How Perfect Do Girls Have to Seem?

Article excerpt

Two thousand years ago Jesus' birth heralded the glory of the human body. Today many young women obsess about their bodies at the risk of their souls. Patrick McCormick explores why society tells girls they're only as good as they look -- and wonders if the church has done quite enough to counter this line.

Last Christmas one of my presents arrived early when Jane Rinehart preached at the Vigil Mass. It wasn't just that Rinehart offered us a haunting and evocative homily -- forged of her impressive talents as a teacher and rich experiences as a mother of three. Or even that several of us left church that night wondering why we had never before heard a woman preach about the miracle of Christ's birth. It was that on the eve of the Feast of the Incarnation we had the (unfortunately rare) privilege of experiencing the Word made "woman-flesh."

Our present that Christmas night was being reminded -- by the sight and sound of a woman preaching -- that the "flesh" God made sacred in this mystery we were celebrating was "neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female" (Gal. 3:28). We were being reminded, as the theologian Sallie McFague notes in her book The Body of God (Fortress Press, 1993), that for those of us who believe in the Incarnation, an of our bodies are important. Even more, however, we were being reminded by the presence of an extremely gifted female preacher of something that the 19th-century reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton used to tell her audiences of young women: "God has given you minds, dear girls, as well as bodies."

In The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (Random House, 1997), social critic and historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg isn't concerned that we have forgotten the bodies of young women but that we have effectively abandoned late-20th-century American girls to cultural forces that distort their experience of their bodies and thus of themselves.

"Although girls now mature sexually earlier than ever before," Brumberg notes, "contemporary American society provides fewer social protections for them, a situation that leaves them unsupported in their development and extremely vulnerable to the excesses of popular culture and to pressure from peer groups." As a result of this abandonment to pressures from modem marketing, medicine, and popular culture, "girls today make the body into an all-consuming project in ways women of the past did not."

Like Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia (Ballantine, 1995) and Peggy Orenstein's SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap (Doubleday, 1995), Brumberg's book argues that contemporary girls are offered little help in dealing with cultural forces pressuring them to obsess over their changing bodies. "Girls today are concerned with the shape and appearance of their bodies as a primary expression of their individual identity."

Increasingly, dieting (which psychologist Judith Rodin describes as the "normative obsession" of U.S. women) is no longer reserved to adult or adolescent women but often begins as early as 9 or 10.

Teenage girls spend billions of dollars each year on fashion and personal care products, and companies like Victoria's Secret market their sexy underwear for girls just beginning adolescence. And the standards of female beauty continue to grow both more demanding and invasive. No longer is it enough to lose weight. Young girls today are expected to develop washboard stomachs and steel "buns' or "abs." The thin body must now also be the "hard" body.

Some of Bromberg's undergraduate students talk about piercing their very private body parts with jewelry from their boyfriends. Getting "pinned" has taken on a whole new meaning.

According to Brumberg, one effect of all these pressures to create (and share) the perfect body has been that young girls are increasingly encouraged to identify "the body project" as their most significant task, and pay less and less attention to their character or intelligence. …