The Maturation of Margaret: Periods, Bras, and Feminism.

I wrote this paper originally for an English class that taught several Literary Approaches, one of these are the Feminist Approach. I picked Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret due to the fact I was going through my period and thought in light of the War Against Women, that it’s time to bring up periods and bras. This seminal work by Judy Blume is progressive in that children shouldn’t be kept in the dark about their growing bodies.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, the seminal YA novel by Judy Blume, has been a favorite of young women since the early 1970s. The novel centers on a 6th grade girl who moves from her native NYC to the suburbs of New Jersey, has an intimate relationship with God, and prays intensely for a bra and menstruation. So for a book about a young girl growing up and learning about issues pertaining to religion and sex, I’d better use the Psychological Approach? No. So due to the fact the book covers how girls respond to how their bodies are/or not changing and how they seem to be judged by pace these bodies change, it’s best to use the Feminist Approach. Like many Feminist writers, Judy Blume has never been able to avoid controversy due to the frank subject matter of her books. The question is about the book: What is up with the emphasis on breast size and growth mentioned in the book?

For my analysis, I’m mostly going to use the Feminist Approach, the book focuses on how the road to womanhood isn’t easy for most girls and that society is preoccupied on female breast size. So preoccupied, that bra shopping becomes a very important rite of passage and that the girls and a few male classmates feel free to comment  on chest size; how does outside  focus on the individual girl’s body influence her attitudes towards her own shape? Feminism, in the words of a favorite bumper sticker, is the radical notion that women are people; that said, Feminism is the political and social belief that women ought to be granted the same personhood as men, as well as equal rights with men. The “First Wave” of Feminism occurred during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which focused on suffrage (the right to vote) for women and changing the laws to treat women as people and not the property of their fathers and husbands. The “Second Wave” of Feminism, which occurred during the late 1960s to early 1980s, was a reaction to the Post-World War II culture’s view of women and further fought for the legal rights, reproductive rights, and social equality for all women. Other than the anti-Semitism that Margaret, her father, and perhaps a few peers must encounter; she and her classmates don’t have any crises where they’re discriminated against for their race, background, religion, skin color, or for how they must struggle to stay in school; worries that would overwhelm other girls from less privileged backgrounds along with their appearance. Yet clearly, the focus on the body does make room for tension in their group, and not without good reason other than the eternal self-consciousness of adolescence. Post war culture emphasized women’s roles as wife, mother, homemaker, and “mate” over individual women’s personalities and abilities outside of those roles; thus said about this emphasis on those roles, especially “mate” (in the sexual sense, if it wasn’t clear), the ideal body type of that era was of a busty female. The setting of the novel could easily be somewhere around the 1950s and 60’s, or as most readers conclude: during the 1969-1970 school year.

During that time, children and the media weren’t the only ones focusing on female breast size, according to the book The Body Project, parents and even the medical profession focused intensely on young girl’s figures as “vital to their future”; Laughable by modern standards, where the focus is on making sure that children don’t become obese.  But according to the many diaries and research author Joan Jacobs Brumberg conducted for her book, young girls were most self-conscious about how large or small their bosoms were and the many doctors and advertising campaigns targeting adolescent girls didn’t really help with that anxiety, it wouldn’t have helped when people close to the individual girl and the mammary-obsessed media make breasts seem very important. Margaret learned this all too well many times in the book: her bossy and boastful friend Nancy mocks Margaret and their two friends for wearing “baby bras,” Nancy  always makes vicious remarks about the amply developed Laura Danker being promiscuous, the girls are all jealous and don’t interact with Laura who is a social pariah, a boy makes a remark towards Margaret’s flat appearance in a sweater, a boy that the girls find attractive pinches Margaret on the arm remarking “that’s a pinch to grow an inch and you know where you need that pinch Margaret!” Margaret knows that society finds female bodies very important, not for their function but for their overall appearance. Margaret and her friends react to their mammary-fixated society in different ways: exercises to increase their bust lines, sometimes stuffing their training bras for special occasions, sneaking peeks at Playboy to dream about how they would look when they reach the age of the centerfolds, and warning one another to limit their interaction with Laura Danker because “ reputations are catching.”

What about Laura Danker? Clearly, the grass always seems greener on the other side; while Margaret and her friends envy Laura for being very busty and beautiful (poor girl even has long blonde hair and cat-like eyes), it isn’t easy for an 11 to 12 year old girl to physically resemble a young adult woman. There is the fact that some of the boys make it obvious about how she looks, which is evidenced by a male classmate’s rude comment to Margaret about the two girls’ appearance in a sweater; she is also the tallest kid in her class, when the class was learning how to dance, her dance partner was the schoolteacher. The reader must‘ve seen that she may be a lonely girl and that contrary to the rumors about her, she is just as inexperienced with boys her age like her female peers. It becomes obvious that it was simply unfair for Laura to bear the brunt of her female classmate’s insecurity and jealously, in a confrontation with Margaret she tells her what it’s like to be her: to wear a bra since the fourth grade, being verbally harassed by the boys in her class, classmates teasing her, and of course the implication that she’s sexually active. Obviously, Laura envies the ease that other girls’ breasts develop, even at the flat-chested Margaret who would be found attractive for reasons other than her body and wouldn’t face the ridicule and suspicion that comes with Laura’s body.  Why are the girls so mean and catty towards Laura? Perhaps the fact that girls and women have somehow had instilled in them, the idea that they must compete with other women rather than act like sisters towards them. Because it’s more important to catch your man; also that other women are mostly your competition and you must defeat them. It’s also all about jealousy and perhaps resentment that they fall short of the mark on beauty ideals: instead of attacking those ideals, they give poor Laura Danker (a total success in their eyes) a hard time.

The novel is about young girls coming of age in a patriarchal and capitalist society. The girls know that their bodies matter in this culture the road to womanhood is long and will be painful, they’ll always be judged by their breast size no matter how large or small, and that some girls turn against same-gendered peers. Learning all these lessons about human behavior helps Margaret to become more mature towards interacting with others. Margaret at the end of this book learns to be more discerning on what people tell her and triumphantly enters menarche. As soon as she has learned all these lessons about human behavior and grows up in her own behavior, she becomes physically and mentally more mature. Menstruation is a sign that not only reached physical womanhood, but that she is no longer the little girl who naively trusted other’s opinions. She matures in several ways: she learns that it’s never easy for a woman no matter her breast size, she doesn’t cut ties with Nancy Wheeler but is a lot more cautious about the girl’s character, she gains a close friend in Janie, she is once more comfortable with her spiritual rather than religious relationship with God, she slowly learns to make her own opinions and decisions even if it doesn’t mesh with her group, and learns a lot more about her own family. It seems as though Margaret will enter camp a more emotionally and physically mature girl and bond with friends she always knew.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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