I stopped wearing garments in the parking lot of a Sam’s Club just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Claire was standing, slightly hunched, in the small door frame of the Airstream. I could see her frustration from many parking spaces away. At that time every decision felt scrutinized. Sighs and glances communicated sentences. We’d been on the road for six months, crowded in that little airstream. You learn a lot about someone when you have them as constant company.
“You bought them, then,” she said, arm jutting squarely from her hip. Financially, we were a slowly sinking ship; every purchase had to be made confidently.
“I’ll just try them for a bit and see how it feels,” I said, unable to pull the Sam’s Club sized pack of Hanes classics out of the shopping bag while she was watching. The white, 9” briefs, looked Godly compared to the tattered gray garments they would be stored next to.
We’d stayed with our friends Cassi and Braeden in Iowa City a few weeks before, our trailer parked in their amazonian backyard. They showed us what they loved about that little college town, and at night regaled us with stories of their recent departure from Mormonism.
Braeden’s father, a leader in the church, came to visit them earlier that year to help them move. On a trip to a home improvement store, Braeden revealed an underwear waistband branded Fruit of the Loom while bending down to tie his shoe. In thespian form, Braeden’s dad demanded, “Where are your garments of the holy priesthood?”
After fumbling around the truth, that his garments had been lost behind stacks of books in the basement for months, Braeden lied, “I don’t like to wear them while doing chores.” His dad accepted the lie, but later confessed, “I don’t even own gentile garments.”
We all had a good laugh at that rigid, orthodox, kind of resistance his dad personified– we all found it familiar. But amidst the laughing, Braeden and Cassi were also quite vulnerable with us about their fear to tell their parents the truth. It felt like saying, “I don’t wear my garments anymore,” was really communicating, “I don’t want to spend the rest of eternity with you.”
Braeden wished his family could have open conversation about his bisexual sister. Cassi wanted to tell her parents how much better she felt about her own body, now. About how her shame was fading, and how her breasts never felt comfortable in the one-size-fits-all breast size of the garment tops.
And though her body shame was different than mine, I began to wonder if mine too came from those ill fitting garments. I had gained forty some pounds since last buying them, and felt the pressure of a less than perfect body each time I put them on. My temple recommend had expired while on the road, which meant I was stuck with them until we had a set home and ward with a bishop who could approve my worthiness and permit me purchase new ones.
Temple garments are worn by adult members of the LDS church who have made promises of fidelity to God’s commandments. To Church members, the temple garment, worn under your everyday average ol’ secular clothing, represents the sacred and personal aspect of their relationship with God and their commitment to dress modestly and to live good, honorable lives.
Mormons consider garments a step in stride with a long tradition of human devotion to God.
When the church first started, garments nearly covered the entire body. They were quite literally a cloak of modesty and a mark of sainthood. Modern garments are much smaller, sheer, and hidden from sight; mostly existing for abstraction. They’re a personal moral shorthand—full of tiny symbols that represent big ideas about God.
But—uh, for some, they are also a literal shield against the power of the devil. Mormons who think this way have lost all sense of the abstract, cornered into two extremes: cultural mysticism or debasement. Mystic reverence is alive and well in the garment’s demands which parallel the American flag’s—to never touch the ground and be retired by flame. But in their debasement garments stop being simple reminders, lose the abstract, and become practical and affordable underwear, a protection from bullets and car accidents, a breathable and stretchy material for endurance sports, a lace trimmed intimate wear, and protection from the temptation and power of the devil.
While many will shrug their shoulders when presented with the mystic side of those responsibilities, others will readily admit to the debasement of the item. Once the idea becomes literal, the garment’s abstract power is lost.
The vagueness of abstraction makes communication tricky. This is why we have synonyms for a group of related ideas. It creates warmth and nuance. And garments have many nicknames, one for each of their many responsibilities.
Calling garments ‘Jesus jammies’ doesn’t change them physically, but it does trivialize their purpose. If your single context for garments is in hearing them called ‘magic underwear’ you’re going to be picturing Fantasia, while those Mormons who call them ‘garments of the holy priesthood’ are picturing Cinderella. Mickey is putting on his broomstick-breaking robes, and Cinderella is putting on the clothes that will allow her into the realm of nobility. Both are empowering, both are garments, neither are in the same contextual ballpark.
Which is why, while sitting in a Mormon pew in the summertime, sweating through many layers of clothing, doubting their abilities as both magic cloak and ballroom gown, I found myself questioning clothes as a genre altogether.
The lack of nuance pulled me away from the big picture and into the material. Once the idea became literal, the garment’s abstract power was lost.
For a while my two types of underwear—secular and aforementioned—coexisted in a single drawer. I spent a year facing the burden of doubt each morning. Then I bagged up the heaps of light grey mess, cotton thinning at the joins, and unceremoniously tossed them in a far corner beneath the house, near the water heater and behind the two-seater bike trailer. I didn’t want them in my drawer, but I also didn’t want them in the trash. Did God notice that I double bagged them?
I met a man on my mission who had recently returned to full faith Mormonism. He seemed wise to the world and had many opinions about which breed of chicken was best to eat. He hadn’t started to wear his garments again, but we wanted to help get him there. We visited once a week to insist on his continued church attendance.
On a memorable visit when he told us to make sure to have sex before we got married (“because sexual incompatibility is a serious problem and you don’t want to fuck around with that”), he also informed us that “prayer was the first thing to go” on the path to inactivity.
I even wrote that thought in a side margin of my scriptures somewhere.
I wondered later if God could appreciate the repurpose of my garments into shop rags. “This is a type of worship. I am a type of worshiper,” I thought.
I hadn’t stopped believing I was good just for being near to my garments. I call this kind of worship “osmosis righteousness.”
If prayer is the first thing to go, I guess I’d like to add that osmosis righteousness is the last. I knew I had fully changed when I stopped believing I was a good person for being near to things deemed holy. I could be good without God’s marks against my skin.
In true protestant form, Mormonism is founded on miracles, healings, and revelations. And maybe for that reason, it feels impossible as a practicing Mormon to transcend that mystic folk belief. You can’t just believe in morals, or vague good ideas, you must also believe that any one of your neighbors is a cherubic messenger lying in wait to bring you a batch of fresh cookies at God’s will.
We’re told the sacrament, the body and blood of Christ that gets passed in church on Sundays is a remembrance ordinance—as children eat fistfuls off passed around trays. But for most who partake, it’s not enough that the sacrament be an edible WWJD bracelet. It must be bigger. It must also be tangible and mystical and ephemeral seven day salvation.
Garments can’t just be a body sized WWJD bracelet. They must also be mystical and unreasonable protection from the ungodly.
I have a scar just above my underwear line from a bullish boy scout attempt I made to remove a tick with my keychain swiss army knife, two months after buying those Hanes. The scar reminds me of my dog Joshua, who gave me the tick, and who got it from some brush at Rosaryville State Park in Maryland. It was nearly December, and there were signs everywhere reminding us to beware of ticks and to not let your rowdy dog Joshua roam into the piles of fallen deciduous leaves.
We were stopped there for a week to visit our friends Jesse and Leslie. One night we invited them out to the park for dinner and s’mores over a campfire. It was dropping into the low 50s, leaving the park empty. By that time of year, the retired RV traveling couples who fill these parks were in Florida. We let Joshua lurk around while we talked and laughed, knowing he wouldn’t get too far from the fire’s warmth. He was a shorthair, and a wimp.
Our newly installed furnace had gone out a few days before, so we let Joshua cuddle up between our open sleeping bags as we fell asleep. I assume the deal went down then.
When I woke the tick was there, proudly burrowing into my skin. I don’t remember whether protection from Lyme disease is a promise given in the endowments in the temple. Just kidding, of course I remember the Oath, Covenant, and Mark of the Deer Tick.
Whenever I see the scar, now, I think about every Mormon camp leader I’ve ever had telling me that if you pull the tick out you will decapitate the insect, leaving its head in your skin. I think about Frank Loeffler, my tenderfoot scout leader, who taught me through incorrect conjecture to drown the tick in peanut butter until it changes its mind about eating you. I think about how his son taught me through the same erroneous logic to press a recently blown out match to the behind of the tick if the peanut butter does not work. I think about how I learned from my mom, later that night on the phone, that my grandpa wrote his doctoral thesis on ticks and lyme disease, and that everything I’d ever learned about tick removal was wrong.
That same sweet tooth for miracles, angelic visitations, and divine intervention through material inhabitation is in me as much as any Mormon. But there was no miracle. No spirit guided the blade, and no voice called out to me to google search before self surgery. As a reader you can be happy with this tiny miracle: neither I nor Joshua ended up with lyme disease.
Maybe if I’d slept with my garment top on, the whole ordeal could have been avoided. Maybe that’s the whole garment thing—you never get to see all the things they’re protecting you from—it’s the shield against the unforeseen.
But I prize this little memory that jumps out at me, each morning as I dress, of people I love who I don’t see anymore and a memory I would probably forget without that scar to bring it back. It’s a mark and symbol of another commitment I’ve made in my life. It’s shorthand for: take stock in the people you love.
For six years I wore garments. Did I ever once think of my commitment to God when I pulled them around my freckled knees? Or do I think of that commitment more now that they’re gone? Am I reminded more readily of how fragile and ephemeral and spectacular life is as I dress without them?
While my new daily drivers (shiny black adidas) feel like heaven on my thighs, I still give pause when I put on a shirt without a garment top. And more than that pause, some days I wish I had a pair of garments I could put on, just to see if the feeling has changed so that I can wear them again with a holiness and magic that feels bigger than nylon mesh caught on chest hair and loose fabric crowded up high against the groin of my jeans.