Sunday, May 5, 2013

#22 (2013/CBR5) "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls" by Joan Jacobs Brumberg

The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (1997) by Cornell University Professor Joan Jacobs Brumberg is one of the books that popped up as recommended for me on Amazon one day. It looked pretty interesting, so I put it on my wish list, thinking I'd get around to it eventually. I finally did, and it was not what I expected. In fact, I found it to be a fairly tedious and frustrating reading experience--although the last couple of chapters picked up a bit. To be fair, this book was published in 1997, over fifteen years ago. Even giving allowance for the passage of time, however, most of Brumberg's conclusions were not supported. Her argument was hard to follow because she wrote vaguely about sexual ethics and identity without specificity or definition. Instead of finding and writing about information that could make a practical difference, it felt like Brumberg took her various topics of research and shoehorned them into a book.

I was intrigued by Brumberg's introduction. She used young women's diaries throughout history to explain that back in the 1890's women didn't write in their diaries about how they wanted to improve their bodies, but instead how they wanted to improve their character: "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.'" While today girls are worried about their looks, their clothes, their weight, etc. Adolescent girls deal with a significant drop in self esteem as they try to figure out who they are with numerous pressures from peers and advertising. Brumberg argued that this is made worse because girls get their periods earlier, are sexualized earlier, and have less protections than in the past.

I eagerly started reading and immediately got bogged down in a long discussion of menstruation throughout history that took two full chapters. I will be relieved if I never have to read or use the word "menarche" ever again. Brumberg discussed how women went from learning (or not learning) about periods from their mothers and using homemade rags to girls learning about periods and the reproductive system in school and using commercialized "feminine hygiene" products. This information was fine, although not very interesting. Getting my period was not a particularly meaningful experience for me. I knew what was going on with my body, and I had some uncomfortable days getting used to tampons/forgetting pads, etc. However, it was not a life changing experience. Brumberg seems to think the move from making our own rags and being in complete ignorance of how our bodies worked to using Kotex was the beginning of the end.

I agree that commercialization in general is pretty negative--constantly dousing us with unrealistic expectations and exploiting our insecurities to sell products, but this isn't what Brumberg discussed.  In fact, I just read over her concluding pages and it's difficult to even summarize: "The surrender of a life event such as menarche to the sanitary products industry probably contributed in some measure to the difficulties we face today...In preparing girls for menarche, we still tend to emphasize selecting a sanitary product rather than the meaning or the responsibility that menstruation implies...However, we know...that young women want meaningful exchanges about female sexuality...For girls in the twentieth century, this reorientation toward the visual, or the outside of the body, has only intensified the difficulties of being an adolescent." (54-55) Argh, just reading this over, I get frustrated. "We know that young women want meaningful exchanges about female sexuality"??? First of all, how do we know that? Do we want that with out parents, because I certainly didn't. What is a meaningful exchange about female sexuality? How would that help? And how is using commercially made, disposable tampons a "reorientation toward the outside of the body." I don't see any problem with society coming up with better ways to be comfortable during our periods.

The book continues on in the same vein with chapters on skin care, body projects, and virginity. Although the book got a little more interesting once the subject turned to sex, I continued to have the same problems with Brumberg's argument. Women still cared about their skin and their bodies in the past, it's just that what we cared about and expectations have changed. Queen Victoria worried that her hands weren't dainty enough, and skin has always been an issue with women. In Jane Austen's time, women were judged on money, beauty, and character, probably in that order. It isn't anything new.

What is frustrating, is this could have been a fascinating subject. From all accounts (including mine), adolescent girls have a hard time of it. Commercialization and consumerism messes with people's heads, especially ones still struggling with finding their own identity. There is pressure for girls to have sex before they are emotionally mature enough to understand what they really want. Instead of learning to accept ourselves and our bodies, there is rampant plastic surgery as well as drastic medical conditions such as anorexia and bulimia. But Brumberg doesn't really dig into any of these issues or give any practical solutions. She mentions in passing that girls in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany are much better off than those in the United States because of open, honest programs of sex education, yet her answer to all of our problems is "a code of personal ethics that helps them make sense of their own emotions, as well as the social pressures that are part of the postvirginal world."

I would not recommend this book. The best part was the section in the middle full of historical pictures and advertisements of women throughout the years. There is a picture of a "sanitary apron" made of white rubberized cloth. I have no idea how a sanitary apron works, but it was something I'd never seen before and could not figure out. The other, unofficial theme of this book is the stupidity of [some] doctors throughout history. Doctors said that women shouldn't get higher education because it forces blood from the ovaries (women's most important organ) to the brain, causing late menstruation. Doctors also said that masturbation caused acne. And what I found most amusing, is that in the early 1900's, Doctors recommended doing rectal instead of vaginal exams on virgins in order to avoid stretching the hymen. Can you imagine going into the doctor because of heavy periods and they offer to look up your ass? How is that going to help?

One more random complaint: In discussing Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret (1970), Brumberg writes, "My students realized that this was not sophisticated literature, but they were more than willing to suspend that kind of aesthetic judgment..." Yes, because when I was ten years old and reading Judy Blume, my primary concern was reading sophisticated literature.

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