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Tuesday January 27 3:02 PM EST

Teen Report-Girls struggle with "bad body fever" - author

Culture News By Angela Callanan, 17 years old

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina (Reuters) - "Bad body fever" is sweeping the nation, but there is no easy cure, according to scholar and author Dr. Joan Jacobs Brumberg.

Brumberg, a professor at Cornell University and author of "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls," said that her phrase "bad body fever" refers to the fact that U.S. girls today are facing intensified growing-up problems without the cultural support system that has existed in the past.

In an interview, Brumberg explained her theories on the dangers facing modern American girls, saying the first is what she terms "brain drain."

"A girl who is constantly looking at herself in the mirror is probably not going to develop the kind of creativity, skills and intellect she needs to sustain her," said Brumberg. Another major threat is sexual victimization. "Girls who don't like themselves, who feel ugly, are more susceptible to manipulation and abuse," she said. "They want to be wanted so badly that they don't make very good choices."


But why do girls turn so much attention toward the mirror?

"There is no simple answer," said Brumberg. "So many things have come together."

An increased emphasis on hygiene, the fact that health and beauty concerns have been combined, and the commercialization and exploitation of sexuality are all contributing factors, Brumberg said.

"There is a deep female beauty imperative here. We are a fat-phobic society, and smart kids pick this up," she said.

Brumberg's first book focused on the history of anorexia nervosa, and she has lectured around the country on this problem.

"Wherever I went a woman would come up to me and say quietly, "I wish I had anorexia nervosa for just a little while,"' she said. "This bad, or rather sad joke stayed with me."

"Little girls see adult women reading each other's bodies," Brumberg said. She described the emphasis placed on the appearance of little girls. "The constant stroking of their beauty and cuteness teaches them that this is the source of their female power."

Every American woman has personal experiences with body projects, Brumberg said. "I'm not against looking good. I appreciate the aesthetics, but good looks are not enough to sustain us."

Brumberg said she has actually spoken to pediatricians who told her stories of eight and nine year old girls complaining that they are too fat.

Kids don't need to obsess about the same health and fat issues that adults do, Brumberg said. "We want to build good habits of nutrition in children."

Now is the time for solutions, Brumberg said.


"Put the emphasis on what your body can do rather than what it looks like," she said.

By shifting the focus from outside to inside, she hopes to reduce the anxiety in the socialization of little girls. Her plan is something she calls "girl advocacy," which she defined as "taking the situation of girls seriously and not writing it off."

Working to fix this situation is everyone's responsibility, Brumberg said. She called for the return of honest mentoring situations for girls. She said girlfriends should pay closer attention to each other's creativity and skills. Sports and healthful exercise should also be emphasized, she said.

"Junior high teachers can speed up efforts to stop the taunting and teasing about weight and body development," Brumberg said. "So much talk is hypersexualized at this age."

Fathers, coaches, teachers and other men should engage in the effort by telling boys that it is not okay to talk about girls" bodies, Brumberg said.


"We need to encourage intergenerational dialogue (among girls and women) about sexuality," Brumberg said. "Our culture tells you that sexuality is an all-important part of adulthood." She said that while sexual expression in adolescence is completely normal, she wish ed that girls had an outlet to talk about what is safe and comfortable.

Her ideal would be adult women recalling their own adolescence and taking a major role in helping the younger generation, as they did historically. "It would be nice to reinvigorate this commitment," Brumberg said.

Whether these problems are uniquely American or a product of westernization, modernization and affluence, they cannot be dismissed as pop culture, Brumberg said. "The problems of American girls are an indictment of our culture," Brumberg said.

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