Friday, October 25, 2013

The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls

1997, 1998 Vintage edition
Joan Jacobs Brumberg
The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls
Original price $13.00, purchase price $4.95
Slightly worn paperback

Using everything from teenaged girls' diaries to doctors' writings to advertising, Brumberg looks at how girls' relationships to their own bodies have changed since the Victorian period.  She observes that puberty has gradually gotten earlier, with menarche often in the mid to late teens 150 years ago, falling and holding steady at roughly ages 9 to 14 since the 1950s.  (And even in the early 1900s, doctors were shockingly ignorant about menstruation.)  This, along with technology and other factors, have changed the nature of female adolescence.  Her main point is that girls now see their bodies as projects to be observed by the world.

This book coming out at the time it did is significant.  Not only is it about six years after The Beauty Myth, but it was a time when tattoos and piercing became more mainstream (although still controversial, more than now I think), and social media was becoming more widespread.  It was a world before "selfies," but girls were already negotiating the conflict of their bodies as themselves in a different way than the 1970s feminist meaning, now both their property and their identity, while coping with the perception that teenaged girls are in a way seen as products to be consumed, at least visually.  Brumberg writes of how her Cornell students saw Victorian corsets as restrictive, but not the "need" for bikini-waxing.

There's a lot to be resolved here, including the role of adult women as mentors, and I didn't feel like Brumberg brought it all together, making even the messiness work, as Susan J. Douglas does.  The whole is not as great as the parts, and I would've rather Brumberg focused more.  The diary excerpts are the best thing of course, quoting both ordinary girls and the likes of Queen Victoria and future First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.

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