Do you want to know about my underwear? I’m Mormon. Or I used to be, anyway. The question of sacred panties seems to come up when I’m around.
When asked if I ever wore the Mormon garments that seem to elicit so much fascination, I usually laugh and say, “Oh, no, I left the LDS church long before I did the ceremony to get garments.” Then I usually change the subject, because even though I know Mormonism is seen as weird and is great fodder for jokes, they are still my people. It’s sort of like talking trash about your own family, but getting riled if someone else does.
For those of you not familiar with Mormon temple practices, I’ll explain briefly. People at least 19 years old perform the bulk of temple ceremonies, and after their first time, they start wearing the garments that are more broadly known as “special underwear.” Mormons wear garments to provide a constant physical reminder of promises and covenants made during temple ceremonies, and also believe they offer symbolic or literal protection.
Young adolescents, starting at age 12 or so, are allowed to take part in a very limited set of ceremonies in the temple called Baptisms for the Dead. This is basically a baptism by proxy, where you go to the temple after being approved, and are baptized for dead people. In some temples, you wear your own underwear, but at the temple where I did these baptisms, they provided all the clothing we wore, including underwear. It was a one-piece shift that looked like an old-fashioned swimsuit, with capped sleeves and extending to mid-thigh. They weren’t the same as the garments adults wore, but they didn’t look like my normal white cotton panties and bra.
A small group of us, awkward young teens, excited and nervous for this experience we’d learned about since we were small, gathered for orientation on how to prepare. We each had an interview with our congregation’s bishop to “receive a recommend” that we were worthy to attend the temple. Our teachers told us to wear nice Sunday clothing, to remove any nail polish, to only wear white ponytail holders, and to spend the day before we left reading scriptures or listening to uplifting music. Don’t be rowdy. Cultivate reverence. They told us the white clothing for the ceremony would be provided, and that if a girl was on her period, she could attend and watch, but couldn’t participate.
The day arrived, and wouldn’t you know it, I was bleeding. I’d never been taught that women on their period were unclean, like in Old Testament terms. I’d never been taught that menstruation was a curse, or that women were inherently bad. I’d been taught a lot of other stuff about gender, but nothing that led me to believe that my period made me somehow unworthy to take part in the baptisms.
I thought about going, but not being allowed to participate. I thought about how that would broadcast to everyone else, including the boys, that I was on my period. I wasn’t ashamed of menstruating, but I felt it was private and nobody’s business but my own. I thought about why they made that rule, and figured it was probably to avoid blood floating in the baptismal font from bleeding girls who don’t use tampons. See, Mormons don’t do baptism by sprinkling water on your head. It’s a full-immersion baptism. Based on conversations with other Mormon girls my age, I realized that most of them used pads because they thought they’d break their hymen and lose their virginity if they used a tampon. I wasn’t too worried about my hymen, and I felt like I was wearing a diaper when I wore pads.
So, being a girl who liked to reason things out, I concluded that if I wore a tampon, there would be no problem. No blood in the water, no silent announcement that I was bleeding, no attention brought to myself unnecessarily. I carefully inserted a Super-Plus tampon, figuring I’d need it to last for several hours. I put on my dress, curled my bangs, and pulled the rest of my hair back with a white tie. My mom dropped me off at the church, where I met everyone else and we carpooled to the nearest temple, thirty minutes away.
Upon arrival, we were shuffled through a back door and taken downstairs to the baptism area. The workers in the temple were mostly senior citizens, and they were all wearing white. One woman sized me up from behind a counter and handed me a stack of white clothing. After another round of orientation, the girls were led into one dressing room, the boys to another. Again they mentioned that a girl on her period should just watch from the gallery, and I ignored the instruction, since I’d already created my own solution. The attendants in the dressing room showed us to individual curtained enclosures where we changed into the white clothing and left our street clothes in a cubby. I took off my dress, stockings, panties, and bra, and donned the underclothing and thick polyester jumpsuit they provided.
One at a time, the attendants took us to the main room, where we stepped into a round baptismal font, about four feet deep. I was baptized several dozen times, quickly, one after another, with a different name inserted into the standard prayer script each time. When I stepped out of the water, I clutched my arms across my chest, dripping puddles of water on the tile floor.
Back in the girls’ dressing room, I was stripped of my wet clothing and wrapped in a large white sheet. As the attendant stooped down to help me step out of the sodden jumpsuit, she gasped, her hand flying to her mouth. She pursed her lips and pointed to my curtained cubby. “Get dressed. Then meet me back here.”
As my stomach lurched, I looked down. Was there blood on my thighs? Would they kick me out of the temple? My heart pounding noisily in my ears, I berated myself for getting caught believing I was too smart to follow the rules. I already knew that as a girl, being “too smart” could be a liability. Maybe this time I’d stepped over the line. I slowly dressed, nervous for what was coming next.
I was taken to a side office, where a man sat at a desk, looking at me gravely. “Sister Parker tells me that she noticed a brightly colored string hanging from your body after you performed the baptisms. What can you tell me about that?”
I had tucked the string up inside my vagina, but it must have fallen out. “Um . . . well . . . I, uh, got my period and so I used a tampon.”
The woman standing next to the desk said, “Didn’t you hear us tell you that if you were menstruating, you would not be allowed to participate? We have a place for you to watch others be baptized.”
I sighed. “Yes, I heard that. But I was looking forward to this, and it’s not my fault I am bleeding! So I figured as long as the blood wouldn’t come out in the water, it wouldn’t a problem.”
“You figured?” the woman bristled. “You figured? It is not for you figure, it is for you to be obedient to what your leaders tell you. We have very specific instructions about clothing, and the whiteness of that clothing, and your hot pink tampon string does not belong in a baptismal font!”
The man, who looked older than my great-grandfather, was blushing. He stammered when he finally spoke, “Young lady, I realize this is your first visit to the temple. It is important, in the future, that you carefully follow the instructions you are given. You may not always know the purpose of those instructions, but you still need to follow them.”
For several years, I had been watching, questioning my family’s religion. The strings that tied me to this faith community were starting to unravel. My focused relationship with rules was well underway – identifying them, understanding them, slipping by them, ignoring them, adhering to them when it made sense to me to do so. It could be fair to say that I became obsessed with rules, the what-how-when-who-why.
But to this day, I still can’t figure out if the issue was my period, my lack of obedience, or the fact that the tampon string was vivid pink. That day I wasn’t allowed to participate in the blessings and confirmations that follow baptism. I’m guessing they re-baptized all those names I completed, in case my hot pink string nullified the ceremonies I was there to do. And I learned, once again, that believing I could figure out church dogma myself wouldn’t fly.