Rotten to the Core

The Sanctuary may seem like an unusual place to discuss Facebook status post trends, but recently, I was so disturbed by a word art image being shared and “liked” on FB walls that I wanted to analyze the harmful subtexts of this image in light of our charge to love one another. I even did a little FB stalking to find out what I could about the image and its creator. I have no idea how many people have seen the picture, but when I traced back the “share” on the wall where I’d first encountered it, I learned that something like 1400 people had shared the picture. The 1400 approximation doesn’t even include likes or affirmative comments, of which there seemed to be many. What this means is that a whole lotta people, at least some of them Mormon, liked what they saw in the picture.

This one:

And I hate it, for varied reasons.

I dislike the damaging ‘self’ messages, for starters, that a young woman might receive from this visual argument (for that’s what it is) and its unpleasant twist on the Rapunzel archetype – a girl waiting up high, as a delightsome prize for the intrepid hero. He’s busy searching and experimenting. He is the actor in this relationship story, while the girl is only able to react. She doesn’t seek; instead, she is sought.

There is a subtext of consumption as well that turns my stomach, the message being that boys get to eat around, if you will. According to the ethos of this image, boys are allowed to sample the fruit on their quest. They are expected, if not encouraged, to gather, taste and climb. If we consider this apple tree climbing quest as an analogy for healthy development of sexuality, then we find a rather sickening double standard between the branches: boys will explore, girls will … ignore? Or else be considered a whore?

But I don’t just hate the image because it seems to suggest that girls must forever wait by the phone or because it seems to give boy s a weird free pass, or even because of its suggestion that the primary motivation of young boys in their pursuing of girls is avoidance of pain (when to my eyes, the primary motivation is hormonal, period).

No, I also hate the visual argument because of what it seems to say about our interactions with other people. So, in addition to the damaging ‘self’ messages, there are a few other worms in the damaging ‘other’ messages implied in the image.

I have observed on other occasions that some strains of this neo-modesty hypervigilance plant seeds of division and then bear fruit of judgment. I’m catching a whiff of that fruit of judgment under this Facebook apple tree – and I don’t like what I smell! Don’t sit under the apple tree indeed! This word art image seems to be telling girls that they should perch at the top of the tree, waiting for boys, while also looking down, literally, on the other girls they know. Is there a cat in that tree too?

A girl who doesn’t have quite the social life she desires could easily label a more socially active girl as “rotten,” which appears to be a euphemism for “promiscuous” – never mind that the boys who work their way through the heaps of “rotten fruit” are still considered desirable by the time they reache the tip top branches. So even though the picture encourages girls to believe themselves amazing, it also encourages girls to believe other girls … as less than amazing and tells that boys can STILL be amazing, even if they’ve eaten so much fruit and drunk so much cider that they are now mistaken for Johnny Appleseed. Something is indeed rotten.

The LDS young women program is built around seven color-coded and inspiring values. Of course we want to encourage girls to gain knowledge and perform good works, two of my favorite values. We also urge them to think of themselves as divine in nature and as possessing great individual worth. Such values can and do build self-esteem, and I appreciate the many hours that young women leaders spend making bookmarks and posters and teaching lessons to keep these values in the minds of the young women.

I do not understand, however, how anyone who is currently serving or has ever worked with or parented young women or has ever been a young woman could appreciate the message of the apple tree image, because even though the picture shouts for girls to see themselves as beautifully shiny apples waiting juicily amidst high branches, it also snarls that any apples or girls not on those high branches (read: not like “us”) are bruised, damaged, worthless – “easy” garbage, in other words.

It cannot be wise or keeping with the spirit of the young women values to “like” anything, even on something as trivial as a social network, if the “liked” concept promotes competitiveness and ruthless people sorting. The adolescent years are tough enough; parents, leaders, people with access to WordArt, all of us need to be more mindful about what we’re really saying about ourselves and each other.

The scriptures are replete with references to harvest, seeds, fields, orchards, trees, pruning, the bearing of fruit, and on and on. Mormons cherish both the story of Eve eating the fruit and the glorious fruit envisioned in Lehi’s dream. This analogy does not deserve to share spiritual space with any of the above examples, nor Jesus’ parables nor Alma’s teachings on faith in the minds or hearts of LDS people. We can do better in our figures of speech, I dare say. (And yes, I know that the apple tree image is in no way representative of LDS teachings. However, more than a few LDS young women, plus their moms and leaders, plus men, according to my FB stalking, are looking at this picture, and too quickly “liking” what it says, without knowing what it says.)

Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans (12:13): “Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.” My gender neutral updating and paraphrasing of that verse is that we shouldn’t judge each other or do anything to hurt one another’s spiritual progress. Anything like sharing that apple tree picture, right? Or anything like judging people around us as inferior to us in a misguided attempt to make ourselves feel better, okay? We should know better and teach better, especially those who want, as Paul did, to “live peaceably” as saints.

If parents and leaders want to encourage girls to delay sexual activity until they’ve met partners worthy of them, then teach them of their value without disparaging the value of anyone else. And if parents and leaders want to encourage those same girls to see themselves as amazing, then teach them how to create orchards and pursue quests themselves, instead of waiting around for admiration.