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The Body Project – An Intimate History of American Girls

The main point of the book is to not only display issues that are so relevant today in women’s lives, but more importantly date back to where it began and how it all unfolded. This book proves how much roles of women and their bodies have transformed; some for the better and some for the worse. In basically chronological order, Brumberg proves to America that is not just media (although this is one dangerous cause) that can be reasoning for the loss of innocence in woman, but there are deeper, less obvious reasons for the transformation in women’s lives from the 19th century through the 20th century.

Her main argument that she constantly is trying to prove is that adolescents need protection from the dangers society and life presents. Because their bodies are maturing earlier, does not mean that they are mentally prepared for adulthood. With all of the aspects of adulthood arising earlier and earlier girls are feeling the pressures in many different areas of their body and life choices.

Different decades present different obsessions, however girls wanting to improve their life and body is not a new phenomenon, it has always existed in some way or another. The difference through the decades, however, shows a serious incline in the persistent dangers that arise through time.

Chapter one begins the history of how adolescent girls started to become less sheltered and more susceptible to risks. The chapter argues that girls in the 19th century menstruated at a later age then most girls do today. She states that this is due to biological factors, in that today girls are larger and healthier then they used to be, and there is less disease in the world.

Brumberg found that after the civil war women’s role in society was expanding and it left the public wondering if women could handle all aspects of their lives. For example, one quote I found that would probably be comical to present day readers stated, “Can women do intellectual work, menstruate, and also remain healthy?” . It may seem funny for girls today to hear such a sexist comment, however, menarche in this time period was not something that society took lightly.

If adolescent girls in the 19th century menstruated at an early age it was looked down upon and said to be bad or associated with illness. However, with the turn of the century it was no longer held a negative connotation, and it was recognized as something all women go through. Now, there was a different concern presented. Women were expanding their roles, menstruation was being considered as a lead way into woman hood, and society felt that their duty was to protect the innocence.

Popular single-sex groups formed to support the “protective umbrella” theory, and women of all ages and cultures were coming together to care for not only their own children, but all girls. By the 20th century Brumberg found that menstruation was no longer a concern of society but the effects of it would be the beginning of all the problems that exist even today.

The fact that menstruation is even today a little secretive, I believe that Brumberg did a great job in finding out the emotional aspect girls go through by taking a look into their personal lives. And what better way to get in touch with adolescent girls, both past and present, then to enter their most trusted friend, their diary? The way the author presents material from primary sources and non-fictional characters, helps the reader feel connected to the information being presented.

The first concern that followed to curiosity period of menstruation was shown in chapter 2 of the book. The chapter begins by describing how menarche moved to a hygiene concern from a girl losing their innocence one. In the early 20th century the rise of sanitary napkins became what many refer to as one aspect of the American way to menstruate.

Purchasing sanitary napkins was sometimes seen as a luxury, but all girls wanted to have them because society and doctors portrayed it as necessary for personal hygiene. Doctors were becoming more active in teachings about the female body, and now mothers were just assistance rather than main informants to their daughters. In the 1920’s menstruation became a much more open subject, especially with ads for sanitary napkins being shown in popular magazines.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s programs were being offered, free of charge, to give instruction and information on the process of menstruation. Videos were being produced and shown in a single-sex setting, and now menarche was an open and important subject for adolescent girls. With all of this being produced, shown, and talked about, girls were faced with more pressure than ever before to get their body under control.

Today, menstruation is talked about much more than it has been in the past but Brumberg argues that the way we discuss this process is through the discussion of hygiene over anything else. She feels that we should be concerned with the emotions behind reaching puberty, rather than just which brand of sanitary napkins we are going to chose at the store.

I have never thought of the fact that we do truly discuss “getting our period” in a hygienic way. It just seems so natural for our generation, that we forget to truly stop and look at what our body and minds are actually going through. In this chapter Brumberg continued to use diaries, but she also presented different point of views from doctors, both past and present.

This is a very important source of information, considering that menstruation is a biological process and has always concerned the involvement of doctors. The fact that in the early 20th century menarche became on obsession with hygiene, this would be only the first of adolescent girl’s obsession with their entire body.

As the title reveals, Brumberg teaches the readers of all of the different body projects that girls have gone through throughout the years of the 20th century. Chapter 3 discussed the first one which was perfecting her skin. As many people know during puberty everyone’s bodies change, and this sometimes leads to a problem known as acne. Having good skin was always a concern, even in the Victorian age; however, beauty mostly lied within until the 20th century.

Although it was no longer associated with disease, or promiscuous sexual behavior, acne caused problems in adolescent girls (and boys) with the rise of mirrors. Girls started to become obsessed with perfecting their face, and extremely self conscious of their looks. To society, acne was a sign of poverty and uncleanliness, and families along with adolescent girls were willing to go to any extent to better their appearance. Doctors and culture in the 1930’s and 1940’s associated acne with mental illness which was a positive thing for the cosmetic and drug industry. Acne and the desire to have perfect skin left American girls vulnerable and in danger.

Girls were now willing to try anything, even if it was harmful, to improve the chance of clearing their unwanted blemishes. I agreed with Brumberg on most of her issues concerning the first body project presented to American girls. However, one may counter argue that even in the Victorian age it is hard to state that beauty truly lied within. I personally believe that external beauty has always been a concern to young women; it is just now more evident with the ever growing popularity of media.

Brumberg believes that today we are in a much worse place than girls of the Victorian age, however although many things have changed, I believe that girls obsession with the way they look has always been an evident problem. Just the fact that there were never mirrors, does not prove girls did not worry about their appearance, or that men really judged a girl just on her inner beauty. Corsets, which Brumberg introduces in the beginning of the book, were one example of how women in the 19th century did in fact try to perfect their bodies to the best of their ability.

Source by Gillian Smyth

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