Last weekend, I was spending a wet, gray Saturday morning in Boise. The bread was hot from the breadmaker. The home-canned lemon curd was sweet and tangy. Herbal teas and green smoothies were flowing. And lucky me, I was sitting around the kitchen table in the home of the legendary FMH Lisa, founder of FeministMormonHousewives.org, having breakfast with five of the finest Mormon feminists in the world: Lisa, Anne, Nikki, Sara, and Emily.
Our talk turned to the latest internet dustup, with so-and-so writing such-and-such about so-and-so. “I haven’t read it,” I admitted. “I try not to let that kind of stuff get in my head.”
“Well, it’s clear that someone is just looking for attention,” said Nikki. “Why reward it?”
“It all reminds me,” Emily began, “of when I was working in this swimsuit shop. There was a guy who always came in to try on Speedos. It was his thing to get attention from the girls working in the shop—shock and embarrassment. One girl thought if she were very circumspect and polite, he would stop. But he would not. Even if you ignored him. He just wouldn’t stop.”
We all groaned.
“But this one time, he came in, and accidentally tried on a pair of women’s bikini bottoms. He came out of the dressing room and asked how he looked. He wanted that old familiar flushed reaction from us. I started to laugh. I couldn’t stop laughing. I laughed and laughed at him, and he turned around, went back into the dressing room, got dressed, and hurried away. We never saw him again!”
Something about that laugh, that powerful laugh, denied Mr. Speedo the power of the reaction he craved—the power to make someone feel ashamed, embarrassed, belittled, or afraid.
“Boundaries,” said Anne. “The issue is really boundaries.”
All of us nodded in agreement. We’d all seen Mormon women who’d allowed themselves to be bullied or shamed or manipulated or taken advantage of. Women who couldn’t say no. Women who did not know how to trust their gut. Or that they had the right to draw a boundary.
In fact, we’d all been those women ourselves, at one time or another.
“So,” I asked, “How would you define what a boundary is?”
Emily weighed in: “A boundary demarcates your personal space, in person and on-line. If you enter my space—by contacting me in a friendly or unfriendly way, in person, by sending me an email or instant message or text, by leaving a comment on my Facebook thread or blog entry–I am not obliged to engage or respond.”
“Everyone loves attention,” Nikki added quickly. “It’s natural. It can be enjoyed.”
“But when it is to be enjoyed it’s because in your gut it feels safe,” said Sara.
“Yes! Listen to your gut. So many women do not trust their own instincts because they have been trained to put the needs and claims of others first.”
“If we could only get it through: Trusting your guts means trusting your inner light.”
“Don’t mistake stupor of thought for an obligation to respond to someone who has crossed your boundaries.”
“And no sacrifice for the community is more important than your feeling of safety, security, and autonomy.”
“So what should you do when you’re faced with someone who is encroaching on your personal space?”
“Don’t apologize, don’t explain.”
“And check in with a girlfriend or two if you feel like something weird is happening.”
“Then after your reality check, the three of you can have a good laugh.”
“Don’t talk yourself out of your gut feelings.”
“It is so hard to unlearn this saying yes when you want to say no. It’s a multigenerational thing. Children are raised, for example, to give affection whether or not they want to.”
“And then when you go to your first stake dance and the gross boy wants to dance with you. . . .”
“Politeness and codependency can feel remarkably similar.”
“The accusation that one is ‘selfish’ is a huge trigger for Mormon women.”
“There are spiritual reasons for being selfish.”
“Having a sense of self is so crucial to developing one’s spirituality and autonomy.”
“In Young Women’s, we call it ‘divine nature’ and ‘individual worth.’ If you don’t carve out the space to figure out how the Spirit talks to you, you will never learn.”
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we taught young women and men that modesty not just as an issue of hemlines and shoulders but as a matter of personal conduct: having proper custody of one’s faculties, maintaining and honoring personal boundaries, not getting into other people’s space in unwelcome ways?”
“What if we defined immodesty as boundary incontinence: patrolling other people, bullying other people, violating other people’s personal space?”
“This is something we have to do and model for our children for ourselves.”
“This is something we have to keep for our own community! So many women who feel they must give and give and have no sense of the sanctity of their boundaries.”
So, dear readers, I’m asking you: What does “boundaries” mean to you? Do women in Mormonism have a challenge establishing and maintaining their personal boundaries? Where does kindness stop and where do healthy boundaries begin?