The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girlsby Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Joan Jacobs Brumburg
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A hundred years ago, women were lacing themselves into corsets and teaching their daughters to do the same. The ideal of the day, however, was inner beauty: a focus on good deeds and a pure heart. Today American women have more social choices and personal freedom than ever before. But 53 percent of our girls are dissatisfied with their bodies by the age of 13, and many begin a pattern of weight obsession and dieting as early as eight or nine. Why? In The Body Project, historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg answers this question, drawing on diary excerpts and media images from 1830 to the present. Tracing girls' attitudes toward topics ranging from breast size and menstruation to hair, clothing, and cosmetics, she exposes the shift from the Victorian concern with inner beauty to our modern focus on outward appearance in particular, the desire to be model-thin and sexy. Compassionate, insightful, and gracefully written, The Body Project explores the gains and losses adolescent girls have inherited since they shed the corset and the ideal of virginity for a new world of sexual freedom and consumerism a world in which the body is their primary project.|
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What was it like to develop breasts or begin your periods a century ago? Did these biological events occur at the same age in the Victorian era? Have American girls always regarded the body as their most important project? In pursuit of answers to questions like these, I culled girls' diaries, particularly old ones, which are remarkably similar to the diaries many of us have written and stored away at the bottom of dresser drawers or in attic trunks. Unfortunately, I threw my own diary away in my early twenties, in a moment of "emotional housekeeping," but I still remember the way that red leatherette volume--with its tiny lock and key--harbored my innermost secrets and private obsessions.
I found girls' diaries everywhere. I found them in libraries and archives, but I also acquired them from friends, from students, and from lecture audiences--people who were more than willing to dig them out and dust them off. When I advertised my research interest in girls' diaries in The New York Times in 1982, I received many useful and fascinating responses, including one from a New York City sanitation worker who sent me a diary he had rescued from a garbage can.13 Although many people regard the literary remains of ordinary girls as silly or worthless, this man intuited that a small beat-up diary might contain private ruminations with a great deal to say about the experience of life as a female adolescent.
Throughout this book I intermingle my own voice as a historian with girls' voices drawn from their personal diaries. And because diaries reveal so much about the heart of being a girl, I use them whenever possible to provide entry into the hidden history offemale adolescents' experience, especially the experience of the body. Unlike samplers, which died out with the decline of young women's sewing and embroidering, adolescent diaries persist, providing generations of girls with a way to express and explore their lives and feelings. Old diaries are a national treasure, providing a window into the day-to-day routines of family, school, and community. They also recapture the familiar cadences of adolescent emotional life, and they provide authentic testimony to what girls in the past considered noteworthy, amusing, and sad, and what they could or would not talk about.14
As emotionally intimate as diaries can be, more often than not girl diarists have been silent on the subject of their own changing bodies. A century ago, menarche was a private affair, and girls handled the first sign of menstrual blood with enormous reserve. Some Victorian adolescents made brief comments in their diaries about being "unwell," or they repeated a pattern of cryptic marks, such as X's, every twenty-eight or thirty days; but most said nothing at all. In the early 1890s, Lou Henry, a fifteen-year-old high school girl in Pasadena, California, who would later become Mrs. Herbert Hoover, noted in her diary that her mother made her stay home on the lounge all day, and that she was excused from gym "for reasons best known to myself."15 This sparse commentary suggested that Mrs. Henry limited Lou's activities during her periods, and that her school made allowances for girls on those special days. But this was all that nice middle-class girls, the kind who kept diaries, ever really said about their physical transition into womanhood.
Similarly, little was said about intimacies with young men. Consider Antha Warren, a young woman who taught school in St. Albans, Vermont, in the late 1860s. When she was in her late teens, Antha "kept company" with Henry Munsell, who fought in the Civil War when he was only eighteen and brought back dental skills learned in a military hospital. Whenever the couple kissed, Antha put an asterisk (*) in her diary, and since Henry came to call at least four or five nights a week, these symbols mounted up. "Too many * to count," she wrote one evening with some satisfaction. Antha's tone suggested that she took pleasure from her growing intimacy with the young dentist (whom she married in 1870), and that the couple may have done more than just kiss. Yet she always wrote about these interactions in a coded way, either because she feared that her diary might be read by others or--more likely--because she did not have the vocabulary to describe what happened: "After tea H[enry] and I went into the parlor, shut the door, and had a visit; he tried to sleep in my lap but couldn't. Had such a good time--[here she drew some squiggles] buttons."16
Antha's squiggly lines and her reference to buttons certainly piqued my curiosity. Did Henry simply play with her buttons and pine for the time when they would be married? Or did he unbutton Antha's dress and engage in what would come to be called, in the 1920s, petting? Until the twentieth century, most adolescent diarists were as reticent as Antha Warren and Lou Henry. Sexuality was generally restrained (if not secretive) among the middle-class girls who kept diaries. And even if they had the inclination to write about their changing bodies, it was hard to find the right words to express what was happening.
Even in more recent times, most diarists are not as forthright as Anne Frank, who, you may remember, called menstruation a "sweet secret"--despite its "pain and unpleasantness." In 1956, when I first read Anne's account of menstruation, I was twelve years old and I was thrilled by her honesty. What I did not know then was that her father, Otto Frank, a man born in the nineteenth century, was so uncomfortable with her commentary on the body that he had those lines edited out of the 1947 Dutch version of the diary. Otto Frank and his editors thought it was unnecessary, if not unseemly, to speak of such things.17
From a historical perspective, the great deluge of explicit "girl talk" about the body and sexuality is a relatively recent American phenomenon. As language about sex and the body has changed, so have the body projects of different generations of American girls. As you will see in the chapters ahead, by the 1920s young women were mentioning (with some delight) intimate interactions with boys at parties, in cars, and at the movies. They also began to write about their efforts to develop sexual allure through clothing and cosmetics, and, for the first time, they tried "slimming," a new body project tied to the scientific discovery of the calorie. The dieters and sexual players of the 1920s were generally girls in middle to late adolescence who were finishing high school or heading off to college and jobs in the business world--not young teenagers, as they are today.
By the 1950s, younger girls--those who filled the hallways and classrooms of postwar junior high schools--regularly mentioned their changing bodies and initial sexual adventures. At school and in scout troops, girls in early adolescence were now prepared systematically for menstruation, and this education meant that they knew the anatomical names of their own body parts. "Robin put a wetted piece of toilet paper in Cathy's vagina," a twelve-year-old reported with authority in her description of playing "doctor" at a weekend pajama party in Queens. Because full, pointed breasts were the beauty ideal in the 1950s, girls of this generation wrote wistfully about classmates with larger chests, and their envy led to a rash of commercial breast-development projects that now seem hilarious. Most of all, postwar diarists obsessed about particular boys, and they filled endless pages with the logistics of their first kiss, cast in melodramatic language picked up from films and romance magazines. "His lips were on mine, hard and pressing and insistent, making my head fall back," wrote an earnest fourteen-year-old about that special moment when she and her boyfriend waited for a bus after a dance at the Holy Name School in Brookline, Massachusetts. "I never knew a kiss would be like that," she said. "I grew up tonight. Now I am a woman."18
By the 1980s, American girls were writing less romantic, but more graphic, accounts of their initiation into heterosexual and lesbian relationships. Although some girls were almost clinical in their reporting, others still used colloquialisms for body parts. "He wanted me to put my hands on his Beewa," wrote a sixteen-year-old who attended Catholic high school in Michigan, and "when I did he told me I made him happy." A new level of frankness in the popular media, plus more exposure of the body itself, had an effect on girls and the nature of their body projects. Dieting became pervasive, exercise became more demanding, and some young women even began to pierce intimate body parts as a way of making dramatic statements about themselves. By the 1990s, adolescent sexuality had become a routine part of public discourse. "My boyfriend and I have been going out for four months, and we've been doing some stuff," a sixteen-year-old wrote candidly to the editor at Seventeen. "We kissed and he put his finger inside me." From a historical perspective, this behavior was probably not new, but having young women talk about it in public was revolutionary.19
The way different generations talk about their bodies and about sexuality is an important theme in this story. As a society, we certainly are more open about many aspects of our sexual lives than we were fifty or even twenty-five years ago. Today's "shock talk" on radio and television obviously provides a way for many Americans, young and old, to taste a wide range of sexual behaviors that used to be hidden and taboo. Advertising and films also show us body parts--often beyond the "bikini-line area"--that past generations rarely saw and probably never worried about. And yet, despite this national preoccupation with sex and the body, there is still a deeply embedded cultural reluctance, even in supposedly "enlightened" circles, to talk honestly or openly about certain aspects of the female body. My own blushing face and halting speech whenever a professional colleague asked me about the subject of my research symbolized the problem: it is hard to talk out loud about menstruation, pimples, or hymens without feeling just a twinge of embarrassment, much like a fourteen-year-old. In the course of writing this book, I came to understand that, in talking about their bodies, women still struggle to find a vocabulary that does not rely on Victorian euphemisms, medical nomenclature, or misogynistic slang. Ironically, we live with a legacy of reticence even in this time of disclosure.
For this reason, I have an ambitious goal for this book: The Body Project is intended to provoke the kind of intergenerational conversation about female bodies that most adult women like myself have wished for but never really had. The chapters ahead were designed to ignite memories about those awkward years and to foster conversation among mothers and daughters, women teachers and students, friends and colleagues. These memories will stimulate laughter as well as concern, but both reactions are appropriate. Adolescence is a time of volatility and exuberance, but it is also a time when many young people make forays into dangerous social and personal territory. As you read about the maturational experiences of young women in the past, I am sure that you will recognize yourself and the ways in which "girls will be girls." You will also see that something critical has happened to girls and their bodies that requires us to confront the differences between the world we have lost and the one we now inhabit.
Over a century ago, in the 1870s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton--a tireless crusader for the rights of women--began talking about the importance of girls' bodies, in a lecture entitled "Our Girls." She gave this lecture in cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest, but also in small towns throughout Ohio, Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri. By this time, Stanton was a matronly, gray-haired grandmother in her sixties who felt comfortable speaking out against corsets, cosmetics, and tight, high-heeled boots because of the dangers they represented for the physical development of young girls. Although Stanton was clearly interested in improving the overall health of American women, robust, energetic bodies were never an end in themselves for her. "God has given you minds, dear girls, as well as bodies," she reminded her audiences, which often included mothers with adolescent daughters in tow. Instead of pandering to fashion, Stanton advocated loose clothes in adolescence, vigorous exercise, and real intellectual challenges. "I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives but as nouns," she pronounced pointedly, in a manner characteristic of her lifelong struggle to make women independent, rational actors rather than decorative objects tied to the whims and fortunes of men.20
The book that you are about to read echoes themes in Elizabeth Cady Stanton's popular lecture, and it is rooted in her idea that girls' bodies mirror American cultural values. The Body Project is both a story of the Victorian past and a guide to the future. As history, it argues that the body projects now absorbing our girls are a symptom of deep changes in twentieth-century life, changes that have taken a toll on American girls in ways no one could have anticipated in 1900. Understanding what has happened historically to girls' bodies and to their relationships with those who surround them--especially their mothers, teachers, and physicians--provides the first step in crafting an effective, progressive response to a predicament that already threatens the prospects of young women who will come of age in the twenty-first century.
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Meet the Author
The author of Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, Joan Jacobs Brumberg is a Stephen H. Weiss Professor at Cornell University, where she holds a unique appointment teaching in the fields of history, human development, and women's studies. Her research and sensitive writing about American women and girls have been recognized by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony. She lives in Ithaca, New York.
Awards Brumberg has received include the Berkshire Book Prize for the best book by a woman historian, given by the Berkshire Women's History Conference (1988); the John Hope Franklin Prize for the best book in American Studies, given by the American Studies Association (1989); the Eileen Basker Memorial Prize for the best book in the area of gender and mental health, given by the Society for Medical Anthropology (1989); and the Watson Davis Prize for the best book in translating ideas for the public, given by the History of Science Society (1989).
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