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Provided by Afton Liddell
Bekah Pence, left, competes as Ms. Virginia United States, and Afton Liddell competes as Ms. Idaho United States in the Ms. United States pageant on July 3.
People don't realize that there is power in simply keeping the commandments. There is power in numbers, and it makes it easier for other members to keep their standards. —Bekah Pence

Sticking to her personal modesty standards is not something new for Bekah Pence. Earlier this year, the 29-year-old returned missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints searched tirelessly for appropriate formal wear as she competed for and eventually won the title of Ms. Virginia United States.

While preparing for her next pageant, the Ms. United States competition, Pence learned of three mandatory outfits that she did not feel comfortable wearing. Determined to compete only if the outfits could be altered, Pence once again found a way to uphold her standards. Throughout the pageant, she learned that her determination impacted many and even gave another contestant the courage to compete.

"I think something that was reiterated or came through more strongly this time around is just not being afraid to keep your standards because you never know how it will affect someone," Pence said. "Sometimes (LDS Church) members just don’t realize that personally deciding to keep the commandments, it literally directly impacts others."

Pence learned of the mandatory outfits just weeks before the national competition for women ages 26 to 39 in Washington, D.C., on July 3.

"The opening-number dress was actually a very little, itty-bitty black dress, and even the other girls mentioned that they felt uncomfortable in it," Pence said. "It was see-through on the side, so there was nothing really to the dress."

Pence also learned of a mandatory bathing suit and a designer fashion show that would require her to wear one of the dresses offered.

"When I found out what they looked like, I was like, 'I'm so sorry, but I can't walk out on stage in that,' " Pence said.

Hoping exceptions could be made, Pence turned to her director, who approached the national directors of the Ms. United States pageant.

"They asked why I couldn’t wear the pieces that they had selected, and I just told them about my personal beliefs in dressing more conservatively," Pence said.

When the national directors said alterations weren't allowed, Pence turned to prayer and scripture study, eventually feeling that if she continued to put her beliefs first, everything would fall into place.

"I was afraid that they were going to possibly turn me away or disqualify me," Pence said. "But my director made it very clear that she and her director partner were going to help me in any way they could."

As she tried to create a plan, Pence learned that Afton Liddell, the contestant from Idaho, was also a member of the LDS Church and was concerned about the attire. The two women each approached the national directors and asked to alter the mandatory outfits.

"When (the directors) realized that there was at least one other member in the pageant, … it was a turnaround," Pence said. "They were much more willing to at least find a way to make it an option to have the wardrobe altered."

Pence and Liddell developed a deeper appreciation for each other and the standards they wanted to uphold.

"It was just a miracle," Pence said. "People don't realize that there is power in simply keeping the commandments. There is power in numbers, and it makes it easier for other members to keep their standards."

The opening-number outfits were mailed to Pence and Liddell, and they adjusted the dresses. The women also had swimsuits made that resembled the original suits. When preparing for the fashion show, Pence and Liddell submitted additional measurements that would ensure the dresses met their standards.

Liddell said Pence was the reason she felt comfortable competing in the pageant.

"She's a great example," Liddell wrote in an email interview. "We had a riot figuring out how to make everything modest. Thankfully, we had each other to support the cause. There's strength in numbers, even when that number is two."

Altering the outfits also gave the women an opportunity share their beliefs with other contestants.

"I cannot even tell you how many times I got comments from the girls where they were like, 'Oh, I didn't know that was an option. I would have worn a one-piece suit,' " Pence said. "I really realized that, not just with the swimsuit — and especially with the black dress, those women actually felt uncomfortable. That experience was just a testament to me that more women want to value modesty."

During downtime, Pence explained her beliefs in more detail to the contestant from Pennsylvania.

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"I was able to just let her know about some of my personal beliefs," Pence said. "I think just because she saw that I held to my standards, I think that’s what opened up that conversation."

Pence and Liddell were grateful for the opportunity to support each other.

"I am so grateful that Bekah listens to the Spirit," Liddell wrote. "Her faithful adherence to her standards and the promptings of the Holy Ghost have already had a tremendous ripple effect and will continue to so do beyond what any of us can begin to imagine."

Email: spetersen@deseretnews.com | Twitter: @Sarah_DNews