“The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls”

The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls
by Joan Jacobs Brumberg
Random House, $25

The Spice Girls may have a scholarly ally in their call for a new “Girl Power.” In her new book, The Body Project, Cornell University historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg creatively explores how “the experience of living in an adolescent body is always shaped by the historical moment.” She documents that contemporary “body angst” has resulted from girls maturing physically at an earlier age over the past century, with less support from older women and more pressures from popular culture. The author of Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa muses that the adolescent obsession of “the body becoming the central paradigm for the self” began when marriage became a matter of selecting a romantic partner rather than being arranged by parents.

Brumberg has fascinating, interdisciplinary chapters on the history of attitudes and commercial, medical, and familial responses to menstruation, acne, weight control, gynecological exams, and the hymen. (“Just like menstrual rags and corsets, this once hallowed membrane has been consigned to the junk heap of women’s history.”) The book uniquely documents, with family photos and historical advertisements from magazines, how business has relentlessly manipulated adolescent concerns, particularly by developing sanitary and skin-care products marketed directly to teens.

Focusing on middle-class, primarily white, teen girls from the Victorian era to the present, Brumberg relates her own experiences and quotes extensively from diaries, including a few immigrants’ memoirs. Though her references to sexy rock ‘n’ roll lyrics are dated, Brumberg frequently credits her teaching experiences for revelatory contemporary perspectives, such as on body piercing (“‘You don’t see JAPS [Jewish American Princesses] going around wearing nose rings,’ a 16 year old with jewels in her face proclaimed with demonstrable pride.”), and quotes generously from her students’ research and recent unpublished dissertations.

Brumberg gives short shrift to the role of the fashion industry in the 20th century, from the flat-chested flapper look in the 1920’s to 1950’s full-figured lingerie like the “training bra,” though she does see a collusion of doctors with “the nation’s entrepreneurs [to] accommodate, and also encourage, precocious sexuality.” Brumberg is very insightful in showing how the recent popularity of casual dress such as jeans and thong bikinis has led to ever more “body projects” for girls, with the new emphasis on the taut pelvis, sculptured behind, and the fear of having “thunder thighs.” She is saddened at how Title IX, which revolutionized athletic opportunities for girls in schools, has had the ancillary effect of leading to additional sleek and muscular body projects, even if based more on healthy food consumption and exercise. While Brumberg points out how closely sex education is linked to body education, her sympathetic half chapter on contemporary African-American teens and pregnancy is based more on personal and journalistic impressions than the historical context that so informs the rest of the book.

Brumberg sums up the challenges gleaned from a look over the past century: “Girls who do not feel good about themselves need the affirmation of others, and that need, unfortunately, almost always empowers male desire. Girls who hate their bodies do not make good decisions about partners or the kind of sexual activity. . . . They are susceptible to manipulation, to flattery, even to abuse.” A recent nationwide poll of 13-17 year olds quantified Brumberg’s historical analysis: only 39% of girls felt very positive about themselves, compared to 54% of boys, and 38% most frequently cited “my looks” or “my body” as the one thing they would most like to change about themselves, significantly higher than a similar survey four years ago, reported in The New York Times.

Brumberg issues a ringing call for all women to re-take collective responsibility for girls, and to help create “a new sexual ethic in a postvirginal world… a coherent philosophy about what is fair and equitable in the realm of the intimate… [and about what is] pleasurable and responsible [in order] to resist social and commercial pressures.” Too bad such a philosophy does not come wrapped inside each “Spice World” video that pre-teens are buying.