Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"The Body Project" by Joan Jacobs Brumberg (and a challenge for my readers)

At the library, I recently stumbled across The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I thought I vaguely remembered having heard of it, so I brought it home.
Oh wow. I absolutely recommend this to every woman, to every mother of daughters, to every teacher of girls. It should be required reading. This book is packed with history (and numerous primary sources including many diary entries). It recounts the changes that have taken place in American culture specifically during the 20th century, and the way that adolescence has changed from being a "coming of age" into being a "coming into obsession with our bodies." Even as we know more about our parts we seem to understand less about ourselves. It's something I think many of us are aware of (I've written on similar thoughts before), but the book was eye-opening for me in explaining more clearly the evolution of this change.
The following excerpt (p54-55) gives one example via menarche and menstruation (emphases added by me):
In preparing girls for menarche, we still tend to emphasize selecting a sanitary product rather than the meaning of the responsibility that menstruation implies. However, we know from the experience of generations of American women [that] being handed a pamphlet or shown a movie is not very satisfying, and that young women want meaningful exchanges about female sexuality as well as the best techniques for coping with the vagaries of menstrual blood. In a world where the female body is sexualized so early and the stakes are so high, it now seems obvious that it is not enough to teach girls how to be clean and dainty.
When contemporary American girls begin to menstruate, they think of hygiene, not fertility. That is the American way, and it is taken for granted--as if it were part of the "natural order." But the historical "disconnect" between menstruation and reproduction is actually quite modern, and it has important psychological implications for how girls think about themselves and what kind of women they become. It was strategically helpful for our grandmothers and mothers to cast menstruation as "only" a matter of hygiene, in order to offset Victorian myths about its debilitating effects. In today's world, however, that dismissiveness means something else. In fact, it sets the stage for obsessive overattention to other aspects of the changing body, such as size and shape.
I think an important realization is how pervasive this is in our culture.

Pervasive: like a virulent disease.

I mentioned this book to my best friend, and she made a revealing comment. She has recently lost almost 50lbs, and she said that since losing the weight she is even more body-conscious than she was before. I haven't seen her in some time, but I've seen recent photos and my first thought is always to comment how good she looks...how she LOOKS. Yes, she does look wonderful, but you know, she was always beautiful. She is kind and intelligent and graceful and talented and lovely, and she was my best friend before she lost the weight. She is still the same person I love, regardless of how she looks. And yet, when I see a photo, I'm ashamed to say that her newly-slender figure is the first thing I notice. What a statement about the pervasiveness of this body-image obsession, even from someone like me who is more-than-normally aloof from it.

I've been down this road myself. In my teens I had a really nice figure ("36-28-36" with blue eyes, long hair, fairly clear skin...) and yet I still found things to be self-conscious and nitpicky about. My hair was too thin, it was frizzy, and it didn't curl 'right.' My fingers were short and stubby and my nails were too. My toes were ugly. On the one hand, family members and adults told me I was beautiful, but on the other hand when I looked in the mirror I saw a girl who wasn't getting asked on any dates, so therefore I knew something was wrong with me. I wasn't entirely sure what it was, but I knew there had to be something.
For the most part, I have learned to be comfortable in my own skin...but even still I find myself finding--even searching--for things to complain about. I just measured this morning: 9 months after birthing a second baby, I am a "39-31-40" and I have returned to my pre-pregnancy weight. I'm not as thin as I was in high school or college, but I'm still slender and curvy. I still have blue eyes and long hair and clear skin. By all accounts I have nothing to complain about...and yet I still have low self-image days. The hair, the hands, the saggy breasts, the wiggly behind, the stretch-marked everything... But I am healthy! I have a spouse who thinks I am beautiful! How is this cultural distaste-for-self SO pervasive that it gets through to even the best of us?
I don't have the answers, I really don't. I wish I did. I do know that if I ever have daughters I will make every effort to build them up against the tidal wave of dissatisfaction.

I have thought of something which I'm going to try for myself, and I invite my readers to try it too. The book talked about how the obsessions with clear skin and perfect teeth and thinness became common right about the same time that scales and mirrors started being present in homes. For most of history a woman didn't know her weight or see her face unless she happened across a scale or mirror in a public place. Can you imagine how we might perceive ourselves if we weren't constantly thrown numbers and images like that?!
So this is my challenge: for 24 hours, don't step on a scale and don't look at yourself in a mirror. Tack up a pillowcase over your bathroom mirror if you need to, but don't look! Strike back at this image-obsessed culture, by being willing to be your (inner) self for a whole day, without fixating on our outer appearance. Of course you should comb your hair and otherwise care for yourself, but don't preen, don't 'fix yourself,' just take on the world as your own self.
Do you think you can do it? I sure would love to hear about it if you do.


Jennie said...

I haven't had a scale in my house for...I don't even know how long, a number of years. I went through an obsession with my weight my junior year of high school, where I would weigh myself 3-4 times a day. It wasn't really an obsession with my image so much as I felt this fascination with the numbers, seeing what things changed my weight, and such things, but always the goal seemed like a lower number, instead of a more balanced look at my overall health.

I do, however, love my mirrors. I have a dancing room, where I have one very large mirror on the wall, and I love to watch myself dance. I love to see myself, because I am happy, and seeing my own smile makes me smile even more.

I think the solution is to look and see our own beauty. Forget all the things that you think are imperfections, and just embrace the overwhelming beauty that you have. And I think you'll come to see that every part of you is beautiful.

The part of myself that I would say detracts from my own beauty the most is that my fingers are all torn up, because I pick at the skin around my fingernails. It's more the habit, though, than the look itself. I still love my hands.

But I think what made the real change in my life was having someone call me beautiful a lot, and me seeing the beauty in my son. It was that that made me start to believe it. So listen, when people compliment you, listen, and let it wash over you. And say it to yourself.

Katie said...

I can't do it today unless I take my lipstick off :) I am really bad at wearing lipstick, and I always have to check to see if it is on my teeth.

Lately I have been having the opposite problem -- I go into the bathroom at work just to admire my hotness in the mirror. But of course I'm sure I notice my 'inadequacies' as well every time I look.

Cheryl said...

I've found a great solution: nearsightedness! I never wear my glasses at home, so my mirror never shows me wrinkles or gray hairs :)

ashley said...

I LOVE to avoid mirrors and take a break from makeup and hair. Heck, last summer I probably bushed my hair or did my makeup twice monthly. While I am somewhat self concious at times, I have learned to value myself in the things that aren't about my physical looks- the fact that I completed my first 5k, that I can fly fish... yea.

Kate said...

I gave birth to my first child 5 1/2 weeks ago. I will admit to being a bit mirror obsessed during my pregnancy - not in such a way as to search out negatives, but in a kind of awed fascination at how my body was changing.

Since giving birth, I've looked at my face in the mirror long enough to french braid my long hair back out of the way. (I also stopped wearing the little makeup I used to use during pregnancy and haven't picked it up again. It helps that my skin has been really nice and clear with all the extra water intake.) Part of the lack of mirror time has been lack of time period :)

However, I have been examining my body in my full length mirror - again in awe of how much I've changed in just 6 weeks - from an extra 30 lbs pregnant to within just a couple lbs of my pre-pregnancy weight but with the added bonus of stretch marks. And when I look at my son, I can't bring myself to mind the stretch marks at all.

STORY: I had a roommate my freshman year of college who had a wonderful personality, but was also several sizes larger than I. We got along great at first until she started comparing her figure to mine and finding herself lacking. I tried to downplay her negativity, but it bothered me. After awhile of almost daily comments, I felt like when she looked at me all she saw was my pant size and not the REAL me. (It didn't help that hearing her constant comments on her looks also made me more self conscious of my looks.)Her obsession with comparing the two of us eventually overpowered the nice personality and I moved out after the year was over.

Laura said...

Ooh, I need to read that.

I am in a similar situation as Kate, except it's with a lot of people around me. When I was at a RS activity, the women were all talking about how they gained so much weight after they got married, and I mentioned that I had actually LOST weight. Oh man, were they mad.

My mother-in-law also complains about her weight, and I think she looks wonderful! She used to always make comments on how "tiny" I am, until I told her that I didn't like it.

The focus shouldn't be how much you weigh, but how healthy you are and feel!

And by the way, I weigh a lot more than people think. My Viking ancestry gave me big bones.

Jessica said...

The only place for a scale in our house was in the bathroom and, due to our three children's love of splashing in the tub, we have gone through two scales in the last year. Finally we decided a scale is just not necessary and we didn't replace it. Since making that decision I have felt freed from the "responsibility" to "watch my weight." I do watch my health, but have realized that there are many other indicators besides the bathroom scale to tell me how well I am caring for my body. Over the last few years I have also realized that my body size doesn't tell me much about my health, either. I have apparently been blessed with genes made for baby-bearing, as breastfeeding has helped me achieve pre-pregnancy size or less within 9 months after each pregnancy. However, I have been progressively weaker since I don't have to "work out" to drop the weight. There are a lot of things that I need to do to be healthy, even though I can still wear my "skinny" jeans.

kimberlee said...

This book is in my Que.. I may have to move it up.

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