Journal of the History of Sexuality 12.2 (2003) 329-333
[Access article in PDF]
For Health and Beauty: Physical Culture for Frenchwomen, 1880s-1930s. By MARY LYNN STEWART. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. xii + 274. $47.00 (cloth).
The elegance of Parisian women is the stuff of legends: carefully coiffed, delicately scented, exquisitely attired, they evoke the admiration of many, the astonishment of almost all. And, as Mary Lynn Stewart's thoughtful, deeply researched work, For Health and Beauty: Physical Culture for Frenchwomen, 1880s-1930s, demonstrates, this much-acclaimed elegance is neither accidental nor illusionary. Indeed, the Parisienne of popular imagination came into existence at the end of the nineteenth century, when the affluent bourgeois women of the French Third Republic (1870-1940) were subjected to a multifaceted cultural project, the object of which was to impress upon them the importance of physical well-being, personal appearance, and sexual allure. In an age obsessed by a declining birthrate, persuaded by Pasteur's germ theory of the virtues of cleanliness, and influenced by scientific advances in endocrinology, women's health, beauty, and reproductive capacity became subjects of national discussion. Physicians and pharmacists, magazine editors and moralists, politicians and public school reformers all contributed to a national debate, the goal of which was to convince women of their responsibility to protect their health, preserve [End Page 329] their beauty, and produce children. The objective of For Health and Beauty is to analyze and understand how the discourses thus generated in science, medicine, commerce, pedagogy, and politics came to define the nature of the female body in France between 1880 and 1940 and how women—especially the bourgeoises, who were most susceptible to these messages—absorbed, internalized, and in some key ways rejected the messages about femininity and maternity implicit in these discursive practices. Although some women accepted new norms of personal cleanliness and many embraced the siren call of cosmetic beauty, most rejected the natalist imperative to procreate. However insistent the public discourse, Frenchwomen were not convinced that their first and most compelling responsibility was to have more and more babies. Stewart contends that they ignored this call because of ambiguities and contradictions inherent in the discursive practices to which they were exposed. While magazines and advertising offered women ways to maintain their sexual attractiveness, especially important in a society where newly instituted divorce legislation made women "of a certain age" fearful that their husbands would leave them for more nubile wives, marriage manuals and mothers told young women more about the pain of childbirth than the pleasure of sexual embrace.
Defined according to the norms of long-established artistic tradition and the unexamined scientific assumption of sexual hierarchy, female physiology was consistently interpreted within the cultural framework of sexual dimorphism according to which men were superior—physically stronger and mentally smarter—and women inferior. Almost completely excluded from the institutions of science that propagated these beliefs, women were rarely creators of this collective knowledge about the female body, but they became familiar with it through courses taught to secondary school teachers, through advertising, and through the poster art of urban life, which celebrated a slim female physique reminiscent of Greek art. If the famous statues of the Louvre were taken to be timeless in their beauty, the women of the late nineteenth century were encouraged to be ageless in theirs. Advances in endocrinology made the achievement of ageless beauty seem ever more likely; at the same time, the cultural belief that menopause represented "the supreme disaster for femininity" (139) made its attainment ever more necessary. Contemporary readers, aware of current debates about the merits or dangers of hormone-replacement therapy, will be fascinated by Stewart's description of "hormone therapy" in late nineteenth-century France, when men were injected with testosterone and women were encouraged to undergo ovary transplants, all in the elusive pursuit of eternal youth. Less radical remedies were more widely marketed, and doctors and cosmetic companies, playing on the real or imagined anxieties of menopausal women, promoted cosmetic remedies intended to preserve the appearance...