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Desperately Seeking Perfection

THE BODY PROJECT: An Intimate History of American Girls. By Joan Jacobs Brumberg . Random House: 268 pp., $25

September 07, 1997|SUSIE LINFIELD | Susie Linfield is the acting director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University

Five years ago, Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan published "Meeting at the Crossroads," a luminously empathetic study of adolescents at an all-girls private school in Cleveland. The book was profoundly disturbing not because it focused on such well-known "pathologies" as eating disorders or early pregnancies but, rather, because it examined what Gilligan and coauthor Lyn Mikel Brown saw as a widespread process of psychic suicide among ordinary teenage girls--because it viewed female adolescence as the graveyard of the authentic self rather than as the birthplace of adulthood. Two years later, a Nebraska psychologist named Mary Pipher wrote "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls." Pipher's book clearly, and cleverly, zeroed in on a by-now obviously widespread anxiety about adolescent development; as of this writing, "Ophelia" has spent well over two years on the New York Times' national bestseller list.

The latest entry in the girls-in-crisis genre--and one openly indebted to both Gilligan and Pipher--is Joan Jacobs Brumberg's "The Body Project." Unlike her predecessors, Brumberg is a historian (she has taught at Cornell for almost 20 years), and she tackles the current problems of teenage girls through an examination of the development of now-ordinary but once-astonishing products such as bras, tampons, makeup and pimple creams, and of the transformations in attitudes toward female beauty and sexuality that accompanied these inventions. (Surprisingly, though, she largely neglects the history of contraceptives, which have surely changed girls' lives in the last 50 years more than any other "intimate" product.) Why, Brumberg wonders, have adolescent girls become obsessed with achieving perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect bodies at precisely the moment when they have more professional options, more social choices, more freedom than ever before? Why have they replaced restrictive corsets and sexual codes with equally restrictive regimens of obsessive dieting and exercise? What, Brumberg asks, is "the historical process by which women exchanged external controls of the body for internal controls . . . "?

These are fascinating questions, and although Brumberg's answers are ultimately unsatisfactory, the queries themselves take the reader a long way. As long as Brumberg sticks to her history of the ways in which girls' bodies--and the things they put in and on them--have been transformed, "The Body Project" is lucid, highly informative, and entertaining.

If you think, for instance, that a girl's body is simply a manifestation of nature, not culture, Brumberg will set you straight. She notes that as a result of several factors including better nutrition and a decrease in infectious diseases, the average age of menarche (a girl's first period) is now just over 12, whereas in the early 19th century it was 15 or 16. But these days, of course, marriage and motherhood are now often postponed until the 20s, 30s or even 40s, thus creating a decades-long gap between menstruation and childbirth that was virtually unheard of a century ago. In addition, the average age of intercourse has dropped to just under 16, so that a contemporary American girl, Brumberg writes, "is likely to be sexually active before the age at which her great-great-grandmother had even begun to menstruate."

Brumberg discusses the "ovarian determinism" that dominated the 19th century, when "regular" periods were fetishized and yet early menstruation was feared as a manifestation of lust and was associated with nonwhites and the lower classes. Similarly, skin blemishes were linked, in the bourgeois imagination, with immigrants, poverty, workers, dirt, sexual desire and masturbation, and Brumberg charts how, in the late 19th century, everything from the new accessibility of mirrors to the discovery of germs led to the rise of the lucrative skin-care industry. (It should be noted that Brumberg, by her own admission, largely confines herself to studying middle- and upper-middle-class girls; then again, it might well be argued--although Brumberg doesn't--that adolescence is itself a creation of the modern middle class.)

But Brumberg strays into odd territory when she attempts to understand the social meaning of the many changes that she charts. Her analysis rests on several dubious generalizations. She states that, in the 19th century (which she loosely refers to as the Victorian era), "character [for young women] was considered more important than beauty"; that the Victorians did not, in any case, primarily associate beauty with actual physical attributes, but rather with moral and spiritual qualities; that only in our own century did beauty become a matter "more external than internal"; that it is "modern femininity" that has required women to "display" themselves as "a decorative object"; and that modern American girls differ from their predecessors in that their "power" is tied to looks "rather than to character or achievement."

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