A few months ago, in a post called The Mormon Body Project, I asked what a history of Mormon women and their relationship to their bodies would be like. How did Mormon garments with their emphasis upon modesty and purity change the way that women thought about their menstrual cycles, their breasts, and other intimate aspects of their bodies? Did Mormon theology and its emphasis upon the divinity of the body allow Mormon women to develop more positive ideas about their body? And, finally, how did Mormon institutions like Young Women’s and Relief Society help girls manage the transition from childhood to adolescence? These questions were inspired by Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s The Body Project, which attempts a similar history for American women as a whole. Brumberg – and the initial post – focuses on young women as the most vulnerable segment of the American female population. Uncertain about themselves and their bodies, pressured to be thin, and experimenting sexually, such girls struggle as they mature into adulthood. Brumberg argues that the Victorian era, for all its faults and sexism, offered something that the American culture currently does not – a support network in the form of women’s clubs and interested mothers to help girls navigate the transition from girlhood to womanhood.
Since that post, I have continued to think about what a Mormon Body Project might look like and what sources I might use to write it. One idea that has emerged is focusing on Mormon teen literature and romance novels. Like many girls, I first learned about my body and what it meant to be a woman, not from my mother who I would have been too embarrassed to ask but from the books and magazines I read. From a book called The Trouble with Thirteen, I learned that girls could drink coke and ride their bikes while on their periods. From Seventeen, I learned that if you danced too closely with a boy while wearing an inflatable bra, your boobs might pop. And, from authors like Lurlene McDaniel and V.C. Andrews, I learned that life could also be difficult and fraught with terminal illness, incest, and physical abuse. Looking back, it’s easy to laugh at the material I read and how seriously I took it. The Baby Sitters Club, Anastasia Krupnik, and Sweet Valley High were not pieces of stellar literature. Their impact, however, was as long-lasting as that of the more classic pieces of literature I read. I remember the “shoulder-length blonde hair, blue-green eyes, and perfect tans” of the Wakefield sisters as well as I do the moment when Mary Lennox opened the doors to the secret garden and watched as the weeds began to bloom. Janice Radway has argued in Reading the Romance that romance novels are popular because they allow women to explore what it means to be a woman in a world fraught with violence and rape all with the assurance that everything will turn out okay. Teen literature provides a similar function for girls.
As a result, Juvenile Instructor will be hosting a series this summer in which a number of scholars, including Elizabeth Pinborough, Susanna Morrill, and Andrea Radke-Moss, read and critique Mormon teen literature and romance novels. The idea is to understand how these books presented ideas about the body, modesty, and dating. Although some of the commenters will examine recent fiction by classic authors such as Jack Weyland, the bulk of the series will focus on works from the 70s, 80s, and 90s in an attempt to understand how we got where we are. How did all those copies of Charly that my friends bought and read on the bus affect the way that they thought about dating and romance? The first person to try to answer this question will be Elizabeth Pinborough whose post should appear sometime next week. The answer should be fun and will hopefully be a first gesture towards a history of Mormon girls.