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The Body Project

The Body as Evidence

At the close of the twentieth century, the female body poses an enormous problem for American girls, and it does so because of the culture in which we live. The process of sexual maturation is more difficult for girls today than it was a century ago because of a set of historical changes that have resulted in a peculiar mismatch between girls' biology and today's culture. Although girls now mature sexually earlier than ever before, contemporary American society provides fewer social protections for them, a situation that leaves them unsupported in their development and extremely vulnerable to the excesses of popular culture and to pressure from peer groups. But the current body problem is not just an external issue resulting from a lack of societal vigilance or adult support; it has also become an internal, psychological problem: girls today make the body into an all-consuming project in ways young women of the past did not.

A century ago, American women were lacing themselves into corsets and teaching their adolescent daughters to do the same; today's teens shop for thong bikinis on their own, and their middle-class mothers are likely to be uninvolved until the credit card bill arrives in the mail. These contrasting images might suggest a great deal of progress, but American girls at the end of the twentieth century actually suffer from body problems more pervasive and more dangerous than the constraints implied by the corset. Historical forces have made coming of age in a female body a different and more complex experience today than it was a century ago. Although sexual development--the onset of menstruation and the appearance of breasts--occurs in every generation, a girl's experience of these inevitable biological events is shaped by the world in which she lives, so much so, that each generation, at its own point in history, develops its own characteristic body problems and projects. Every girl suffers some kind of adolescent angst about her body; it is the historical moment that defines how she reacts to her changing flesh. From the perspective of history, adolescent self-consciousness is quite persistent, but its level is raised or lowered, like the water level in a pool, by the cultural and social setting.

Back in the 1830s, Victoria, the future queen of England, became intensely self-conscious about her body at the age of fifteen and sixteen, and although her first menstrual period was never announced officially, it was generally known that Victoria crossed the threshold into womanhood at about that time. At age eighteen, before she became queen, Victoria expressed general dissatisfaction with her looks. She mused over her hair, which was getting too dark; her hands, which she considered ugly; and her eyebrows, which she thought so inadequate that she considered shaving them off in order to encourage their growth. She also made awkward attempts to disguise her physical flaws: she tried covering up her stubby fingers with rings, but then found she had difficulty wearing gloves, which were obligatory for someone of her status. Some of Victoria's self-consciousness was a response to the attention she received as a future monarch. But it also had to do with the biological changes of adolescence, changes that breed both awkwardness and awe. The American poet Lucy Larcom, who tended looms in the textile mills of nineteenth-century New England, lived a life vastly different from Victoria's, but she, too, became "morbidly self-critical" in adolescence. When her body began to change visibly, her older sisters insisted that she lengthen her skirts and put up her hair--markers of sexual maturation in those days.1

Almost a century later, in the 1920s, the feminist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir ruminated about her changing body. At fifteen she thought she looked simply "awful." She had acne, her clothes no longer fit, and she had to wrap her breasts in bandages because her favorite beige silk party dress pulled so tightly across her new bosom that it looked "obscene." Later in life, de Beauvoir described adolescence as a "difficult patch."2

Although Margaret Mead's 1928 classic Coming of Age in Samoa suggested that there are cultures where girls do not experience self-consciousness in adolescence or discomfort with their changing bodies, in the United States and in Western Europe they clearly have experienced both for at least a century.3 A matronly queen, a popular poet, and a mature feminist--each left indications that she felt self-conscious in adolescence, as most girls do.

In the nineteenth century, the "growing pains" of adolescence were diminished by society's emphasis on spiritual rather than physical matters. There were rigid standards of decorum that made discussion of the body "impolite." Yet among girls in the middle and upper classes, there was concern about the size of certain body parts, such as the hands, feet, and waist. To be too large or too robust was a sign of indelicacy that suggested lower-class origins and a rough way of life. Even the exalted Victoria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, worried about body size. Victoria's feet were admirable because they were tiny; yet she was warned periodically by her mother against becoming too stout, and she was chided for eating too much. A future queen, after all, was not supposed to look like a husky milkmaid or mill girl, and her body must never imply that she did demanding physical labor.4

Still, there is an important difference between the past and the present when it comes to the level of social support for the adolescent girl's preoccupation with her body. Beauty imperatives for girls in the nineteenth century were kept in check by consideration of moral character and by culturally mandated patterns of emotional denial and repression.5 Nineteenth-century girls often noted in their diaries when they acquired an exciting personal embellishment, such as a hair ribbon or a new dress, but these were not linked to self-worth or personhood in quite the ways they are today. In fact, girls who were preoccupied with their looks were likely to be accused of vanity or self-indulgence. Many parents tried to limit their daughters' interest in superficial things, such as hairdos, dresses, or the size of their waists, because character was considered more important than beauty by both parents and the community. And character was built on attention to self-control, service to others, and belief in God--not on attention to one's own, highly individualistic body project.


Good Works Versus Good Looks

The traditional emphasis on "good works" as opposed to "good looks" meant that the lives of young women in the nineteenth century had a very different orientation from those of girls today. This difference is reflected in the tone of their personal diaries, a source I use extensively to tell the story of how the American girl's relationship to her body has changed over the past century. Before World War I, girls rarely mentioned their bodies in terms of strategies for self-improvement or struggles for personal identity. Becoming a better person meant paying less attention to the self, giving more assistance to others, and putting more effort into instructive reading or lessons at school. When girls in the nineteenth century thought about ways to improve themselves, they almost always focused on their internal character and how it was reflected in outward behavior. In 1892, the personal agenda of an adolescent diarist read: "Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self restrained in conversation and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others."6

A century later, in the 1990s, American girls think very differently. In a New Year's resolution written in 1982, a girl wrote: "I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can with the help of my budget and baby-sitting money. I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories."7 This concise declaration clearly captures how girls feel about themselves in the contemporary world. Like many adults in American society, girls today are concerned with the shape and appearance of their bodies as a primary expression of their individual identity.

At the end of the twentieth century, the body is regarded as something to be managed and maintained, usually through expenditures on clothes and personal grooming items, with special attention to exterior surfaces--skin, hair, and contours. In adolescent girls' private diaries and journals, the body is a consistent preoccupation, second only to peer relationships. "I'm so fat. [Hence] I'm so ugly," is as common a comment today as are classic adolescent ruminations about whether Jennifer is a true friend, or if Scott likes Amy.

In my role as a teacher of women's history and women's studies at Cornell University, I have heard variations of this kind of "body talk" for almost two decades. It usually takes the form of offhand comments, but it recently surfaced in a seminar discussion about the health of women and girls in the nineteenth century. Clad in a variety of comfortable clothes, ranging from leggings and jeans to baggy sweaters and dresses, my students deplored the corset and lamented the constraints Victorian society imposed on women. Clearly, they considered themselves much better off than the young women who had braved public criticism to study at Cornell a century earlier.

Then the conversation drifted to the present, and somehow we ended up talking about a current body project that I had known little about. My students told me how they remove pubic hair in order to wear the newest, most minimal bikinis. As we talked, a few uttered a disapproving "No way" or "Ouch," but others felt compelled to offer a rationale for this delicate procedure. "It's necessary," they said, "so you can feel confident at the beach." Although they admitted that male ogling made them nervous, they also regarded the ability to display their bodies as a sign of women's liberation, a mark of progress, and a basic American right. Madonna was mentioned as a model: she keeps her body absolutely hairless, my students assured me, and she retains a highly paid, personal cosmetologist to do the job.

These young women were bright enough to gain admission to an Ivy League university, and they enjoyed educational opportunities unknown to earlier generations. But they also felt a need to strictly police their bodies. I was intrigued by both their discreet euphemism for genitalia--"bikini-line area"--and their willingness to add yet another body concern to the already substantial litany of adolescent anxieties: hair, pimples, thighs. We talked some more, and I offered my perspective as a historian and feminist, but also as a grandmother. Life in the world of the microbikini is obviously different from life in the world of the corset, I argued, but there are still constraints and difficulties, perhaps even greater ones. Today, unlike in the Victorian era, commercial interests play directly to the body angst of young girls, a marketing strategy that results in enormous revenues for manufacturers of skin and hair products as well as diet foods.8 Although elevated body angst is a great boost to corporate profits, it saps the creativity of girls and threatens their mental and physical health. Progress for women is obviously filled with ambiguities.

What makes the situation today especially urgent, however, is that the problem begins so early in life, when the female body first begins to gear up for reproduction. Puberty begins earlier today, which means that girls must cope with menstruation and other aspects of physical maturation at a younger age, when they are really still children emotionally. Until puberty, girls really are the stronger sex in terms of standard measures of physical and mental health: they are hardier, less likely to injure themselves, and more competent in social relations. But as soon as the body begins to change, a girl's advantage starts to evaporate. At that point, more and more girls begin to suffer bouts of clinical depression. The explanation of this sex difference lies in the frustrations girls feel about the divergence between their dreams for the future and the conventional sex roles implied by their emerging breasts and hips.9

In addition to an increasing risk of depression and suicide attempts, adolescent girls today are more vulnerable than boys of the same age to eating disorders, substance abuse, and dropping out of school. And of course, early childbearing has a greater impact on a girl's life than it has on that of her male sexual partner. The well-known work of Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan is premised on the notion that adolescence is a time of crisis for contemporary girls; so is Reviving Ophelia, a recent best-seller by clinical psychologist Mary Pipher. Gilligan's sensitive studies reveal that between the ages of eleven and sixteen young women lose their confidence and become insecure and self-doubting; Pipher sees adolescence as the time when a girl's self-esteem crumbles.10

The body is at the heart of the crisis of confidence that Gilligan, Pipher, and others describe. By age thirteen, 53 percent of American girls are unhappy with their bodies; by age seventeen, 78 percent are dissatisfied. Although there are some differences across race and class lines, talk about the body and learning how to improve it is a central motif in publications and media aimed at adolescent girls. Seventeen magazine tapped into this well of angst when it ran a headline on a story in the July 1995 issue: "Do You Hate Your Body? How to Stop." The article itself proposed ways to stop the agonizing, but the author also admitted that it was awfully hard to do so in a world where "your body is very, very important."11

Adolescent girls today face the issues girls have always faced--Who am I? Who do I want to be?--but their answers, more than ever before, revolve around the body. The increase in anorexia nervosa and bulimia in the past thirty years suggests that in some cases the body becomes an obsession, leading to recalcitrant eating behaviors that can result in death. But even among girls who never develop full-blown eating disorders, the body is so central to definitions of the self that psychologists sometimes use numerical scores of "body esteem" and "body dissatisfaction" to evaluate a girl's mental health. In the 1990s, tests that ask respondents to indicate levels of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their own thighs or buttocks have become a useful key for unlocking the inner life of many American girls.12

Why is the body still a girl's nemesis? Shouldn't today's sexually liberated girls feel better about themselves than their corseted sisters of a century ago? The historical evidence I present in this book, based on research that includes diaries written by American girls in the years between the 1830s and the 1990s, suggests that although young women today enjoy greater freedom and more options than their counterparts of a century ago, they are also under more pressure, and at greater risk, because of a unique combination of biological and cultural forces that have made the adolescent female body into a template for much of the social change of the twentieth century. I use the body as evidence to show how the mother-daughter connection has loosened, especially with regard to the experience of menstruation and sexuality; how doctors and marketers took over important educational functions that were once the special domain of female relatives and mentors; how scientific medicine, movies, and advertising created a new, more exacting ideal of physical perfection; and how changing standards of intimacy turned virginity into an outmoded ideal. The fact that American girls now make the body their central project is not an accident or a curiosity: it is a symptom of historical changes that are only now beginning to be understood.

Because the body is central to the experience of female adolescence, I also use it as an organizational framework. The Body Project begins with a biological event, menarche, or first menstruation, and moves through a series of chapters that explore the changing experience of female maturation. Ultimately, this is a story about what it means to grow up in a female body, and the ways in which girlhood in America has changed since the nineteenth century. But it also explains how the pressures on young women have accumulated, making girls at the close of the twentieth century more anxious than ever before about their bodies and, therefore, about themselves.

Dear Diary

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 of female 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.

Excerpted from Body Project, The by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. Copyright© 1997 by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The Body Project
by by Joan Jacobs Brumberg

  • paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0679735291
  • ISBN-13: 9780679735298