Photographer Katrina B. Anderson is a feminist who created a photo essay of artistic nudes of Mormon women to, she says, counteract the rhetoric surrounding the LDS Church’s focus on modesty. Volunteer models have posed nude and shared personal stories for her Mormon Women Bare project, the mission of which is for women to reclaim their bodies “from a culture that teaches us that we belong to men, to God, to the society that objectifies us.” MormonWomenBare.com has garnered international media attention and received more than 2.5 million views to date.
When did you first decide that you wanted to do this project?
In the spring/summer of 2012, there were several stories, one right after the other, about modesty culture in the LDS Church—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 Ensign altering a Carl Bloch painting to make the angels more “modest.” I had noticed a trend in the past five 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, so the idea of nudes as a counter to all this modesty rhetoric seemed like an interesting—and needed—endeavor.
What does it mean that the project is about women “reclaiming their bodies”?
Women have a long history in our society of being seen as property. While we now live in a time when women are autonomous and are no longer legally the property of men, there are still many influences that disconnect women from their bodies. From the hypersexualization in the media to rigid religious modesty practices, women’s bodies are exploited, controlled and feared. Many of us carry shame and feel inadequate. Those of us who are mothers often give so much of ourselves physically to our children that we no longer feel our bodies belong to us. I see the outward act of being photographed nude as a symbol of the internal process of reclaiming our bodies from men, church, society, our children and even God. It is empowering to choose to show what we have always been taught should be hidden.
Are Mormon women’s body issues different from those of non-Mormon women?
I think that Mormon women deal with all the same body issues that non-Mormon women do, but I think that we have added layers of complexity. We are taught that our body is a gift from God, that it is made in the image of an embodied God and that we will have our body for eternity. We are taught that our body is a temple and told to take care of it as such. We are taught that we must keep men from feeling aroused when they look at us, that even a shoulder is too tempting for men to see. We are taught that we must be attractive but not too attractive or we will cause men to lust after us. We are seen as little more than the roles of wife and mother (even as young teenagers) rather than being seen as individuals. We are taught our greatest worth is in the capability of our body to have children, but not all of us can or want to do that. As a result of all these messages, we are sometimes left feeling very ambivalent about our bodies in a way that other women may not be.
Why did you choose to show these women exactly as they are—wrinkles, stretch marks and all?
We see so few images of women that aren’t idealized, airbrushed and Photoshopped. Most of us do not know what the women around us really look like. I think as a result, we women are especially hard on ourselves. I want women to see that none of us are perfect. We all have flaws. We all have insecurities about our bodies. But we can still celebrate those bodies. We can see the honesty in these images and have more compassion for ourselves.
What sort of effect does the international popularity of the site have on the project?
The website has had over 2.5 million views, but it’s now currently averaging less than a 100,000 a day. The stats go up and down depending on the media coverage, of course. All the international press has been good and bad. It’s good in that more people are seeing and discussing the project. I think any artist hopes for her work to be seen, especially when that work has a particular message and activist goal as this does.
The bad is that people often misunderstand that message or are downright cruel in their comments about the work and the subjects. I avoid the comments sections of articles like the plague, but I know some of my models have read some pretty horrible things being said about them. I have definitely gotten more women volunteering to be photographed, but some the models I’ve already photographed have also freaked out a bit. None of us expected this level of attention.
Do you think a project like this can have an effect within the church? Is art more of a conduit for change than, say, a rally or petition?
I don’t expect this project to make a huge difference in the church as an institution. What I do hope is that on an individual level, it can inspire members of the church to think about modesty and bodies in a new way. It’s a cliché, but change really can come one person at a time. I think that art can be a powerful conduit for change for this very reason. I want my art to be beautiful, but I also want it to be meaningful and honest. I hope that it’s that authenticity that resonates with those who view it.
Do you think there are any ramifications of your project? Or have there been already?
I think this project is very defensible, and I do not expect anyone who has participated to be officially disciplined by church leaders. On more personal levels, I know that some people have had family members disapprove of their participation.
What is the best, most empowering comment you’ve read or received?
I have gotten so many wonderful e-mails from Mormon and non-Mormon women and men. This e-mail probably sums up best why I am doing this project:
“I grew up in Utah and am very much a ‘product’ of the Utah Mormon culture. I was sort of a poster child in my youth—held leadership positions in Young Women’s, attended seminary, happily participated in church activities, dressed modestly; never realizing, however, the negative affect it would have on my sexuality and the intimate relationship with my husband. I have always felt like a pretty girl—thought I had nice hair and a pretty face. But, I never learned to embrace my sexuality, and my body was something to be covered and not celebrated. As a result, I have been extremely uncomfortable in my own skin. My view of what I should be, based on what the culture of the church teaches, who I think I should be, and who I think my husband wants me to be, causes a lot of anxiety and lack of confidence because I haven’t felt like I am ‘being’ anyone of those and disappointing all of them.
“Your work has dramatically helped that insecurity. Seeing these brave women has helped me feel normal and beautiful. I see their bodies and I think, ‘Wow, they are really beautiful.’ Then I realize I look very similar to them. It has been a helpful reflection. Hearing their stories has helped me feel like there is someone that can relate to me. Seeing their confidence, despite all their own imperfections, has boosted mine. I love that they love their bodies. I hope I can learn to love and celebrate mine. I hope to be more confident in my own skin, like these women are in theirs.”