Cross-posted at Juvenile Instructor.
I never knew I had fat calves until I tried on a pair of skinny jeans. I tugged on the jeans – trying to get them over the bulges of my legs. When I finally did, it was to no avail. Pants that were big enough to fit over my calves were way too big in the waist. I had never realized that I had fat calves before – it had never been an issue because the skirts and jeans that I had worn had never fit them closely or required them to be a certain size. I soon discovered that the boots also in fashion were equally difficult to fit to my body. Since then, I have been slightly uncomfortable with my fat calves and chubby knees. Unfortunately, these areas of the body have proven to be especially unyielding to exercise.
In her book The Body Project, Joan Jacobs Brumberg argues that experiences like mine are not abnormal. Women’s understandings of their bodies are influenced by pop culture, trends in fashion, and the cosmetics industry. In the mid-twentieth century, fashion trends that required girls to bare their mid-riffs led girls to be more concerned about the firmness of their stomachs and bodies. A corset can’t hold your stomach in when you were required to bare flesh. Brumberg’s project is to explore how the ideas that girls have had about their bodies have changed from the late nineteenth century to the present.
Her fundamental argument is that women today are ushered into adulthood through consumer culture. A girl’s first period is often marked by a trip to the grocery store to buy tampons or sanitary pads. Whatever brand her mother chooses – whether it be Kotex, Tampax, or Always – it is likely that she will use that same brand for the rest of her life without much experimentation or shopping around. Lipstick, perfume, and mascara are also seen as markers of adulthood. Being allowed to wear makeup is part of being a teenager and eventually, of womanhood. According to Brumberg, the transition to womanhood was not always so marked by trips to the grocery store and the cosmetics counter. In the late nineteenth century, a variety of clubs and women’s groups existed to help girls develop a civic consciousness. Primarily focused on volunteer work and community service, these groups also served as spaces for girls to learn about what it meant to be a woman and how to deal with their changing bodies. Older women served as mentors to younger women, teaching them about sexuality and monitoring their chastity.
Although many Americans view these groups as repressive institutions that kept girls from expressing themselves, Brumberg is more skeptical. She sees the shift as being one in which external controls upon the behavior of girls were removed, only to be replaced by internalized controls which required girls to constantly monitor and remake their bodies to ensure that they conform to societal standards. Brumberg believes that this combines with an earlier onset of puberty in girls to create a situation in which many young women are being damaged. They are becoming physically mature at earlier ages in an era where the societal support for young women has become attenuated.
My reading of the book coincided with a discussion at Feminist Mormon Housewivesand By Common Consent about the squeamishness that temple workers feel about allowing young women to participate in baptisms for the dead when they are menstruating. These discussions, combined with a chat with my friend Emily about our own body consciousness, to make me think about the intersections between the changes in ideas about the body that Brumberg describes and Mormon history. As Emily pointed out in our conversation, the physicality of Mormon theology makes these discussions especially fraught for Mormon women. In being denied access to the baptismal font in the temple because they are menstruating, girls are being told that their bodies are not clean enough to participate in the divine. The fact that they ovulate and bleed every month means that they are occasionally barred from certain spiritual activities. On the other hand, Mormonism celebrates the body in ways that other Christian religious traditions don’t and the maintenance of certain nineteenth century organizational structures such as Relief Society, Young Women’s, and Primary have the potential for offering the kind of support that Brumberg calls for. How, then, does the history of the bodies of Mormon girls and women differ from that of their Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish sisters as outlined by Brumberg?
In the nineteenth century, Mormon ideas about the female body largely echoed those of American society as a whole. In the 1870s, for example, Joseph F. Smith wrote to his wife Sarah chastising her working too hard. He told her that it gave him “no pleasure to hear you say you have worked early and late to get your days work out of the way,” for he “would rather know you had taken more time over it.” His concerns that too much exertion would strain her system, leaving her health and that of her yet-to-be-weaned children compromised, reflected general concerns during the nineteenth century that exercise might over tire young women and their mothers and might be bad for women in general. Many nineteenth-century doctors advocated that women not exercise or study too vigorously because their bodies were fragile and needed the energy to function. Even the columns published by female doctors in the Woman’s Exponent and The Young Woman’s Journal reflected common ideas about women. The Exponent’s complaints about puffs and panniers, for example, were part of a general movement towards dress reform. Women were no longer to be primped and pampered till they could nothing but “toddle” about like a small children. Instead, they were to dress sensibly to provide maximum movement. The lives of nineteenth century Mormon women reflected those of other American women. Although they were sometimes involved in polygamous marriages and were seen as helpless creatures that needed to be saved from their husbands, they turned old rags into menstrual pads, weaned their children, and cared for their bodies in ways that were no different from women living in New York or Boston.
At some point in the twentieth century, however, Mormon understandings of the female body began to depart from those of other Americans. Brumberg describes a general loosening of ideas about sexuality. Until the mid-twentieth century, the hymen was considered to be the joint property of a girl and her parents. Girls were discouraged from using tampons out of fears that they would tear the mucous membranes that marked their virginity. Likewise, gynecologists refused to do vaginal exams on unmarried girls, fearing that doing so would shock their modesty and possibly stretch their hymens. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the idea of joint ownership of a girl’s body began to fade as parents became less invested in maintaining their daughter’s virginity. Gynecologists began to talk openly about sex with girls and sometimes performed hymenotomies upon girls who feared that an intact hymen would make their first sexual experience awkward and painful. Girls also spoke more openly about sexual intercourse – teaching their boyfriends and husbands where they liked to be touched. One girl who had went to a Catholic high school described with relish the way her boyfriend’s lips at pressed hard against hers at a school dance. She wrote in her diary that she was “now a woman.” Such forthrightness would have been unthinkable a generation earlier.
It is here that Mormonism departs from the general bodily experience of American girls. Although Mormon girls have in many cases internalized the pressure to have bodies that look a certain way and are initiated into the same commercialized sexuality that other American girls are, they are also expected to maintain a kind of modesty that other girls aren’t. The existence of Relief Societies, Young Women’s, and other all-female groups should act in some way to mitigate the difficulty of navigating sexuality for girls. And, yet, the constant angst on Mormon blogs and podcasts over issues of female sexuality suggests that this is not the case. The question of why is not easily answered without reading hundreds of diaries of young women as Brumberg did in the preparation of her book. As Emily and I talked, however, we decided that one possible reason might be that the absolute emphasis on chastity makes it difficult for such organizations to help teens navigate their desires. The images that girls of sexuality that girls see on MTV, Vh1, and Bravo, in romance novels and teen magazines, and in the hallways of their schools and on the bus are cast as bad without ever discussing how to navigate them in a healthy way. Doing so would not mean abandoning chastity but it would mean acknowledging the existence of desire in a much more frank and balanced way. These ideas are only tentative guesses. It’s impossible to chart the history of Mormon ideas about the body without doing much more research than I have had time to do so here. But I think that thinking about women and their relationship to the body might be a fruitful area of research for Mormon scholars, especially considering the richness of the scholarship concerning other American women.
 Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls(New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 98 – 100.
 Ibid., 31 – 33.
 Ibid., 16 – 18.
 Ibid., 97, 197.
 Ibid., xxiii.
 Joseph Fielding Smith to Sarah Ellen Richards Smith, May 14, 1874, Sarah Ellen Richards Smith Collection, Box 1, Folder 2, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.
 “Objects of Dress,” The Woman’s Exponent Vol. 1, No. 3 (July 1, 1872) 22.
 Brumberg, The Body Project, 171.
 Ibid, 161 – 164
 Ibid, 150 – 152.
 Ibid, 160.
 Brumberg, The Body Project, xxx.