Mormon Women and Self-Deprecation

A few years ago, I found myself–against my better judgment–sitting in Enrichment Night being enriched on the subject of gardening. At the activity’s conclusion we all gathered around a long cultural-hall table covered with newspaper and began to sponge-paint terra cotta pots two shades of blue. This is the sort of activity at which I do not excel, and–not coincidentally–do not enjoy. However, I was then in the throes of one of my periodic give-church-programs-a-chance spasms. (“If just pray hard enough, God will transform me from a clutzy smart-mouth into a lilting sylph who enjoys HFPE! OK, so it wasn’t very realistic. Show me the human being who hasn’t had similar delusions.)

So I dutifully dabbed away at my pot and tried to achieve the two-toned spongey look then current. My pot looked pretty bad, which I didn’t hesitate to point out to the women around me (since I had neither any intention of taking the thing home nor any investment whatsoever in an image of myself as a pot-painter). But I had inadvertently evoked the monster that is feminine self-deprecation; they started falling all over themselves to announce, each louder than the last, that her pot looked MUCH WORSE than mine, that she was TERRIBLE at pot-painting, that she could NEVER, EVER paint or craft or do anything as well as hypothetical magical craft Sister X. I wanted to say, hey, wait a minute, this isn’t just ritual self-denigration–my pot really is bad! It’s OK! I don’t care! If just one person had turned to me and admitted it: “Eve, that is, quite simply, the sorriest excuse for a pot it has ever been my unfortunate privilege to behold” I would have laughed my head off in a fit of relief.

Later, however, I had a brief, lovely vision. I saw myself leaping onto the table, knocking pots and paints and sponges helter-skelter and holding my unlovely mottled pot high in the air. I saw myself proclaiming, “Sisters, this is the best DAMN pot you will ever see in all your born days. I am CRAFTMASTER! WORSHIP ME!”

I’m still just a little sorry I didn’t.

35 thoughts on “Mormon Women and Self-Deprecation

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    I love this story! I must admit that I fall pray to the monster of self-deprecation. If anyone ever gives me a compliment my automatic reaction is to point out my flaws. I never realized how annoying I must sound until I read your post.

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    Lucy, not to worry. In spite of my best efforts I too fall prey to the monster. I suspect it’s a reflex for all of us raised to be Good Humble Mormon Women.

    I hope I didn’t portray the other women as excessively annoying–as much as anything I wanted to mock my own irresistible itch to violate social norms.

    In any case, I am, undoubtedly, one of the women I condemn.

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    Eve, I loved your story. Still laughing.

    I’ve had to train myself to take compliments graciously with a smile, rather than trying to negate them. It’s kind of insulting to a person giving you a compliment to put down what they said. I guess that’s not quite the same as your pot story . . . I think the women could have used a good dose of social norm breaking! Maybe it would free them up to be more real and less “polite”.

  5. 5

    Eve: I needed a good laugh!

    You know, I didn’t inherit the self-deprication gene. I love love love compliments. Soak ’em up. I grin, say thank you with ferver, beam inside. I like giving compliments, too — real, specific ones. Watch a 13-year-old beam when you tell them what, specifically, you enjoyed about her short story. Perhaps if I were more confident I’d relish compliments less, but I think have gained a certain confidence *from* accepting the kind comments of others.

    I would pay good money to see such a table dance in Relief Society. If you ever fulfill this fantasy, have somebody hide a video recorder πŸ™‚

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    This is the best damn post about Mormon women and self-deprecation that I’ve ever seen — you are indeed the blogmaster. πŸ™‚

    You bring up a very good point, though. Mormon women are told by their culture that they’re supposed to be gracious, and humble, and not-aggressive, and meek — and often that expectation creates a weird feedback loop of self-deprecation. And we all probably know a hundred Mormon women who just don’t seem to ever fully internalize the message: that it’s okay to think that you’re beautiful, that you’re smart, that you’re talented, that you’re righteous, that you’re a good person, that you’re a good mother, and so forth.

    And yes, it’s weird and sort of diconcertingly Oprah-esque to have to phrase it that way. On the other hand, your post makes the point through example that until Mormon women internalize that lesson and realize that self-deprecation is not necessary, we’re going to be living in a world of reverse Lake Wobegon, where everyone is below-average (self-designated; and probably passive-aggressive about it to boot).

    I blame it all on the lack of female priesthood holders. πŸ˜›

    And as an aside: You get huge bonus points in my book for using the word “sylph” in your post. Huge. (It’s a word that really resonates with me, for peculiarly personal reasons: Long story, involving a poem that I wrote a long time ago for a former flame — the best damn poem I ever wrote — where in one of the lines, I told her that she was my sylph. I can still remember (most of) the poem, and the word still brings up a whiff of bittersweet emotion whenever I see it.)

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    You bring up a very good point, though. Mormon women are told by their culture that they’re supposed to be gracious, and humble, and not-aggressive, and meek — and often that expectation creates a weird feedback loop of self-deprecation.

    But I see their reaction as more wanting to be kind to Eve, not necessarily that they are acting humble. They want to say, “hey, I’m right with you, sister!” Your comment that you wish you had said, “hey, wait a minute, this isn’t just ritual self-denigration–my pot really is bad! It’s OK! I don’t care!” makes me think that next time I’m in such a situation, I will try to say something like that that gives someone permission to tell me the truth. πŸ™‚ I’m not sure I’m at the point where I could actually tell someone like you that your pot stinks, however. πŸ˜‰ (Although, had you gotten on the table with that Tarzan-like yell, I might have had the courage to do so. ) πŸ™‚

    There are some funny quirks in our culture, that’s for sure….

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    Eve –

    Luckily (or unluckily) for you, I’ve just finished Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand, and your story reminded me of some of her theories. Basically, she says that men live in a world of competition and hierarchy, and women live in a world of community and rapport, which is reinforced by sameness. To that extent, women who stand out by excelling threaten the community.

    From p. 274 of the 2001 edition:

    For the women and girls, agreeing and being the same are ways to create rapport. Excelling, being different, and fighting are threats to rapport.

    So it seems as if this may be an issue with women’s culture, more generally. (Of course, I’m also willing to allow that Mormon women may engage in the behavior more often: Mormon females are certainly more “traditionally” feminine than most of their non-Mormon counterparts.)

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    If you had done that, then the Relief Society President would have been thoroughly justified in ejecting your creation from the meeting, saying, “Out, out, damn pot!”*

    *Yes, I know this is based on a misquote.

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    I was at a Relief Society dinner one time eating some soup and I made a face because it was awful. The woman across from me said, “Isnt’t that soup awful?” And I said, “yes, who made it?”

    And she said, “I did.” And we all busted up laughing because it was really terrible soup and she knew it.

    Eve, I hate those craft nights and I never feel enriched. But I’ve lived here 27 years and my friends don’t hestitate to let me know if my pots look bad. Anything I make with my hands usually does.

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    Good one. You would drive more traffic to this site if you gave your post a title like “I learned how to dance on tables at Relief Society”.

    I (as a man!) had an experience like this. The RS was having a dinner in the gym, and I wandered through on my way to somewhere. The dinner was arranged around the theme of how to use your food storage, and the main dish was some sort of salisbury steak w/gravy, all made from wheat. Someone spotted me and asked me to come and sample the meal. They must have mixed up the corn starch with the salt, because it was INEDIBLE!. It was literally like getting a mouthful of ocean water – I couldn’t even swallow, so I made an exit to the men’s room so I could spit it out. Truly Awful. I went back in later, just to see if anybody was eating, and it was disorienting to see wonderful LDS women taking very small bites of faux meat, chewing, swallowing and smiling at one another across the tables. I think everybody was waiting for somebody else to make the first move and go scrape off the meal into the garbage can. Nobody wanted to rock the boat – the pressure y’all must feel is incredible to me. They could have excommunicated me and I still wouldn’t have taken another bite.

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    You might just temper your self-depreciation with depreciation of others. Here’s one suggestion:

    “Doesn’t my pot look terrible? I know! But at least it’s not Sister Nixon’s pot. I didn’t know a kiln could defecate until I saw that thing.”

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    I got so sick of teachers apologizing for their terrible handwriting as they wrote on the board that I swore never to apologize for my handwriting. Male or female, teachers feel obligated to call their handwriting “chicken scratch” even if it’s so perfect they could teach kindergarten.

    Instead, I took the opposite extreme. While teaching about crossing the plains, I’d put something on the board that looked like an amoeba and announce, “this is a true and correct map of the United States, and Nauvoo is located here,” and put an x. Everyone laughs.

    Or say, “this is the prophet.” Draw a stick figure, point out “and he’s been on a diet”, and move on with the lesson.

    Once I was talking to a woman who was about a size 4 and she was complaining about how fat she was. After she finished, I said, “if you think you’re fat, you must think I’m obese and I’m only a size 10 and I’m fine with that.” She got very flustered. I never had to listen to her complain about her weight problem again.

    Eve, dear, I would have told you your pot was ugly. πŸ™‚ But then I would have nicely offered to help you with it, because I have painted simply adorable polka-dot terra cotta pots within the past year. I even color-coordinated the geraniums in them to match the paint.

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    I grew up in the south and am therefore culturally unable to take a compliment gracefully. When complimented, I blush and blabber on about how it really isn’t that big a deal. For that matter, if I want to make a joke about myself, I will often make outrageous boastful statements about myself, sounding kind of like Muhammed Ali. Maybe I should take offense that everyone always gets the joke.

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    I would have told you it sucked. If you had asked, that is. Then I would have asked you what you thought of mine, and I would hope that you would tell me that mine, too, totally sucked. Then we would have ditched the whole thing and gone to Starbucks for some bonding and yummy delicious drinks. Now that’s sisterhood.

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    Aaaaagh! Heather, you beat me to it!! That is exactly what I was going to write, and I made it all the way to the bottom without anyone else saying it- damn you! πŸ™‚

    I woulda though. I’da looked at you, started laughing, and told you to hang it up. Then we coulda laughed together-!

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    Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment.

    Deborah, I’m a lot better at making up these little flights of fancy and sharing them with my sisters and laughing about them for years than I am at actually acting on them, but I’ll keep that video camera on hand, just in case.

    Kaimi, thanks for the observations and the T&S sidebar link. I think Lake Woebegone describes it perfectly–we Mormon women are just average–(but we’ll fight to the death to maintain that our children are above!)

    And of course any poem containing the word “sylph” would be “the best damn poem you ever wrote.” You are, after all, poetrymaster. πŸ˜‰

    M&M, you get at the heart of why I don’t actually do and say these crazy things I imagine (and why when I do let my mouth run away with me, I’m always sorry later)–I would feel terrible to think I’d hurt someone’s feelings, especially someone who was just trying to commiserate. Truth-telling is a delicate art, and it’s hard to know whether telling someone her pot stinks or her soup is awful will make her laugh or cry.

    Katya, nice analysis. For the record, I find masculine one-upmanship just as tiresome as feminine conformity. Surely there’s a third way?

    Eric James Stone,—I guess I asked for that one. πŸ™‚

    annegb, I like your friend’s style–good way to let people know it’s OK to tell the truth. And my hands seem to have the same problem yours do.

    Mark IV, I think your title + Deborah’s suggested video clip could be our ZD ticket to fame. Sounds like an awful situation–too bad anne’s friend wasn’t there to make the first move!

    gst, now we’re talking! Deprecation is always better shared. Especially with someone named “Sister Nixon.”

    Melinda, great suggestions. I’d be happy to place my pot in your competent hands.

    Heather, Tracy M, anyone who offers me a trip to Starbucks can tell me my pot sucks all night long. (And you two get my vote for Enrichment Night leaders!)

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    Is this the part where we’re all supposed to help Rosalynde out by joining in and saying “Rosalynde, your jokes do stink”?

    Come on, everyone, let’s give her a hand here: Rosalynde, that is, quite simply, the sorriest excuse for humor it has ever been my unfortunate privilege to behold. Furthermore, . . .

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    Great post, I laughed at the mental image of a backlit She-Ra with a badly painted pot, holding it over her head.

    I think that self-depreciation is lying. Even if it’s a white lie, it’s a lie. I think the use of white lies, and hyperbole make everything you say a little less believable. Thumper’s mom didn’t say “If you can’t say anything nice, then make something up.” Nor did she say “If you can’t say anything nice, then insult yourself.”
    My response: just smile and nod.

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    Am I remembering correctly that one family member (I’m thinking Kiskilili) had a craft thrown away at girls’ camp when it wasn’t recognized by the clean-up crew that her lovely contraption was in fact supposed to be a craft?

    If you ever do in fact perform a table dance, please let me know in advance so I can be there. πŸ™‚

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    Yes! The last craft I made in YW was chucked in the garbage while it was drying! I can’t imagine how my fabulous creation was mistaken for a stray piece of trash. Just because I incorporated some extra media (i.e. paper towels) that were not designated for the project.

    And then there was the time I took flak for putting my camp songbook together backwards and writing “pteradactyl” on the cover instead of my name. Oh the injustice of it all! The oppressive rigidity of Church norms, enforced even in the decorating sphere!

    Melinda, I love it! I’ve read about studies concluding that when a girl says “I’m so fat,” quite often the unavoidable subtext is “you’re so fat.” I think this extends to other areas as well, such as “my hair is such a disaster!” said by those whose hair is perfectly coiffed (as a thinly veiled way of insulting someone else present). There are so many possible strange subtexts involved in self-deprecation that it’s hard not to read subtexts in even when they’re unintended, as in Eve’s case.

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    (One of the classic lines in the book Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood (one of the best books ever written), is when the protagonist concludes that all that is necessary to be a girl is to cut pictures of home appliances out of magazines, paste them into a scrapbook, and then claim that yours looks terrible compared to your friend’s.)

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    So here’s my three cents:
    We are taught to be humble, and getting compliments tends to bring up a feeling of ‘pride’ about something, therefore we feel it necessary to negate the compliment to remain humble.

    I’m in the same school as Deborah, in that I *love* getting compliments, but I taught myself to be that way. If I get complimented, I smile and say thank you and then say something about why that thing is special to me or offer to teach someone else to do the same thing, if someone compliments a necklace, I’ll say “thank you, my husband gave it to me for Christmas” or something similar.

    At the same time, I think my sister also pointed out to me that we apologize too much, esp. the teacher before a lesson: “I just don’t feel prepared to teach this” and that sort of comment before beginning a (usually wonderful) lesson. My sister makes it a point never to apologize for something she’s put work into. I usually ask the girls I teach to keep a prayer in their hearts for me that I will teach the things they need to learn. I think that captures attention, doesn’t make excuses for a lackluster lesson, and teaches the girls a little something about praying always.

    Anyhoo, that’s what I think!

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    I love Deborah Tannen. Reading her distinction between the rapport-talk of women and the report-talk of men has made my life much simpler. And I think you’re exactly right that the incident Eve describes fits neatly in her framework.

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    We are taught to be humble, and getting compliments tends to bring up a feeling of ‘pride’ about something, therefore we feel it necessary to negate the compliment to remain humble.

    There’s also the issue of shyness. Some people don’t like compliments because they don’t like attention, period. (I once got about six compliments on a new shirt the first day I wore it to campus. I never wore it again.)

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    I wish we Mormon men were better at self-deprecation. We’re really bad at it. Way worse than you women. We could never, ever do it as well as you do. In fact, we’re terrible! Awful! We suck! We’re scum! AAAAUUUGH!!!!

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    If just pray hard enough, God will transform me from a clutzy smart-mouth into a lilting sylph who enjoys HFPE!

    I dunno, Eve, don’t you think your husband would find that a little upsetting? (“Who is this imposter lilting sylph and what have you done with my beloved clutzy smart-mouth?!”)

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    Good point, Katya. My husband would be thoroughly bewildered.

    I guess I’ll stick with who I am πŸ™‚

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    You know what’s worse than having to do an Enrichment craft? Having to plan and present one. I was on the “Homemaking Board” eight years ago when the ward boundaries changed. I distinctly recall telling the counselor who asked me to be on the board, ‘I don’t do crafts.’ His response was that was ok because his dil was called to the board and she’s crafty.

    I actively pushed to do activities other than crafts because I knew that there was no interest in them from the ward that I was coming from. I was totally brushed off because the counselor over homemaking was into crafts. The crafts never went well because of the lack of interest.

    I was long gone by the time a new counselor was called. The new counselor nixed all crafts, except the Christmas ones since they always had the biggest turnout. Two presidencies later the tradition continues and turnout is high. We discuss depression/mental illness, dreams (led by the psychologist in the ward), health topics, book reviews, etc. Everything, but crafts.

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    I have just recently discovered the world of blog. I’m always a few years behind everybody else…but that’s OK. I usually catch up sooner or later.
    I haven’t been to a Home Making meeting in so many years I can’t remember the last time I went. I just got tired of it. I know I should support it, but than there are so many things I “should” do. As I get older I’m less concerned with the “shoulds”…life is short.
    Thanks for the laugh Eve. I think if I could go to a Home Making…oh yea its called “Enrichment” now, sorry….with you gals I might enjoy it.

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    I haven’t been to homemaking in forever, either, mostly because I now live one hour from church. After working all day, the last thing I want to do is drive to be with women who aren’t my friends and do things I don’t want to do instead of going home and spending time with people who love me.

    Eve, I love your post – but wouldn’t it have been cool if after the presentation about gardening, they had you all – out on a limb here – did some gardening?! Even if it was early spring and the ground is too hard, there are things that can be done. I once made these little gifts in terra cotta pots that I did not sponge paint (!) that had pea seeds in them, and then directions to take care of it and by the time the risk of frost passed they’d be ready to plant. Now I can’t remember what cute saying the card . . . “we’re peas in a pod!” or something like that.

    Finishing a presentation about GARDENING with a CRAFT. That is just classic!!! (But I agree, your dance would have been the piece de resistance.

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    “Sisters, this is the best DAMN pot you will ever see in all your born days. I am CRAFTMASTER! WORSHIP ME!”

    You should be VERY sorry that you didn’t do that because that is the Best. Line. Ever.

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