Synopses & Reviews
"Timely and sympathetic . . . a work of impassioned advocacy." --People
A hundred years ago, women were lacing themselves into corsets and teaching their daughters to do the same. The ideal of the day, however, was inner beauty: a focus on good deeds and a pure heart. Today American women have more social choices and personal freedom than ever before. But fifty-three percent of our girls are dissatisfied with their bodies by the age of thirteen, and many begin a pattern of weight obsession and dieting as early as eight or nine. Why?
In The Body Project, historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg answers this question, drawing on diary excerpts and media images from 1830 to the present. Tracing girls' attitudes toward topics ranging from breast size and menstruation to hair, clothing, and cosmetics, she exposes the shift from the Victorian concern with inner beauty to our modern focus on outward appearance--in particular, the desire to be model-thin and sexy. Compassionate, insightful, and gracefully written, The Body Project explores the gains and losses adolescent girls have inherited since they shed the corset and the ideal of virginity for a new world of sexual freedom and consumerism--a world in which the body is their primary project.
"Joan Brumberg's book offers us an insightful and entertaining history behind the destructive mantra of the '90s--'I hate my body!'" --Katie Couric
"Timely and sympathetic... a work of impassioned advocacy." People
"Joan Brumberg's book offers us an insightful and entertaining history behind the destructive mantra of the '90s 'I hate my body!'" Katie Couric
"Brumberg doesn't just revive Ophelia she drags her into the ladies' room to quiz her on her preferred method of sanitary protection. She's kind of an academic Judy Blume." Entertainment Weekly
"Brumberg concludes with a call for women to participate actively in girls' coming of age.... perhaps, as a beginning, women and girls should read this fine book together." Peggy Orenstein, The New York Times Book Review
"A brief but moving picture of how adolescent girls may have jumped from the frying pan of Victorian constraint into the fire of an era in which anything goes, as long as you don't have thunder thighs." Kirkus Reviews
“A charming and compelling writer [...] deliciously smart [...] A loud, disturbing, eloquent, and crucial rallying cry against the concept of a "post-feminist" world.”
“There's a certain twisted pleasure to be had from revisiting some of the wild and wonderful things that men (and women, too) have believed in the past about women's incapacity for education and employment.”
Girls behave badly. If they're not obscenity-shouting, drink-swigging ladettes, they're narcissistic, living dolls floating around in a cloud of self-obsession, far too busy twerking to care. And this is news.
In this witty and wonderful book, Carol Dyhouse shows that where there's a social scandal or a wave of moral outrage, you can bet a girl is to blame. Whether it be stories of 'brazen flappers' staying out and up all night in the 1920s, inappropriate places for Mars bars in the 1960s or Courtney Love's mere existence in the 1990s, bad girls have been a mass-media staple for more than a century. And yet, despite the continued obsession with their perceived faults and blatant disobedience, girls are infinitely better off today than they were a century ago.
This is the story of the challenges and opportunities faced by young women growing up in the swirl of the twentieth century, and the pop-hysteria that continues to accompany their progress.
Since the suffrage movement, young women’s actions have been analyzed and decried exhaustively by mass media. Each new bad behavior—bobbing one’s hair, protesting politics, drinking, swearing, or twerking, among other things—is held up as yet another example of moral decline in women. Without fail, any departure from the socially dictated persona of the angelic, passive woman gets slapped with the label of “bad girl.”
Social historian Carol Dyhouse studies this phenomenon in Girl Trouble, an expansive account of its realities throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Dyhouse looks closely at interviews, news pieces, and articles to show the clear perpetuation of this trend and the very real effects that it has had—and continues to have—on the girlhood experience. She brilliantly demonstrates the value of feminism and other liberating cultural shifts and their necessity in expanding girls’ aspirations and opportunities in spite of the controversy that has accompanied these freedoms.
Girl Trouble is the dynamic story of the challenges and opportunities faced by young women growing up in the swirl of the twentieth century and the vocal critics who continue to scrutinize their progress.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 215-250) and index.
About the Author
The author of Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa
, Joan Jacobs Brumberg is a Stephen H. Weiss Professor at Cornell University, where she holds a unique appointment teaching in the fields of history, human development, and women's studies. Her research and sensitive writing about American women and girls have been recognized by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony. She lives in Ithaca, New York.
Awards Brumberg has received include the Berkshire Book Prize for the best book by a woman historian, given by the Berkshire Women's History Conference (1988); the John Hope Franklin Prize for the best book in American Studies, given by the American Studies Association (1989); the Eileen Basker Memorial Prize for the best book in the area of gender and mental health, given by the Society for Medical Anthropology (1989); and the Watson Davis Prize for the best book in translating ideas for the public, given by the History of Science Society (1989).
Table of Contents
1. White slavery and the seduction of innocents
2. Unwomanly types: New Women, revolting daughters and rebel girls
3. Brazen flappers, bright young things and 'Miss Modern'
4. Good-time girls, baby dolls and teenage brides
5. Coming of age in the 1960s: beat girls and dolly birds
6. Taking liberties: panic over permissiveness and women's liberation
7. Body anxieties, depressives, ladettes and living dolls: what happened to girl power?
8. Looking back
Reading Group Guide
1. What does Brumberg mean when she says that there is a mismatch between biology and culture in the lives of contemporary American girls? How is the declining age of menarche related to this mismatch? What role does girls' emotional and intellectual development play?
2. For most American girls, menarche is now a hygienic crisis rather than a maturational event. How have medicine and commerce transformed the menstruation experience? How does Brumberg explain this phenomenon? Why were Victorian mothers so silent about menstruation?
3. What does the change from corsets to dieting and aerobics tell us about the changing nature of American girls' "body projects"? Does the change from external to internal controls mean that girls are more autonomous and less vulnerable today? Given the impact of the post-1960s women's movement, do you find this situation ironic? Do adults as well as girls in the late twentieth century believe that the body is perfectible?
4. Are all American girls equally preoccupied with "the body project"? What evidence does Brumberg provide that there may be social class and ethnic differences in ideals for beauty?
5. How does Brumberg use girls' diaries from the past one hundred years to illustrate the change in girls' focus from "good works" to "good looks"? What aspects of girls' diaries have not changed over the years? What kind of information do diaries provide that is not available in other places? Why are diaries valuable as an historical resource?
6. Before the advent of mass media, girls saw themselves and the world differently. What technological developments in the twentieth century have increased their opportunities for self-scrutiny? Today, many women suffer from "bad body fever," a continuous internal critique of one's own body and body parts. Can you provide examples from your own life and/or the lives of women and girls you know? How does this kind of thinking affect your day-to-day life? How might it change with age? Is there an effective way to counter this kind of thinking?
7. When girls go through puberty they gain body fat, particularly in the breast and hip area, while maturing boys gain muscle. Why are adolescent girls today often so unhappy with their changing bodies? Why do girls view a normal developmental process as a problem, while boys believe that this same process makes them more attractive? What conclusions can we draw about a culture in which adult women seek to restore their body to its prepubescent shape?
8. Brumberg notes that our society is sexually permissive and yet, while sex permeates the culture, we are conflicted about how to approach sex education and discuss sexual ethics. How sexually permissive is American society today? What messages do contemporary adolescents receive about sex from parents, peers, schools, media, and religious institutions? How have attitudes toward virginity in our culture changed in the past hundred years?
9. Brumberg notes that "Girls who do not feel good about themselves need the affirmation of others, and that need, unfortunately, almost always empowers male desire" [p. 212]. In what ways does the preoccupation with appearance empower male desire? She suggests that adults need to help girls develop sexual ethics for the post-virginal age. How would you help adolescent girls to develop their values about sexual behavior? What guidelines would you give girls about when to have sex? Does a double standard still exist for boys and girls? How are the risks different or similar for boys and girls?
10. Put yourself in the place of a mother of a twelve-year-old girl and imagine that you want to share the ideas in this book. What pieces of information do you think would be most helpful for your daughter to know? How could you use your own experiences as an adolescent to begin a dialogue with your daughter? What would you tell her about the differences between growing up today and when you grew up?
11. Brumberg recommends that we put the emphasis on what female bodies can do, rather than what they look like. Where do we draw the line between healthy and unhealthy attention to appearance? How can we confront and counter the messages girls receive about the importance of good looks? Do we need to explicitly discuss our values about appearance and beauty or is it enough to emphasize other aspects of girls' lives, such as athletic, musical, artistic, and intellectual abilities?
12. According to Brumberg, "At the close of the twentieth century, the female body poses an enormous problem for American girls. . . because of the culture in which we live" [p. xvii]. How did forces outside the family become so influential? How can families regain their central role in educating and advising daughters about puberty and sexuality, while acknowledging the influence of modern medicine, consumer products, and the media?
13. Brumberg encourages a new era of advocacy for girls, yet some would argue that focusing on the special needs of girls puts them at risk for discrimination. Girls need equal rights, some people maintain, not protection. Do girls in our culture need more protection and guidance than boys? Why or why not? What are the risks in protecting girls? What is to be gained? What is the difference between protection and girl advocacy as Brumberg describes it? Why is this an important distinction? What forms should advocacy take?
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading and discussion of Joan Jacobs Brumberg's The Body Project. We hope they will give you a number of interesting angles from which to approach Brumberg's provocative historical analysis of the experience of growing up in a female body during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in America.