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Note: Due to the nature of this topic, I have opted to not embed or attach any photos to this document. If anyone wants to look up any of the images I am including issue and page number information for ease of reference.

In their book Reading National Geographic, University of Chicago Press, 1993, Catherine A. Lutz (an Anthropologist) and Jane L. Collins (a Sociologist) emphasized the importance of photography and diminished that of the articles. These “readers” are, at most, reading the captions. To examine the making of the magazine the authors interviewed photographers, editors, and readers. Every picture tells a story and the authors did not like the story it was telling.

The authors saw the Society as reinforcing a belief system of a linear progression in the world. This same system spanned many different, but parallel trains of thought. From evolution to religion the pattern was repeated over and over again. Primitive to modern; fourth world to third world to first world; savage to civilized; rural to urban; heathen to Christian; and black to brown to white, all are presented, “like a diorama” showing inevitable progress.

The authors used several metrics to examine a sizable sample of the photographs from the magazines. These included group size, portraiture, the smile, ritual, juxtaposition of native and Western, and nudity among others. It is the last metric I will be discussing, particularly the female nude since male nudity was kept to a “bare” minimum. As the authors wrote in a section on editing:

“Alteration of photos at National Geographic has a history, however, that predates computer technologies. Airbrushing to remove blemishes and scars has long been observed. Sometimes the goal has been modesty or propriety. Haraway describes a case where baboon urine was discreetly removed from a windowsill and from the wall below it in a photo for an article on primates. Proofs from a 1966 article on the Nuba of the Sudan reveal a number of instructions to the printer, including “even up flesh color,” “delete scar,” and “delete” (referring to men’s penises – five were “deleted” in the course of the article). When loincloth did not provide quite enough coverage for the magazine’s standards of modesty, “shorts to be added by engraver” was penciled in the margins. And Buckley reports a case in which the skin color of partially naked Polynesian woman was darkened in order to render her nudity more acceptable to American audiences. Melvin Payne, president of the National Geographic Society at the time, explained: “We darkened her down, to make her more native – more valid, you might say.””

In a section entitled “The Naked Black Women” the authors say this about race as shown in the photographs:

“Nothing defines the National Geographic for most older American readers more than the “naked” women. The widely shared cultural experience of viewing women’s bodies in the magazine draws on and acculturates the audience’s ideas about race, gender, and sexuality, with the marked subcategory in each case being black, female, and unrepressed. This volatile trio will be examined in greater detail later. For now, it is enough to point out that the magazine’s nudity forms a central part of the image of the non-West that it purveys. [Of the 235 sample photographs containing women, 11 percent showed women in what, to most Western eyes, would be some degree of undress, the great majority showing breasts.]

The first inclusion of a bare-breasted woman in the pages of the Geographic occurred in 1896, and was accompanied then, as now, by shameless editorial explanation. The pictures, Gilbert Grosvenor said in 1903, were included in the interest of science; to exclude them would have been to give an incomplete or misleading picture of how the people really live. This scientific goal is seen as the sole purpose of these photos, with the National Geographic Society taking, according to one observer, “vehement exception to comments about the sexual attraction or eroticism of the photographs”. The breast represents both the struggle against “prudery” and the pursuit of truth rather than pleasure. The centrality of the race-gender code to decisions about whose breast to depict cannot be denied, however. With some very recent exceptions (photographed discretely from behind), none of the hundreds of women whose breasts were photographed in the magazine were white-skinned. The struggle against prudery did not lead to documentation of the coming of nude sunbathing to Mediterranean beaches, and we recall the case of the photo of a bare-breasted Polynesian woman whose skin tones had been darkened in the production process. Moreover, genitals are rarely photographed, even where full nudity is customary. In the November 1962 issue a very young Vietnamese girl, bare-bottomed and facing the camera, had her vulva airbrushed (p. 739).

The imputation of erotic qualities or even sexual license to non-Westerners (particularly women) is one likely result of National Geographic presentation of there bodies for close examination. In addition, the nakedness of the Geographic’s subjects might be seen as continuous with the nude as a perennial theme in Western “fine arts.” While some of these women are posed for surveillance and resemble the mug shot more than the oil canvas, many are rendered through pose and lighting so as to suggest artfulness. In Western cultural rhetoric, women are beautiful objects. Their photographs in the magazine can play a central role in allowing the art of photography to exist silently beneath the scientific agenda and thereby increase readership and further legitimate the Geographic’s project as one of both beauty and truth. All of this elaborate structure of signification, however, is built on a foundation of racial and gender subordination: in this context, one must first be black and female to do this kind of symbolic labor.

Later, in a section entitled “Women and Their Breasts” they go on to say:

“The “nude” woman sits, stands, or lounges at the salient center of National Geographic photography of the non-Western world. Until the phenomenal growth of mass circulation pornography in the 1960s, the magazine was known as the only mass culture venue where Americans could see women’s breasts. Part of the folklore of Euramerican men, stories about secret perusals of the magazine emerge time after time in our conversations with male National Geographic readers. People vary in how they portray the personal or cultural meaning, or both, of this nakedness, some noting it was an aid to masturbation, others claiming it failed to have the erotic quality they expected. When white men tell these stories about covertly viewing black women’s bodies, they are clearly not recounting a story about a simple encounter with the facts of human anatomy or customs; they are (perhaps unsuspectingly) confessing a highly charged – but socially approved – experience in the dangerous territory of projected, forbidden desire and guilt. Such stories also exist (in a more charged, ironic mode) in popular culture of African Americans – for example, in Richard Pryor’s characterization, in his comedy routines, of National Geographic as the black man’s Playboy.

The racial distribution of female nudity in the magazine conforms, in pernicious ways, to Euramarican myths about black women’s sexuality. Lack of modesty in dress places black women closer to nature. Given the pervasive tendency to interpret skin color as a marker of evolutionary progress, it is assumed that white women have acquired modesty along with other characteristics of civilization. Black women remain backward on this scale, not conscious of the embarrassment they should feel at their nakedness. Their very ease unclothed stigmatizes them.”

In a section entitled “Paradise and the Black Narcissus: The National Geographic’s Pacific” the authors discuss several regions but especially Micronesia first as U.S. trusteeships and later as “new democracies”:

“Micronesia has been covered as a region twice in the period we are examining, first in 1967 and again in 1986. Comparison of the photographs in these two articles reveals some dramatic contrasts and even more striking parallels in the narrative content and style of the pictures. These emphasize the “toplessness” of its women, the exoticism of its dancers, the romance of its navigators, and the juxtaposition of things native and things modern or Western, including the artifactual remnants of World War II.

The most important of these four narrative threads is the first: the woman with breasts. The opening two pages of both articles include a full-page shot of a teenage, topless woman in indigenous dress, taken from the knees up, nearly full face to the camera. Both pictures are relatively aestheticized, depicting the women in soft light with blurred backgrounds, emphasizing sensuality. Additional topless women arrear in each article, though many more in 1967. While the National Geographic’s search for the topless woman is by no means limited to the region, articles of the Pacific feature far more toplessness than other areas. Fully thirty-two percent of all pictures in our sample that included at least one woman also included toplessness – more than three times the rate of any other region.

 

In discussing the effects, over time, of commercial photography on the presentation of nudity in the National Geographic the authors wrote:

"In National Geographic documentary images as well, we find a shift, coming some years after that in commercial photography, the naked woman moves from being just an ethnographic fact (“this is the way they dress as they go about living their lives”) to being presented as in part an aesthetic and sexual object. After 1970, naked women are less often shown framed with men, less often mothering, more often dancing or lounging. The erotic connotations of the horizontal woman, drawn on by advertisers, and of the woman absorbed in dance, combine with more romantic, aesthetic styles to create photos which follow the inflation of sexualized images of women in the culture at large. Contrast the 1986 highly aesthetic photo of a Micronesian teenager, whose direct gaze invites the reader to make contact and whose hazy green background suggests tropical romanticism, with the more clinical 1970 shot of two women buying herbs at a market in Ethiopia. The breasts of the women are clear and central to the photo’s narrative, but focus is also on the twigs being passed between the seller of herbs and one of the women and on the camels in the near background. The picture’s composition and straightforward realism, as well as the informative caption tells us something ethnographic – that is, about something more than women’s beauty or women’s bodies.

One of the photos displayed in the book shows Micronesian women sitting a laying in a manner “reminiscent of Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings”. Later in the section they discuss the juxtaposition of the native and the Western:

“In 1967, technology and commodities stand as America’s most fundamental contribution to Micronesia. Sunglasses, radios, books, even teen culture are an unalloyed boon, as indicated by a two-page spread of a topless girl photographing a loinclad boy next to his shiny red motor scooter. In another photo, teenagers in native dress of lavalava and loincloth use microscopes and pipettes in their classrooms. The bright lighting and smiles seen in these pictures suggest that the threshold to modernity has been crossed. Both worlds – the traditional and the modern – are portrayed as valuable.

This juxtaposition is touched on several more times. A photo of a tourist and two South American Indians in native attire appears in the book, and one of the photos shown to readers without captions caused some negative reactions. The photo is of a group of South American teenagers at a “disco”, the boys in jeans and tee shirts the girls topless. The reactions ranged from thinking the girls were slaves to “they should all have clothes on”.

I, for one, am not passing judgment on the National Geographic, just presenting the authors’ case. I will mention, however, that the January 2015 issue does have a nude photo in it. The photo is in an article about Prehistoric Art. A topless woman is applying ocher to another topless woman’s hair. They are both black. Take from that what you will.

The December 2015 has a black mother and daughter bathing at a holy shrine in Haiti.  Finally, in the January 2016 the National Geographic has published its first white breasts.  It is of a Swedish girl swimming in an ice hole.

In spite of an announcement in September of 2015 by 20th Century Fox after the acquisition of the NGM that it would no longer publish photographs of native women 'au natural', the June 2016 issue has a photo of 2 Peruvian women topless by a river bank.

The July 2018 issue has a photo of a Latina mother and child in an herbal bath.  The woman's breasts are covered but one nipple is exposed.

After a twenty-eight month hiatus, and a change in ownership from Fox to Disney,tribal nudity returned to the National Geographic in the October 2018 issue.  Several topless photos appear of Awa tribeswomen in the Brazilian Amazon.

*** Correction ***

While doing research online for another discussion, I came across an article in a Naturalist magazine as well as an online discussion, both with much the same theme as this one.  More interesting is that in the online discussion there was a pointed reference to the fact that in the July 1989 issue of National Geographic there is a topless photograph of Josephine Baker, a black woman from East St. Louis but the only white nudes were only from the back or strategically covered.

I pulled out my copy of this issue to peruse the image and formulate some scathing indictment of the Society over this.  Instead, I found that I owe them an apology.  While that issue does indeed have the image in question on page 174, it also has a photograph on pages 84-85 that has frontal views of topless white women.

While the photos used by Ms. Lutz and Ms. Collins only go up to 1986,  their book was published in 1993, well after this issue was published.  Likewise the article I mentioned in Nude & Natural was published in 1992, after the issue in question.

While it is true that the ratio between dark and light breasts is heavily on the dark side, it is not as exclusive as I previously stated.  My sincere apologies for the mistake.

 

Tom Wilson

Here is the list of photos I promised at the top:

May 1967, Page 702, Girl in native dress performing stick dance

May 1967, Page 716, Girls in school at microscope and blackboard

May 1967, Pages 742-743, Girl photographing boy by bike

Feb. 1970, Pages 190-191, Two women buying herbs at market

Sep. 1971, Pages 312-313, The “darkened” Polynesian woman

Aug. 1982, Page 259, Tourist and natives posing for a photograph

Jan. 1983, Page 72, South American teenagers dancing, girls topless

Oct. 1986, Page 460, Girl in native dress, posing with school books

Oct. 1986, Pages 490-491, Women in Gauguin-like setting

Jul. 1989, Pages 84-85, First occurrence of topless white women

Jul. 1989, Page 174, Josephine Baker performing in Paris

Jan. 2015, Pages 42-43, Woman applying ocher to another woman’s hair

Dec. 2015, Pages 48-49, Mother and daughter bathing in Haiti

Jan. 2016, Pages 52-53, Swedish girl swimming nude

Jun. 2016, Pages 34-35, Two topless Peruvian women by a river bank

Jul. 2018, Page 101, Mother and child in an herbal bath, nipple exposed

Oct. 2018 Pages 8, 43, 45, 52-54, 58 Several topless Amazonian tribeswomen

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Replies to This Discussion

Note: I just added a short reference for the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Note: I just added a short reference for the return of tribal nudity in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Note: I just added a short reference for the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

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