An Ethnographic Examination of the Representation of Women’s Bodies in a Religious Publication (Running Title: Boobs in the Ensign)
In a conversation among some of the permabloggers, we started talking about modesty within LDS culture. Although I felt that everything that could be said about modesty has been said already, Ziff raised an interesting question of whether women with certain body types were more likely to be shown in the Ensign than women with other body types. Specifically, he posed the question of whether women with smaller breasts were more likely to be shown than women with larger breasts. Given that I like to code and analyze data almost as much as Ziff does (I mean, really, I doubt that anyone in the universe could love this as much as Ziff does), I decided to conduct an assessment of this very question. As I started looking through past Ensign issues, I realized that breast size was often difficult to code given that many women wear loosely-fitted clothing. I was also surprised to discover that women’s breasts were often obscured by their arms, other people (such as holding a child), or props (such as scriptures, hymnals or manuals). This lead me to rework my coding system to consider how often women’s breasts were covered by something in addition to clothing (arms, other people, props), or were only covered by clothing. Furthermore, I assessed the frequency that images of women’s breasts that were only covered by clothing showed women wearing form fitted vs. loose fitting clothing and when the clothing was form fitted, the frequency that women with larger and small breasts were shown.
As I continued my investigation, my sister pointed me to some specific guidelines for members who wish to submit photos for potential publication in the Ensign. I assume that these (or similar) guidelines are used for all photos printed in the Ensign. Within these guidelines, there are two that are directed specifically towards women: 1-Do not submit photos of women and girls with low or revealing necklines, gaping blouses, tight clothing (including tight clothing worn over other tight clothing), sleeveless or spaghetti-strap tops without a modest shirt worn underneath, clothing containing see-through fabrics or any other distracting element that draws attention to the body, and 2-Women’s dresses should cover the knees when sitting. (Just for your information, there is only one point of the guidelines that is directed specifically toward men: do not submit photos of men’s or boys’ neckties loosened or with untucked shirttails).
Methods I used a random number generator to select 3 issues of the Ensign from 2013, but excluded conference issues as images in those issues are somewhat different from what is normally included. I analyzed both photos and illustrations from the February, April, and July issues (Footnote 1). I coded each photo or illustration of a woman, but excluded images if: the individual was not clearly an adult; the individual was blurry, in a large crowd scene or a very small part of them was showing (just their face showing because they were standing almost completely behind other people); or the individual was not clearly a woman (this is more of an issue for illustrations of biblical times). Also, if the same photo illustration appeared multiple times in the issue, I only counted it once, and I did not count images that were included with information that directed reader to other sources (such as a webpage or another issue of the Ensign).
I coded each image of a woman to be in one of several categories and subcategories. The first category was for images of women whose breasts were fully or mostly covered by something other than their clothing, or their clothed breasts were not visible for another reason. This included the subcategories of: turned away (mostly showing someone’s back), cropped (photo cropped at or above the bustline), covered-prop (bustline mostly covered by an object), covered-body (bustline mostly covered by part of the individual’s body, such as their arm, or by someone else’s body). The second category was for images of women in which their breasts were only covered by clothing. This included the subcategories of: baggy clothing, and fitted clothing. Images of women with fitting clothing were further classified as showing women with relatively small breasts and women with relatively large breasts. Classifying images as portraying either baggy vs. fitted clothing required some subjective judgment, but I generally coded based on whether there was clear definition of the individual’s breasts beneath their clothing. For illustrations, I judged an image to be showing fitted clothing if there was some indication of the individual’s breasts with either shading, or lines to indicate the breast shape. Clothing in illustrations was coded as “baggy” if there were shadows that show a lot of folding of the fabric, or a generally flat color that showed no shape of the individual’s breasts beneath her clothing. I also categorized each image as either being a staged photo, a naturalistic photo, or an illustration. Once again, some subjective judgement was used to determine whether a photo was staged or naturalistic, but in most cases the distinction was fairly clear. Below are examples from some of the categories.
Fig 1. Illustration: Fitted clothing
Fig 2. Naturalistic Photo: Cropped
Fig 3. Staged Photo: Covered-Prop
Results Overall, there were 110 images of women that fit the criteria I described. In 56% of the images, women’s breasts were fully or mostly covered by something other than clothing or were not visible for some other reason (within this category, 15% were turned away, 19% were cropped, 27% were covered-prop, and 39% were covered-body). For, 44% of the images, women’s breasts were only covered by clothing. In these cases, 56% of women were wearing baggy clothing and 44% of women were wearing fitted clothing. Of the 21 images of women wearing fitting clothing, all 21 depicted women with relatively small breasts (Fig 4.).
Fig 4. Woman with small breasts wearing fitted clothing.
For both illustrations and naturalistic photos, the percentages were fairly evenly split between images of women’s breasts that were fully or mostly covered by something other than clothing or were not visible for some other reason (54% of illustrations, 55% of naturalistic photos) and women’s breasts that were covered only by clothing (46% of illustrations, 45% of naturalistic photos). However, for staged photos 64% depicted women with their breasts covered by something other than clothing or were not visible for some other reason, while only 36% depicted women whose breasts were covered only by clothing. For depictions of women in which their breasts were covered only by clothing, 44% of women in staged photos wore baggy clothing and 56% wore fitted clothing. The breakdown was similar for naturalistic photos with 50% in baggy clothing and 50% in fitted clothing. In contrast, illustrations depicted 62% of women in baggy clothing and 38% of women in fitted clothing. If you remember from my coding criteria, clothing was considered to be baggy in an illustration if the shape of the breasts was not defined. So a woman’s torso that was painted with no shading would be considered baggy clothing (see Fig 5. below). The fact that more women in illustrations wore baggy clothing than photos suggests that it is easier to simply not paint the shape of a woman’s breasts when illustrating women than it is to take photos of women that don’t show any shape of their breasts under their clothing.
Fig 5. The breastless mother?
Although only comprising 15% of the total images (but 27% of the category of women whose breasts were covered by something other than clothing or were not visible for some other reason), the cases in which women’s breasts were covered by props were particularly interesting to me. Covering women’s breasts by scriptures, manuals, hymnals, or generic books and papers appeared to be a popular choice (50% of the covered-prop category), while plants was also a popular choice (33% of the covered-prop category) (see Fig 6.). I found the specific illustration shown in Fig 7. to be an especially interesting case of hiding women’s breasts with hymnals. If you look at the front row of singers, you will notice that three of the singers are holding the hymnal at about the same height, but that the last woman on the row is holding her’s higher. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this is deliberate or not, but the woman on the end has been illustrated with a fuller figure which would likely include larger breasts. Based on the trend to not show women with larger breasts in fitted tops, it’s possible that the artist wanted to show a woman with a fuller-figure, but didn’t want to show that she had larger breasts.
Fig 6. Plants, covering women’s breasts since the time of Eve.
Figure 7. Why is the woman at the end hiding her breasts with a hymnal?
Conclusions/Implications Overall, I found that 56% of images of women in the Ensign had their breasts partially or fully covered by something other than clothing or hidden in some other way. I recognize that instances of women’s breasts being covered by their arm, body of another person, or things in their environment is going to happen somewhat naturalistically in photos. However, 56% seems particularly high to me. It would be interesting to compare this result to the images of women portrayed in a family-friendly magazine that is not owned by the LDS church to assess whether this way of portraying women is fairly common or if it is unique to LDS publications. (If you have a suggestion for a magazine I could analyze, please include it in the comments below). Another assessment I would like to do is to evaluate how often men’s torsos in the Ensign are covered by something other than clothing or hidden in some other way. This would give me some idea of how naturalistic or intentional it is to cover women’s torsos with props etc. in LDS publications. Of the women whose breasts were only covered by clothing, 44% of them were wearing fitted clothing and in all cases the breasts of the women in these images were relatively small. This means that across all image types, only 19% of images clearly show the shape of a woman’s breasts and there are no cases of women who clearly have larger breasts being depicted.
How might these images affect how women and men in the LDS church think about and react to women’s bodies? It would be interesting to conduct some kind of survey or experiment to address this question, but given the lack of empirical data, I will make some suggested hypotheses about the possible effects of these images. First of all, members of the church may use the images in the Ensign to guide their own perceptions (whether consciously or unconsciously) of clothing that is modest. For one, I think that the implicit message is that the appearance of breasts should be minimized when possible. However, in real life, women are not still images and cannot constantly hide behind plants or hold manuals in front of their breasts so that others won’t see that they have them. Furthermore, greatly minimizing the appearance of breasts is a virtually impossible standard for women with larger breasts to live up to. Based on my analyses, the Ensign shows no examples of women who clearly have larger breasts. Therefore readers of the Ensign are left to assume that dressing modestly as a woman with larger breasts involves wearing very loose-fitting clothing, but for many women even very loose fitting clothing is not going to obscure the fact that they have large breasts. Furthermore, sometimes a choice to wear baggy clothing can contribute to feelings of body shame. Women may feel that their body is something that should be completely disguised under baggy clothing because they are unhappy with how their body looks and/or they fear that their body is something that will inevitably cause others to sin (Footnote 2). Additionally, the guidelines for image submission specifies that images should not include cleavage. However, even if women are wearing tops that typically don’t show cleavage, moving around and preforming everyday activities makes it possible that some cleavage may be shown at some point, especially for women with larger breasts. The Ensign appears to be sending the message that cleavage is always immodest and should be avoided at all costs. This could cause a good deal of trouble for some people who would have to always wear shirts with very high necklines or would have to be super conscientious every time they bend over in order to live up to that standard. This many lead women with larger breasts to feel that their bodies are inherently immodest, and may increase the likelihood that others will make those judgements about their bodies as well (Footnote 3).
Secondly, the Ensign (particularly the guidelines specifying which images are appropriate to submit to the Ensign) encourages highly subjective judgments about other people’s bodies. Every person will have a different definition of what constitutes ”revealing necklines” or “tight clothing”, and what would even constitute “distracting element[s] that draws attention to the body”? Doesn’t clothing inherently draw attention to the body because it is worn on top of a body? The problem with these vague guidelines is that while an individual woman may feel that her clothing is appropriate, that doesn’t free her from the potential judgmental remarks and even public humiliation of others (as evidenced by countess stories of EFY and youth dance experiences). Take the case of the student who simply wanted to take an exam at BYUI but was unable to do so because the testing center employee made a highly subjective judgement that her clothing was too tight (see description of tight vs. form-fitting clothing in Footnote 4). In my opinion, the solution to this problem is not to make guidelines more specific (such as trying to figure out how exactly how much of someone’s knees should be covered), but rather to encourage respect of other people’s clothing choices and to discourage the policing of other people’s bodies.
Overall, I think the best way these issues can be addressed through the Ensign is by showing women with a wider variety of body types wearing a wider variety of clothing (and perhaps by showing more images of women whose bodies are not covered by props etc.). For example, below is an image of a woman with larger breasts who is wearing a form-fitting top. The tightness of this clothing is comparable to what I saw in some Ensign images, but based on my analyses, images like this are rarely (if ever) shown. I would argue that for a healthy, productive life, women with a variety of body types need to be able to wear clothing that allows them to comfortably move around in their environment without the fear that someone will judge them as being immodest or inappropriate. Additionally, I would argue that a culture that focuses a lot on discussing modesty, that shows only a limited range of acceptable ways to be modest, and encourages body-policing creates an environment in which women may worry excessively about how their bodies are affecting other people. This takes up valuable mental and emotional energy which could be better used for intellectual and spiritual development (see this video, especially around the 6 min mark).
Figure 7. Woman with larger breasts wearing a fitted top
Footnote 1: This analysis doesn’t include any of the text of the Ensign. I imagine that the guidelines for image submissions is reinforced in the actual text (maybe more so in the New Era).
Footnote 2: As Jennifer Finlayson-Fife puts it, “Modesty, or behaving in a spirit of moderation, includes honoring our sexuality-neither flaunting it nor masking it, neither seeking male approval nor rebuffing it. I see many LDS women unwittingly exposing the discomfort and self-doubt they feel in their bodies by dressing in shapeless or multilayered clothing. I also see many LDS women in my practice, strangers to their own sexuality, feeling a sense of self-betrayal for having disowned such a fundamental part of themselves.” Exponent II, Winter Issue 2014.
Footnote 3: Most men pictured in the Ensign are most often wearing white shirts, ties, and often suit coats. Thus, men are most often pictured wearing relatively loose-fitting clothing. It would be interesting to compare reactions to the images of men and women in the Ensign through an empirical study. However, I would postulate that the images of women may have a somewhat stronger effect on how women’s bodies are viewed and how women think about their own bodies because there are other aspects of church culture that promotes hyper-attention to and policing of women’s bodies that is not comparable to how men’s bodies are talked about.
Footnote 4: Realistically, I don’t think there is much difference between “tight” and “form fitting”, other than that ”tight” has a negative connotation and, thus, is more likely to be used to describe clothing that someone disapproves of. From a stylistic standpoint, there are some indicators that clothing is too tight for your body such as buttons that gape and fabric that does not lay flat but is pulled in various points of the body when worn. Stylistically, form fitting clothing is generally considered to be clothing that is closely tailored to the shape of your body. However, form fitting clothing can often be judged to be immodest, especially on women with larger breasts. Furthermore, it is important to remember that clothing choices is inherently tied to financial resources. Clothing that it tailored to closely fit your body (and is not too tight or too loose) is often more expensive. Thus, people with less resources are less able to purchase clothing fitted to their body in the first place and are less able to purchase new clothing when their weight fluctuates. This is another reason why encouraging judgments of others’ clothing choices can be especially problematic.
- 18 February 2014