ITHACA, N.Y. -- As never before, girls are maturing earlier and have become so preoccupied with their bodies that they spend much of their energy managing and maintaining their looks at the expense of their creativity and mental and physical health, says a new book by an award-winning Cornell University historian.
"Girls today make the body into an all-consuming project in ways young women of the past did not," said Joan Jacobs Brumberg, professor of human development and of women's studies at Cornell and author of the new book, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (Random House, 1997).
The book chronicles how opportunities for self scrutiny have escalated during this century, with mirrors, movies and marketing raising young women's self-consciousness to excruciating levels.
"All this 'bad body fever' and preoccupation with physical perfection raise girls' liability to be exploited," says Brumberg, a Stephen J. Weiss Presidential Fellow and professor at Cornell. "Girls who want to be wanted so badly are unable to be critical about their sexual options and can be easily manipulated, coerced, even abused."
Brumberg explains how commercial interests play directly to the body angst of adolescent girls -- enormous revenues are at stake for manufacturers of skin, hair and diet products -- while popular culture and peer groups pilot contemporary teenage life.
"At the same time, traditional social supports for young women have disappeared, putting girls today in crisis and at much higher risk than boys for eating disorders, substance abuse, dropping out of school, depression and suicide," Brumberg says.
Brumberg warns: "Contemporary girls are in trouble . . . young women develop physically earlier than ever before, but within a society that does not protect or nurture them in ways that were once a hallmark of American life. . . . Contemporary girls seem to have more autonomy, but their freedom is laced with peril."