Saturday, November 12, 2011

Joan Jacobs Brumberg--The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (1997)

This book is the result of Brumberg’s analysis of the diaries of adolescent girls between the 1830s and the 1990s.  Her focus is on how the relationship between girls and their bodies have changed over this time; while she identifies common themes of girls concern over their bodies (menstruation, skin, body shape and weight, and sexuality and virginity), the sweeping scope of her study allows her to see how attention to these common themes has changed over this 160-year period. 
According to Blumberg, “although young women today enjoy greater freedom and more options than their counterparts of a century ago, they are also under more pressure, and at greater risk, because of a unique combination of biological and cultural forces that have made the adolescent female body into a template for much of the social change of the twentieth century” (xxv).  A primary theme of her work is that the decline of external control for girls during this period—both literal controls such as girdles and sanitary napkin belts as well as more cultural controls, such as hymen inspection and required chaperonage—has led to a requirement of more internal controls on the part of girls—dieting, individual opportunity and responsibility for sexual behavior—which we have failed to give support and direction to girls. 
Brumberg briefly makes note of the existence of more structured support for girls at the beginning of the twentieth century through groups such as Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.  She suggests that a more thorough investigation of these groups and their effects on the development of girls is called for.  I’m curious to compare Brumberg’s findings with those of Kathryn R. Kent’s 2002 Making Girls into Women: American Women’s Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity.  As Brumberg calls for more direct guidance to be provided for girls as they attempt to navigate a highly sexualized culture, I’m curious to see if there are any places of intersection or overlap with Kent’s work.
For my project, there isn’t a lot that speaks directly to the concept of ugliness, though there is a tantalizing quote from a fifteen-year-old Margaret Fuller about her acne which I’m interested in following up on: “Both [my parents] were very much mortified to see the fineness of my complexion destroyed….[and] my own vanity was for a time severely wounded but I recovered and made up my mind to be bright and ugly” (quoted in Brumberg 64).  Margaret Fuller’s characterization of herself as “bright and ugly” is intriguing here—is this an acceptance of her inability to participate in the economy of heterosexual romance, and an acknowledgment that alternatives exist?

No comments:

Post a Comment