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American women obsessed with good looks.

If it was good works for America's grandmom's it is good looks that today's American women are occupied with.

india Updated: Oct 21, 2005 20:35 IST
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American women have become obsessed with good looks, instead of the good works that preoccupied their grandmothers, says a social historian whose ideas inspired a new play.

'It isn't just the search for a mate. That's been around for a long time,' said author Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a professor of history at Cornell University. 'Women have much stricter standards than men do about women's bodies.

Brumberg's book, The Body Project, led to a play of the same name, set for its premiere at the Warehouse Theater on Thursday. It explores how women's satisfaction with their own bodies has decreased, even as their opportunities in the world beyond the home have increased.

The play begins with a noisy sleepover: preteen girls giggling and agonizing not about boys but about the first physical symptoms of their own adolescence.

'Just use the words `pajama party' to any group of women, and it calls up memories of little girls giggling about themselves,' Brumberg said.

Toward the end of the play comes an episode of a young bride whose mother stays away from the wedding after her daughter tells her brutally that she has been 'letting yourself go all these years.'

Daughter asks: 'Don't you have any self respect?' 'Yes, I think I finally do,' her mother replies. Curtain.

The mother goes into a retirement home. In a later scene, daughter visits her there and, repenting, gives her mother a pedicure.

Brumberg, who studied diaries of young women going back to the 1820s, traces the increased concern with beauty, as defined by the mass media, alongside the increased independence of women in politics, business, sports and social life.

She says that a century ago the ideal was 'inner beauty: a focus on good deeds and a pure heart.'

Brumberg and Leslie Jacobson, one of the play's co-authors, say a series of developments led girls and women to make their bodies their major project, through methods including chronic dieting, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery and fashion.

Among the causes they cite is pervasive advertising offering remedies for real and imagined ills, from dandruff to discolored toenails.

Another cause: the proliferation of mirrors.

'When indoor plumbing became more and more available, the mail-order catalogs emphasized sinks and bathtubs,' said Jacobson, who heads the department of theater and dance at George Washington University. 'And what did they offer for the wall space? Full-length mirrors.'

Jacobson and her co-playwright, Vanessa Thomas, don't try to dramatize the historical background. And they lightened the title of the play to 'The Body Project: Available in All Shapes and Sizes.' But the tone remains serious, sometimes tragic, in keeping with the views of Brumberg, who calls the worry about appearance 'poisonous.'

Brumberg, who worked with the playwrights but did not join in the writing, said she also is negotiating with a film company for a documentary based on her book.

The playwrights work with Horizons Theatre, which bills itself as the oldest continuing women's theater in America.