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The Body Project (thoughts)

April 11, 2007

I read The Body Project: an Intimate History of American Girls by Joan Jacobs Brumberg in one night. That’s how fascinating I found it. Through diary entries and historical/sociological analysis, Brumberg explores the experience of puberty by American girls from the Victorian age to mid-1990s (it was published in 1997). The table of contents reads like this: The Body’s New Timetable, Sanitizing Puberty: the American Way to Menstruate, Perfect Skin, Body Projects, The Disappearance of Virginity, and Girl Advocacy Again. That pretty much sums it up. Brumberg writes frankly about everything from Victorian pads to the evolution of the pelvic exam to the various body ideals American girls have striven for. The result is a compulsively readable book that you’ll find yourself wanting to share at the most inappropriate times. For example, did you know that Victorians believed that people got pimples by masturbating?!

While discussing the ‘sexual revolution’ and new sexual freedoms, Brumberg strikes a good balance of opinions. She is not so conservative that she advocates a return to the Victorian obsession with the hymen, but she’s not so liberal to always promote free sex. Instead, she takes a thoughtful look at the tradeoffs between the two, and eventuallly concludes that our society has lost its ability to protects its girls at all. I think that this would be a great women’s book club book. Actually, Brumberg says in her introduction that part of the goal of the book is reopen dialogue between moms and daughters, and older women and girls in general, about such important aspects of female life. A large part of her theme is that puberty has increasingly become the domain of the public (doctors, corporations, etc.) instead of the domain of private families. There is a somewhat annoying anti-consumerist vibe (it comes off a little heavy handed), but it’s not a huge instrusion of the reading experience.

That’s about it. I think that pretty much any girl/woman would be interested in this book. It’s a very fast read and raises some provocative questions.

Favorite PassagesAdult women were the most important part of the protective umbrella that spread over school as well as extracurricular activities. Whether Christian or Jew, black or white, volunteer or professional, most women in this [Victorian] era shared the ethic that older women had a special relationship to the young of their sex. (19)Americans, by contrast, generally have no community rituals of intiation or exclusion. And yet this intimate biological event is marked in our own, distincly American way. A century ago, mothers lengtehned their daughters’ skirts, or allowed them to put up their hair; today, American girls and their mothers characteristically head for the mall, where coming-of-age is acted out in purchases-such as bras, lipsticks, and high heels, or “grown-up” privileges such as ear piercing. (33)

In a world where the HIV virus coexists with the imperative to “do your own thing” sexually, adolescent girls need to think about sexuality, and its related body projects, in ways that are healthy and realistic. More than any other generation, and at an earlier age than ever before, they must learn to handle the emotional and physical risks that are involved in being sexually expressive in a postmodern, postvirginal world.” (143)

The “hands off” attitude of parents and doctors may have been an improvement over the censorious overprotection of earlier times, but it has a negative side in a world where girls’ bodies are, literally, more accessible and also more vulnerable. (185)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Litlove permalink
    April 14, 2007 4:33 pm

    This does sound very fascinating! Oh dear – one more I won’t be able to resist adding to the TBR pile…

  2. Dewey permalink
    August 14, 2007 11:18 pm

    I HAVE to read this! Thanks for the link.


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