In Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, a book you may have overlooked due to the literally navel-gazing cover, there’s a concept I’ve been thinking about this last week.
Brumberg, in her research, read thousands of diaries and magazines and memoirs of teenage Americans from the last two centuries, and, amongst other intriguing discoveries, noticed that although young women have always filled notebooks with resolutions and plans for their future, there has been a significant shift from focusing on spiritual and moral improvement to focusing on fixing perceived physical imperfections: weight, acne, etc. A diary which, in 1880, listed a commitment to speak more kindly to one’s mother might a hundred years later be more likely to contain a pledge to do fifty crunches before bed. Obviously, there are plenty of contributing factors, and also many exceptions, but what struck me as interesting was not the increased importance of the physical self to one’s identity and self-worth, but what the role of moral development might be in our daily lives now.
As adults, religious or non-religious, are we consciously trying to be better? Obviously there’s political engagement, which can range from actually accomplishing something meaningful to just following feminists on Twitter, which may not count, or saying “well, that donation by that person to animal shelters SHOULD have gone to starving children,” while not actually giving anything to starving children, which also does not count, and there’s philanthropy and so on, but I feel that I spend spectacularly little time, versus my mother or hers, in attempting to actually be a better person.
Obviously, I try to be good to others, but that’s so bound up in wanting to be liked that it doesn’t seem possible to speak of it in a vacuum. But I don’t often think “I should be a nicer person this week,” or kinder, or more thoughtful, or more accommodating, or less braggy, although these are all things I could absolutely stand to work on. I do often think about my triceps, and that is a shifting goalpost all its own.
It’s impossible not to see how externally-driven both of these ideas have been, historically. That women have been expected to be both good, and beautiful, and there’s a great deal of freedom possible in extricating oneself from either concept.
But should we, and do we, strive to be good, as we now conceive goodness? How much do you think about it? And how much about your body?
Nicole is an Editor of The Toast.