BYU Dress and Grooming

A friend shared this image, a poster from the BYU Honor Code office, and a parody of that poster from the Student Review.  Yes, that’s James Bond being used as a positive example, a guy who follows the BYU Honor Code.  Clean-shaven and all.  Also a womanizer who kills people for a living, but let’s not quibble over nuances.

A couple of points worth making about the BYU Honor Code.  First of all, every college in America has an Honor Code.  They may not call it that, exactly, but every school has one.  If you’re caught cheating on a test, or plagiarizing, you’ll get in trouble.  If you’re a serial sexual harasser, or have multiple DUIs on your record, you’ll get in trouble; state schools, private schools.  BYU is not unique in having an Honor Code.

Where BYU is unique is what sorts of things the Honor Code includes.  You can’t drink, smoke, drink coffee or chew tobacco. You can’t have sex with anyone, unless you’re married. BYU cares what clothes you wear and, if you’re a guy, the length and location of your facial hair.  Tattoos are not allowed, nor are multiple piercings.  Here are the actual rules, if you’re interested.  BYU is a university where students are not allowed to drink or fool around.  Yeah, BYU’s unique.

I taught at BYU for twenty years.  And my feelings about the Honor Code were, to be honest, conflicted. Obviously, some provisions of the Honor Code were there because it’s a Church sponsored school, with its own institutional take on the doctrine of in loco parentis.  Other rules were just public relations. BYU wanted students to look a certain way, clean-cut and well scrubbed. That part always struck me as silly.  I couldn’t care have cared less how my students wore their hair, or their shorts were knee length.  I used to get the giggles, thinking of the Honor Code committee, and how comically solemn committee meetings usually were anyway, and then add sober-sided administrators issuing Talmudic disquisitions on hair or skirt length to the agenda, and ROFL.

But personally, I was actually kind of grateful for the grooming stuff.  Here’s why; my preferred mode of dress and grooming is basically that of a hobo. Left to my own devices, I absolutely would have worn my hair to the waist, gotten my ears pierced, festooned my visible bits with tattoos.  I’m essentially a hippie at heart.  I would certainly have sported any number of styles of beard. Faded and patched jeans, Grateful Dead tee shirts, Hawaiian shirts; heck, I wouldn’t have put anything past me.  Lava lavas.  Kilts.  Jodhpurs.

In short, I would have looked like a pathetic middle-aged guy desperately clinging to a long-vanished youth, and I would have made a public spectacle of myself.  Now, as it happens, I’m also married, and would never have gotten away with any of that.  But here’s my larger point: I don’t know how to dress.  I don’t care.  I don’t just value comfort over style, I value comfort over everything.  BYU’s silly rules simplified my life.  I had to get a haircut every few months.  I had to shave most mornings.  And I had to dress decently, wearing clothes my wife bought for me because she didn’t trust me to buy anything for myself, nor should she have done.

So BYU prevented me from following my own misguided sartorial heart, and I’m grateful for it.  As a teacher, I didn’t care what anyone wore–I couldn’t be bothered.  If I saw a kid with a beard or long hair, I figured he was an actor growing it out for a role.  It would never have occurred to me to turn anyone in for anything.

Boy, some people sure care, though.  As I understand it, one big issue now has to do with a current fashion popular among young ladies, in which they wear a short skirt with long leggings.  This either is or isn’t a violation of the Honor Code, and some people have taken it upon themselves to write nasty notes to perceived offenders, or otherwise chastise them.  One joker wrote one to my daughter.  Apparently, some guys find some women’s fashions sexually arousing, or something, and think it’s the responsibility of young women to dress in a non-arousing way. “When you dress that way, you don’t know what it does to my relationship to the Spirit.”  Or some such self-serving blather.  “I’m a spiritual Giant, I am, except for those times when you make me not be one!”  Blarg.  BYU fauna do include herds of self-righteous dolts–let’s hope they grow out of it.

As a professor I never would have noticed if a girl was dressed inappropriately, because noticing would have required that I look at her, not as a student, but, however briefly, as a sexual object.  I said that badly, I think, but I want to make this clear; my students were there to learn from me.  My job was to teach. I felt it was my professional obligation to treat all students, male or female, exactly the same–as people who were there to learn.  It certainly wasn’t any part of my job to think of any student in any other way.  For me to look at a young woman and think ‘I think that skirt is too short’ would have required for me to consider something as irrelevant to the subject matter as the length of her skirt.

But it’s tricky.  First of all, I wanted all my students to think of themselves as special, unique, valued.  This went beyond trying to remember their names.  If a student had distinguished herself in some positive way, I tried to remember that, and refer to it in conversation.  If a student had asked me a question about something, I might ask her about it later–‘did you ever find an answer to such and such?’  So I might say something like ‘cute tee shirt,’ if the student was wearing a clever or funny tee shirt.  I might say something like ‘did you change your hairstyle?  It’s cute.’  Because college aged women do change their hairstyle with some frequency, and like it when people notice.  This is going to sound weird, but the persona I tried to cultivate was ‘older gay friend.’  Odd, because I’m not, in fact, gay. Just romantically uninterested/unavailable/unappealing.  Just this: there’s a fine line between ‘I like that sweater’ and ‘wow, you’re really hot,’ and I tried to stay on the appropriate side of that line, and I think I generally succeeded.

One thing that helped, I think, is that I’m not an attractive guy.  I’m big and I’m not good-looking.  When I say this, understand I’m not pathetically begging for sympathy and reassurance.  I’m perfectly fine with how I look.  Remember–I’m a theatre guy.  When I say “I’m fat,” I don’t mean “I’m consumed with self-loathing!”  I mean it like an actor: “there are parts I’m right for.”

I was a professor of Theatre, a playwright and a director.  And that means being acutely aware of clothing, of social signifiers and cultural constructs, and what message does wearing that outfit send.  I did get to work with costume designers, really good ones, and that was sometimes tricky for me, because I really genuinely don’t personally care about clothing.  But I do care a great deal about stage picture and the look of a show.  So in casting a show, I did have to take looks into consideration.  Again, a fine line: I couldn’t allow myself to think ‘that’s a pretty girl,’ but I could allow myself to think ‘she’s an ‘ingenue type;’ probably not right for Lady Capulet.’  I think I engaged in more non-traditional casting than most other directors in the department, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t take looks into account.  I do one time recall telling an actress that, although her audition was tremendous, I didn’t think I could cast her, because I thought she was too pretty to be convincing in the role.  She showed up to the call-back looking like a complete mess–no makeup, hadn’t showered, she said–wowed me with her acting, and easily won the role.

So the modesty debate is an interesting one, on a lot of levels. It certainly does get caught up in all sorts of issues of sexism and misogyny and how our culture constructs gender and gender roles.  So saying ‘I don’t care if that skirt is considered immodest’ doesn’t mean ‘I’m indifferent to issues relating to sexual immorality.’  It means ‘I’m deliberately placing myself outside that particular debate.  I’m absenting myself from considering her physical attractiveness.  She is, to me, a student. I am, to her, a teacher. And that relationship, teacher/student, is, to me, something holy.’



19 thoughts on “BYU Dress and Grooming

  1. Anonymous

    Ah for the good old days when a girl took her pants off and buttoned down her coat to get into the testing center. So much more modest than those evil Levis. Well, the wheels turn slowly. I alway found it difficult to distinguish between a soul patch and a bad shave.

  2. Monica

    In the end, each student SIGNED the honor code, signifying that they would follow it, before they ever went. I never understood why people threw such a fit. If you weren’t going to follow it, why did you say you would? 😀

    1. ben

      there’s a difference between signing an honor code and being subjected to subjective interpretation of said honor code aka. self-righteous notes from self-imposed policemen. when we worship rules rather than God, we end in justifying (theoretical, but still, the idea is implied in that graphic design) improper behavior, hence the James Bond reference.

  3. Adam Meyers

    I always love getting your thoughts.

    I’m always uncomfortable when people discuss modesty in the Church/school on facebook because everyone, no matter which side they’re on, over-simplifies the problem.

    On one hand, a man cannot tell a woman she’s dressed immodestly, and if he does he’ll be crucified via social media. On the other hand, if he’s trying to keep his thoughts clean he really shouldn’t be focusing on things like that anyway.

    On the other hand, the ‘body problem’ (men find women visually attractive and sexually arousing) is as old as civilization. Cultures have been searching for an answer to this problem for millenia without a perfect answer, and telling men to ‘just get over it’ isn’t going to work. On the other hand, nothing draws attention to something as much as making it forbidden, women’s shoulders included. On the other hand, learning is easier in an environment that’s free from sexual distractions, and single college students have it bad enough without throwing immodest dress into the mix.

    So yeah, I think modesty is a problem because it really is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ issue, and no answer actually promises to fix all the problems and address all the concerns. My wife has recently taken a class entirely about how the ‘body problem’ informed theater and cultural practices across history (from men-only acting troupes to burkas to strict morality taboos to just not caring about the love-children that inevitably will arise,) since its creation. I don’t think BYU will find an answer to an issue people have been grappling with since the formation of civilization.

    1. Anonymous

      god forbid men actually use a little self-control. is your mind so weak? perhaps you/they could use with some beefing up in the old noggin.

  4. rah

    Liked the post generally. I do think that it is worth reemphasizing that as guys we experience the honor code dress code much more tangentially than women. It is much more difficult for the girls and this is one way in which the “well guys and girls all have standards” really underplays how much more onerous we make it for women. That and the amount of attention, worry and shaming that happens falls disproportionately on the women too. That is more my problem than the honor code per se. I teach university as well and there is not dress code. For the life of me I can’t see why we think tank tops are licentious. I don’t even notice. Shorts above the knee? Please. It really isn’t that hard to train your brain to treat women like people (as you pointed out so well). In this respect I find the whole modesty craziness in the church a complete spiritual crutch for men and really condescending toward their ability to learn how to not objectify women. We do them a huge disservice by focusing on girl’s dress instead of teaching them to treat all women as daughters of God. If we replaced every modesty lesson with 10 minutes of priesthood instruction on avoiding objectification of women we would be a lot healthier and further ahead as a people. Sigh.

    1. Wendi

      Thank you, my thoughts exactly. As a woman I am not interested in clothing that leaves body parts too exposed or spilling out, since it is neither comfortable nor practical. I do resent, however, being made to feel like a social outcast if my neckline is “too low” or my clothing considered too tight because of how this might be interpreted by the opposite sex. As a mother of young boys, I plan to work with my husband to take that crutch you mentioned away from our sons.

  5. Katherine Gee

    As one of your former female students, I have to say that you did an excellent job of making me feel unique and special and SMART. And though you succeeded at that “older gay friend” persona, I thought you were much better at “Mentor”. 🙂

    Oh, I’m also with you on the “comfort matters more than anything”. Sweatshirts.

    1. Julie Saunders

      As another of your female former students (Hi Katherine!), I second this sentiment. Though I agonize for hours at a time over what I will wear outside my house. Unless I know a person really well, in which case it’s pajamas as often as possible.

      My main point is that you do a really good job of making sure your female students feel like people rather than unwitting temptresses who must be forever kept in check lest their kneecaps and shoulders bring ruin upon all who behold them.

  6. Darlene L Young

    I’m on the unpopular side of this one, I know. I actually enjoy the difference in feeling at BYU compared to other schools where the students all look like they just crawled out of bed after a night of drinking. It isn’t about modesty, in my mind, but about looking respectable and respectful. I really think there’s a different feeling when the students are groomed more nicely. I also feel very strongly that students should acknowledge that they chose to come to a school that is “different,” and in exchange for enjoying its uniqueness, they owe it to everyone to keep with honor the commitment they signed. I agree that there’s no room for nasty notes from self-designated enforcers, but I can’t help losing respect for people who promised they’d live a certain way (regardless of the reason for the promise) but who don’t think it matters whether or not they keep their promises.


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