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

By: Amanda - February 16, 2012

Cross-posted at Scholaristas.

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 Housewives and 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.

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19 Comments

  1. [...] Cross-posted at Juvenile Instructor. [...]

    Pingback by The Mormon Body Project: Thoughts Toward a History of Mormon Girls « Scholaristas — February 16, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

  2. “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.”

    Amen. We need to totally get over the awkwardness of talking about sex at church, especially when girls are being bombarded by unhealthy images of sex all the time elsewhere. Abstinence only can no longer be the only educational rule at church. I don’t have female children nor have I ever had to educate young women, so I can’t imagine the difficulty of having that conversation, especially in a church setting. However, maybe there needs to be some sort of seminar on female sexuality, one that teaches girls about their bodies and that teaches them what unhealthy sexuality looks like, using all the media you mentioned. I really appreciate the creative possibilities here, both for scholarship and for practical application.

    Comment by Liz — February 16, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

  3. I am anxious for the Church to find ways to help parents have language around these issues. I may of course be waiting until the Millennium on this front. However, the teens in my area are asking the questions and the leaders are making their way through it. The gap I see is with (some) parents who have no idea what their kids are asking, let alone how to answer it. A few bold YW are tackling their own desires publicly and rejecting victimhood when it comes to sexuality. I pray it serves them well. I truly PRAY on this. They are the key to re-framing the dialogue on this for the entire church.

    Comment by Chrysula — February 16, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

  4. This is all sorts of awesome. Well done, Amanda.

    I fully agree that the Mormon tradition’s perpetuation of the body being either chaste or spoiled, with nothing in between, ill-equips youth–especially girls–in today’s age. We need to find a dialogue that better incorporates the broad spectrum and possibilities entailed in human sexuality. As for the history, perhaps it is significant that the turn in mainstream culture you talk about came at the very same time that Mormonism was in the beginning of its “correlation” phase.

    Comment by Ben P — February 16, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

  5. I enjoyed the post, Amanda. Regarding nineteenth-century Utah Mormonism, I do think that reform movements are very important context for the issues you bring up. I also think that the matters of ritual purity pertaining to the temple are important (e.g., prohibition on coitus for a certain period before entering the temple; menstruation; bathing) antecedents to twentieth century beliefs and practices, even if there isn’t an exact relationship between them.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 16, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

  6. Liz, thanks for the sisterhood! I’m not sure how to get over the squeamishness of talking about sex, but I think it’s important. As Chrysula points out, it can’t just be one parent or one mother who tries to help their children. My mother tried to teach my sisters and me about sexuality. The basic message I received was that she preferred that I didn’t have sex before I was married but that she wanted to me to come to her if I decided to do so because she wanted to make sure we used contraceptives and would buy them for us. In spite of her gentle promptings about sex, I still found the subject awkward and would have died before asking her for birth control. Even though my mother tried to make it a subject we could talk about it, I felt like it was something she should find embarrassing and didn’t understand why she didn’t. There’s also the gap that Chrysula is talking about. There are a lot of things that I am sure my mother had no idea what was and a lot of terms that I learned from school that she never would have heard.

    Ben and J. Stapley — Interesting comments! I had never thought about the relationship between the growth of correlation and the shape of current ideas about women’s bodies. I would love to see someone study Mormon ideas about women’s ideas about the body in the mid-twentieth century that took correlation and the growth of bureaucracy seriously. Likewise, Jonathan, your comments are really interesting. I wish I knew more about the temple, but as a non-Mormon, I’ve felt that the topic was a hot potato I couldn’t touch. My intuition is that you’re right that Mormon ideas about the female body are probably strongly shaped by temple ritual. I wonder how ideas about the temple would have circulated through Mormon culture and affected girls who were not old enough to participate in such rituals.

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 16, 2012 @ 7:05 pm

  7. Amanda, this is one helluva start to your stint guest blogging here. I don’t have much to add to what others have already said, but really appreciate the thoughtful and thorough post. I look forward to more.

    Comment by Christopher — February 16, 2012 @ 8:31 pm

  8. Yeah, this is great. Thanks, Amanda.

    Comment by David G. — February 16, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

  9. Great beginnings, AHK.

    Comment by BHodges — February 17, 2012 @ 8:30 am

  10. J., I know less than you do about the history, but it seems to me that for _young_ women and girls, at least, things like the YW Journal and popular culture would have been more important than temple rituals in which they wouldn’t have participated until later. Certainly the journals I’ve seen (admittedly a tiny sample) seem concerned much more with the sorts of things one would have read in popular media–it probably depends a lot on what decades we’re talking about, too.

    Comment by Kristine — February 17, 2012 @ 9:40 am

  11. Great suggestions, look forward to more.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 17, 2012 @ 11:24 am

  12. Kristine, I don’t disagree. What I was trying to get at was that many of the authors of the YW Journal articles had been asked to not attend the temple immediately after sexual congress or when menstruating, or having been asked to bathe before attending the temple. Along with rhetoric pulled from various reform movements, the connection with hygiene and ritual purity likely had some influence on how they framed ideas. Now I will also concede that this is completely hypothetical as I haven’t taken the time to go systematically through the articles to show that influence. I could be just plain off my rocker.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 17, 2012 @ 11:45 am

  13. J. and Kristine,

    Another question that would have to be answered is how the girls interpreted what they were being taught by older women, especially since they did not have the experience in the temple to interpret it. There’s also the question of how important the temple has been in informing ideas about the body for everyday, ordinary Saints over time. For a lot of people, especially those living outside of areas that have temples, the temple was not an everyday or even monthly occurrence. I haven’t done the work to investigate its influence over time but it would be interesting. Apparently, in Samoa, the way that Mormons dressed changed once the Apia temple was built. Before that, there wasn’t as big a concern about the display of the body. Temple garments changed that.

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 17, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

  14. Very nice contribution Ms. Hendrix-Komoto. I would suggest trying those skinny jeans on again, but then wouldn’t we just be trying to “fit” into society’s definition of right and wrong, good and bad? Keep pushing the new questions!

    Comment by JoKo — February 18, 2012 @ 12:37 am

  15. Excellent post, Amanda. Along with the divergences you outline between broader American views about female bodies and modesty, do you see continuities as well in other religiously motivated groups? Things like promise rings and modesty groups seem widespread enough to be noticed in mainstream cultural forms like Glee, for instance. So, if similarities, to what extent do they reflect shared intellectual genealogies?

    Comment by Jared T — February 18, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

  16. Excellent post, Amanda! We’re excited to have you here and for your exploration of pertinent ideas, and you express them so eloquently.

    Comment by Ardis S. — February 19, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

  17. Thanks, Ardis and Joko! Jared — Evangelical cultures of the body are interesting. On the one hand, they have s similar emphasis upon chastity and purity rings. On the other hand, there’s an entire industry of people producing Christian workout videos and diet programs — “Get thin for Jesus!” — that don’t exist in Mormon culture. Ruth Marie Griffin’s “Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity” is an excellent exploration of that topic.

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 20, 2012 @ 9:40 am

  18. As a side note, the CHL just digitized this, which has some really fascinating chapters of relevance to this discussion, I think.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 20, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

  19. [...] to join the JI as our newest permablogger. If you haven’t yet, check out her provocative post on bodies and the history of Mormon girls and her more autobiographical reflections on studying [...]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Introducing New Permablogger Amanda Hendrix-Komoto — March 8, 2012 @ 7:33 pm