Tuesday, January 06, 2009

On a Break due to Culture Shock

Laura Vivanco
  • Oh come on, you know you’ve wondered about this too…you’re reading a really great romance, it’s the morning after the big love scene, the hero rolls over and tries to feel for the heroine’s tonsils with his tongue and all you can think is…ew, morning breath! (Angela James, at Romancing the Blog, 2008)

  • "She was the most normal woman on the planet. Her idea of wild living was to pay for a pedicure instead of doing it herself" (heroine of Susan Mallery's The Sheik and The Virgin Secretary, quoted by me during a discussion at Dear Author)
  • As you can readily tell from commercials, Americans have been taught that the natural smells of people's bodies and breath are unpleasant. Most Americans bathe or shower daily (or more often if they engage in vigorous exercise), use an underarm deodorant, and brush their teeth at least twice a day. In addition, they may rinse with a mouthwash or chew mints or gum in order to be sure their breath is free of food odors. They will not wear the same clothes more than once during a week, often discarding them to be washed after one use.

    It is common for women to shave their legs and underarms and to use a small quantity of perfume every day. (New York University's Office for International Students and Scholars, page on "The American body")
  • I recently re-read Linda Howard's Midnight Rainbow. My first reading was when it came out in 1988. I could not remember any of it but found it just OK. The heroine and her rescuer are being chased, and nearly caught, in the jungles of central America and at one point spend the night in someone's home. The heroine has a bath and shaves her legs and underarms. Now I find this rather a rather silly thing to do when you are being chased for your life.

    I have noticed this 'shaving of legs' in odd circumstances happening in other books and it makes me think of the heroines as people with their priorities wrong. (Sally in Scotland, (from Scotland, UK) posting to AAR, in 2009)
  • It's a book by an American author featuring presumably an American heroine. And in the US (going by your username, I assume you're not from the US), removing one's body hair is much more de rigeur than in Europe, as you can probably tell by some of the comments here. So to this American heroine, her priorities are not screwed up at all - body hair actually does make her feel dirty.

    Had I read the book and come across this scene, I would probably have rolled my eyes and thought, "Look. The American obsession with body hair strikes again."

    But then, Linda Howard does have a tendency to go a bit too much into details regarding body image issues that can be alienating to non-American readers. In the otherwise fine Cover of Night, for example, not only is there an anachronistic sex scene in a cave in the woods in the middle of a snowstorm, while the hero and heroine are running for their life (well, at least they did keep warm that way, though I still think they should have waited till they got to safety), there is also a detailed description of the hero's circumcised penis - an instant turnoff when you happen to come from a country where circumcisions are only performed for religious reasons and thus pretty rare. (reply to Sally in Scotland by Cora (from Germany), at AAR)
  • Why is it the case (and I’m generalising here) that British women spend so little time and effort on looking after them-selves? Take, for example, Helena Bonham Carter, a spectacular example of the English rose. And yet she is regularly photographed looking like a bag of spanners. Can you imagine a similar photo of the American equivalent, say Michelle Pfeiffer? Absolutely not.

    As with many societal ills, I blame the parents. British mothers do not instruct their daughters the way American mothers do. In the US, beauty treatments appear to be a large part of their growing-up experience. A trip to the beauty salon is a group event for girls, an opportunity for a gossip and a catchup. (Ted Safran (an American), writing in The Times, in 2007)
  • So if I were to go on a date with him I’d be supposed to be tweaked, groomed, waxed, tanned, yoga-ed, facial-ed etc at a cost of around £350 a month, and his equivalent would be a clean shirt, a shave and a tooth-brush?

    Yeah, *that’s* a guy I’d be interested in pursuing a relationship with. (response to Safran's article by Imogen Howsen (from the UK), at the Smart Bitches)
  • Effie [the wife of John Ruskin] accepted her husband's explanations for the lack of physical love.

    She told her father in 1854 that she had "never been told the duties of married persons to each other and [knew] little or nothing about their relations in the closest union on earth".

    Eventually, her husband confessed. "He had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was ... he was disgusted by my person," she recalled.

    In other words, Ruskin, the high arbiter of mid-Victorian artistic taste, was consumed with the smooth-curved ideal of womanhood objectified in the classical statues of his beloved Italy and was revolted by Effie's pubic hair. (2007 article in The Independent)

The photo is from Wikimedia Commons and is of a "Statue of the type of the Capitoline Venus. Marble, Roman copy of ca. 100-150 CE after a Hellenistic variant of the Cnidian Venus. Excavated in 1794 by Robert Fagan at Campo Iemini, near Torvaianica, Lazio, Italy."


  1. Ha! This is awesome.

    I just joined my local historical society (I live off of the oldest road in the country) and have plans on making a corset and colonial garb to be a docent at one of the houses in the society's care. If you've been to Colonial Williamsburg you know that the actors don't come out of character. Well a friend and I were talking about how fun it would be to slyly show the female visitors all of the clothing colonial ladies had to wear, including knitted and tied stockings, but how would I go about my shaved legs! and then I thought well, that's stupid, women didn't shave their legs then, but I knew that they would look askance at my lack of shaved legs in public-even though I was dressed in period costume. Then I wondered-is it too intimate?

    I've been married fo 14 years and my Dh could care less if I shave my legs or not, and he hates when I wear perfume (no, we're not tree huggers) and I hate when he wears deodorant. He showers every day, and I like the smell of his skin. But is all of that shaving and waxing and perfuming another layer between us all? Does it protect us from being too intimate? It may have started out as a remedy to wearing pomanders and lack of bathing in general, but what has all of this fanatic self care become?

    Your post was very timely for me, thank you for more food for thought!

  2. Poor Effie. I hope she divorced him or had an affair with someone who knew how to love the female body.

    Just one data point, but I'm an American girl who doesn't feel "dirty" when my legs are unshaved. Quite the opposite, when it's necessary to denude them they feel so bald.

  3. ...Wikipedia tells me she did leave him! And for a painter, no less! Way to go, Effie! I hope you had gobs of really good sex with him.

  4. Great stuff! When was the New York University's Office for International Students and Scholars published? (Is that modern or historical?) Really interesting how these cultural norms can affect our reading expectations (or enjoyment!). Thanks for compiling this. I love your site!

  5. Thanks all!

    The NYU advice is current, Laurie. It's in a section titled "Beyond NYU" which NYU provide for their overseas students. They write that "As a new student at NYU, you may feel that you need to know everything at once. That is not possible. This section is designed to help you find your way one step at a time." The bit I quoted from in my post is from the subsection on "Cultural issues."