Please Stop Sneaking Playboy Images into my Math Textbooks--Signed, a Female Math Student

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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by Allison Cottrell, Summer 2021 Marketing Intern at Macmillan Learning

In my senior year at Grinnell College this past fall, I finished my mathematics major with a course in Numerical Analysis. While I usually felt represented as a female mathematician in my time at the college, I encountered an image in that course’s textbook that made me reconsider how I’d been interacting with my math texts up to that point. 

Now, almost a year later as Marketing Intern for Macmillan Learning, I still think about the image, its placement in that textbook, published in 2006, and its influence on my learning experience. 

I encountered the image when I was almost done with the term. Our final project was to explore a chapter we didn’t cover in class, learn it ourselves, and write an essay telling that chapter’s story. For no particular reason, I chose the chapter on the Discrete Cosine Transform used in image compression. 

I knew nothing about the transform beforehand, and I was proud of myself for being able to tackle the content relatively on my own. I think this was the point of the project--to show us that we now each had the skills to understand content on our own--and the project succeeded in that respect.

But, this chapter also included the image “Lenna,” a photo widely used in image compression. At first glance to me, and I assume most others who encounter the image, it’s just a photo of a woman wearing a feathered hat. 

But, this image has a more complex history. It only started as the image compression standard in 1973 when three men were looking around for a photo to use for a conference paper. So, they turned to a recent edition of Playboy, chose this “Lenna” image from a centerfold, and used it without another thought. (See the image here.)

At the time of first reading the chapter, I didn’t know this. My head was swimming with image compression and matrices and proofs I didn’t quite understand. I took the image, as presented in a text I was told to trust, without question. 

I was able in my paper to choose a different image to demonstrate the algorithm, so I picked an image of my dog. As a surprise to no one, it was not hard to choose an image outside of Playboy. Turns out, there are many other images one can compress, if they care enough to do so. 

My professor sent out an email about the image towards the end of the semester with a reassuring note on inclusivity in science, but the image shouldn’t have been in my textbook. As a student, I could not have learned the needed material in the time and space of that class without encountering that image. Once I knew the history of the image, it changed the way that I experienced the chapter in a distinctly negative way. 

I still learned the chapter, I still wrote my paper, and I was still proud of myself and the writing I produced. But, I could have produced it without this line of research into the Lenna image. Images in texts always matter, whatever the discipline. Context didn’t leave the room when I opened my Numerical Analysis textbook. As a female mathematician, I want the images of women in my math textbooks to be female mathematicians, not images from Playboy.