What is the Purpose of the BYU Dress and Grooming Code?

December 15, 2003 | 17 comments
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BYU is often ridiculed for its dress and grooming code. The basic argument is that it is silly. It places undue emphasis on essentially trivial issues of facial hair and hemlines. A more telling critique claims that by focusing on trivialities it actually affirmatively stunts real moral development.

I think that all of these criticisms, while perhaps true, miss the REAL genius of the BYU Dress and Grooming Code. Their basic mistake is that they assume that the purpose of the Code is for students to follow it, when, in reality, the whole raison d’etre of the Code is to be violated!

Kids entering college are in a naturally rebellious mood. They are getting their first taste of real independence and are as of yet unencumbered by real, adult responsiblities. In short, this is the time to violate social norms!

The problem is that many social norms serve important functions and their violation can be self-destructive. Thus, college kids who act out against recieved wisdom and the pressures of society by using drugs, engaging in binge drinking, or indulging in anonymous, half-sober sexual “hook ups,” frequently find themselves facing the tragic consequences of such behavior.

Yet the norm-violating energy must go some place. An this is the cunning genius of the BYU Dress and Grooming Code. It provides a big, pointless, ham-fisted norm against essentially harmless activity. For example, while I was at BYU I would regularly engage in such wild misbehaviors as going to my freshman dorm cafeteria in running shorts that were TOO SHORT! I would sometimes skip shaving, particularlly during finals, brazenly walking past the honor code police in the library with two days worth of post-adolescent scruff. Needless to say, I felt that I was quite the daring individualist. And I know that my behavior was not isolated. I dare say that there were many readers of this very blog who took a secret (and not so secret) pleasure in pushing the envelope of the Code. We were young. We were crazy. We were rebels with a cause: scruffiness and true moral awareness!

We were also utterly harmless. What was the result of all of this rebelliousness on our part? What horrific consequences did I suffer as a result of my flirtations with social anarchy? Why nothing at all. I, and many of my friends, were able to largely exhaust our purile post-high school rebelliousness on…not shaving for two days!

The cunning of it!!

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17 Responses to What is the Purpose of the BYU Dress and Grooming Code?

  1. Kaimi on December 15, 2003 at 7:54 pm

    Nate, I hereby dub you:

    Nathan “I was a teenage heck-raiser” Oman.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on December 15, 2003 at 8:30 pm

    “[W]hile I was at BYU I would regularly engage in such wild misbehaviors as going to my freshman dorm cafeteria in running shorts that were TOO SHORT! I would sometimes skip shaving, particularly during finals, brazenly walking past the honor code police in the library with two days worth of post-adolescent scruff. Needless to say, I felt that I was quite the daring individualist….We were young. We were crazy. We were rebels with a cause: scruffiness and true moral awareness!”

    Face it Nathan: you’re square.

  3. clark on December 15, 2003 at 8:35 pm

    Actually when I was at BYU there was this ongoing debate about whether the short and sock rule related to pubic hairs. Which seemed like an odd idea since there still was a rather large area exposed. (Leg hair, that is) That was when Rex Lee consulted with the students and modified the honor code to something a little more sensible.

  4. Nate on December 15, 2003 at 9:44 pm

    I don’t know what Russell is trying to say! I was denied entry to the cafeteria on a number of occasions as a result of my blatently lascivious behavior. (They were frightened, no doubt, of the purient effect of my exposed knee caps on the women of Heleman Halls. And who can blame them?!) I even once had to sweet talk my way past on honor code guard to take a final I was otherwise in danger of missing.

    Actually, a problem I ran into fairly consistently is that I am completely freckle faced and my beard comes in red. The result is that it would often take me DAYS of scruffiness before anyone would notice my wild antics. Very frustrating!

  5. Jim on December 15, 2003 at 10:48 pm

    With some hyperbole, I’ve often laid claim to being responsible for the BYU Dress and Grooming Code. As a freshman at BYU in 1965, I passed President Wilkinson every day on my way to German class in the McKay Building at 8:00 a.m. I had sort of a beard–as much as I could muster at 17–and longish hair, and I often wore sandals, jeans, etc. I spent three semesters at BYU in that condition and then decided to go on a mission. When I got back from my mission, I started letting my beard and hair grow, but when I went to register for classes in the Smith Fieldhouse, I was turned away to get a haircut and to shave. The Cannon Center rules had become the University rules.

    Whether or not the purpose of the Dress Code is to give students something to rebel against, it works that way and it works well.

  6. Kaimi on December 16, 2003 at 5:19 am

    I have wondered about the harmful results of this kind of policy. While it’s true that a lot of LDS kids can use this to get through their rebellious stage without doing major damage, the policy can have a harmful effect on substantial minorities in a couple of different ways.

    Most possible harm comes from the fact that this causes LDS kids to lump harmless behaviors (not shaving) with harmful behaviors (drinking, premarital sex). This could (1) lead to an “I blew it, I might as well go all the way” attitude — members equivating having messed up on an inconsequential rule with imperfection, and deciding that since they’re imperfect anyway, why follow other (more important) rules; (2) social shunning of the unshaven by the good-LDS crowd, driving them to socialize with less faithful members and be subject to adverse peer pressure; (3) excessive effort spent in useless rituals which distracts from needed effort elsewhere; (4) unhealthy fixation on these traits as evidence of overall righteous living.

    I would guess that empirically, it is most likely this policy does more good than it does harm. But these tradeoffs are not without individual costs.

  7. Nate on December 16, 2003 at 11:20 am

    Kaimi, I agree that the policy has some definite down sides. (I actually subscribe to the heretical belief that BYU would not descend into some anarchic combination of Berkley and Florida State if the Dress and Grooming Code were repealed.)

    On the other hand, I don’t think that (1) is a real concern. I am not aware of anyone who says, “Shucks! I didn’t shave and got rejected at the testing center. I might as well embark on a life of fornication and substance abuse!”

  8. Melissa Proctor on December 16, 2003 at 1:37 pm

    For an interesting paper on the LDS modesty campaign, which began with Brigham Young, and was emphasized again with President Kimball (BYU women used to get some pressure about whether or not their wardrobe was “kimballized”), watch for Katie Blakesley’s paper coming out in the Smith Institute Summer Seminar proceedings volume this Spring. She explores some of the larger implicit issues behind the changing dress codes.

    Melissa

  9. Ady Hahn a.k.a. fly_killa on December 16, 2003 at 3:26 pm

    Fortunately, (or is that unfortunately) I did not attend the Y and thus did not have to worry about the Code. My husband, however, was able to obtain a beard card (for a “skin condition”). Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

  10. Matt Evans on December 16, 2003 at 4:59 pm

    The more damning aspect of the church’s dress code is the message it sends. A stake president would get a lot more flack regularly wearing tan dress slacks and a pressed plaid shirt to regional leadership meetings than if he wore a $1,000 suit, $500 watch, $300 shoes, and a $60 tie. (Or if he has a $50,000 car in the parking lot).

    When it comes to form, the church has specific guidelines, when it comes to substance, they tell everyone to consult their conscience. The implicit form-over-substance heart of the dress code (those parts that don’t concern modesty) is antithetical to the gospel.

  11. Kristine on December 17, 2003 at 2:34 pm

    Matt,

    You’ve hit on one of my favorite topics of (thus far) idle curiosity: when did “modest” come to mean merely “decent”? As recently as the early part of the last century, when people talked about “modesty,” they often meant that one shouldn’t wear obviously costly or showy apparel. That connotation has been entirely lost from current Mormon usage, to our great detriment.
    I wonder if the change is roughly simultaneous and/or related to the shift in the meaning of “moral” to denote mostly behavior/thought that conforms to standards of sexual purity?
    Any linguistic historians out there?

  12. Russell Arben Fox on December 17, 2003 at 2:48 pm

    “My husband, however, was able to obtain a beard card (for a ‘skin condition’).”

    Good for him Ady. Man, those things were worth their weight in gold. A friend of mine at Student Review once seriously looked into forging some, but he chickened out.

  13. Nate on December 17, 2003 at 3:05 pm

    I had a roommate who had a beard card. It was a three-by-five card on which he wrote the word “beard.” When asked if he had a beard card, he would reply “Yes.” As far as I know, no one ever actually asked to see the card…

  14. Jeremiah John on December 17, 2003 at 4:49 pm

    Nate, you hung with a rowdy bunch in your BYU days. That story is hilarious. It is quite amazing, indeed: I think that 75% of American men who have skin conditions requiring them not to shave go to BYU. Either that or he many people I’ve heard from all knew the same handful of guys who had real beard cards.

  15. Grasshopper on December 17, 2003 at 5:06 pm

    I got a real beard card while at BYU, at my wife’s insistence.

  16. Nate on December 17, 2003 at 6:09 pm

    I should point out that my roommate is now a lawyer…

  17. too short shorts John on September 6, 2004 at 10:46 pm

    Though this thread has been dead for many months now I feel I have to leave a story. I attended a two-week computer programming course at the Y during the summer before my senior year of high school. I went to have lunch at the Cannon Center. There was a long line because the football team had just arrived from practice. Peter Tuipulotu was a few spots ahead of me in line. He was wearing a t-shirt, a towel, and flip flops. It appeard that he had just gotten out of the shower and thrown a t-shirt on his wet torso. He entered the dining area without a word being spoken to him. I arrived at the head of the line a few moments later. The woman checking dinning cards asked if I would lift my shirt up. I refused on principle. She said that she suspected that I was “low-riding” my shorts to get into the dining area. I assured her that I wasn’t and that I had simply purchased large shorts to be able to be dressed appropriately for BYU during the summer. She again asked me to lift up my shirt. At this point I yelled, “I can believe you just let Peter Tuipulotu in here nearly naked and then choose to pick on me. I’ll lift up my shirt if he lifts up his towel!” Peter was kind enough to turn my way and smile and wave before turing his attention to the meal line again. The woman was aghast and kicked me out.