The Body Projects of American Girls Through Their Diaries

From the first few lines of The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (1997) by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, I was hooked. I loved the concept of doing research in girls’ diaries from the past in order to gain present understanding of how girlhood and the intimacies of puberty have changed over the years. Brumberg argues, “Understanding what has happened historically to girls’ bodies and to their relationships with those who surround them—especially their mothers, teachers, and physicians—provides the first step in crafting an effective, progressive response to a predicament that already threatens the prospects of young women who will come of age in the twenty-first century” (p. xxxiii). Jumping off from this idea and assumption, I did a rhetorical analysis of The American Girl manual The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls as one way we currently address these issues and attempt to facilitate communication between adults and girls.

Brumberg’s book has a lot of frank talk about the female body, comparing today’s standards to those of the past. If you find some of this discussion upsetting or too frank for you, please stop reading now. Brumberg noted her own reluctance to broach these subjects: “[D]espite this national preoccupation with sex and the body, there is still a deeply embedded cultural reluctance, even in supposedly ‘enlightened’ circles, to talk honestly or openly about certain aspects of the female body. My own blushing face and halting speech whenever a professional colleague asked me about the subject of my research symbolized the problem: it is hard to talk out loud about menstruation, pimples, or hymens without feeling just a twinge of embarrassment, much like a fourteen-year-old” (p. xxxi).

This book is a fascinating read for information about how girlhood has changed, how archival research can be done and yield interesting results, and how paying attention to girls’ issues is important. I read it for my Girls’ Studies class last semester (which I posted regularly about here). I didn’t post about this book at the time because the corresponding assignment for this book was to create a presentation based on its contents for an audience of teenage girls and to record ourselves giving that presentation. Today, I’ll give you the written version of my presentation.


If you’re female and you’ve ever worried about your period, your skin, your weight, your appearance (makeup, hair, clothing), or having sex, you aren’t alone. However, the way girls have dealt with these issues have changed dramatically over the last one hundred years or so. Brumberg addresses all of these issues and more both currently and historically with the aim of educating and empowering girls to deal with the pressures surrounding their bodies and appearances. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, “God has given you minds, dear girls, as well as bodies” (p. xxxii). She wanted her audiences to focus on intellectual pursuits, as well as physical ones. Brumberg’s book does that, by using the mind to talk and think about the female body.

One of the major topics of this book is menstruation, which historically involved homemade sanitary napkins and less of a focus on hygiene, especially before the Sanitation Movement. In earlier times, people believed that the developing brain drew strength away from the ovaries, and girls were often protected from information about their bodies. What Brumberg calls the “Victorian umbrella of protection” meant that mothers often didn’t communicate information about the changing body to their daughters. “American mothers have not always provided the emotional support girls wanted or the sound practical information they needed” (p. 12). Instead, girls would be surprised upon receiving their periods. “Americans came to believe that a hallmark of Christian civilization was its ability to nurture and protect girlhood innocence” (p. 11). Girls were also smaller and menstruated at age 15 or 16.

More currently, and in contrast, girls today are taught about menstruation in classes at school, and are aware of how important hygiene is. We use books and manuals to teach us about our bodies with more regularity than in the past, because they are available, and we often learn from friends. Our parents may be more open and willing to talk about puberty, and girls are generally larger and healthier than they were 100 or 200 years ago and often receive their periods at younger ages, sometimes as early as nine years old.

Brumberg, although enthusiastic about some of the positive changes we have experienced over the years in terms of communication and information, notes that “more information does not always translate into a real understanding of one’s own body” (p. 53). She shares examples from a diary in 1982, in which a woman seemed to write with confidence about ovulation and eggs, but thought that ovulation equaled having her period. Her mistake reveals a misunderstanding about exactly what her body is doing when menstruating. Another problem with openness, as described by Brumberg, is that girls may equate “the experience of menarche and menstruation with a hygiene product” (p. 53). We see so much about it in advertisements that we come to understand our bodies through consumption. Brumberg wrote, “Daughters of immigrants understood, before their grandmothers and mothers did, that there was an American way to menstruate, and that it required participation in the larger consumer society” (p. 45).

We also learn about skin from Brumberg’s study of girls’ diaries. Historically, pimples may have inhibited social success and used to be considered solely a girls’ disease. Often, clear skin was associated with moral and physical health, meaning that anybody with pimples was labeled as participating in “deviant” sexual behavior. It was thought that marriage cured acne. Today, we know that acne is caused by hormones, and we use expensive creams, medicines, and procedures to clear it up. Magazines now sell products and constantly discuss the care of skin. The taboo of acne as a disease of those who were sexually promiscuous has been overcome, with many girls using birth control to fight it. However, with this knowledge comes the pressure of trying to look like airbrushed models. The attitude may be that there is no reason to have acne anymore, and if you do, you aren’t trying hard enough. The pressure of perfection applies to our skin as well as our body shape and size.

Now, the title of the book, The Body Project, refers to the many “projects” girls have undertaken with their bodies in order to fit norms. In a section on dieting and being obsessed with having slim bodies, we learn that this new ideal of beauty emerged in the early 1900s with the slim flappers. Image became important, and we began to prize the face in the mirror rather than moral character. The bust line was another project for girls, as bras with cups were invented in the 1930s. Before then, women wore corsets and focused instead on small waists. Another project, according to Brumberg, is piercing. She traces this to the 1970s as part of gay culture, but it quickly spread as a way for youth to express themselves.

I remember some of the obsession with piercing that existed in my own high school years. I had a friend who grew long fingernails and then pierced one. Other friends had more than one piercing in their ears or belly button piercings. I never bought into that in high school, but I do remember it being a fad and being important to the girls and boys around me. Brumberg argues that “body piercing can become a contentious family issue” (p. 134). She read in one diary that a “sixteen-year-old secretly pierced her navel and hid it all winter, until the summer months, when her shorts revealed the truth to her outraged parents” (p. 134).   I guess after all that time, they really couldn’t make her take it out, for the hole would still be there. It was too late. This girl knew how to avoid asking permission and instead seek forgiveness. Most teens are pretty good at that, I guess, except they forget to actually get that “forgiveness.” Other teens have experimented with nose rings, nipple rings, and genital piercings. Ouch!

This leads us to Brumberg’s discussion of sexuality. Historically, an intact hymen was an important symbol of virtue and sexual morality. Girls were expected to be virgins and it signified familial ownership until she passed to another family through marriage. Later during this time, doctors began performing pelvic examinations. However, changes in menstrual hygiene have changed the importance of the hymen. In 1936, tampons were invented, and this often led to the hymen being ruptured before sex. It didn’t mean that girls were not virgins or that they were promiscuous. Additionally, today’s girls are involved in sports; heavy physical activity can also lead to a ruptured hymen. In 1972, girls were allowed to get birth control without parental consent. We see a changing of a girl’s control over her own body, and an awareness of bodies and hygiene that has led to these changes. Brumberg writes about the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1973, which “demystified girls’ bodies and helped them to remove the taboos upon which veneration of the hymen and virginity depended” (p. 173).

However, there are downsides to this “sexual liberalism.” Brumberg mentions attitudes about rape, that “Thirty-two percent of the girls believed that forced sex was actually acceptable if a couple had dated for a long time” (p. 190). We’ve also seen the sexualization of girls and pedophilia. A 1995 study suggested “that heightened adult male interest in the bodies of young girls is not a figment of the feminist imagination. In fact, a startling number of teenage girls are having sex with adult men, instead of with boys their own age” (p. 186). Sickeningly, pediatricians and child protective services must now worry about the hymen of girl children. Brumberg concludes in this section that “This shift in the discussion of the hymen from gynecology to pediatrics is a disturbing red flag that signals how girls’ bodies are eroticized in our culture at an increasingly early age. (Along with fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds, the other main victims of sexual abuse are girls of only five and six. . . ) [G]irlhood is now something of an endangered status, threatened by all kinds of biological as well as social forces” (p. 191-192). Brumberg is upset about these changes, and she devotes her final chapter to discussing some of the solutions to these problems.

The question is where do we go from here and what do we do now? Brumberg says advocacy is one answer. She claims there’s a contradiction between girls’ ability to achieve anything and messages about the importance of being sexy. “On the one hand, their parents and teachers told them that being female was no bar to accomplishment. Yet girls of their generation learned from a very early age that the power of their gender was tied to what they looked like—and how ‘sexy’ they were—rather than to character or achievement” (p. 195). She is disturbed by the trend that girls have become fair game sexually. We rush girls into womanhood without much mentoring or protection, and girls bodies mature more quickly than their capacity to comprehend some of the consequences. Brumberg advocates protection and a code of personal ethics to help girls navigate the passage into adulthood. This reminded me of Michael Kimmel’s work on masculinity and boys, and his suggestion that boys need adult male role models, rather than entering college with fraternities where they are hazed by others of their own age into adulthood. (I wrote about a presentation of Kimmel’s that I attended here.)

Brumberg, whose research tells us a lot about the changes in girl culture over the centuries, closes with this: “I am no longer quiet around ideologues who make sexual freedom and autonomy the ultimate value for adolescent girls. . . . Whether at home or at school, our discussions need to be responsive to the developmental needs of girls . . . and on helping young women evolve a standard of sexual ethics that has integrity” (p. 210). I tend to agree with her (as does Mary Pipher), and I appreciated her frank critique and discussion of the sexualization of girls, which has troubled me since I had my first daughter. Brumberg tells us that “More than any other group in the population, girls and their bodies have borne the brunt of twentieth-century social change, and we ignore that fact at our peril” (p. 214).

In my mock presentation for the class, I asked my imaginary audience of girls some questions after sharing much of this information with them. I asked, now that you know so much about your bodies, especially concerning sexuality, what sort of responsibility do you have? What kinds of responsibility does this mean your parents should have? How can we help you?

I’m not sure of the answers to these questions and the others that Brumberg has undoubtedly raised for each of you, but I do know that these are issues that concern me because I’m female, because I was once a young girl, and because I have two beautiful daughters of my own who need my help making sense of these societal shifts and their own bodily changes. This book certainly gave me many places to start in understanding my role as a mother and in being able to open the conversation on these issues with my daughters.