EDITOR'S NOTE: An interviewee's name has been changed for privacy.
There's a pretty good chance that the only Mormons you've ever known personally are the Osmonds, Napoleon Dynamite, and that wholesome Jeopardy whiz and newly-minted millionaire Ken Jennings.
Or, if you're not that familiar with these pop culture icons, maybe you've heard the myths regarding Mormons and polygamy.
Maybe a couple of Mormons practiced plural marriage in the past, but those days are over. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints stopped promoting polygamy as early as 1890. In 1998, the current president of the sect, Gordon B. Hinckley, formally denounced the act, saying "this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church…If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose."
There's a lot more to the Mormon lifestyle than charming the world with their toothy smiles and delightful ditties about how they're a little bit country as well as a little bit rock and roll, kicking ass at trivia games, and acquiring an impressive collection of hot wives. It can be harder to be a good Mormon -- especially when you're a young adult -- than it is to become a cage-fighter. Just ask Napoleon.
Mormons are expected to adhere to the rules of the church, which has an opinion on nearly every aspect of its followers' lives, from how much of their total income they donate to the church (10 percent is suggested) to what they drink in the morning (Mormons are supposed to avoid all artificial stimulants, including caffeine). It's difficult enough to be a good person in general. It's even tougher to stick to the rules when your religion is determining what you can wear to your prom.
Twenty-year-old Laura Drinkwater is an example of an individual who is living an exemplary Mormon existence. She is a pretty, fresh-faced second-year nursing student at Brigham Young University in Idaho, a school that is operated by the Latter-Day Saints. Students there are expected to follow a strict dress code. In addition, church attendance "is practically mandatory," and there's no way you're ever going to see men and women living in the same building.
Drinkwater personally prays several times a day and independently studies the Mormon scriptures, which include the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, as well as the more traditional Christian Bible.
"I follow the teachings of the church as strictly as I can," said Drinkwater. "I won't say I'm perfect, but I'm definitely making goals of working on the little imperfections I struggle with daily."
But even Drinkwater had some problems with the prom-dress issue back in high school.
"I would be nervous to see the reactions of my peers, and even friends, seeing me in gowns with sleeves and completely modest, as opposed to the fashion trends of the day with sparse fabric and elaborate designs that revealed a good portion of skin," she said.
But Drinkwater feels as though that tiny bit of high school awkwardness made her a stronger person, as well as a stronger Mormon.
"I love to think about making it through that tough and awkward time, and it has given me such a great self-esteem," she said. Besides, who hasn't suffered through some sort of nightmare prom incident?
But how much of a real teenage experience can Mormons have without the typical experimentations with skipping school, sex, drugs, and alcohol?
Kealoha Kamakala (not her real name) is a strikingly exotic-looking twenty-year old sports science and exercise student at Brigham Young University in Hawaii. She wishes to remain anonymous because of a fear that her school would be contacted.
"If some member reads that [this article], I guarantee they'll contact the school," she said. "No doubt about it"
Like Laura, Kamakala wholeheartedly believes in the teachings of her church. But she's unique in that she has experimented with marijuana and alcohol.
"I never really wanted to try those things [drinking, drugs, etc.]," she said. "My senior year of high school, I did try it though."
Drinkwater doesn't regret staying away from the hazards of high school life. In fact, she thinks it helped her grow as a person and a Mormon.
"I'll admit that I've missed out on hangovers, losing trust with my parents, possibility of becoming pregnant or contracting an STD at a young age, revealing my body, which I hold sacred, to others, and losing my dignity," said Drinkwater. "And for that, it has made all the difference in my life. I have become so grateful for the standards and guidelines of the church. There is so much pain that can be avoided by respecting myself and having the courage to stand up and stand out for the things I hold dear to me."
And for the record, Mormons do get to date. They even get to date non-Mormons. Drinkwater has had the opportunity to date outside her religion.
"I have dated guys who are not of my same faith, and while they proved to be learning experiences, I only learned that it would simply never work out," she said. "I could never completely be myself around someone who doesn't understand or believe the same things that I do regarding everything, since my religion is everything to me. I just found it impossible to give someone my whole heart who really didn't understand or know all of me."
Drinkwater is currently engaged to a Mormon man. The wedding will be held on April 23 of this year.
"I have been waiting and preparing all of my life to meet someone with the same standards and goals," she said.
She and her future husband plan on reading the scriptures together and attending Mormon temple often in order to keep their union strong.
Kamakala has been dating a Mormon on-and-off for a while now, but she's open to the possibility of dating outside of her religion. Kamakala is far more concerned with love than religion, and she thinks that her family would be supportive of her decision to date a non-Mormon, because ultimately "it would be my choice."
There does seem to be a trend among young Mormons of marrying in their late teens and early twenties, far below the national average age of first marriage, which is around twenty-six years old. Drinkwater's older sister got married in the summer following her freshman year at Brigham Young University's main campus in Utah.
Despite the prominence of young marriages, there is nothing in the Mormon scriptures that encourages this behavior. John Morley, a writer for the University of Utah's Daily Utah Chronicle wrote in 2003 that marriage "can be a wonderful option for students who are ready to take on the next phase of life."
There's no solid reason why Mormons marry at such young ages, though Morley writes that "invariably, cynics argue it has something (or everything) to do with sex, and maybe a little to do with peer pressure…It's impossible to say exactly why anyone gets married, and I certainly can't claim to speak for all married LDS students."
"I didn't entirely understand [it] until I recently became engaged at a young age" said Drinkwater. "My whole life, the importance of temple, marriage and preparation of a family have been lovingly enforced and taught, and I have come to love them in my life. After nineteen years of being taught these things it only makes sense that I would want to start my family at a younger age, because of the vigorous preparation that has gone into it."
Kamakala still doesn't understand early marriage, but says of those who do it, "I don't mind, that's their decision. Whatever makes them happy."
Will she be walking down the aisle in the near future?
"No, if we were in love and that's what we both wanted, I would. But I still feel too young."
Although dating a non-Mormon is understandably problematic, trying to maintain non-Mormon friendships while pursuing an ideal Mormon lifestyle is just as tricky. While Drinkwater notes that she has never had to compromise her standards in order to establish and sustain relationships, she admits that it's hard to relate to her non-Mormon friends, especially since most have gone off to what she describes as "normal" colleges.
"I think there were times within myself that I seriously wanted to give up and be like everyone else," said Drinkwater. "It was never easy for me to be different, but I'm more than happy to work my hardest to keeping all of the guidelines the church has to offer and to receive the blessings that come from obedience."
On the flip-side, Kamakala says she has a lot of good friends who are non-Mormon, and her friendships have never been strained because of her religion.
It might be due to her laid-back Hawaiian upbringing, but Kamakala doesn't seem to have a problem practicing her religion in a non-Mormon world. She says she has never wished that she wasn't Mormon, and doesn't rebel against her church beyond a drink or a smoke from time to time.
And neither Kamakala nor Drinkwater would be willing to give up their beliefs.
"I don't think the church is strict," Kamakala said. "I see the restrictions as guidelines for us to follow, and we all have our free-agency to follow them or not. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and of course people are going to make mistakes. But by making mistakes, that's where we learn the most. We're not [perfect], but the church is."
Nicole Levins is a sophomore Professional Writing/Journalism
major with a minor in Women's and Gender Studies. She is Features editor of
unbound. She has written for local publications since high school and is a member
of the Progressive Student Alliance at The College of New Jersey.