Nathalie

September 7, 2006 | 38 comments
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This time Nathalie wears a miniskirt. On Sunday, in Church. In spite of last week’s interview. In spite of the one the month before. And other months. For quite some time the matter had been about her bare midriff. Now the miniskirt.

Parents of the other young women are concerned. Impact on their brood. Nathalie is a rebel. Defiance is her motto. It has been said again and again in leadership meetings. Fortunately, the other girls in our small branch still blend in. They work on their Young Women’s program. And the young men seem to keep their distance.

Talks and lessons mention modesty. Women need to treasure their bodies because they are sacred. Do not feed the immoral thoughts boys cannot control. There are ways to look pretty while still wearing modest clothing. The whole branch knows for whom the words are meant. But does Nathalie understand? Does she even listen? People glance at her. Furtive, worried, troubled.

No, the individual interviews are not helping. On the contrary. After the midriff, now the miniskirt. Why such an unwillingness to cope with standards so easy to follow?

Talk to Nathalie’s mother? In view of the challenge the girl represents, I must from time to time. But whenever I ask the mother into my office, she is the one talking to me, the branch president. About her ex-husband, the amount of her alimony, some challenges with health insurance, the cost of her apartment, always her own needs. Trying to focus the conversation on Nathalie hardly triggers a response.

But now the miniskirt.
- Nathalie, why do you continue to dress that way?
This time I ask the question directly, with a stern face. She is seated across my desk in the tiny office. She pauses, gauging me. Finally, her assessment brings a prudent smile on her lips. I feel uneasy. Then, with gentle maturity:
- If I dress the way you want me to, will you still talk to my mom from time to time? She needs it.

38 Responses to Nathalie

  1. Tyler Johnson on September 7, 2006 at 7:22 am

    Thanks, Wilfried: pithy and powerful.

  2. Eric Nielson on September 7, 2006 at 8:43 am

    She really said that? Unexpected for sure.

  3. Guy Murray on September 7, 2006 at 8:52 am

    Insightful post Wilfried–a learning experience for all. Thank you.

  4. Mark Butler on September 7, 2006 at 9:46 am

    That is an interesting motive, to be sure. Although I am sure one way or another it would be better to replace “cannot control” with “have a hard time controlling”. The cannot control stuff is bogus. Not that it gives a license for people to dress any way they feel like.

  5. Phouchg on September 7, 2006 at 9:59 am

    Perhaps instead of trying to change other people, we should be focusing on changing ourselves.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on September 7, 2006 at 10:10 am

    Ha! I have no idea if her response showed a maturity and thoughtfulness beyond her years, or just a quick, snarky mind. Either way, completely aside from her dress habits, I like this girl already. Another great anecdote, Wilfried.

  7. Kaimi Wenger on September 7, 2006 at 10:30 am

    Great lesson, Wilfried. Too often we focus only on the rebellious and defiant; other needy members are crowded out. The compassionate motive for her rebellion (if sincere) is beautiful.

  8. Sue on September 7, 2006 at 10:49 am

    I know this was not the point of the post – I DO get what the point was – but yeeeeesh – since she is not willing to change how she dresses, maybe everyone should just drop it. I’m sure there are far greater sins people could be appropriately worrying over, even among the modestly dressed youth. I usually love your posts, but the fixation on Natalie’s midriff and legs seems a little icky. And maybe this is me being too cynical, but I doubt that her whole motivation for dressing that way has to do with wanting you to talk to her mom. I mean – come on.

  9. Kevin Barney on September 7, 2006 at 12:23 pm

    Another home run, Wilfried.

  10. Wilfried on September 7, 2006 at 11:45 am

    Thanks for comments, all.

    Sue: “but the fixation on Natalie’s midriff and legs seems a little icky”.

    Exactly. And modesty is a trivial issue if our obsession with it blinds us to see the real problems.

  11. Mike on September 7, 2006 at 1:41 pm

    If this event is a home run, then my family should breeze right into the World Series. Whoops, was it Wilfried’s handling and description of the event that was the home run and not the event?

    I have a daughter who seems about that age? (DD is 15). Kids that age do not think like adults. Not even close. Teenage brains are being re-wired biologically. Like opening up the skull and taking an egg-beater to it, not quite that bad. But seems like it at times.

    It is hard for me to tell why they do some of the things they do. If this was my kid, it could be a cry for help or a prank or some kind of test or a power struggle or relative cluelessness or a combination of the above or something else. If they like you and trust you, sometimes you can just ask them and they will tell you what is going on, if they even know themselves.

    I heard a wise old retired Bishop say that even getting teenagers to church should be seen as a victory.

  12. jjohnsen on September 7, 2006 at 2:22 pm

    Great post Wilfried.

    Mike, my parents recently attended a special Stake meeting that was called concerning two things, teenage pregnancy and teen retention. The Stake President told them they had seen a large increase in YW becoming pregnant as well as YM/YW going inactive much more than they had previously seen.

  13. beeshnkj on September 7, 2006 at 2:24 pm

    Thank you, Wilfried, for reminding us again, through sensitive, subtle means, that things are not always as they seem. Most parents and priesthood leaders come to know this, but sometimes forget it at just the wrong times. So, reminders are helpful. Storytelling (and I mean that in the most positive sense of the term) is such a powerful tool, as you well know.

  14. DKL on September 7, 2006 at 3:22 pm

    Keep an eye on those teenagers. It sounds to me like she’s just being manipulative.

  15. Wilfried on September 7, 2006 at 3:31 pm

    Interesting how readers can see different things in this compact rendering of what I experienced. Of course, everyone can then relate it to own experiences, to teenagers they know or have known, or to their tendency to assess people and events. In this case, I can testify Nathalie turned out to be the most compassionate young woman we had in our branch. A true gem. She knew what her divorced mother was going through and the daily struggle to make ends meet. The membership failed to see it, focusing on the wrong issue. But indeed, teenagers sometimes have strange ways to get their message across.

  16. mullingandmusing (m&m) on September 7, 2006 at 4:50 pm

    I’m glad to hear that the story had a happy ending. What troubles me about this story, however, is the “guess what I’m thinking” game. Since so many people get bent out of shape with “too much” focus on modesty, her actions could have easily been ignored so as not to “offend” or “make a big deal” out of it. To me, this is also a lesson in the importance of direct communication wherever possible. I would have been that much more impressed with her had she just come to you with her concerns rather than play a game like she did. Yeah, she’s a teenager, but still…. (Sorry if I’m sounding harsh. I did appreciate you sharing the story, but I don’t feel 100% comfortable lauding this girls’ actions. The members weren’t the only ones focusing on the wrong things, IMO.)

  17. J. Stapley on September 7, 2006 at 5:01 pm

    Again, thank you.

  18. DKL on September 7, 2006 at 8:45 pm

    Wilfried, you’re the branch president, so you’re the one with the judgmental purview. I’m confident that you’ve handled the situation in a manner entirely appropriate to gifts and responsibilities of your calling.

  19. Alison Moore Smith on September 7, 2006 at 8:49 pm

    Interesting story and comments. Loved it.

    Spot on m&m. Do noble ends justify dishonorable means?

  20. Amethyst on September 7, 2006 at 9:05 pm

    I don’t understand what was so admirable about the young woman in the story. If she had been sleeping around instead of wearing miniskirts to church, would that have been a good way to get the branch president to talk to her mom?

    Of course, irresponsible sex out of wedlock is very different from dressing differently than other girls in the branch. Some LDS parents won’t even let their toddlers wear 2 piece bathing suits, for instance.

    But the issue remains: why was her clothing choice even an issue? Why be judgmental about her oufits? What I find saddest is that this girl would assume that the branch president would call her mother in about her own clothing choices when it’s just a cosmetic issue.

  21. mullingandmusing (m&m) on September 8, 2006 at 12:26 am

    But the issue remains: why was her clothing choice even an issue?

    Whether we like it or not, this can be an issue. It’s enough of an issue that the prophets have brought it up numerous times and preach modesty as something important. Immodesty can and does lead to worse sins. It can also affect how one acts and thinks.

    I personally know someone who freely admits (and, now as an adult, tries to warn YW) that her immodesty was one thing that led her to a pregnancy out of wedlock. We shouldn’t shun someone because of clothing, but neither should we sweep the issue under the rug and pretend immodesty doesn’t matter. It does.

    What I find saddest is that this girl would assume that the branch president would call her mother in about her own clothing choices when it’s just a cosmetic issue.

    I think this young woman knew her leader would call her in to talk about it because he already had. And clearly it wasn’t a cosmetic issue. There WAS an underlying issue, a concern that the girl had that she felt warranted attention (albeit in a roundabout way). We may not always know what the underlying issue is, but I think part of the point of this post is that immodesty is often a symptom of something or a cry for help/attention, not necessarily an isolated issue dealing with only the types of clothing someone is wearing.

  22. Wilfried on September 8, 2006 at 3:58 am

    Excellent comments, which show we need to weigh with more care underlying reasons and circumstances. Depending on those, a particular modesty issue may be trivial or serious. Making more of it than necessary can isolate young people and chase them away. Ignoring a case may make us miss signals or allow a youngster to get into trouble.

  23. Stephen M (Ethesis) on September 8, 2006 at 7:42 am

    Liked the story, sent it on to my daughter.

  24. MikeInWeHo on September 8, 2006 at 11:08 am

    I see a new blogger coming on up. Hope she stays active in the Church. My guess is the odds are against that long-term.

  25. Alison Moore Smith on September 8, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    Wilfried wrote:
    “Making more of it than necessary can isolate young people and chase them away.”

    And ignoring immodesty and other prophetic council can drive away the kids who are trying to “keep the rules.” I hope we–at very least–pay as much attention to them as we do to those who disregard counsel.

  26. greenfrog on September 8, 2006 at 3:29 pm

    Of course we don’t. 99 and 1.

  27. Alison Moore Smith on September 8, 2006 at 3:36 pm

    Or perhaps you don’t recognize that those who are trying to follow the rules can also be very much part of the lost one.

  28. mullingandmusing (m&m) on September 8, 2006 at 3:41 pm

    Or perhaps you don’t recognize that those who are trying to follow the rules can also be very much part of the lost one.

    Good point. Having been one of the rule-following types, there have been times when I could have used some tender ministering myself but was usually overlooked because I wasn’t in trouble.

  29. greenfrog on September 8, 2006 at 5:08 pm

    “Or perhaps you don’t recognize that those who are trying to follow the rules can also be very much part of the lost one. “

    Well said.

  30. DHofmann on September 8, 2006 at 4:50 pm

    Just found an interesting quote from Hugh Nibley:

    “The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism… the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances.”

  31. MLU on September 9, 2006 at 1:57 am

    I liked the story–it surprised me and made me think. Well done.

    Then, having thought, I distrusted the impulse to make the disobedient appear to be wise and virtuous, after a fashion. It’s also immodest to think it’s okay to try to control the branch president by acting against sound exhortation, as long as one desires an outcome that seems right.

    A wiser girl might have approached the branch president and, without guile or dissembling, requested that he spend time speaking with her mother because “she needs it.” This request, made while dressed modestly, and offered in full earnestness of heart, would be less likely to backfire in a roar of unintended consequences.

    It would have been humble, trusting the ways of the Lord.

    There is far too much cleverness in the world–too many tactics.

  32. Wilfried on September 9, 2006 at 2:35 am

    Much appreciation for all your comments. We keep adding nuances and alternatives. We imagine what could have done differently to avoid an outcome we did not foresee. We give advice on how each partner in these interactions could have acted better. That’s indeed the learning process we’re all involved in.

    At the same time, we never fully control events, personalities, misunderstandings. The unexpected will always be with us. Teenagers, for one, are not always wise and insightful in their reactions. Sometimes they do not communicate well, or in ways adults would view as clumsy or offensive. Often we as adults do not communicate well either with teens.

    In assessing what people do in Church, or should do, think also of the difference between a ward with highly experienced leaders and strong families, and a little branch abroad, where a young convert is called as branch president, and where the inexperienced membership is in turmoil. Sometimes our comments do not take that into account.

    I’m grateful for our unique church, with so many learning opportunities.

  33. Alison Moore Smith on September 10, 2006 at 6:45 pm

    Wilfried wrote:
    “Teenagers, for one, are not always wise and insightful in their reactions. Sometimes they do not communicate well, or in ways adults would view as clumsy or offensive. Often we as adults do not communicate well either with teens.”

    Currently with three teenagers of my own–and three more on the way–I second that statement! But how relatively boring my life would be without them! (I could use a bored day now and again…)

  34. Mark Butler on September 11, 2006 at 1:09 am

    Dhofman (#29),

    Of course things may be taken to extremes, but I am rather of opposite the opinion as Mr. Nibley on this matter. It seems to me that among other benefits, a good degree of discipline in dress and grooming is what has been called an outward symbol of an inward devotion, and that the opposite of that sort of discipline is more often a harbinger of loose lips and loose morals than anything worthy of a good report.

  35. Crystal on September 11, 2006 at 2:43 am

    MLU (31)

    That sort of thing is easy to say, and easy to do, if the world were all hypothetical, but we don’t really know what this girl’s life was like.

    She got help for her mom in a way she was certain would work. We get hints of what her life was like from the story, an absent father and a seemingly overburdened mother. Do you really think the girl had the kind of support system in place that would teach her she could behave in the pollyanna way you suggest and still get the help she needed?

  36. tracy m on September 11, 2006 at 4:13 am

    Do you ever write anything bad or shallow, Wilfried? Per normal, thanks for the wonderful post!

  37. Wilfried on September 11, 2006 at 6:05 am

    Again, thank you for continuing comments, for your appreciation, and for those probings into alternatives, each colored by our different backgrounds and experiences. In the case of Nathalie, I can only speak from that particular perspective, and it was, in hindsight, a clearcut case. As a young, inexperienced branch president, I was not listening properly. I focused on the issue of “immodesty”, as some members, and the system itself, encouraged me to. I wrote in the post:

    “Talk to Nathalie’s mother? In view of the challenge the girl represents, I must from time to time. But whenever I ask the mother into my office, she is the one talking to me, the branch president. About her ex-husband, the amount of her alimony, some challenges with health insurance, the cost of her apartment, always her own needs. Trying to focus the conversation on Nathalie hardly triggers a response.”

    As branch president, I should have focused on the problems of the mother. Instead, I first wanted the mother to handle Nathalie’s “problem”. I failed to see that the girl’s “immodesty” was a secondary issue, perhaps even a consequence of the first: the challenges of a single mother who was barely surviving herself. Nathalie, in her own strange way, helped me to realize that. Such wonderful people can teach their leaders valuable lessons, if only those leaders are willing to listen.

  38. claire on September 11, 2006 at 9:15 am

    MLU, the intersection of wise and adolescent rarely occurs. As with humble and adolescent.

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