Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mormon Underwear: The Difference Between Magic and the Sacred

The Endowment Room in The Boston Temple

I received my first set of temple garments nearly two years ago. I was home in New Hampshire for Christmas vacation, a month before my 25th birthday, and I was at the Boston Temple to receive my Endowment. Most Mormon adults first participate in the ceremony known as The Endowment a few days before becoming a missionary or getting married. As a single but faithful member in my mid-twenties, I had received permission to make those covenants without serving a mission.
The ceremony wasn’t even close to salacious. I prepared through another ceremony where other women spoke words that symbolically cleansed me, symbolically promised me blessings, and symbolically prepared me for the Endowment. Then, wearing my new garments under a white dress, I went into a chapel and waited for the ceremony to begin.
The ceremony itself was, again, symbolic. We watched a video that recounted the story of creation and the garden of Eden, a story found in Genesis. We covenanted to follow all the commandments we had agreed to follow in order to even enter the temple. (Follow the Word of Wisdom and Law of Chastity and Law of Consecration – take responsibility for preventing poverty as we’re able). The ceremony was long and symbolic to the point that unless you go in believing it means something, you’d probably find yourself quite bored. Then we went through to the Celestial Room (pictured below), the one place on Earth where Mormons feel most comfortable discussing this sacred ceremony.
I’d wanted to participate in that ceremony for years. I’d been yearning probably since I was eighteen, but the ceremony is so sacred and the covenants so binding that it was recommended I wait for a mission or marriage or simply till I was a little older. The question of what age is old enough for an unmarried adult who is not serving a mission – well, that’s a question for another day. What I can tell you, though, is that for at least the first six months after I took part in the ceremony, I lit up each time I remembered that I was wearing garments.
I would be sitting there grading papers or reading a book or watching TV, or out with friends having fun, and suddenly I’d remember, “I’m wearing garments,” and it made me so happy that I wanted to laugh with joy. That is how significant this religious clothing has been to me as a symbol of the covenants I’ve made with God.

Unfortunately, these garments are misunderstood by many and even referred to as “magic underwear,” as in this recent SNL clip:

Due to the sacred, personal nature of what garments represent, many Mormons bristle at references to our “magic underwear” and yet hesitate to correct those false assumptions. When I searched for statements from other Mormons in preparation for writing this article, my searches yielded no information through, the website officially set aside by The Church for people who are not themselves Mormon but who are curious about the faith.
Wondering what other resources a curious person might encounter, I tried googling the question “What are Mormon temple garments?” Keep in mind, I was using the terminology that those outside my faith often don’t even know. With the exception of a Huffington Post article by Matt Bowman, most sources that showed up were from ex-mormon and anti-mormon websites. While I recognize those last two perspectives as valid, they can’t do much to educate those outside the faith on what current members actually believe about garments.
So, when I saw yet another magic underwear slam earlier this week (on a facebook friend’s wall), I decided it was time to address this issue on Go Girl. Now that you know that garments mean to me personally, I want to lay out a bit on why the “magic underwear” myth is false and why it is inaccurate and even hurtful to use that term.

First off, what are temple garments?
Temple garments are an article of clothing that most devout adult members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wear. They consist of a bottom and a top, but beyond that can vary quite a bit. Generally the tops have sleeves and the bottoms come down close to the knee, and they’re usually made with white fabric, but there are some exceptions, such as with military clothing. Fabrics vary substantially from a t-shirt-style cotton, to a spandex-like material, to the mesh that a hot-blooded Northerner living in Georgia (ahem, me) depends on to stay cool.
The top and bottom both have symbols sewn onto them, which represent our covenants as well as the spiritual blessings we believe Heavenly Father wants us to receive.

How are they worn? Are they really underwear?
While we don’t usually refer to garments as underwear, yes, we do wear them as underwear. Women still wear bras, and I don’t mind sharing that I wear “normal” store bought underwear (like any woman, I hate the word ‘panties’) when I have my period. But even during my period I wear the garment bottoms over them. Like underwear, I wear garments to bed, and like with underwear I try to keep them from showing under my clothing. As I move about during the day, does an edge of lace occasionally show above the neckline of a shirt? Of course. And while you get your occasional Mormon jerks who make a big deal about that, most Mormons are rational human beings.

Knee-length underwear? Sounds pretty inconvenient.
Yes, it can be. Using a public restroom always takes a few moments longer, as I need to tuck the garment top into the garment bottoms to keep it from showing when I leave the stall, and some of the silky-style tops slide around in ways that make it hard to keep them from showing.

And you’re sure, absolutely sure, that they’re not magical?
Don’t I wish I had access to underwear that could stop bullets, or – better yet! – allow me to fly. If I find anything along those lines, I promise to share the knowledge.

So, if it’s not true, where did the myth of magic underwear originate?
The answer, I’ll admit, is murky. Some blame this myth on Mormon folklore that sprung up when Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the church, was martyred while not wearing garments. Of the four church leaders held in the prison where Joseph Smith was massacred, only the leader who was wearing garments was spared. Apparently some folks wondered if this correlation reached the level of causation. I’d put such speculation in the same category as legends about Saints’ relics: just as most contemporary Catholics can chuckle over those legends, I’ve never met a contemporary Mormon who claimed that Joseph Smith’s death stemmed from removing his garments.
Today it’s true that some Mormons will discuss temple garments as a source of protection, but if you press them for specifics, they’re likely to explain that we believe we can receive added blessings (a consciously vague term that includes emotional peace and spiritual insights) by honoring our covenants to God. Garments are a tangible, daily reminder of those covenants.

But why does it bother you when I refer to the symbol of covenants you hold sacred as something as degrading and implausible as “magic underwear”?
So glad you asked!
It’s hurtful to me because dismissing religious clothing as “magic underwear” is tantamount to dismissing that religion’s beliefs altogether. Would you call a Catholic priest’s robes “magic bathrobes”? Would you call cross necklaces “magic t’s”? Or Jewish Yarmulkes “magic caps”?
If you would, then I’m glad that you’re at least consistent. If not, then why is my faith deserving of less respect than those faiths?

But, come on, aren’t “magic underwear” cracks at least a little funny?
First off, I mostly see “magic underwear” jokes made in groups without Mormons, by those who don’t expect a Mormon to see/hear. It’s an exclusive joke used to dismiss Mormons as outsiders.
Secondly, here’s a good rule of thumb in determining whether a joke is entirely at the expense of another group or whether the group is chuckling with you: do they make similar jokes?
Mormons make polygamy jokes.
Mormons make jokes about not drinking coffee.
Mormons make jokes about their constant appearance of cheerfulness (and thus I love this song Edit [10/27/12 4:05pm]: I love this song even though it's coming from those outside the faith and isn't completely accurate).
Mormons make jokes about being naïve about sex, drugs, and booze.
Mormons make jokes about their blondness, their addiction to chocolate, and their obsession with homemade rootbeer floats.

But I have never, not even once – and I spent eight years at Brigham Young University – I have never heard a Mormon make a joke about “magic underwear.”

Temple garments are sacred to us, so please try to respect that.


  1. Hi Emily, I'm a new reader. I'm not a member of the LDS church, but my wife belongs to the Community of Christ (formerly known as the RLDS, a related but early split-off from your faith.) Her church doesn't share this particular tradition, but she gets her share of the jokes anyway. It bristles her just as much (and it bothers me as well to have my wife joked about in that way.)

    I see it as a similar story to one told by a Muslim female friend of mine, originally from Kenya. She doesn't wear the (stereotypical) head-scarf that many Muslim women wear, but she does dress in a way that's appropriate for people of her culture.

    She told me a story recently that her son has been bullied at school because of the way she dresses. Through her story, and through my wife's experience, I've learned to see the "magic underwear jokes" as another form of bullying, which I can't support.

    So yes, this non-LDS person is 100% with you. Peace ...