“Spot The Mormon” is a game I am always unintentionally playing. Recently I spotted one on an airplane.
I was seated, as were most of the passengers, when she boarded a bit late. She made her way briskly down the aisle, wearing a bright yellow shirt and a face full of stress.
She was also wearing knee length shorts.
She stopped right at my aisle and went to put her carry-on in the overhead compartment, and when she did, I saw something that confirmed my suspicions: a white undershirt tucked in to her shorts, covering her midsection.
I'll admit this was an invasion of her privacy. But curiosity has made me a creep in this regard.
Strangers though we were, with just a half-inch of white cloth where her belly button should have been, we were suddenly linked by a shared faith and history and tradition. We didn’t talk and will probably never see each other again. But in that moment we shared a bond: we both wear knee length shorts.
I am becoming convinced the Knee Length Short is the defining symbol of Mormonism. It is for me the great test of faith when, after months of thinking I’m a pretty great Mormon, summer rolls around and I am faced with the choice: will I be hot and sweaty and miserable, or will I wear knee length shorts?
Knee length shorts became a necessity when I decided to be a full-blown member of my church. When I went through the temple, I committed to wearing garments, essentially a white tee shirt and, well, knee length shorts, under my clothes. The best explanation I have found is to think of a yarmulke; something I wear at all times to remind me of my commitment to God. (I have great respect for those who wear yarmulkes, as I complain enough about wearing my commitment under my clothing.)
It's just that if left to design my own underwear, I would not in a million years land on this variation. There is a sacredness to my garments that I connect with deeply when I learn about them in the temple, and for those moments, I’m fully on board. But then I step out into my day-to-day life, and the disconnect begins.
When I express negative feelings about garments, I think people are offended. My family becomes concerned for the state of my testimony. They react as though expressing this signals disrespect or belligerence. But to me, the two seem like entirely separate, true facts: I am deeply committed to God and also knee length shorts are ugly.
It took two years after I started wearing garments for me to buy my first pair. I found them, by some miracle, at Target. They are tight and stretchy denim. They are, when I think about it, the exact shape of my garments, and now I'm wondering if by some logic this makes them immodest?
When I first wore my knee length shorts, I felt a quiet sense of belonging, like I had finally chosen full membership in the club. I was fully on board with Mormonism, fashion be damned! Maybe strangers would see me and know what I was. Maybe now I would get over my pride!
Because listen, I’m aware it is superficiality that keeps me from partaking wholeheartedly in the convenience of the knee length short. But I can’t seem to get over it.
I spent all of last year working for a clothing company, which shone an unhelpful spotlight on my already fraught sartorial situation.
Any time a new collection was launching I would scan through it and subconsciously note which pieces I could not wear: Tanks, miniskirts, regular skirts, regular shorts, tank dresses, sleeved dresses, V-necks, boat necks, anything low-backed, anything with a sort of wide armpit, and let’s not forget the blasted cold shoulder top. When asked what pieces I liked, I would offer my opinion, noting to myself that what I liked and what I could wear had very little overlap. For my co-workers, clothing was a hobby, a source of self-expression. And I suppose my clothing does express something about me: my belief. But it is expression through inhibition, identity by conformity.
I understand that with enough time and energy and money, I could probably find clothing that feels attractive and expressive. But the more likely option, if you are lazy and also cheap, is knee length shorts.
An annual showdown with the dreaded question: am I willing to be frumpy for God?
This is, of course, the great conundrum, because I am very much into God. And when I go to church and I sit and sing and serve, I feel my heart swell up like a hot air balloon. I feel the warmth and goodness and love within my religion as irrefutably as the fact that knee length shorts are an atrocity to my senses.
I am aware of all the churchy answers that my response to this is prideful or missing the mark or ungrateful for my temple blessings. But I can’t help it. It rankles me to have to conform to this standard, it riles all my stubbornness and contrariness to the point where I do wonder if I am spiritually fourteen.
It’s just I really want to believe there are many shades within Mormonism, that this is an open, flexible place for people of all stages of belief. I hope it can be that. And yet my thoughts always come back to garments, and the gobsmacking black-and-whiteness of them. Because there is no half-wearing of garments. There is nothing casual or accidental in it. This is an all-day-every-night reminder that you are not like the others. I suppose it is intended to make me feel special. Why does it only make me feel weird?
Try as I might, my mind simply cannot seem to reconcile that a belief in the greatest, deepest, most expansive power in the universe can be represented in this utterly arbitrary piece of clothing. And yet in so many ways, that sums up Mormonism.
A people living and working and existing amidst ‘the world,’ yet with a wholly separate history, community, language, and way of life. It is the ultimate mashup of sacred and mundane; a modern manifestation of Old Testament rites. It is a thing I deeply believe and a constant sandpaper on the mind.
They are my stumbling block, the mote in my eye, the riches I cannot bear to forsake. They are, to me, the ultimate symbol of Mormonism.
They are Knee Length Shorts.