Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Body Project

Motivation for reading
I decided to read Joan Jacobs Brumberg's book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girlsafter reading this review posted on Ava’s blog A Striped Armchair.

What is it about?
Brumberg provides an historical look at adolescent girls’ perception of body image from the Victorian era to the early 90’s (the book was published in 1997). The book’s premise is that increasingly since the early 1900s middle-class adolescent girls and women went from developing their inner beauty to working on their body; so much so that their bodies have became a project.
In the Victorian era, beauty was thought to derive primarily from internal qualities such as moral character, spirituality, and health. (Pg.70)

Compare that to this 1982 New Year’s resolution:
I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can...I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes, and accessories. (Pg. xxi)
Brumberg points out girls are maturing faster and menstruating sooner than they did in the past and that our society currently does not provide a protective support system for them as the mother-daughter bond did in the past.
Although middle-class parents are invested more than ever before in the health and education of their adolescent girls, one of the most intimate aspects of the mother-daughter relationship- menarche and menstruation- had been relegated to medicine and to the marketplace by the time of World War II. (Pg 198)

My Thoughts:
The Body Projectis a quick read that brought back my own body project. In my teens and early twenties I spent almost all of my free time shopping for the perfect outfit, styling my hair, applying Clearasil to my pimples and trying to tan my porcelain white skin. Looking back I regret not spending this time doing something more worth while. Reading the book I realized how subtle things like standard-sized clothing and bra sizes had a big impact on how I felt about my appearance. I was a flat-chested, petite skinny teenager who had to shop in the children’s section long after my class-mates had graduated to junior sizes. Brumberg mentions how when the movie “10” with Bo Derek’s perfect “10” body came out boys began rating girl’s bodies on a scale from 1-10. I remember the boys in my high-school doing this. I never learned my score, but was convinced I was a 2 or a 3.

I was also reminded of “the body projects” of the girls I knew; the worst being a college class-mate who water-skied professionally during summer breaks. After one winter, her manager told the 116 pound 5’ 6” girl she was fat and needed to lose ten pounds if she wanted to ski in his shows. This statement ruined her life. She headed down a path of bulimia that she still suffers from today not to mention all of the dental bills she incurred (bulimia wears away the enamel of your teeth).

I have to point out marketing gimmick discoveries. Brumberg informs us:
By 1995, American women and girls were spending more than $100 million on “cellulite Busters,” many of which needed to be applied liberally, at least once or twice a day, at a cost of $60 a tube. Although scientific studies have never supported their effectiveness, thigh creams are major business; and liposuction, a procedure that vacuums fat from the thighs and buttocks has become the most popular kind of cosmetic surgery in the United States. (Pg. 127)
Overall, I enjoyed reading the historical information and the development of marketing trends, but the book was a little dated. There was an entire chapter on body piercing. And I am not sure if I needed to read about the diminishing importance of the hymen. Current topics that I’d like to see included are botox and the effects of social media on girls and young women. I agree with Ava this book would make a great read for a women’s book club. The book brings up so many topics for discussion several of which I already talk about amongst my family and friends. How to talk to our daughters? How much to tell them and when? How to change the focus from a perfect body to a healthy body?

This would be a good book for a mother, teacher or any women/teenager/girl trying to understand how her body became a “body project.”


  1. Interesting review. Makes me think I need to recommend this book to young women whom I love - the mothers of 3, 4 and 7 year old daughters. I hate to think that they will need it "soon", but I suspect they will.

    Sad that we no longer give our children time to grow up inside, too.

  2. Yes these topics come up way too quickly. My SIL, the mother of my soon to be ten year old niece, is one of the moms who has asked these questions. Sad to see niece worrying about these things at such a young age.