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. Continue reading