June 2004

Veronica Bond

21st Century Fox

Image is Everything

In a world in which brand names are ubiquitous -- you can hardly think of separating the names Coke, Altoids, or even Tampax from their more general terms -- it's unsurprising that the body has become the ultimate way in which to create your own unique brand. What is surprising is how much this branding of the body has consumed the minds of females, starting from the onset of puberty through the rest of their lives. In The Body Project, Joan Jacobs Brumberg labels this concentration as such, each girl turning her body into her own, lifelong project. Through the use of years of personal diaries and historical research on societal values, marketing, consumer trends, and the physical differences between girls then and now, Jacobs Brumberg provides a comprehensive study of how the body became the focal point that it is, and why this project is more than mere teenage vanity.

"Why is the body still a girl's nemesis," Jacobs Brumberg asks. "Shouldn't today's sexually liberated girls feel better about themselves than their corseted sisters of a century ago?" This is the main focus of the author's research, which she presents clearly and goes on to answer in a coherently outlined argument. She posits that the self-consciousness associated with adolescence has always been present, from the 1800s to the 1990s, but in different intensities and varied by cultural settings. Although today's girls are freer and possess greater bodily and sexual options, they are also under a greater amount of pressure and are at a greater risk due to the combined influence of biological and cultural forces that form the female body. The problem is that these forces rarely operate in sync. Jacobs Brumberg credits the decreased age of menarche for being largely responsible for this disconnect. Healthier girls reach physical maturation at a younger age, but there is no increased rate of emotional maturation to meet this and society makes no effort to help girls navigate this gap. Because younger women are less sheltered than they once were, this opens them up for greater risk of psychological and social problems, including substance and sexual abuse.

The strain between mothers and daughters when discussing menstruation has fueled the female obsession with the body. Jacobs Brumberg found that in the nineteenth century, though menstruation may be spoken of, it was only in a factual sense, delivered with the notion that such things ought not be spoken of, nor generally even thought about. It was believed that saying little on the topics of sex and the body worked to preserve a girl's virtue -- as the time between menarche and the age of marriage began to increase in the late 1900s, the suppression of sexuality was considered healthy to both the mind and the body of the adolescent girl. Menstruation, then, was discussed not in terms of internal change or the ability to reproduce, but as an external issue concerned mainly with hygiene. Mothers stressed the importance of keeping clean, avoiding stains, and purchasing the correct products, at which point menstruation becomes firmly entangled with the marketplace as girls usually remain loyal to whatever brand their mother introduced. With no established rituals marking an American girl's first period, the use of sanitary products often ends up being the sole manner by which mothers and daughters discuss menstruation. Jacobs Brumberg does not discredit the use of sanitary products as a means by which to spark discussions on menstruation, but instead finds fault with it being the only topic of discussion. "In a world where the female body is sexualized so early and the stakes are so high," she writes, "it now seems obvious that it is not enough to teach girls how to be clean and dainty."

Sanitary products, in fact, helped dispel the use of the intact hymen as the infallible marker of female chastity. Revered well into the twentieth century, the desire for an unbroken hymen caused many mothers, and even doctors, to dismiss the necessity of pre-marital pelvic exams. The focus on hymenal preservation was so great that doctors went so far as to give rectal exams instead, hoping to prevent shocking the "modesty of the young girl," and believing that it was better not to draw attention to a girl's own genitals. It was the popularity of tampons that helped alleviate this notion, their very use meaning that "young women became familiar with the idea of penetration even if they had never had intercourse. In fact, each time a girl inserted a tampon, she defied traditional notions about the vagina and the sanctity of the hymen."

Though menstruation is the topic of much of the book, Jacobs Brumberg does go beyond this to discuss other factors in the creation of "body projects." When the 1920s gave rise to the flapper image, movies, magazines, and department stores gave primacy to young women's bodies, and by the 1950s, movie stars such as Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe helped to shape America's fixation with large breasts. This, along with the introduction of mass-produced clothing with standard sizes enforced the belief in the existence of an ideal body shape. She writes that though "the laissez-faire nature of sizing for American women makes shopping... a physical as well as a psychological struggle... it is particularly torturous for adolescents who regard size, much like weight, as a definitive element of their identity." The presence of acne causes further distress for adolescents, and though it is no longer quite as despised as it once was, girls still go to great lengths to perfect their skin. Acne was believed to be a telltale sign of masturbation -- a moral failing that manifested itself on the face -- and families often spent a great deal of money to rid their daughters' faces of blemishes. Though girls today would be grateful for the pervasiveness of anti-acne products, such as Neutrogena and its tribe of adolescent actress endorsers, this very pervasiveness further imposes an impossible standard of unblemished young skin. With products like Accutane gaining use, the risks girls are willing to take for perfect skin is made clear, well-known side effects of depression and malformed fetuses among those.

Though not a large volume, The Body Project is overloaded with information on how the American girl came to regard her body as her main endeavor. Both women and girls who read it will undoubtedly identify with many of the diary entries Jacobs Brumberg includes and the theories she proposes for the inevitability of adolescent bodily obsession. Whether or not you ultimately agree with the author's thoughts, her writing forces you to exam the one thing all females share -- the, sometimes, perilous transformation from girl to woman. This, along with her ability to clearly present her research in order to uncover this American problem, is her strong point. However, the range of girls examined is a bit short-sighted, as there is little on how these experiences differ across ethnic and economic boundaries -- Jacobs Brumberg writes mainly on the middle-class, white population. Furthermore, it would have been nice to see some ideas as to how adolescent boys contribute to this issue and how they may be educated so as to relieve some of the tension between the two sexes during this time, but these points may be beyond the scope of this one book. To speak to the dominant culture is to write about middle-class America -- however limited this may actually be, it serves as a good starting point for the examination of a complex cultural issue. As long as girls continue to concentrate their efforts on their bodies, studies like The Body Project will be in high demand.

The Body Project by Joan Jacobs Brumberg
Vintage Books
ISBN: 0679735291
214 pages