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“Your body is a temple,” our ancestors told their pubescent youngsters. ‘Now go take a cold bath”
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
Apparently a good many children showed “evil propensities,” for there were various restraining devices on the market, including tiny handcuffs and something called a thigh spreader. Indeed, doctors often prescribed them. Children were warned that it was easy to tell secret self-abusers just by looking at them. One physician wrote, “When I see a little girl or young lady, wasted and weak, listless, with great hollow eyes and a sort of sallow tint on the haggard face, with the red hue of the lips faded, the ears white like marble and the face covered with pimples, I know that they have committed the sin which, if not abandoned will lead them down to death.” A handbook for boys published in 1913 by the American Medical Association stated that some boys, instead of growing “into hard-muscled, fiery-eyed, resourceful young men,” turned into “sissy young men and then into narrow-chested, flabby-muscled mollycoddles.” This authoritative and prestigious book went on to say that “spermin” (a substance present in semen) is carried to the heart by the blood and then through the arteries “in a thrilling, throbbing stream” to the muscles. Also “this same wonderful substance” reaches the brain, where it contributes to clear reason and sound judgment, high ambitions and strong will. Masturbation (the word is not used) naturally interferes with all this.
Looking back from the 1970’s we may well wonder how attitudes toward the unmentionable, from breasts of chicken on, could have changed so drastically. How did we arrive at our present unfettered state? Freud is widely held responsible, but in fact, although his teachings first reached this country in 1906, they had little effect in the average nursery until at least the 1930’s. As far as child rearing is concerned, parents have always preferred the tried and true, and new theories take hold slowly. And certainly, for parents reared in Victorian days, it was easier to think of children as sexless cherubs than as victims of such alarming afflictions as Oedipus complexes and penis envy.
But long before Freud other forces for change were at work. Medical advances of the middle and late nineteenth century had produced a new interest in health and hygiene and therefore a more matter-of-fact attitude toward the human body. Exercise—in the form of either calisthenics or sports—came to be appreciated as healthy, and therefore wholesome, even for girls who might have to sacrifice some of their delicacy in the interests of good muscle tone. As early as the 1850’s an English visitor, Lady Emmeline Wortley, was amazed to observe at a New England beach young females not only bouncing up and down in the gentle summer waves but sharing them with the opposite sex. Heterosexual public skating became decent only a few years later. “Health is coming into fashion,” remarked the Atlantic Monthly for June, 1862. “A mercantile parent lately told me that already in his town if a girl could vault a five-barred gate, her prospects for a husband were considered to be improved ten per cent. …” When lawn tennis was invented in the seventies, girls insisted on being included even though it put them into an unladylike sweat (“glow,” however, was the preferred term). In the nineties they bicycled; and at last—although not until about 1910—they achieved the major breakthrough of riding horseback astride.
Some responsibility for these developments surely rests upon Louisa May Alcott, whose books were standard fare for American girls from the late i86o’s on. Her young heroines were robust and sensible—even, as in the case of Jo March, tomboyish. They came from country villages and gave themselves no airs. They coasted, ran, climbed, and romped with the boys, and they had robust and boyish appetites. In one Alcott story a group of girls consume a meal of corned beef and cabbage, baked beans and brown bread, beefsteak, potatoes, Indian pudding, and pumpkin pie “with appetites that would have destroyed their reputation as delicate young ladies if they had been seen.”
Says Rose, the heroine of Eight Cousins , to her Uncle Alec, who is a doctor, “I’m too old for running, Uncle … Miss Power said it was not ladylike for girls in their teens.”
“I take the liberty of differing from Madame Prunes and Prisms and, as your physician, I order you to run. Off with you!” says Uncle Alec, adding that Rose ought to bathe in cold water each morning, throw away her tight belt, and learn to skate and swim with her boy cousins. Eight Cousins (1886) sets forth the ideal code of behavior for ordinary American middle-class adolescents of the period. In free and guileless camaraderie boys and girls went about in groups. They played games, pulled taffy, and even went on overnight hikes. Boys were expected to behave chivalrously and girls modestly; and they usually did so, for the penalty was ostracism. Flirting was frowned on, and a girl who permitted “liberties,” such as hand holding, lost caste. Consequently a boy who wanted to hold hands or more—and there were no such boys in Miss Alcott’s books—had to look for a partner in dance halls or amusement parks.