Hot, Steamy Mormons: Are the Latter Day Saints Getting Sexy?
The young lady starring in this YouTube video has the right stuff to be a pop star, a dancer, a reality TV hopeful -- she's curvaceous, poised and pretty, with a plunging neckline and a flirty little wink that puts Sarah Palin’s to shame.
Her plunging neckline, however, is attached to a short-sleeve sweater over which she's tied an apron. This is Sister Farr, member of the Church of Latter Day Saints and star of the "Mormon Muffins for TV Dinners" videos, an offshoot of the "Hot Mormon Muffins" in which beautiful, scantily clad Mormon women adopt vintage pin-up poses and offer a favorite muffin recipe. Some have legs so long they could reach Heaven just by putting on heels. The calendar will benefit breast cancer research, inspired by one model who survived breast cancer and in memory of the sister of another model, who did not. The Muffins are the 2010 companion to "Men on a Mission," now in its third year, a calendar of shirtless Mormon guys built like brick privies; dudes with six packs who have probably never touched a six pack in their lives.
But back to Sister Farr, who is saying that in preparation for the Last Days one should store a two-year supply of food, including fresh muffins, which she shows us how to preserve by suggestively sucking the air out of a Ziploc bag. By the time she’s done I want to 1) eat a muffin; and 2) go out and shop for something that will make me look as sexy as…a Mormon mom?
Inspiring that kind of counterintuitive thought isn’t easy. The man behind it is entrepreneur Chad Hardy, the 33-year-old founder of the calendar company Mormons Exposed. Hardy is a sixth-generation Mormon and former missionary.
"I went to Brigham Young University and I hated the fact that I had to dress like everybody else," he says. "On devotional days, Tuesdays, if you didn’t wear a shirt and tie people looked at you like you were disobedient." That level of conformity was one of the reasons he created his calendars. "I wanted to make a statement that you don’t have to look the same as everyone else."
Hardy wanted to break down stereotypes. Boy, did he succeed.
"When this thing first came out," Hardy says about "Men on a Mission" in a phone interview, "I had a lot of church members say 'If there were more church members like you I’d have never left the church.'" Others have thanked him for showing the world that Mormons aren’t all stodgy, that they have a sense of humor about themselves. And non-Mormons appreciated getting to see a side of Mormons they didn’t know existed.
The praise, however, was not universal. Hardy was excommunicated. He couldn’t even go to his sister’s wedding because he couldn’t get a temple recommend, a certificate granting entrance into a Mormon temple (to talk to Hardy is to spend time looking up a lot of Mormon terminology later on). He gets lots of hate mail. (One of his relatives even de-friended him on Facebook. "Twice!" he says in disbelief. The first time the person claimed it was an accident. "I can’t even figure out how to get rid of friends," Hardy says. "It’s a process to get rid of a friend.")
He still considers himself a Mormon "by family culture, yes, by mystical beliefs, no," he says. While he sometimes misses the structure of the church there were a number of things he was at odds with, including the ways church leaders were making decisions "affecting people’s lives," for example, the issue of gay marriage.
"In getting involved in California politics they forced the hand of all the gay people in California to not have the same equal rights as they have. I don’t believe that a God that created such an amazing, perfect planet would really care," Hardy says. Later he tells me, "The people are there to serve the church when the church should be there to serve the people -- that’s why we pay into it." Gay people, he says, feel unsafe to be themselves, "and that is not what a religion should be. That’s not who God is."
Asked if a lot of Mormons and Christians are frustrated with the extreme image the far right has given them, Hardy says "Yes, and a lot of them are afraid to say anything because they’ll be ostracized like I was."
"The church has always taught us that we’re a peculiar people. We’re supposed to set a standard for the world, we’re supposed to be better than you," Hardy says simply, a mindset similar to another religious group, the Puritans.
In her book The Wordy Shipmates, NPR commentator Sarah Vowell writes "...the country I live in is haunted by the Puritans’ vision of themselves as God’s chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire." She describes how our inherited attitude of elevated caretaker has gotten us into situations like the war in Iraq. As Americans, having this as a national legacy can give those of us who aren’t in the church an idea of what it feels like to have this notion of elevated status spiritually.
But not everyone, Hardy says, wants to be above the pack.
"A lot of people want to feel normal, we want to feel sexy," Hardy says, adding that "Most of the people I’ve met who are the most spiritual are the most sexual." He feels the two need not be mutually exclusive. He tells the story of a born-again Christian girl he dated in high school. "Everything she did she did for Jesus and she was the most sexual person I’ve ever met." (Indeed, in casting about randomly for some Mormon reactions to the calendars I found a site called "Mormon Mommy Wars" on which the contributors, circa 2006, were overwhelmingly grossed-out by the Men on a Mission calendar, except one who found it "hilarious" and said the slogan of her mission was "Flirt to convert.")
"I understand it’s something that should not be abused," Hardy says about sexual behavior. "I believe in moderation in all things. If you decide that you’re going to go on a diet and all you eat is soy you’re going to get sick because you’re out of balance. Sexuality is the same – if you’re not feeding your natural body and only trying to feed your spirit," he says, the imbalance takes its toll. Noting that this goes way back to the early days of the Christian church, he says "Sex is a powerful way to control people – especially by withholding it."
He also cites the irony of teaching "Sex is bad, it’s awful, it’s dirty – save it for the one you love."
Another Mormon recasting the stereotype, albeit in a different way, is Stephenie Meyer, author of the "Twilight" novels. Women of all ages are, pardon the phrase, totally batshit about Meyer’s vampire romances, and according to Lev Grossman's 2008 profile of her in Newsweek "she has never seen an R-rated movie."
"The characters in Meyer’s books aren’t Mormons, but her beliefs are key to understanding her singular talent," Grossman wrote, going on to describe, among other things, the vampire’s constant, vigilant resistance to bloodlust and what Grossman called the "erotics of abstinence."
So while Meyer’s work seems to be giving a sex-saturated mainstream audience the erotic joys of restraint (not restraints; that’s another story entirely), Hardy is going a totally different route and giving a sex-saturated mainstream audience a dose of sexiness from a totally unexpected source. Neither are graphic but where "Twilight" is romantic, the "Muffins" are definitely sexy. Some don’t show much skin; most are evocative of the pin-ups of the '40s and '50s, which have always felt more flirtatious than salacious. So do Hardy and his models ever get charged with hypocrisy? Calling for modesty but showing off?
Well, it would be if these women were preaching one thing and doing another, Hardy says. But they’re not.
"Their message in their photograph matches the message they have to say to the world, which is "Hey, I'm human. I don’t always dress a certain way. I dress to feel sexy. I dress to feel human. I dress to reflect my personality."
In fact, it’s the haters Hardy sees as the hypocrites.
"We jeopardized one standard and that is modesty which is a standard that constantly evolves. Fifty, sixty years ago what women wear in the church today would be immodest – women’s shirts have gotten shorter, lower cut. Modesty evolves with the social standards. The only people who haven’t evolved their standards are the fundamentalist Mormons…they dress like 'Little House on the Prairie'…they haven’t changed since the very beginning.
"We jeopardized one standard which was modesty and the people who have responded to us with this hate have jeopardized several standards. Don’t judge your neighbor. Love one another. What happened to that one?"
On the day before Thanksgiving, Chad Hardy and I talked on the phone for two hours. I can’t remember the last time I even talked to anyone I know for two hours.
But Hardy is fun to talk to. We discuss atheism (his atheist friends, he says, have just as much innate desire to do good as Christians), Glenn Beck (who, Hardy tells me, was a raging alcoholic before joining the LDS church), about how the support and structure provided by the church is very good for a lot of people, about people struggling with their sexuality, about what makes people good and the fact that Utah leads the nation in depression.
He’s right. According to Mental Health America’s "Ranking the States: An Analysis of Depression Across the States," which takes data from 2002-2006 and was conducted in 2007, Utah is the most depressed state in the country. Hardy talks about seeing young girls grow up in the church and all the pressure to be good: "They had all these really plain, homely girls talking about how being virtuous brings you closer to God and I thought 'These are the standards these women live up to? No wonder they’re on antidepressants.'" This he says, "is the problem with Utah and living where one religion dominates."
If you want some of Hardy’s Muffins, better get ‘em while they’re hot. This might be the calendars' last year. "At this point we’ve made our statement and we’ve created the dialogue," he says. Now he thinks he might like to put all his hate mail into book form.
"We all agree to disagree –that's what politics are all about," he says. "I don’t mind that people send me letters that say ‘I disagree with you,’ but don’t send me letters that say ‘You’re going to hell,’ ‘You’re an embarrassment.’"
His book's tentative title: Casting Stones.