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Thursday January 8 3:00 PM EST

Teen Report-"Body Project" examines girls' self-image

Book Review By Angela Callanan, 17 years old

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina (Reuters) - America's consumer and media-driven culture is spurring many U.S. girls to try to "fix" their bodies in a trend that is growing increasingly dangerous, according to a new book on girls and body image.

In "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls," Cornell University professor Joan Jacobs Brumberg argues that contemporary girls are virtually driven by modern culture to make their bodies the best products on the market.

"More than any other group in the population girls and their bodies have born the brunt of 20th Century social change, and we ignore that fact at our peril," Brumberg writes.

"...American girls at the end of the 20th Century actually suffer from body problems more pervasive and more dangerous than the constraints implied by the corset."

Brumberg said those problems include eating disorders, lack of self-esteem, psychological problems and all of the problems associated with girls becoming sexually active before they are ready.


When I began reading this book, I assumed that it would be a typical warning against promiscuity, complete with the exciting news that modern girls can achieve all of their dreams if they only ignore our bodies. I was prepared to skim through the work of another adult mourning the fact that my friends throw up after they eat.

What I found instead was intelligent, enlightening and sensitive research that looks for solutions.

Brumberg argues that adolescent girls today are physically maturing more rapidly than ever before, but that their personal emotional preparation and societal support is not expanding at the same speed.

She points out that while every generation of young women undergoes sexual development, a girl's experience is shaped by the world in which she lives, so that girls at each historical point develop different body problems and "projects."

While adolescent girls in Victorian times strove to pay less attention to themselves and to focus on helping others, Brumberg writes, girls today are more likely to view physical beauty as the highest form of female perfection.


Brumberg uses stories of "body projects" of girls throughout American history to illustrate this change. The stories are derived from diaries of adolescent girls, medical journals, and an examination of cultural trends such as advertising techniques.

Topics range from the onset of menstruation, the hymen and sexual education to brassieres, pimples and body piercing. A multitude of photographs document the evolving image of the American female and her body.

Brumberg shows how modern social trends have shifted the focus of sexual development from a beautiful, if sometimes trying, personal experience to a public showcase. Menstruation is now less about fertility than about hygiene and consumerism, and sexual activity often denotes a female's social status.

Brumberg also examines the disappearance of the female support network. Where in the past single-sex groupings, mother-daughter connections and intergenerational mentoring were greatly valued, these things are quickly becoming extinct.

As a result, American girls are coping with early physical maturity (the average age of menstruation is 12, as opposed to the average of 16 years a century ago) in a sexually liberal world where chastity is no longer an ideal, parental influence is shriveling, and feminism is accosted.

"At the end of the 20th Century, fear of fat, anxiety about body parts and expectations of perfection in the dressing room have all coalesced to make 'I hate my body' into a powerful mantra that informs the social and spiritual life of too many American girls," Brumberg writes.


"It is time for us to talk - squarely and fairly - about the ways in which American girlhood has changed and what girls must have to ensure a safe and creative future."

Brumberg is not advocating a return to the restrictive and conservative opinions of the Victorian age, but is instead recommending progressive steps in "girl advocacy." She sees safety in cherishing and supporting American girls.

I would recommend this book for anyone, but especially mothers, daughters and teachers. It's a great book to share and read with someone, as I did with one of my friends. Younger teens should also read it, but probably with some help because there are references to sexual activity.

The writing is not academic, and though the book is fairly long it is easy to read.

So as I climb on my treadmill and vow to tone my upper body by the time I leave for college, I will ruminate on this book about me and the women who are my past and future.

"The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls" by Joan Jacobs Brumberg is published by Random House ( http://www.randomhouse.com ). The hardback edition is 225 pages and sells for $25.

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