- Looking Good: College Women and Body Image, 1875–1930
The comparative history of institutions often yields rich results, as Margaret Lowe demonstrates in her study of women’s body image and behavior at three colleges—Smith, Spelman, and Cornell—between 1895 and 1930. Similar in their dedication to women’s education, these three colleges were nonetheless different. Smith was a single-sex women’s college in rural Massachusetts; Cornell was a coeducational college in upstate New York; and Spelman was a black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia. Issues of gender and race in each environment were moulded by these fundamental distinctions.
Before World War I, given the widespread fears that intensive study would ruin young women’s health, Smith College officials emphasized exercise, sports, and robust eating. On the other hand, the administration at Spelman responded to the widespread racist belief that black women were carnal and immoral by nature by placing restrictions on student intake of food. Spelman had neither athletics nor gymnastics, but the students did labor to support the campus economy: they assisted in cooking, cleaning, and doing nursing chores. Cornell officials don’t seem to have focused on what the women ate, although most official attention went to men’s sports, and women’s teams were fielded with difficulty. Even the women students preferred to attend the men’s games as spectators rather than to participate in their own athletic activities.
Lowe takes up issues of deportment: the students at both Spelman and Cornell carefully controlled their body movements to display modesty and decorum. Spelman students did so because of the institution’s goal to make the students ladylike and to uplift the race as a way both of countering the charges of carnality lodged against African American women on the part of the Anglo American majority and of turning their students’ behavior into what they considered to be the respectable behavior of upwardly mobile members of the white middle class. They were attempting to learn that behavior through their education. Cornell students were modest and ladylike in their deportment because they were a tiny minority at the school and they wanted to avoid any harassment from the male students. Many of the male students, who didn’t want to tone down the aggressive masculinity of the college culture, didn’t want them there. One assumes that the Smith College students were freer in their behavior and body movements than the students at Spelman and Cornell, although Lowe doesn’t make that difference entirely clear.
As different as these three schools were, there were similarities among them. Fashions in dress were relatively similar at all three. By the 1890s the students at [End Page 231] Smith and Spelman and the women students at Cornell rejected the confining clothing of tight-laced corsets and trailing skirts of the current fashionable dress for simple shirtwaist blouses and dark skirts, characteristic of the reform dress of that era. By the 1920s, however, the commercial culture of beauty had become hegemonic, even among college women, and interest in dieting and current fashions in fashionable dress became a fixation among the students at all three campuses, even as fashion adopted, in the “flapper” mode, a more comfortable style of dress.
Juggling three balls in the air at the same time is no easy matter, and Lowe struggles hard at points to keep her material in order. A more comprehensive definition of what she meant by the “body” would have helped, as well as some investigation of how the young women at these three schools handled such matters as menstruation. Nor does she convince me that when Smith girls wore men’s clothing it was simply a dramatic presentation of self, as she contends. I am not persuaded by her argument that it bore no relationship to cross dressing or the creation of a homoerotic culture that ultimately possessed what we would call “lesbian” elements, especially given Helen Horowitz’s more subtle presentation of the matter in her pathbreaking Alma Mater, a study of architecture and social...