“Your body is beautiful just as it is”. These are the wise words of photographer Katrina Anderson. Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Katrina is a talented photographer, unabashed feminist and a Mormon. Her latest project is a brave one: Mormon Women Bare. As a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, she has grown up surrounded by particular views about modesty and the female body. Her project is a collection of nude photographs of ordinary Mormon women displaying their bodies, imperfections and all, as a stand against the strict rules of Mormonism. With this project she hopes to “protest against the modesty rhetoric of the church and culture”.
Mormons belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) which was founded in America in the 19th Century and has some 13.5 million members worldwide. Surprisingly, since most Britons seem relatively ignorant on the subject, it has been in the UK since 1837 and has over 190,000 British members. Mormonism is a sect of Christianity and was founded by Joseph Smith who claimed to have been called by God to restore the church that Christ had established on the earth, but which had been lost after the deaths of the original apostles.
Mormons originally encouraged polygamy but rejected this in the late 1800s, attempting to fit better into traditional American society. The strict rules of the church remain, however, with rigid codes relating to diet, work, and family life as well as modesty and the correct way for women to behave. Recently there has also been controversy and protest over women being prohibited from the priesthood. It seems that the LDS church can be a difficult place for women, as Katrina explains.
Speaking to Katrina, I was blown away by her remarkable insight and enthusiasm. Her project is powerful: celebrating the female body that so many Mormon women feel ashamed of. Her photos are beautiful and tasteful, each portraying a woman embracing and accepting her body.
“I want to show women as they are – with their scars, stretch marks, tan lines, wrinkles, sagging skin”
As a lifelong member of the church, Katrina has experienced firsthand the conflicting pressures Mormon women face to conform. “The stereotypical ‘ideal’ Mormon woman is educated but doesn’t work outside the home. She is fit and attractive. She dresses stylishly but modestly. She is married in the temple and has children. She enjoys being home with her children and making a home. She attends church every week, where she has a calling (an assigned “job” such as teaching Sunday school or playing the piano) and serves without complaint.” Mormon women face vast, and often incompatible, expectations. On her website, Katrina describes how women must: “both attract and protect against male desire”. She also admits to feeling as if she did not own her own body: “as an adult woman it belonged to my husband, to my children, and ultimately, to my God more than it did to me.” The idea of the project is to celebrate the human body and allow women to reclaim their bodies and take control.
Asking Katrina the main purpose of this project, she replied: “as an act of protest. Mormons have gotten away from the true meaning of modesty. I think that modesty standards as they relate to clothing are completely subjective and that dictating one standard for everyone becomes problematic and even harmful.” According to Katrina, for Mormon women there are high expectations to fit certain criteria which have led to great contention. “I had noticed a trend in the last 5 to 10 years of increasingly heightened rhetoric and practice surrounding modesty and it really bothered me. I wanted to do something new and creatively challenging.”
The problems these modesty rules have created are quite shocking. The last few years have seen a number of injustices which gave Katrina her motivation for the project; to challenge this oppression and help women around the world struggling with these issues. “In the spring/summer of 2012, there were several stories, one right after the other, about modesty culture in the LDS church. These ranged from a BYU-Idaho student who couldn’t take a test in ‘skinny jeans’, to young girls being shamed for not wearing sleeves, to the church’s magazine, the Ensign, altering a Carl Bloch painting to make the angels more ‘modest’.”
It is these strict codes of modesty within the church that have caused Katrina to become discontent and frustrated. She spent her whole life in the church yet no longer attends regularly. “I grew up loving the church and being Mormon. I hardly missed a Sunday for the first 28 years of my life. I reached a point a couple years ago where the gender inequalities in the church became too much for me. It became too painful to attend.” However, her love for the church remains and she hopes that she can “be an influence for good”.
Katrina found that there were many other women similarly disillusioned by the church. “I posted in several Mormon Facebook groups describing the project and asked for models. Within a few days, I had about 30 women volunteer. As the project has gotten more attention, more women have volunteered.” Katrina’s hope was to get as much diversity as possible amongst the volunteers, however, she is disappointed by the lack of women of colour and women over fifty who have volunteered. Many have also changed their minds, an understandable decision, considering the intimacy of the project.
When Katrina speaks of her volunteers, she does so with appreciation and pride. She explains how “together, we aim to show that bodies are beautiful, sacred, flawed and powerful, earthly and divine”. The women, Katrina included, appear real, vulnerable and brave; they have participated to give themselves and others confidence – they have shown courage that should be praised.
“you are not defined by your dress size or your bra size”
Katrina also posts her subjects’ stories on her website, alongside their photos. They describe the pressures they have experienced and their own battles with self-image. Some remain firm believers while others have completely lost their faith; each of them has a unique and empowering story. Between them they have expressed once feeling “fear”, “self-conscious”, “ashamed”, and “imprisoned”. Now, having come to accept themselves and their bodies as their own, they are: “beautiful”, “free” and “powerful”.
Although the project is primarily about Mormon women, their values and pressures, Katrina’s aim goes deeper. The project is an act against the media and beauty industries, challenging the conventional view of beauty. “In the LDS Church we are taught that our bodies are created in the image of God, and I believe that should be celebrated and honoured. Most media images of women are unrealistic. They are ‘ideal’ bodies that have been airbrushed and photoshopped to appear ‘perfect’. Most women will never look like that and yet we hold ourselves to this unrealistic standard of beauty. I want women to see that most of us do not look like that and yet are still beautiful. I want women to see these images and have more compassion for themselves. I want to show women as they are – with their scars, stretch marks, tan lines, wrinkles, sagging skin, or ‘flawless’ skin as the case may be. I want to show that women’s bodies can be seen nude in a non-sexual way–that we can see a naked body and not objectify and sexualize that body, but just accept it as it is.”
When asked what advice she had for young women struggling with body pressures, Katrina’s words were inspirational. “You are ok. Just as you are now. You are so much more than a body. You are not defined by your dress size or your bra size or whether you fit the ideal touted by fashion magazines. Surround yourself with people who help you realise that. Who love you as you are. Remember no one has the right to shame you or tell you what to do with your body.”
This is not Katrina’s first unusual project. Her main photographic interests are women’s issues, birth and breastfeeding and she is currently working on another project involving photos of women breastfeeding in an attempt to normalise the act and consequently encourage more women to do it. Her work focuses on breaking taboos in a way that others are not willing to.
Considering the nature of the project, there has been overwhelming positivity. Women have thanked Katrina for the reassurance and courage her project has given them. “The vast majority of what people say to me directly, either in person or via email has been positive. In online discussion forums and article comments, people have been less supportive, but I don’t read those”. With over 2.5 million views on the project’s website, Katrina has certainly got people’s attention, for better or worse. Fortunately, Katrina has concentrated on the praise she has received which has encouraged greater ambitions for the project, as she hopes to take it further by turning it into a book and creating live exhibitions. Having seen the power her project has had, I wish her every luck and success with it.
One last piece of wisdom: “Your body is yours. Claim it. Celebrate it.”