Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (1997)

By: Joan Jacobs Brumberg

Genre: Non-Fiction, Women and Gender Studies, Social Commentary, History

In this book, Brumberg examines the one hundred years of history between 1895 and 1995, and how society’s attitude has changed toward young women. She asks the question, even though we are now free of corsets and have more rights, do we really have it any better than our Victorian ancestors? To answer this, she cites passages from diaries of teenage girls dating back to the 1800s, research, and anecdotes from her own experiences as a teen and a professor.

One of her first claims is that girls didn’t focus on their body image until the 1920s. Before that, during the Victorian era, they focused mostly on being a good person and less upon their looks. “They almost always focused on the internal character and how it was reflected in outward behavior.” (p. xxi) Brumberg cites this as one of the major differences between girls of that era and girls of today – who believe the shape of their bodies and their appearance is what primarily reflects their individuality. Brumberg believes that this is due to changes in attitudes toward the developing female body, both medically and socially, it being especially influenced by media, advertising and fashion.

In some instances I’m sure this is very true, and the evidence she gives supporting her claims as to the medical attitudes seems to hold up well. However, she also blames the commercialization of sanitary napkins and tampons of ushering young girls into consumer culture too quickly. She says this is because when girls begin to menstruate, their mothers introduce them to a specific brand, and henceforth, they continue to buy that brand. I don’t see the logic in that. When I first went through menarche I grabbed what was handy. I may have since developed a brand loyalty, because certain products work better for me, but none were ever pushed on me as a developing teen.

Another issue Brumberg has that I don’t understand is the commercial treatment of acne. Maybe this is because I still live in an era where acne is considered gross and unattractive, but if it can be treated, I don’t see the problem with doing so. I had terrible acne as a teen, and I still battle it in my mid-twenties. It’s not fun, and I use both a commercial face-wash (that happens to work very well, thank you) and a prescribed cream from my doctor. I get that she feels the ads are are hurting their self-esteem by telling young teens that acne makes them less desirable. Having acne in general hurts the self-esteem, especially when you get picked on for it by your school mates. As Brumberg proved in her history of acne, it has always been an undesirable thing, linked to syphilis and being dirty, and a negative attitude about it still exists today. Maybe she could suggest a way to change attitudes toward acne?

As other reviewers have stated, it is problematic that Brumberg only really focused on the white, middle class population of young women during her research. There is one small mention of a black girl, and very little exploration into the differences in attitude between African American culture and White culture on the topic of young female bodies. There is no mention of Hispanic or Asian views on the topic either, just straight white middle class culture.

I also didn’t like how she worded her beginning to her chapter on sexuality. She makes it seem like homosexuality/lesbianism is a choice – which wasn’t apparent in the rest of the chapter, but still irked me. I don’t think she meant it to come off as it did, but I’ve never met a gay person who “chose” to be that way, and I found it an offensive implication. She also linked homosexuality with the practice of S&M – which is something that many heterosexual couples also practice.

Lastly, she blames the over-sexualization of little girls for a rise in pedophilia. I don’t necessarily buy that. I’m sure it doesn’t help the issue, don’t get me wrong, I’m not for the sexualizing of young girls. I just feel like pedophilia didn’t seem to exist to Brumberg until relatively recently, when it has been around for ages, just not as fully looked into as it is today. Child abuse wasn’t even really considered a serious crime until the 1960s, and before that, sex of any kind was considered shameful to talk about. Children could have been abused physically, sexually, or emotionally and felt it wasn’t something they could talk about – and if they did, no one else would think it was wrong. They may not have even had the words to describe it, as Victorian girls didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss their own bodies. Also, if sexualization of little girls is solely to blame for pedophilia, what about the ones that prefer little boys? I don’t mean to be disturbing or dwell on a nasty topic, but the fact is that some like little girls and some like little boys, and I don’t feel that young boys are as sexualized as girls are.

I did like the historical aspects of the book, however. I find history in general very interesting, but women’s history is even more so. I learned from this book that having excessive acne in the Victorian era made people think you had a lot of sex or masturbated frequently. I also learned that gynecology was developed in the late 1800s, but its first major use was checking to see if a girl was still a virgin. Also, doctors felt that rectal exams were less invasive than vaginal ones. Another interesting thing I learned was that when tampons were invented, the general public believed them to be little more than dildos that women would use to masturbate. There is much more, but these four things are what I remember most.

I also like Brumberg’s thought of bringing back the Victorian idea of girl’s groups, where young ladies could meet each other and be mentored by older girls/women. I think I benefitted greatly by having strong female role models in my life, and now, especially when we live in such a fast-paced society, girls probably need the guidance more than ever. We live in a time where some parents have to work really long hours and don’t always have as much time to spend with their children – many kids end up being raised by a television set, and the media definitely does have a poisonous effect on body image. Being able to talk about these concerns with someone older who has dealt with the same issues would greatly help young girls develop healthier attitudes toward their bodies.

Overall, while the book is worth the read, it is a bit outdated, and some of Brumberg’s opinions didn’t make a lot of sense to me. The best aspects of the book to me were the parts that dealt solely with the historic beliefs, facts and laws. I also liked the diary excerpts, even if the sampling was only from one small portion of our society. Brumberg does have some good ideas, but some of her beliefs are a little far-fetched for me, making them hard to follow and/or agree with. I think the book could have been researched and edited a little more, based on more evidence and less conjecture from the author, but it is still an informative read. 


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