Leftist commentary from a mouthy bitch
Released in 1997, The Body Project by Joan Jacobs Brumberg was groundbreaking in its conception, a history of girls through the words in their diaries and in interviews with girls and women in the 90s. In one way the fact that this was so ground-breaking is kind of ridiculous, but as any historian can tell you, up until the 70s or so, the concept of writing the history of anyone other than rich dead white guys, the occasional rich dead white woman, and a few “exceptional” POC (in the US) was kind of out there. Since the 60s and 70s there has been a surge in subjects such as African American history, Women’s History, LGBT History, and others.
However, Brumberg falls prey to the most common of historical faults, and that is to try to bend the evidence to her thesis. Brumberg’s thesis is that, as our culture has granted girls and women more freedom in how much of their bodies they can bare, and in their sexuality, that girls and young women have become more obsessed with their bodies. After reading her excerpts, I have to say it seems like young women obsessed just as much back then, they just didn’t have to obsess over so much of the body (hey, if no one ever gets to see your fat thighs, do they really matter?). She complains that while corsets were an external control, dieting is worse because it is internal. Having seen autopsy sketches and early x-rays of consistently corsetted women, I can’t really say dieting is really any worse, except in that it’s available to all class strata of society, and not just those who can afford to corset so tightly as to make work impractical.
In her section on the complexion, she makes it clear that young women were just as obsessed, if not more so, with their complexions in the past, because of the association of blemishes with impurity. Yes, there was a time when not only did you have ugly, gross pimples, but because you did everyone around you assumed you were a slut or a chronic masturbator. This sounds like so much less pressure. (/sarcasm)
Her segment on menstruation also falls sort of flat, in that I think she assumes that Victorian girls weren’t talking about their menstruation talks with their mothers out of a sense of shame, rather than that they weren’t happening. She also seems to be under the misunderstanding that modern teen girls don’t connect menstruation with fertility. Something I, having been a teen girl in the 80s, can tell you is bullshit. Once our periods show up, we all know all to well that we can get knocked up. Something, I think, which will always make sex a far more fraught subject for girls than for boys.
Now, what I DO agree with her about, is that girls are sexualized far younger now than they were in the past, and that this early sexualization leads younger and younger girls to diet each year and to want to be “sexy” to boys. I also agree that we do not adequately prepare our young girls for this onslaught, but I’m going to argue that it has damn little to do with the medicalization of menstruation or skin baring new fashions, and more that we just don’t talk about sex like we should, period. Just because no one talked about rape or pedophilia back in the “good old days” doesn’t mean they didn’t happen because virginity was so “respected.”
I think a better thesis than “sexual liberation is making girls stress out about their bodies” is “sexual liberation is causing girls to stress out about their bodies in DIFFERENT ways than before.” In a history of “beauty” that includes being corsetted until it deforms your internal organs and taking daily doses of arsenic to be pale and wan enough for fashion, I don’t find dieting to the extremes of anorexia all that odd. Not to mention, her sample size for the early diaries skews decidedly upper middle class. Until the 20th century, the literacy rate in the English speaking world was nowhere near what it is today, so even though she uses contemporary accounts from the diaries of lower class girls, she can’t really compare them to her earlier accounts. As much as many would like to deny it, America has ALWAYS had a class system, and in many ways it’s just as inflexible as the monarchies and nobilities of Europe.
So, while I think The Body Project is a worthwhile read, I don’t think it says exactly what Brumberg set out to say. So, read it, but be aware of the limitations. Oh, I also find it hilarious, on page 206, that a historian would think that the Victorians were unaware of the “exigencies of life in a hard-core culture of poverty.” This is the era that gave us the novel Peter Pan as a way to explain to comfortable middle class victorian children that those orphans living in the street would be in a far better place someday, a Neverland of pirates, boy warriors and ticking crocodiles. The Victorians knew all about those “exigencies,” but as long as they weren’t happening to nice, white, upper and upper middle class girls, they didn’t care.