The women sat in two neat rows, hands in laps, bodies shrouded in identically tailored reams of pastel cloth. Their faces, plain and stoic, were framed by long, coiffed hair.
Each woman was mistakable for the next.
The mothers from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were on Larry King Live to vent their anguish over the loss of their children — more than 400 of them. The authorities, suspecting abuse, seized the children in early April from the Texas polygamist ranch where they lived with their many mothers and fathers.
Though the mothers pleaded their case in the modern media, they looked not of this century. Their very appearance — those homogenizing frocks, those eerily uniform hairstyles — identified them as different, as other.
But what did their looks mean?
People are just confused by the whole situation, one mother told King.
"I believe they just don't understand," she said. "I don't understand them, they don't understand me."
• • •
The girls in Laura Chapman's public school fifth-grade class wore bell bottoms and feathered hair like Farrah Fawcett.
This is what Chapman wore:
Full-body long underwear from wrist to ankle. Regular panties over that. A long slip over that. A handmade, conservative, 19th century dress over that.
"I was often called Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," she said. "They would pull on my pigtails. People would ask me how many mothers I had."
Technically, one. But her father had four wives at home, and Chapman wore the evidence every day.
She was born into the FLDS in Utah. She had 30 siblings. She attended church at the home of late sect leader Rulon Jeffs.
At 13, she prepared a cardboard hope chest for her future husband with baby bottles, pacifiers, blankets, diapers and sewing kits. She was taught to stay sweet, subservient and plain.
"I was told I should not wear form-fitting clothes because I was responsible for the men's thoughts when they looked at me," Chapman, 45, said on the phone from Colorado. "I'm looking as ugly as I can, and I'm still responsible for that?"
Some girls had natural beauty and shapes that dowdy clothes couldn't hide. They were usually placed into marriages with powerful sect leaders, she said.
"Youth has a lot of power in an odd way and older wives get very jealous."
FLDS women don't cut their hair because they believe it should be used to wash the feet of God and their husbands. The signature high-swept poof came in the 1970s, Chapman said. Pushing the top forward helped the women feel just a little bit feminine, more like that era's most visible sex symbol.
• • •
The FLDS dress code revolves around modesty. This is true in many faiths: some Islamic women wear burqas; the Amish are recognizable in their plain dresses and bonnets; nuns have their habits.
The Bible speaks to this:
Women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array. — 1 Timothy 2:9
The idea, in every case, is to honor God, not whatever the mainstream culture is purveying.
"The motivation is about conforming to the standards that you're told are meaningful," said Jamie Goldenberg, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida who researches human sexuality and culture.
"It's not an accident that there are so many standards surrounding the body, because the body is something that reminds us of our vulnerability and eventual mortality."
A dress that repels attention is no different from low-rise jeans that attract it, Goldenberg says.
"It's really the same thing. It's making the body into an object. It's something universal."
But Chapman worries that FLDS's fashion choices cross a dangerous line — one that can perpetuate abuse.
"They would buy bolts of fabric and make us all dress just alike," she said. "That's frightening because it blurs that boundary of who is an adult and who is a child."
• • •
At 18, Chapman became her husband's first wife. Warren Jeffs, son of Rulon Jeffs, sang at her wedding ceremony. His first wife played the piano. Today, Warren Jeffs sits in jail on charges he was an accomplice to rape by arranging underage marriage between two cousins.
Chapman's five babies came fast. Any birth control, even by natural rhythm, was abortion, her husband said.
Her insides stirred.
She challenged authority. She cut her hair and wore makeup. Once, in front of other men, she told her husband to prepare his own meal. And at a Fourth of July picnic, she popped open a beer, pulled up a chair and asked questions about doctrine.
"I decided to show him just how equal I was," she said. When he decided to take a second wife, Chapman took her children and fled.
It was a slow adjustment. The first time she wore a bathing suit, she was terrified that displaying her body would entice a man to rape her.
She now lives in Colorado. She earned a college degree and became a child protection worker. She speaks out about abuse she said she suffered and witnessed in polygamy. She lobbies the government for change.
These days, this is how Chapman dresses:
"However I want."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached
at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)