The Mormon Body Project: Thoughts Toward a History of Mormon Girls

16 Feb

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.[1]  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.[2]  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.[3]

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.[4]  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.[5]

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.”[6]  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.[7]  Women were no longer to be primped and pampered till they could nothing but “toddle” about like a small children.[8]  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.[9]  Girls were discouraged from using tampons out of fears that they would tear the mucous membranes that marked their virginity.[10]  Likewise, gynecologists refused to do vaginal exams on unmarried girls, fearing that doing so would shock their modesty and possibly stretch their hymens.[11]  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.[12]  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.”[13]  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.

[1] Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls(New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 98 – 100.

[2] Ibid., 31 – 33.

[3] Ibid., 16 – 18.

[4] Ibid., 97, 197.

[5] Ibid., xxiii.

[6] 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.

[7] “Objects of Dress,” The Woman’s Exponent Vol. 1, No. 3 (July 1, 1872) 22.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Brumberg, The Body Project, 171.

[10] Ibid, 161 – 164

[11] Ibid, 150 – 152.

[12] Ibid, 160.

[13] Brumberg, The Body Project, xxx.

11 Responses to “The Mormon Body Project: Thoughts Toward a History of Mormon Girls”

  1. Rachel February 20, 2012 at 1:10 am #

    This was a wonderful post. Thank you. And I would agree that the YW/RS organizations that maybe could be helping with these things do not prove to be that helpful. I would like them to be so.

    • Amanda5245 February 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

      Thanks for your thoughts! After the post, I’ve been talking with quite a few people about the changes that might be possible the YW/RS curriculum. I think the problem is that they aren’t as open a space for discussion as they might be. How to change that I’m not sure.

  2. Speck February 21, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    Awesome stuff for the progressive Mormon male to learn about and see where he can be more sensitive and helpful in dispelling cultural fears that inhibit the spirit of the law.

    I am surprised by, and hadn’t considered ramifications of discharge and a font. While we’ve dismissed all Law of Moses ideas about being unclean for anything other than specific sin, we definitely have modern public health to worry about. Temple fonts already carry a strong chlorine load to counteract water conditions similar to a public hot tub. Last time I got a bloody nose at a public pool they went crazy with the disinfectant.

    Is it okay to explain the sanitation concerns to a young woman and let her determine if there is risk? Wouldn’t this apply to all public activity, not as a source of shame, but as a polite public health responsibility, like covering your nose when you sneeze?

    • Amanda5245 February 21, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

      Speck, I am glad you found this helpful. One thing to think about is that a single tampon would do the trick. They worked when I took a swim class in college, and they would work in this case too. Simply having a possible that all menstruating women have to wear tampons if they plan to do baptism for the dead might be a simple fix.

      • Lisa February 22, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

        I have to just weigh in here for a second with my personal experience. I never had anyone ask me if I was on my period in the temple. I have worn tampons and participated in baptisms countless times since the age of 12. In addition, in my experience attending many different temples (in the US), tampons have been provided free of charge from little tampon dispensing contraptions in bathrooms in the temple. Is the existence of a period a discussion that temple workers generally have with temple goers before they allow a young lady to participate in baptisms? If so, that is a status quo that I was unaware of, that never affected my ability to participate when I was growing up, and that does not make a difference in my participation now.

        In other words, I have never had anyone in the temple intrude into my personal affairs in such a way that they ask me about my cycle and proceed to forbid me to participate if I am menstruating. I am surprised at the information that apparently there are young ladies who have had that experience, and disappointed in the invasion of privacy that entails.

      • Amanda5245 February 22, 2012 at 7:48 pm #

        Lisa — From the discussions at “By Common Consent” and “Feminist Mormon Housewives,” it appears that it varies from temple to temple. While some have a policy that menstruating women aren’t allowed to do baptism for the dead, others don’t. It all depends on where and when you go.

        I actually think that makes it worse, because it means that a girl can’t plan ahead and decide whether or not to go. It also appears that the question is usually asked of groups of teens and not to individuals.

    • Kristine March 1, 2012 at 11:14 am #

      Speck, as someone who does laundry for my teenaged sons, I can assure you that a menstruating girl wearing a tampon is NOT the biggest health risk in any baptismal font.

  3. Angie February 25, 2012 at 12:27 am #

    LDS doctrine frees us women from being the source of Original Sin, encourages us to learn all truth (D&C 88:78-79), and teaches us to follow the Holy Ghost’s inspiration. We know that our relationship with God combined with our own intelligence is the source of wisdom.

    In other words, we have everything we need to navigate the complexities of being comfortable and Godly in our own skins. The current day is absolutely the best time in the history of the planet to be a woman. Every day brings more knowledge and opens more opportunities, especially to women. It is our job – and privilege – to sort through the various messages that are inside and outside ourselves as we discover our gifts and our purpose.

    • Amanda5245 February 27, 2012 at 2:04 am #

      Angie — I think that it is easy to say that today is the best time in history to be a woman from the vantage point of people who are relatively privileged. I wonder if people from other countries and other socioeconomic positions would say the same. Is this the best time to be a woman living in rural India or in poverty in the United States? I’m not certain. I recently reading on a blog that, in some ways, women’s sexual rights have actually become more restricted in the United States. Access to birth control has become more restricted, the income gap is widening, and millions of children don’t have access to health care. We should take these things into consideration when deciding what time would be the best to be a woman. It might also be helpful to define what best is.


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