New Sister Missionary Dress Standards--and Why they Won't Work

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cares deeply about its missionaries. This was my experience when I was a missionary for my church, and I know it continues to be the case as they consider ways to protect missionaries serving throughout the world.

One recent change they've made includes some pretty unprecedented clothing policy changes for sister missionaries, including the option to wear dress pants. The Church has made clear that the purpose of these changes is to address the risk of mosquito-borne illnesses in several missions throughout tropical and sub-tropic areas.

The Brazil Sao Paulo Interlagos mission, where I served from 2011 to 2012, is included on this list. And as I reviewed the changes, it was apparent to me that their purpose is out of a desire to address the very real concerns about missionary health and safety in missions like mine. And they will certainly be effective deterrents for reducing mosquito bites during daytime proselytizing efforts.

But these proposed solutions are incomplete, without some careful considerations to other risk factors as well.

Example 1: The Dangers of Standing Water

I'll be the first one to say that as an American serving in a foreign country, I didn't understand how my irresponsible behavior could create a public health problem. Most of us don't look at leaving dishes in the sink, clothes in the wash, or water in the bathroom after a shower as a risk to public health. But in places like Brazil, that's exactly what they are. Anywhere that you leave standing water, you attract mosquitoes. And where you attract mosquitoes, you increase the risk to yourself and everyone around you to get a mosquito-borne illness. And in most of these instances, these are things you can control simply by basic habits of tidiness and responsibility.

But non-natives who will serve in Brazil as missionaries need to be familiar with a particular body of standing water that is largely beyond their control. They need to know and understand what this blue container is. From your earliest mission pictures, you will see them everywhere. It's a giant drum that sits on the roof of almost every house in Brazil, including on most of the apartments in which the missionaries will live.

It's called a Caixa de Agua, "water box" or "water tank." And if you have a child that is serving in Brazil, you need to ask them immediately:
  1. If they know what it is and the last time it was cleaned
  2. If they're drinking the tap water

Why? Because Caixas de Agua need to be cleaned every six months. They need to be checked to make sure they're clean, undamaged, and that the lid on them is secure. If not, caixas de agua are some of the leading places where mosquitoes and mosquito-born illness will spread. Which, by the way, I found out from a public official who was sent to inspect all of the caixas de agua on our block. She was pretty irritated that ours was the only house she hadn't been able to reach, because we were never home during the day. Everything about the missionary lifestyle seems to work against making this important maintenance the priority that it should be.

And when I say they get dirty, you need to understand the nature of what I'm talking about. Because your well-intentioned, but naive child could be showering, washing clothes, and drinking water that came from a caixa de agua that looks like this:

Or this:

Or this:

I didn't find out about what a caixa de agua was, and that it has to be cleaned, until the beginning of my final transfer. This was after I'd spent almost my entire mission drinking tap water, because my Brazilian companions were doing it. I assumed anything they were doing was safe to do. And this simply was not the case.

It took me a couple of weeks of begging, but we finally got someone from the ward to come and clean the caixa de agua. My companion and I were down in the kitchen, because part of the process was turning on the tap to rinse the cleaning chemicals from the water tank.

As we watched the water drain from the tank, my companion and I were horrified as we saw dirt and debris, squirming organisms, leaves, bugs, and all kinds of crazy things come through the tap. We'd been drinking this water!

And as I thought about the other areas I'd served in, and how unlikely it was the caixa de agua had been cleaned in several years, it made me sick to my stomach.

To be fair, my mission president and his wife were Brazilian and may have told us to take care of this, and I simply didn't understand it. And I shudder to think how bad this problem could become with American mission presidents serving in Brazil who don't know to expect this. But when I did ask them about it, they told us to seek out help from the ward to have it cleaned, since this is standard house maintenance that most families do themselves. But it was incredibly difficult to find someone who would do the job. And because of the condition of some of the houses and rooms that we lived in, it would have been a liability to ask someone from our ward to go on some of those roofs to take take care of this kind of maintenance. Sometimes it's a job that a professional should be doing.

By having clearly defined policies and procedures, communicated to mission and ward leadership, the primary source of contaminated water to which missionaries are continually exposed would be handled promptly and consistently. Missionaries themselves should be managing this risk to their own health--one that many of them do not understand. And based on my experience serving in one of the at-risk missions for mosquito-borne illnesses as outlined by the Church, you cannot appropriately address these illness risks without addressing the lapses taking place with water sanitation in Brazilian missionary apartments.

Example 2: Day Time VS Night Time Risk

As a matter of relevance, and because I get emails about this quite a bit, let me take you through my missionary wardrobe. In Brazil, I primarily wore colorful, short sleeved, women's button down shirts. They were generally made of cotton. My skirts were durable, mid-calf length, and made of suiting fabrics, or they were ankle-length skirts in solid colors made of polyester, or cotton-poly blends--usually jersey knits. When it got colder, I wore light sweaters or cardigans. I had a coat, but I probably only wore it 3 times the entire time I was in Brazil. Layering up is better in that climate than wearing a heavy coat because of the humidity. And as always, bring 3 pairs of excellent shoes.

I didn't buy the ankle length skirts to make some sort of modesty or chastity statement. And in hindsight, I wonder if my frump queen chic wasn't actually a bit of hidden inspiration in terms of health. Because when I wore longer skirts, I was bitten less by mosquitoes than my companions who didn't. And because of the rogue few mosquitoes that did manage to make it up my longer skirt, I bet you'd see even more improvement with dress slacks.

When I was out working though, I'd usually only be bitten at most about once or twice a day. Sometimes it would be more, depending on where we were working, but it was rare. But the number of times I was bitten when I was working doesn't begin to compare to the number of times I was bitten in my sleep.

Every morning when I woke up, I had no less than half a dozen new mosquito bites. On bad nights, I could have as many as a dozen new bites when I woke up in the morning. I easily had hundreds of mosquito bites during my time in Brazil, most of which were on my legs and feet while I was sleeping. If you want to prevent mosquito-borne illness, and are looking to do so by decreasing the bites a person sustains, the time a missionary spends at home when it's dark is when they're most likely to be bitten.

Brazilians prevent this from happening by sleeping with a fan pointed on themselves all night long. It can be uncomfortable when the temperature drops at night, especially for someone like me who has to sleep with my feet uncovered. But it works. Any part of your body exposed to the fan has zero bites. Any parts of your body that didn't fall within the oscillation range of the fan--usually your legs and feet--were eaten alive.

The problem was, in a country where the masses have no air conditioning and inch wide gaps between the front door and the floor, fans were treated by the office elders as a kind of luxury. You could go entire transfers with a small army of cheap, broken fans in your apartment, one that was slowly dying propped up on a chair between you and your companion at night, knowing that when it broke it would be at least two transfers before it was replaced. If it was ever replaced at all. And the primary purpose of that fan was not temperature control--it was to prevent mosquito bites.

There's a lot to be said for this approach. While repellents are made with toxic chemicals that are unpleasant to inhale and questionable to wear every hour of every day, fans dissipate the carbon monoxide, sweat, and odors that attract mosquitoes. And based on my experience, no amount of bug spray will deter mosquitoes half as well as a working fan.

If you had given me the choice as a missionary between pants, bug spray, and the box fan, I would have taken the box fan every single day of the week.

Change is Good

I'm glad that these changes to mission policy are being shared with the public. And while the consequence of that will be a lot of opinion sharing on the novelty of sister missionaries wearing pants, I hope instead the conversation can be a useful one about how to help the missionaries to be safe and healthy. Their work is so important, and they simply cannot do it if they're sick.

If you are preparing to serve a mission in Brazil, make clean water and a knowledge of how to recognize and prevent common mosquito-borne illnesses for where you'll be serving a part of your preparation.

Trying on some Brazilian pumps on my last day in the mission.
We lived in a third floor apartment, so not as many mosquitoes!
(Note the scars on my shins from mosquito bites)

The legs you save might just be your own!

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