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The Body Project: A History of American Girls

September 23rd, 2007 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

“At the close of the twentieth century, the female body poses an enormous problem for American girls, and it does so because of the culture in which we live.”

So opens Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s The Body Project:  An Intimate History of American Girls. What is that problem?

Females tend to hit sexual maturation–experience menarche, that is–around the age of twelve.  One hundred years ago, the average age was between 15 and 16.  But while their bodies mature faster, society provides young girls “fewer social protections for them, a situation that leaves them unsupported in their development and extremely vulnerable to the excesses of popular culture and to pressure from peer groups.”

What’s more, females are obsessed with their bodies in a way that women were not a century ago.  Whereas diaries used to detail the ways in which young ladies wished to grow in virtue and good character, they now articulate the means by which young women strive to make their bodies presentable to society.

Something has clearly changed.  But what, and what is the cause?  Brumberg focuses on the body to understand the changes in American girls in the last century.  Her findings are interesting:

  • The “mother-daughter connection has loosened, especially with regard to the experience of menstruation and sexuality.”  As the economy shifted away from the home and as attitudes toward sexuality became more restrictive (at the end of the 19th century), young women were sent to boarding school and high school without knowledge of their bodies.  This destroyed the intergenerational communities of women where young women were trained in the ways of life.
  • As the raising of daughters was outsourced, groups designed to keep young women chaste arose–the Girl Scouts, Campfire Girls, the Young Women’s Christian Organization, etc. all kept young women busy and involved so they wouldn’t think about themselves–or their bodies.  Young women were also taught about sexuality by each other.
  • As mothers ceased educating doctors, they were supplanted by doctors (menarche became about “sanitation”) and marketers, who began to see an opportunity to make money offering new porducts.
  • Medicine, movies, and advertising created a new standard of physical perfection for young women to attain.  This began with a campaign against acne, which outdated science thought was a result of sexual activity (even into the 1950s!).
  • Changing standards of intimacy “turned virginity into an outmoded ideal.”

These combined to make women view their bodies as “projects” to be completed.  Brumberg doesn’t pine away for the past–she acknowledges the deficiencies of Victorian standards of morality with respect to sexuality and women. But she also is explicit in her appreciation of the Victorian support and care for the young woman, arguing that young women need the adult assistance and support that their Victorian predecessors enjoyed.

The problems that Brumberg highlights–an overemphasis on physical appearances, the lack of social support for virtue, the dangers of overly permissive approaches to sexuality–are not problems for women alone.  They are problems that strike at the core of our culture.

And while Brumberg’s solutions may be insufficient, her social insights are illuminating and need to be understood by those who teach, mentor, and care for young women.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.