“Although eating disorders…are not caused by visual images alone, these pathologies thrive in an environment in which so many “normal” people work so hard (and spend so much money) in pursuit of the perfect body.”
Even though it came out almost fifteen years ago, a lot of people I’ve spoken to about this book hadn’t heard of it. So, it seemed appropriate to do a write-up for it and encourage more people to read it, because it’s excellent!
With The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, author and historian Joan Brumberg has pieced together a unique and invaluable historical account of how women and their bodies have been regarded in our country over the last 150 years using a combination of personal journals, medical textbooks, and other historical records.
Imagine being in the market for new clothing or undergarments and not having any standard sizes to reference. Prior to the sexual revolution of the 1920s, there wasn’t really any such thing as we think of it today. Undergarments were usually made by hand at home, and were far more about function than any fashion. As large companies began mass producing both undergarments and clothes, though, industry size standards cropped up to accommodate the emerging market, changing the way we thought about bodies and providing another form of measurement to scrutinize them by.
“As concerns about beauty and disease merged, the pursuit of perfect skin – one of the most common adolescent body projects – was transformed into a legitimate health strategy deserving of adult support, and generating enormous profits for both the cosmetic and drug industries.”
In the Victorian era, medical science and technology were still struggling to understand the intricacies of reproduction and gynecology. In fact, dermatology and gynecology used to be the same field, in part because of the association of acne with “sexual impurity,” and it was believed that severe cases of acne were caused by premarital sex and/or masturbation. Conversely, clear complexions and beauty were associated with things like purity, virtue, and nobility.
I know, that all sounds antiquated and kind of insulting by modern standards. But Brumberg makes an excellent point that appearances and bodies are still used very much to place evaluations on people, it’s just that the values and ideas that are projected onto them have changed. Where beauty and attractiveness once implied desirable internal characteristics, the focus is now much more on the external. Our current society places so much emphasis on molding, shaping, and forcing our bodies into fitting beauty and sexual standards that there isn’t much left over to nurture internal characteristics like compassion, kindness, or honesty – or at the very least, they are placed by our modern consumer culture as a lower priority.
This transition of thought, combined with the misinformation of one’s sexual conduct and acne, turned the desire for a clear complexion into an issue that impacted the entire family. Parents were concerned about the implications of their children’s complexions and took a special interest in having their skin treated, creating a societal pressure to be focused and concerned on external appearances like never before. Family’s that didn’t have much or any disposable income would still somehow find the resources to send their daughters to get their skin treated, because it was believed that their entire future depended on it. In a male-dominated society with Victorian modesty, they believed that a girl with acne wouldn’t find a suitable husband and therefore compromise her chances of having a family herself – an undesirable fate to a culture which regarded marriage and family as the greatest aspiration of womanhood.
The other major component identified by Brumberg that has changed the way women’s bodies are viewed is that of menstruation. Once regarded as the beginning of womanhood and adulthood, it’s evident by the diaries compiled here that mothers and women in general worked hard to prepare girls for the changes their bodies would go through. With the emerging market for hygienic products, though, American consumerism transformed this rite of passage into nothing more than an issue of sanitation.
The change in tone of diaries and medical papers in the mid-twentieth century demonstrate that, even though women were slowly becoming more empowered socially and sexually, there was a parental and maternal disconnect that seemed to grow inversely with that empowerment, until in modern times it seemed as though mothers barely spoke to their daughters about those physical changes until they actually began happening, sometimes to the surprise and horror of young girls who found themselves bleeding inexplicably one day at school.
As a male, I found the book to be rather enlightening because of the very personal nature of the story-telling through journals. To a degree, the impacts to women and the way girls are brought up to think about their bodies through the media, consumerism, and patriarchal attitudes about sex seem self-evident. However, combining so many voices, rounded out with such a thorough historical record, constructs a story that everyone should read, regardless of gender and perhaps especially for those of us who aren’t women.
If you’ve read it before, tell me what you thought of the book! Got any other recommendations?
Side note: Joan Brumberg also has a book charting the history of anorexia, apparently beginning all the way back in the 1600s, which I’m eager to read now. You can find out more about Joan Jacobs Brumberg at her official website.