From Blushing To Bold For Women, Victorian Modesty Has Given Way, Over The Years, To An Obsessive Preoccupation With Physical Appearance And Sexuality

The fashion industry’s to blame. The media. Someone is responsible for the misery of young women who feel no choice but to devote themselves to impossible standards of physical perfection.

Yes on the media. Yes on the beauty and fashion industries. But Cornell University Professor Joan Jacobs Brumberg sees those as only a few reasons young women have arrived at a state of unrelenting obsession with their bodies.

“It’s a circle of things surrounding them,” Brumberg says.

In her book “The Body Project” (Random House, $25), Brumberg describes a long road visited not only by the usual suspects, but by biology.

In the last 100 years, young women have changed from decorous Victorian maidens to blunt, sexually active teenagers who, she says, “regard their bodies and sexual allure” as their “primary currency.”


Earlier physical maturation. The average age of menarche now is just over 12, and the average age for first intercourse is just under 16, Brumberg reports. “At the end of the last century, in the 1890s, a middle-class American girl was likely to menstruate at 15 or 16 and be a blushing virgin when she married in her early 20s.”

In the 19th century, communities created ways of keeping girls protected until they were married. Some were repressive, Brumberg argues, but there was also a great “Victorian moral umbrella” in all-female groups promoting good works and the cultivation of character - Girl Scouts and the Young Women’s Christian (or Hebrew) Association among them. This network, which provided girls with productive activity, is now gone.

“The disappearance of virginity.” In the 19th century, she writes, virginity was both a biological and moral state. Women became sexually freer in the 1920s, though, and in 1936 came tampons. “Repeated monthly use of tampons meant that young women became familiar with the idea of penetration, even if they had never had intercourse.”

Now, Brumberg says, “the body has become the central personal project of American girls,” making them “vastly different from their Victorian counterparts.”

It’s entirely natural to want to look good, but “the question is, how much energy do you want to invest?” Brumberg says. “You want to go through a day and not be constantly chastising yourself” about what was eaten, or what exercise was missed.

We could “tamp down” the bad messages.

For example, Brumberg makes a point of not exclaiming over her granddaughters’ beauty, saying how pretty they are in their party dresses. Rather, she’d say, “It’s so nice to see your smile.”

We can refuse to buy from companies with noxious advertising. “I’m done with Calvin Klein,” she says disgustedly.

Maybe most important, though, is helping girls develop a sense of sexual ethics. “A lot of people think it’s all about teaching birth control. It isn’t.”

Girls need to learn about reciprocity, Brumberg says. “Sexuality is best and nicest when it’s in the context of an emotional relationship, not a 5-minute encounter with a boy they hardly know.”

It makes you yearn for the bygone days of the Girls’ Friendly Society and the women who ran it. Which is exactly Brumberg’s point: We need some of those old things back - including the mentoring, and the idea that girls need some special guidance.


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