The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls by Joan Jacobs Brumberg
Joan Jacobs Brumberg's book The Body Project follows an array of issues – periods, acne, dieting, piercing, virginity and sexual orientation – from their roots in the 1800s through the Victorian era and into modern society. Brumberg reveals that external control of young females by parents, doctors and societal decorum has weakened (as one would expect). However, young American girls have come to internalize the messages of consumer industry, effectively turning their bodies into "projects." Instead of focusing on their character, young women have been convinced that it is only their outward appearance that matters, and thus the only thing worth grooming. One of Brumberg's most compelling insights is that "the stunning new freedom [from corsets, stays and petticoats] actually implied the need for greater internal control of the body."i In place of corsets, women diet, scrub, pierce and purge to fit societal norms.
Another main focus of The Body Project is the lack of support for young women going through puberty. The age of menarche, or first menstruation, has decreased significantly since 1800. In the early 19th century, menarche typically occurred at 15 or 16, whereas it is more typical today for a girl to start her period at age 11 or 12 (due to medical and nutritional improvements since 1800). However, biological maturity is not necessarily accompanied by psychological and emotional maturity. This is a problem because "our society makes no special effort to help girls deal with the lag between their biological and their intellectual development."ii Instead, young girls are increasingly sexualized by the media and then left to fend for themselves, according to the author. This is apparent in issues of puberty, skin care, dieting, piercing and virginity. As Brumberg so eloquently states, "girlhood is now something of an endangered status."iii Brumberg argues that Victorian society may have been restrictive, but they were superior in their infrastructure to support and protect young women.
The one problem with these sentiments is that Brumberg gets stuck on them. Throughout the book, she becomes a little repetitive in her quest to establish her point.
Ultimately, The Body Project is a strong read that reveals some serious hurdles that young American women face today. The text is supported by the picture gallery in the middle of the book, as well as the many interesting facts interspersed throughout the book. Below are a few of these facts.
- Many people actually believed that blemishes were telltale signs of masturbation in the 19th centuryiv
- Dermatology, the modern science of skin disease, actually developed from the field of syphilology, the study of venereal diseasev
- In the early 20th century, doctors promoted rectal exams instead of vaginal exams for unmarried women in order to avoid tearing the hymenvi
iBrumberg, Joan J. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls . New York: Vintage Books, 1997. 98.