Of Boobs, Babes and the JAMA

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

This post was selected by Dr. Peter Janiszewski, who blogs at Obesity Panacea and Science of Blogging, and is also the Editor of the Health and Medicine segment of Research Blogging to be an Editor’s Selection post. Click on the logo alongside to see the other posts that made it to the front page that day!


I have been an avid reader of the JAMA Online and especially been attracted to thResearchBlogging.orge cover art of every JAMA print issue. For those who do not know, the JAMA is the Journal of the American Medical Association and is one of the most respected medical publications out there. Now, the JAMA used to feature its table of contents on the cover till the 1960s, after which it started to publish various works of art on the cover, along with an essay which described the significance thereof. In my opinion, this formed one of those subtle bridges which traversed the so-called gulf between the sciences and the arts. I have been a long time admirer of this particular aspect of the JAMA. One of the editors of JAMA, Therese Southgate has especially been outstanding as a contributor in this regard. Dr. Southgate has chosen and written about the cover art for a long time. She wrote a compelling defense of the JAMA’s art policy:

“As distant as the two notions—medicine and art—may at first seem, they do share a common goal; the goal of completing what nature has not. Each is an attempt to reach the ideal, to complete what is incomplete, to restore what is lost.” (1)

Now, as big a fan I am of this particular aspect of the JAMA, this post is not about that. It is, rather, about a study in the BMJ, which went in to analyze the contents of the JAMA cover arts. Don’t ask me how I landed on this paper, but I did, and it made awesome reading. Who says scientific studies have to be boring as shit? Definitely not this one!

This paper, Babes and Boobs: Analysis of the JAMA Cover Art was initially submitted by the authors to the JAMA itself as a letter to the editor, where, after 9 months of editorial evaluation and peer review, it was rejected! The authors then had the good sense of sending it to the BMJ, the only British publication with some sense of humor, where it ultimately got published.

Now, in this study, the authors looked at the cover art of 50 consecutive issues of the JAMA, between March 1997 and March 1998 and analyzed the number and nature of the cover art depicting men and women. The author found:

I reviewed 50 consecutive JAMA issues (one year), starting with 19 March 1997. Of these 50 issues, 34 (68%) covers depicted human images; 15 presented female subjects, 13 presented male subjects, and six presented subjects of mixed or unknown sex. Of the 34 covers depicting humans, 25 (74%) presented stereotyped sex images—that is, women were predominantly positioned as “objects” (of desire) and men as (powerful, strong) “subjects.” Five covers portrayed women working in traditional roles such as carers or cleaners and eight presented women with soft or white imagery as virginal, angelic, or sexualised figures. Women were depicted as submissive, with their eyes averted or gazing down, in 13 covers. Men, on the other hand, were depicted almost exclusively in authoritative roles, as religious, scholarly, or military figures, with their eyes directly facing the viewer.

Of the 15 covers depicting women, 12 included babies and six showed nudity. In contrast, only one male image included a child and none contained nudity. In the cover depicting a man with a child, the man is not the child’s father but its doctor. Babes and boobs were featured in 12 of the 50 covers.

Very interesting.

While I do not completely agree with the author’s contention that the depiction of stereotypes sexual roles in the cover art has deeper and more sinister implications, I definitely do agree with him on the count that there maybe a chance of misconstruing the true portent of these artistic representations. The JAMA has been a great advocate for women’s health and women’s rights and has been at the forefront in the revolution to advocate the abolition of the gender difference in the medical profession.

This study elicited some really strong reactions from the rapid reviewers and a particularly scathing commentary was also published (2) as a follow up. I totally agree with Showalter when he argues that the very definition of “stereotyped sexual images” is contentious and the study does appear to he hypercritical about exhibiting its disapproval of the handling of the images concerned. Showalter further argues, with good logic, that images depicting people like Plato and Aristotle as authoritarian figures are more historically accurate rather than sexually stereotyped.

In another rapid response, Dr. Bevan tears apart the study citing several very scientific logical conclusions:

  • Uncontrolled study
  • No comparison made to the pool from which the cover art is selected
  • Contravention to basic rules (I prefer conventional) of statistics

He goes on to conclude in a may-hell-fire-be-unleashed-on-thou mode:

Its publication gratuitously insults an editor and writer whose eye for the lesser-known work of more or less well-known artists is an example of genuine meeting of art and medicine, the subject of much wishful thinking in the BMJ. Read the essays Dr Southgate writes inside the covers: with economy and style she provides information and perception that outwit many published art writers. The cover image and the essay should be read together, since the latter often addresses iconography and other context including the well-known gendering of images in western art: a bias which women artists such as Cindy Sherman have been successful in understanding, explicating and subverting. Their intellectual engagement, however, goes deeper than trivialising depictions of Madonna and Child as “babes and boobs”.

Whoa. Take a chill pill! I guess he missed the point about the study being published as part of the Christmas issue of BMJ, a widely enjoyed and acclaimed light reading for the end of the year. Maybe bordering on flippant, but nothing as intense as gratuitously insulting an editor and author whose eye for the fine arts is a matter of envy indeed.

Anyways. Without delving into the whys and the wherefores of the conclusions, simply because there are ample scientific flaws to make it sound like spoof, I just wanted to appreciate the idea behind the construction of the research question. While one may appreciate the fact that this does not ostensibly add great wisdom to the store of collective human intelligence, it does show that there can be a research question, waiting to be unearthed in every nook and cranny. The novelty of this research (to say nothing of the fact that the title says BOOBS!) is what attracted me to the topic in the first place.

As an amateur researcher, who dabbled a bit in medical student research, I have always had much trouble describing a research question to pursue. I have had the drive, the enthusiasm, but often, lacked the direction. And I am sure I was not the only one. This study is an example to all people who suffered from this what-is-the-research-question syndrome, to look where no one has looked ever before and come back with a question which not only leads to a humorous read, but also a wonderful exercise in analysis and retrospection!


1. The art of JAMA. Science News Update. 1996 Oct 30.

2. Showalter E. Commentary: An inconclusive study. BMJ. 1999 Dec 18-25;319(7225):1604-5.

Study in Focus:

Clark JP (1999). Babes and boobs? analysis of JAMA cover art. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 319 (7225), 1603-4 PMID: 10600956

4 thoughts on “Of Boobs, Babes and the JAMA

Debates and Discussions...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.