The Stifling of the Body Electric

The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls
by Joan Jacobs Brumberg
Random House, 1997
$13 (paperback)


In 1892, an adolescent girl confided to her diary: "Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversations and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others." Nearly a century later, in 1982, a young girl writes her New Year's resolution: "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."

In any historical period, girls' adolescence is filled with confusion and insecurities. Queen Victoria worried constantly that her hands were too large. But in The Body Project, Cornell University professor Joan Jacobs Brumberg argues that female adolescence is a tougher journey in the twentieth century. Even worse, grown women are doing less to help girls through it.

The Body Project is a compelling history of girls' adolescence from the Victorian period to the present. Brumberg tackles a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, including girls' diaries spanning the century. Because of better health and nutrition, she says, girls today reach menarche earlier than in the Victorian period. (In the late-1800s, girls began menstruating around age fifteen; today, many girls have their first period at twelve.) Girls, while still children, are thrust into twentieth-century adolescence. These children are soaked in images of sexy, wafer-thin women produced by a marketplace that highlights (and creates) adolescent body insecurity in order to pinch teens' pocket money. This happens while these girls receive less attention from the grown women in their lives.

No wonder many young girls come to the conclusion that their bodies and sexualities are their most important projects. In the Victorian age, this simply wasn't the case. Victorian culture emphasized spirituality and character. And although the era was sexist and unfair, the Victorians recognized a girl's adolescence as something to be protected and watched over. This, argues Brumberg, is something we could learn from the Victorians.

Brumberg's history takes us topic by topic through an image of a girl's body. She begins with the history of menstruation and then moves on to the story of our fixation with perfect, unblemished skin. She unravels the historical progression of girls' body projects in the last 100 years, and untangles America's approach to a girl's virginity. Brumberg leads the reader to invaluable insights. For example: instead of being about the transition to womanhood, Brumberg says that menarche in the twentieth century is a girl's first introduction to the adolescent marketplace. In some African societies, a girl's first period demands celebration, but in the United States most mothers take their daughters to the supermarket to introduce them to their brand of tampons.

What's more, Brumberg says that the advances of the women's movement are ambiguous for adolescent girls. Wonderfully, girls today have a multitude of educational and career opportunities from which to choose. But despite these choices, twentieth-century girls spend most of their energy sculpting their bodies and developing their sexuality. Sexuality and the body, not achievement or character, become the basis for identity. And let's face it, even the most "perfect" women have trouble accepting their bodies. For many of us, our bodies are our albatrosses.

By writing this book, Brumberg hopes to start a dialogue. She wants us to find ways to give girls time for transition from menarche to womanhood. She urges readers, and especially women of all ages, to become involved in the lives of adolescent girls. And she wants to begin talking about creating ethical guidelines to help girls decide when to become sexually active. (An example: "Responsibility means not having kids unless you are prepared to support them emotionally and economically.") The book is short on solutions. But that is no reason to avoid The Body Project. It's an important addition to the history of women. By understanding the past, we illuminate the path into the present; adolescent girls wait for us to help them find the way.

Amy Timberlake has an M.A. in English and a B.A. in history. She's written reviews for The Pioneer Press, Hip Mama and Children's Literature. A reader, writer, and bookseller, Amy lives in Chicago with her husband Phil.

Reprinted, with permission, from New Moon Network: The Magazine for Adults Who Care About Girls; Copyright New Moon Publishing, Duluth, MN. Subscriptions $25.00/6 issues. (800) 381-4743.

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