Another Body Talk

by Robert Leleux

One of the most peculiar things about The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls is that it seems, at times, to have been written by your Great Aunt Rose. Joan Jacobs Brumberg is an accomplished historian and an enlightened thinker, but she sometimes expresses a tone of agonized propriety that I can’t recall having heard since the days when Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds. Take, for example, the following sentence, delivered absolutely without irony in the course of an impassioned plea on behalf of sexually exploited teenage girls: “The way in which a society handles young girls in trouble,” she writes, “is…revealing.”[1] The “trouble” to which Brumberg is referring to is, incredibly, the “Is she in trouble?” kind of trouble. The kind of “trouble” that always comes with quotation marks around it, even when it’s used in conversation.

Except, I haven’t heard that kind of “trouble” used in conversation since I was a small boy in Texas, playing under my grandmother’s dining room table, and listening in on the conversation of the old ladies in my family who still considered “pregnant” an unsuitable term for that “delicate condition.” Likewise, “out-of-wedlock births,” another Eisenhower-era phrase of which Brumberg avails herself several pages later.[2] In fact, The Body Project is sadly, but revealingly, littered with such creaky, antiquated expressions. Never more so, I’m afraid, than in the very, very unfortunate section devoted to body piercing, of which the following sentence is perhaps the most mortifying: “Teenagers today,” Brumberg explains, “grow up in a world where rigid dichotomies between gay (homosexual) and straight (heterosexual) behavior are disappearing.”[3] Oh, dear, dear, dear. Statements like this remind me of the kind of “talks” ladies used to give on current events during monthly luncheons at the club.

It seems cruel to linger on such things, because, once again, Brumberg is a respected scholar committed to the noble goal of fostering fulfillment and wellbeing in young girls. However, such ill-chosen phrases and statements are not just “un-cool” or out of step: they are illustrative of Brumberg’s habit of waxing nostalgic for a better, long gone, more decorous day, or even worse, romanticizing Victorian mores. As in this sentence: “Our Victorian ancestors would be shocked by [our permissive cultural standards], and by our lack of commitment as a nation to keeping girls free from the responsibilities of adult female sexuality.”[4] Or, “The Victorians…[had] a deep commitment to girls that we need to revisit….”[5] Or, “In the Victorian era, beauty was thought to derive primarily from internal qualities such as moral character, spirituality, and health.”[6] Or, “The current vulnerability of American girls is linked to the decline of the Victorian ‘protective umbrella’ that sheltered and nurtured them well into the twentieth century.”[7] Not to belabor the point, but it strikes me as an odd little idiosyncrasy for a women’s historian to exhibit. Girls’ bodies were “protected” during the Victorian era simply because they were economically valuable. Women were, after all, considered chattel to be traded like blue ribbon sows at the county fair by their fathers and husbands.[8] According to Brumberg’s logic, the concubines of Eastern harems also belonged to a “protected” class of women.

Brumberg’s nostalgic little spasms, and her outdated phrases, point towards a larger problem: cultural critics and historians must maintain a keen awareness of contemporary culture, or risk becoming passé. Take for example Meredith Dault, a speaker at Sarah Lawrence’s Women’s History Conference last month. She treated us all to a mortifying little lecture on pubic hair which bore the cringe-worthy title: “The Last Triangle.” Ms. Dault’s entire address seemed predicated on her shock at discovering that women now wax their pubic hair, which is something that even Joan Jacobs Brumberg—no arbiter of the avant-garde—knew about ten years ago! “I had no idea,” Ms. Dault kept repeating. “I mean, who knew, right?” Well, only everybody who ever watched an episode ofSex & the City; only everybody who ever glanced at the list of services offered by their local beauty parlor; only anyone who has ever read Cosmopolitan, Vogue,People, or any other magazine found on your dentist’s coffee table. “I guess I must be really out of touch,” said Ms. Dault. “I mean, I keep waiting for the day when leg and underarm hair come back. I don’t shave my leg or underarm hair,” she confided. “That’s my little act of counter-cultural defiance. You’d be surprised how much resistance I encounter with that.” Certainly, Ms. Dault’s body hair maintenance is her business, but it is troubling that a cultural historian could be so out of touch with… culture. It strikes me that there is a lofty, high-handed, elitist tendency at work here reminiscent of that which characterizes the work of those Victorian scholars who specialized in writing reports on “primitive cultures” for “civilized” white society. In this case the “primitive culture” is popular culture, and “civilized society” means those who read The Nation. There is a tendency among certain contemporary scholars and critics to assume a certain smugness when “reporting back” on the goings-on of Middle America for the benefit, amusement, and titillation of the Northeastern elite. “I mean, who knew, right?” Ms. Dault repeated, before sharing an excruciating little video about “trimming the bushes.”  ▢

Robert Leleux is the author of two memoirs, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and the forthcoming The Living End.  His essays and articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers across the country, including the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, and the Utne Reader.  He is a first year student in the Women’s History M.A. program, and lives in New York City.

[1] Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, Random House, New York, 1997. 202.

[2] Brumberg, 206.

[3] Brumberg, 132.

[4] Brumberg, 206.

[5] Brumberg, 5.

[6] Brumberg, 70.

[7] Brumberg, 197.

[8] And of course, we’re just talking about white affluent women here. Because any idea of Victorian society “protecting” women of color, and/or poor women is laughable, i.e. the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

One thought on “Another Body Talk

  1. Okay, so let me see if I understand this correctly. In a blog that professes “interest [in] fostering dialogue,” one MA student gets to rip into another MA student by way of ad hominem attacks? Someone explain to me please, how does the above diatribe promote dialogue?

    It’s not just the vindictive attack on Ms. Dault’s character that I find upsetting. Quite aside from the questionable ethics of one MA student attacking another MA student (an MA student who did submit an abstract, and who was invited to present in your conference), Robert Leleux grossly misrepresents Ms. Dault’s work through, for example, his unwarranted assumption that the personal point of view from which she spoke is to be understood as both the content and limit of her political engagement with cultural practices.

    I can live with sloppy thinking (infuriating as it might be), but the above dismissal of Ms. Dault’s work raises a serious question. Does this blog’s aim to “promote a critical analysis of history and contemporary issues through the lens of multiple feminisms” mean that criticisms of second wave feminism are now an apology for a laissez-faire attitude to the disciplining of self, as implied by Robert Leleux? Are we really to understand that to take a stance on cultural practices of body hair is to necessarily invoke a Victorian morality, as if life really is composed of a series of dichotomies that can be dispatched as easily as in a Sex and the City episode?

    I think the issue, and Ms. Dault’s intervention, is a little more complex, and requires a little more thought than Robert Leleux allows. It seems to me that the practice of pubic hair removal should neither be condemned nor celebrated, but used as a platform from which to launch questions about the state of feminism in America today. I’m saddened to see the foreclosure of what could be an interesting and worthwhile conversation by the students in the Sarah Lawrence College Women’s History Graduate Program.

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