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Tucson Weekly Body Language

According to historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg, American girls are in crisis.

By Tonya Janes

JANUARY 26, 1998: 

The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, by Joan Jacobs Brumberg (Random House). Cloth, $25.

IT'S POSSIBLE YOU'VE seen them preening before mirrors with their diminutive friends, exposing metal in their bellies and trinkets galore on their faces. If you're like me, you wonder: What's happened to make these young women so accessory-savvy, so absolutely focused on displaying their changing bodies to the world? Visit any mall and try to get past the doors of those barrette and earring places on a Saturday afternoon. Or check out your hip local coffee shop and hear them jingle as they sip their lattes and mochas. A few girls sport low-slung, oversized jeans, exposed tummies with belly-button rings, and form-fitting, babydoll t-shirts. Is it the caffeine that keeps them so slim?

In my day, the goofy late seventies, we experimented with earrings. The convention was two, maybe three--and various ways of curling the hair around the face. The braver souls tried on satin gym shorts, Danskin leotards with skirts, and Candies mules for that--gasp!--disco effect. If there were girls who starved themselves, they didn't talk about it. If our bodies grew too large and cumbersome, we hid them quietly. If we had sexual relations with our peers, only our best friends knew about it. Nobody wanted to be confused with a slut.

Joan Jacobs Brumberg's new book, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, is an inspiring, eloquent survey of the societal and psychological changes that have effectively molded and shaped young girls during the past hundred years. Her insight into Victorian culture and the succeeding eras--citing historical sources, unpublished diaries of adolescent girls and photographs--tells of a history that's crucial to us all: American girls are in crisis. And it's not just a temporary, teen-angst kind of thing.

In her previous award-winning work, Fasting Girls: A History of Anorexia Nervosa, Brumberg explained that the category of "girl" had all but disappeared. Because the term was distasteful to feminists and childhood had withered in the face of increasing precocious behavior among the young, "girl" evoked negative connotations of a disempowered woman. In opposition, Brumberg asked that girls be restored to the feminist research agenda and for researchers to consider the impact of popular culture on girls' collective behavior and sense of self.

Mary Pipher's best-selling Reviving Ophelia responded in a wise and timely manner by asking why more girls are in therapy in the nineties, why there are more cases of anorexia, bulimia, self-mutilation and "cutting," and how, at the onset of puberty, girls "crash into junk culture" fueled by all the pain and pathology of adolescence.

Now, with The Body Project, we have a way of viewing the young female body as history in a well-researched, lively study of our century. Envisioning her book as a female "body," she outlines a series of biological events beginning with menarche, or first menstruation, and moving through the changing experience of female maturation chapter by chapter. Surprisingly, we learn that girls today become sexually active at about the same time their Victorian sisters first began to menstruate. Young women are now maturing more rapidly than ever before, yet their minds and emotional responses are still essentially childlike. Clearly, this is a dilemma.

Brumberg sees the body as a kind of "message board" that girls manipulate fiercely in their attempts to keep current with the demands of popular culture. Slim, bob-haired women of the twenties spelled out liberation from Victorian constraints; pointy-braed sweater girls of the fifties begged for movie star status; today's piercings, according to Brumberg, signify sexual liberalism and erode distinctions between the public and private with the merging of commercialism--Gautier, Madonna, some super models--and exhibitionism.

The problem with adolescent exhibitionism, she notes, is that it confuses the issue of intimacy and further blurs what is personal, all at a time when sexual identity originates. "Although we may not want to admit it, the current craze for body piercing follows logically from the pared-down, segmented, increasingly exposed, part-by-part orientation toward the female body that has emerged over the course of the twentieth century. In fact, in a culture where everything is 'up close and personal,' it should not surprise us that some young women today regard the entire body, even its most private parts, as a message board."

Though some may disagree with her analyses, Brumberg's historical approach is often humorous and guided by a mature, thoughtful stance. She is especially critical of our corporate culture, a world that understands too well how to coerce adolescent wills and weaken their self-esteem by implying that their bodies are too fat, imperfect, impure, acne-ridden, smelly, geeky, and so on.

Instead of nurturing and protecting early-maturing girls, we've allowed the media and marketplace access to the souls of precarious young women. "From an historian's perspective, our timing has been off: As a society we discarded the Victorian moral umbrella over girls before we agreed upon useful strategies and programs--a kind of 'social Gore Tex'--to help them stay dry. We live now with the consequences."

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