so awesome and cool” but instead giving the interpretation you came up with.

  60. A comment I posted yesterday seems to have vanished. Not sure if it was deleted for some reason (I couldn’t see why it would have been) or if it was just one of those things.

    The comment was just that when I read the longer original version I found it a bit more nuanced than the short version, so I’m glad I read it. I still find his idea of heaven very WASPish and stodgy (and I can’t get past the ironing the dollar bills bit, which somehow seems very Scrooge McDuck), but his presentation isn’t quite so clumsy in that longer case.

    Reading it though, I couldn’t help but compare his colleague who thought up compliments for his wife to Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, with his little compliments he stored up in advance… I’m sure it wasn’t quite like that, but the description Callister gives makes the attempt sound a little ham-handed.

  61. One other thought: What if we get up to heaven and find out that God isn’t a man of refined WASP sensibilities, but instead likes kora music from west Africa, thinks that early twentieth-century Chinese chapbook art is the pinnacle of earthly artistic achievement, and likes Aboriginal hairstyles and Hari Krishna dress styles? I’m not trying to be cute in this, but instead point out that Callister has given place of privilege to one of many possible visions of “refinement” and culture, one that happens to correspond more or less to the activities of wealthy American bourgeois in the early twentieth-century. I’m not trying to engage in “post-modern handwringing” here, but instead intend this as a serious issue: far too often I think we believe that the Celestial kingdom is somehow going to be, on the cultural plain, like Wasatch front society writ large.

    I suppose we can take his description as a way of talking about a broader issue, but he delves into specifics so readily that I think he really is a bit like those who maintained that “God is an Englishman”.

  62. Horray for “He referred to the grand masters of literature as the ‘minor prophets.’” and “We noticed the bowed heads of the Russian passengers, for they were reading Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, or Pushkin”I>

    I’m delighted to hear that David O. Mackay (and evidently Callister) potentially considered Dostoevsky a ‘minor prophet’. I’ve been boring people stupid with my arguments for precisely that for ages.

    “For example, the novels of the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky are fiction. As fictions one might say they are therefore somehow ‘forgeries’. But this would be to miss the point. Dostoevsky’s novels are beyond fiction. They explore vast territories of man’s relationship with God in such a profoundly spiritually and psychologically aware – one might say ‘inspired’ or even ‘revelatory’ – way, that to read them becomes a religious experience. A form of religious education. A form of revelation.”


  63. #65: AMEN AND AMEN!
    Also, I should confess that I have “Our God is an Awesome God” on my MP-3 player and I work out to it. I have also worked out to Handel’s “And He Shall Purify,” which has a great beat. And it makes sweating feel like a religious experience.

  64. Oh, wait….I know how he became a GA.

    Harvard law AND LeGrand Richard’s grandson. Fait accompli.

  65. Fenevad (#62),

    I agree with much of what you are saying, but I see Elder Callister as challenging “Wasatch front society writ large.” Not many of my friends are much into the “refined” tastes he talks about. They’re into American Idol, Lost, Harry Potter, and Twilight.

  66. “Women ought to be praised for all the gifts they possess—including their attentiveness to their personal appearance—that so unselfishly add to the richness of the lives of others. We must not let ourselves go and become so casual—even sloppy—in our appearance that we distance ourselves from the beauty heaven has given us”

    How does my attentiveness to my looks help anyone (ie add to the richness of the lives of others)? It might make me feel better and maybe my my husband, but in general, I’d rather give up that time spending on myself and be able to help someone fix their tire or visit with them or do something that actually seems like service.

    Is he really saying that sloppy people can’t be disciples of Christ or are less so?. He should probably talk to Jesus because I’m pretty sure he hung out with the poor and the afflicted, and, in general, the type of people who DID NOT iron their money.

  67. I feel sorry for the husbands of all the women who have posted saying that their looks don’t matter.

  68. Thanks for your comments so far, all. I’m out of town at a conference and don’t have time for a long reply, but I will try to get to this thread in the next few days — there have been some very insightful comments.

  69. Quoting from #38: “Also, #18 – your obvious anger over this talk speaks to something outside of this talk.”

    Well, yeah. That’s what I meant when I wrote: “I hate this whole theme in the church that men of heirarchy have a better understanding of God than those of us at the low end, and can tell us who God is.” I thought I was clear when I wrote my comment that I have encountered this theme many times, outside of this article.

    Quoting from #38: “Sorry you were so offended.”

    Well, that’s okay. It’s not your fault.

  70. Personally, I feel that the following question should be included in the temple recommend interview:

    “Do you wear, or do you sympathize with those who wear, pajamas in public places?”


  71. Dennis (#69):

    Would it help if I said “upper-class Wasatch Front society writ large”? My point was that there is a real tendency to at least tacitly believe that the Celestial Kingdom is going to be culturally Mormon somehow, something I just don’t buy at all.

    Callister, at least for me, is arguing for the perfection of Wasatch Front society by purging it of such déclassé elements as monster truck shows, rock concerts, Chuck-E-Cheese, bangs to heaven, bad makeup, goatees, blue jeans, shirts without ties, etc. (OK, I’m exaggerating a little now.) He isn’t arguing for its replacement with something else or even its particular enrichment with elements that aren’t already there. It’s more the cry that if only we spent more time in the concert hall watching people in tutus dance and less at the cinema, we’d be better people. That may be true, but I’m not convinced that the concert hall is the only place we can draw inspiration.

    I’d like to share a link that is the antithesis of Callister’s talk, a full-throated defense of vulgarity (use in the proper sense): In Praise of Vulgarity: How commercial culture liberates Islam — and the West. I don’t agree with all of the article, but it raises some interesting points that are relevant as a response to Callister’s talk.

    Just my two cents, probably wrong…

  72. #58:

    (As to ‘awesome’ — I think there is a refined way to use that word, and a pop-culture-like way to use it. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of reason to say that we ought to try to remove the use of lazy or pop-culturey language.)

    What constitutes “lazy” or “pop culturey” language? I’m really curious about that point. How do we recognize it? Is it just what we don’t like because we don’t find it cultured enough? I have to make observation that even if we removed it, something else will only take its place and function.

    The comment reminds me of an elders’ quorum lesson I once sat in where the EQ pres took us all to task for using phrases like “oh my goodness” because (a) they were clearly just substitutes for things we shouldn’t say and (b) we wouldn’t hear the Savior say such things. Really? And how do we know? Because we don’t see it in the Bible?

    When we read the KJV Bible we get a very distorted view of Jesus’ own language, which was very pithy and earthy, not measured and lofty. While we can admire the poetry of the KJV, to use it as representative of Jesus’ voice (rather than a particularly old-fashioned and lofty-toned creation of men), is a mistake. Jesus’ own language as we have it recorded in the Greek Bible wouldn’t meet Callister’s ideals, so on the one point where I think he’s verifiable, he doesn’t get passing marks.

  73. Ah, the dilemma of going extreme one way or the other hits the LDS again. Women have a “gift of attentiveness to personal appearance”? That blanket implies vanity. I remember, Elder Nelson decried the common cosmetic surgeries, but, sometimes they are needed after an accident, etc. But, I know some LDS women who get too fatalistic about their appearance, they were created to look ugly, so they won’t try to change that. About beauty, we need to keep in mind Isaiah 53:2 “…there is no beauty that we should desire him.”

    So, how far out do we want to take this?

    “If they’re too pretty, then perhaps they’re walking porn for men. They need to somehow be very modest and at the same time beautiful.” That reminds me of the Calvin Grondahl cartoon, where a woman is posing for a statue, like the ones around the Church Office Building, standing in a long dress, hold a spoon at her side, and the sculptor is saying; “No! Your pose is still too sexual!”

    Now, ironing dollar bills might seem tidy to some, but to others it does seem too OCD. Since the person mentioned is long since dead, it can be hard to clarify why it was done.

    The music comments here remind me of the Calvin Grondahl cartoon, where as an introduction to a musical piece about to be performed at a Sacrament Meeting, the performer said:”Today, I will be performing something considered spiritually radical in the seventeenth century, but now acceptable in the twentieth century”.

    I think the overuse of the word “awesome” will die down over the years, so I don’t seat it. Cliches come and go. Remember “Groovy”? “Far out”? “Swell”? “Keen”? I am amazed how black & white the world seems to some Mission Presidents, though.

  74. Fenevad,
    I think you’re true. I once went to a dance hall in Utah and saw a young man clicking his heels and dancing around the place because he was a Celt. I couldn’t forgive myself because he was a better dancer. Less of that would have helped my self image.

  75. Reed Oliverson: I’m not with it. Since I didn’t get my mushy peas there will be trouble tonight. But as for that young Celt, I saw him sail a boat out of the tree after we’d dined on cups and plates, so I expect that’s the last we’ll see of that unrefined terribly bully (who should have gone long ago).

  76. I think that reactions may have been exacerbated by the abridgement of the original text as well as a potential missing of what beauty and looking pretty really means to God. Also, if I may respectfully point out that it is often through the prisim of our own biases and tendencies toward our own self-aggrandized view that we may misinterpret a talk or discourse and add in what may not be there.

    The “awesome” part in the original talk has “…in every paragraph” at the end. So the point was that awesomeness while true is more than likely not so in every instance of the word’s potential for insertion in a sentance. Does everything stike awe into every person everytime? And should it? God may be awesome but cancer is not so awesome when it’s happening, neither is being jailed and having God tell you it’s for your experience and dare I say, refinement.

    I see numerous women of all ages each week in church who I would call beautiful or pretty whom would not qualify as a checkout-stand magazine cover models. The small amount of refinement I may posess allows me to not define or evaluate each woman by the passing standard of the day. I know Kaimi’s wife, and my wife and both are beautiful but they are not alike in looks in many ways; blond/brunette, blue eyes/brown, tall/average height, freckled/clear skin, etc… and yet we each love the looks of our respective wives and can appreciate the radiant beauty the other posesses. Their talents and accomplishments encircle and infuse the beauty I see. The shallow soul is content with “arm candy” while the refined soul appreciates all that a person is.

    Elder Callister seemed to be trying to teach us that a “refined” celestial view would quickly drop what Elder Holland referenced as the “great and spacious make up kit” and stop using it as the yardstick by which all people are measured. We would pick up a celestial view and seek to live thereby.

    As we drop the worldly standard of all women and men looking like some Hitler invoked super race, of all one size and style we realize that true refinement sees the grand diversity of our Heavenly Father’s creations.

    The fashion of the day is no better than the slovenly look. The refined soul would shun both on that principle. Neither look is welcoming nor comforting regardless of the percieved comfortable feelings one may get in either scene. Being at one’s best in appearnace and talents requires conscious effort and understanding of one’s self and mastery over self.

    The references to looking one’s best were meant for both sexes to be considerate of each other and to keep themselves “neat and comely” like the Nephites of old.

    #6 commenter above said the original talk said something about a ballet being better than sporting events. However, that is once again an example of hearing or reading by a personal bias or not fully listening ;-). The story was of an athlete who was pursuing a refined young woman who spoke french and played violin. He had never attended a cultural event and a group of them all went to the visiting American ballet troupe preformance. He was so riveted by the performance and how closely he saw that refined talent and this young woman that he told elder Callister that this was how he wanted his home to be once he was married. There was no judgement or comparison of the merits of a sporting event vs. the ballet.

    The reference to Oscar Wilde was what he had one of his characters say. It’s too bad that his obsession with the aesthetic and flamboyant gave him the idea that pure self indulgence and abdication of obligations to family and children led him where it does all who so live, down a dead end road of sadness and defeat.

    When we are taken aback by the words of others re-read them, check the original then see if the same knee hits our chin.

  77. tesseract
    Is he really saying that sloppy people can’t be disciples of Christ or are less so?. He should probably talk to Jesus because I’m pretty sure he hung out with the poor and the afflicted, and, in general, the type of people who DID NOT iron their money.

    I asked a similar question last March. Women in the church can be “disciples” if they are fat, but they are rarely seen as leaders at the general level.

    And while the men might well be fat and/or bald, they aren’t sloppy.

    I don’t have any actual photo footage of Christ handy, but I’m guessing that he’s not obese and his pants aren’t riding down below his boxers.

    So how much does appearance matter?

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