By the time I was, say, 15, my hair was long. Not long-for-a-good-Mormon-boy, but legitimately long. (Also, I listened to heavy metal and grunge–there may have been a causal relationship there, but I’m not sure which way it ran.)
Both my music and my hair probably violated the Church’s rhetorical standards.[fn1] That is, per statements in various Church publications and general Mormon cultural rules, both were probably inappropriate. But, even though I braced myself for the inevitable condemnation, it never came.
Seriously. I participated in the administration of the sacrament throughout my long-haired days. No young men’s leader, teacher, bishop, or other person in the Church ever asked me to cut my hair, or otherwise remarked negatively on my hair.[fn2] And, during all those years, I only got one lesson on evil music. And the Sunday School teacher kind of undercut his point by bringing, as a visual aid and example of music we shouldn’t listen to, one of his old Jethro Tull albums.[fn3] By not condemning me, my ward members blew a perfectly good chance for me to dismiss them (and, by extension, the Church) as small-minded, judgmental, and not worth my time.
I’m entirely sure that this broad ability to focus on what is important (in my case, spiritual nourishment and social acceptance) isn’t observed universally. I had a convert on my mission very nearly go inactive because of a lesson where another ward’s bishop insisted that members who could afford tennis shoes could afford dress shoes and shouldn’t come to church without them. But I think (hope) that this broad offensiveness is the exception, not the rule. My daughters–both under the age of 6–rarely wear dresses with sleeves, at least during the summer. (Chicago winters are something else altogether.) And they don’t wear t-shirts underneath their dresses, either. And, notwithstanding rhetoric like this, we’ve never had anybody comment to us or to them that they are somehow dressed inappropriately.[fn4]
I’m not trying to suggest that the rhetoric itself isn’t wrongheaded or harmful, or that people who take offense are too thin-skinned. I was ready to take offense as a teenager and, frankly, I still am if somebody offends my daughters. In the best world, we should conform our rhetoric to our practice. But, in the meantime, most of my fellow-saints, or at least the ones I encounter on a regular basis, are inclusive rather than exclusive. And the Church can function–well, even–even with a diversity of clothing styles, music styles, hairstyles.
[fn1] I don’t have a copy of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet from when I was a teenager, but here are a couple excerpts from the current version:
Hair: “All should avoid extremes in clothing, appearance, and hairstyle. ”
Music: “Don’t listen to music that drives away the Spirit, encourages immorality, glorifies violence, uses foul or offensive language, or promotes Satanism or other evil practices.” (For the record, the music I listened to didn’t really do much of the bad things listed, other than offend the spirit of good taste; still, most of those are stereotypes of hard rock/heavy metal.)
[fn2] I have no idea what the back-channel talks were like (remember, my hair was long from the age of 14-ish to 17–I wasn’t really privy to what my leaders talked about behind the scenes); maybe I was a constant source of concern to them, but they never said it to my face.
[fn3] I don’t know if he was being ironic or not; either way, Coolest. Visual. Aid. Ever. Oh, also there was the Youth Conference speaker who spent a lot of time talking about backmasking. But the only thing I took away from him was that, played backwards, Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” allegedly encourages us to smoke marijuana. When I got home, I immediately played the song backwards. My conclusion? If you’re listening for it, you can kind of make it out, but it was a stretch.
[fn4] I should note that I’m not saying that the Church should not preach repentance. I am saying that, we tend to be better in practice than in rhetoric at differentiating important things from cultural touchpoints. And I’m also saying that 4-year-olds are incapable of immodesty, although that’s really tangential to much of anything here.