Any insomniac who has tried to convince herself that “just a few minutes” on Instagram will beckon back sleep has landed, circa 3 a.m., on the feed of a Mormon lifestyle blogger. Although she probably has no idea that’s where she is. The blogger’s faith is never foregrounded. It’s obvious, though — once you know what to look for. She’s white and under 30 and married. Fit and given to flattering dresses that hit the knee and cover the shoulder, she has multiple children and Lady Godiva hair. She knows her way around a braid. She is wholesome but not dowdy; her posts are relentlessly positive but never pious. Until you Google her name and see that she was married at the Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), you might not know that she routinely asks herself, while shopping or applying eye shadow, Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?
Amber Fillerup Clark, aka the Barefoot Blonde, is 27 years old and lives in Arizona with her husband, their two young children, and a golden retriever. They all appear on her blog, alongside pictures of Fillerup Clark herself, who is breathtakingly pretty. She offers up beauty and fitness tips and bubbly accounts of her balmy days, as well as a line of clip-in hair extensions, which are for sale on her site for roughly $200 and given names that sound like nail polish shades (“Melt My Heart,” “Platinum Status”).
Like most Mormon girls, Fillerup Clark was encouraged to keep journals and scrapbooks growing up, and she thinks this early education in archiving one’s own life is what leads so many Mormon women to take up lifestyle blogging. Today, Fillerup Clark, who has 1.3 million Instagram followers, just about perfectly embodies LDS church doctrine: She married young, had children soon afterward, has a job that keeps her at home, and — perhaps most importantly — makes Mormonism look not just normal but enviable. She’s not wearing gunnysack dresses and praying beneath a high desert sun. She’s eating shaved ice with her kids and prancing around in a bikini, which, while technically in defiance of Mormon scripture (“Thou shalt not be proud in thy heart; let all thy garments be plain”), is overshadowed by the fact that she continuously promotes an idealized vision of domestic Mormon life.
When Mormons first came to Utah in 1847, Brigham Young, the second president of the LDS church, instructed his followers, “Beautify your gardens, your houses, your farms; beautify the city. This will make us happy, and produce plenty.” The direction was an early example of an animating Mormon sentiment that still plays out today: Outward appearances matter. “Your dress and grooming influence the way you and others act,” reads “For the Strength of Youth,” a widely distributed Mormon pamphlet. Tattoos are discouraged, as are multiple piercings. The LDS church’s website has an entire section devoted to grooming and dress, complete with makeup tutorials. “You are not required to wear makeup; however, wearing makeup can help you look your best,” it reads. “To minimize the appearance of dark circles under your eyes, use a yellow- or pink-toned concealer lighter than your skin tone. Use your fingers to gently apply and blend the color under your eyes, along the lash line.” Celebrity hairstylist and Kardashian inner-circler Jen Atkin, who was raised in the LDS church, describes the Mormon look as “pretty, relatable beauty, with nothing too out of reach…though they really know how to put on a face of makeup!”
Mormonism “is and has always been very gender-organized,” says Megan Sanborn Jones, a professor at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah. The system “promotes a kind of biological determinism. If you’re a boy, you must want to be strong, play a sport, and then go on a mission. If you’re a girl, you must love makeup. Mormon girls, early on, are introduced to makeup and hairstyling and fashion.”
It’s a fact that flies in the face of Young’s warning to women to “spend more time in moral, mental and spiritual cultivation, and less upon fashion and the vanities of the world,” which he gave just 20 years after offering up his arguably contradictory domestic instructions. “There’s been a tension throughout church history,” says Kate Holbrook, a specialist in women’s history in the church-history department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “On the one hand, you’re taught that your appearance represents the church. But on the other, we’re taught to be modest and not to put too much time and resources into superficial things.”
Witney Carson, a dancer, model, and fashion blogger who appeared on Dancing With the Stars in 2013, explains how the two seemingly contradictory tenets can be simultaneously embraced: “From a young age, we’re taught that our bodies are sacred temples where we make covenants with God. It’s about self-confidence from the inside out. Inner beauty is really important, too.” To watch her toned legs kick up and platinum hair fluff about as she shimmies across the stage is to be momentarily converted.
There’s another, more pragmatic way this all plays out, though. Since 1833, when the Lord allegedly revealed to LDS founder Joseph Smith which substances are harmful to the human body, Mormons have abstained from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, coffee, and tea. And it shows. “I look at my aunts when I go home, and it’s like, Wow! They look so good,” says Atkin. “But of course, they don’t smoke or drink — not even coffee. Their skin is amazing.” She admits that she always makes a concerted effort to stop drinking wine for a few weeks before she visits.
And since, according to former Deseret News columnist and Mormon feminist Courtney Kendrick, Mormons “are somewhat missing out on what the rest of the world does to be entertained,” they exercise together: Fitness groups are incredibly popular in Mormon communities. Only after Kendrick told me this did I realize that of the handful of instructors at my small Pilates studio in Brooklyn, two grew up Mormon in Utah.
When I visited Pink Peonies blogger Rachel Parcell at her sprawling house in a tony suburb of Salt Lake City, she had just returned from a Zumba-inspired class led by a friend. With her lanky limbs and glossy brown hair, Parcell, 26, could pass for an aspiring model in New York or L.A., but in Utah, she looks like an ordinary mom. “We want to be healthy for our family,” she told me. “I don’t think every Mormon girl is obsessed with fashion and beauty, but we do like to take care of ourselves.”
Don’t let the Zumba classes and work-at-home statuses mislead you, though — these women are ambitious. When I traveled to Utah, every Uber driver asked if I was in town for “Young Living.” I assumed it had something to do with the LDS church. Finally I asked. “It’s like…essential oils, I think?” the driver said. “There are thousands of women here right now for it.” Young Living is indeed an essential-oils company. It’s also a multilevel marketing operation, one of dozens based in Utah and sold in Mormon living rooms. Others include Jamberry (nail wraps and polishes), NuSkin (skin care), and Younique (makeup and self-tanners). “These businesses allow Mormon women to make money and be ambitious, all while not working outside of the home, which in lots of ways is still frowned upon,” says Jones. And they perfectly align two common skill sets: a deep knowledge of beauty products and a willingness to make a pitch. “One thing we’re taught is sales and marketing,” says Atkin. “Think about it: Mormon missionaries are always knocking on doors. You’re taught to get involved in your community, to never be afraid to talk to strangers.” While you’re at it, why not ask them to consider a holographic nail wrap?
Interstate 15, which begins at the California–Mexico border and runs north to Alberta, bisects Utah County, with a population that is over 80 percent Mormon. Driving along it, one passes housing developments, empty expanses of arid land, and billboards for body modification: teeth whitening, CoolSculpting, liposuction, and breast augmentation. They sprout up as often as — and often right next to — signage for the Church of Latter-day Saints.
Though it’s the capital of one of the most religious states in America, Salt Lake City has more plastic surgeons per capita than Los Angeles. “It doesn’t line up, does it?” laughs Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a Salt Lake City–based psychotherapist specializing in Mormon women’s emotional health and relationships. “It’s a culture with very strong ideas about humility, modesty, and…double-D boobs.”
It can seem as though a Mormon woman in Utah is almost fated to go under the knife. “It’s a culture that prizes marriage and family, and there are more women than men,” says Jones. “It makes for competition.” (For every three Mormon women in Utah, there are two Mormon men.) The state’s statistics — 88 percent white, 57 percent Mormon, the highest marriage rate in the country, some of the fastest-growing income rates — paint a picture of exactly who is most likely to get plastic surgery: a white woman with disposable income and a few pregnancies behind her, living among people like herself. A recent report from the Utah Women & Leadership Project attempts to make sense of what to some seems like a complete cultural paradox: “Utah has the highest fertility rate and stands among the highest in breast-feeding rates [in the U.S.]…. Many Utah mothers respond to cultural pressure to undergo the Mommy Makeover, which local doctors advertise as a solution to young mothers’ bodies ‘trashed’ by motherhood.”
“When you come from a patriarchal religion, your best bet for gaining power is to be appealing to the men in charge,” Kendrick told me. “It can be very hard for women who are outside of normative standards of beauty.” Harder than you can imagine. “In my religion you’re not just talking about having to look good now,” says Kendrick. “You’re also talking about your eternal salvation. Ultimately these beauty standards are connected to what gets us into heaven.”
On a warm Saturday night, I drove an hour south from my hotel in Salt Lake City to Provo, home of BYU and one of the highest concentrations of Mormons in the country. Downtown was quiet but relatively bustling, with young people, mostly in couples, strolling down the sidewalks of the extra-wide streets (Young wanted to be sure that a wagon team could turn around without “resorting to profanity”). There was one bar at the edge of town, but it was grimy and filled with the seedy type of guy every woman knows instinctually to avoid. Everywhere else was sanitized, brightly lit, and seemingly stocked with dessert (the Lord did not apparently reveal to Smith that sugar was harmful to the human body). Beautiful young girls with freshly shampooed hair sipped virgin piña coladas while their boyfriends — or, more often than not, husbands — licked ice cream cones and offered them tastes. It was like Stars Hollow, Desert Edition: creepy at first glance, and sort of great at second. It compared favorably, I had to admit, to my own college town, which on Saturday nights reeked of tobacco and vomit. What do I know, but everyone seemed happy.