For Health and Beauty: Physical Culture for Frenchwomen, 1880s-1930s

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In late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century France the idea of physical culture emerged, promising health and beauty but also seeking to promote women's fertility in a period of declining population. Going beyond the simple argument that women's bodily standards and practices were altered by such cultural disciplines as education, medicine, journalism, and advertising, Mary Lynn Stewart argues that these disciplines needed to change their own messages in their attempts to persuade women. As Stewart demonstrates, internal contradictions in the experts' advice, especially concerning issues of sexuality and reproduction, failed to convince women to follow all of their counsel-particularly the most persistent advice, which was to have more children. In For Health and Beauty, Stewart reviews the new scientific and medical attention to women's bodies during the Third Republic and traces the growing emphasis on women's private hygiene as the basis for public hygiene. She then examines compulsory education in hygiene and gymnastics, the flourishing genre of women's medical and sexual self-help literature, and the commercialization of health, beauty, and fitness products-all contributing to new scientific and commercial representations of the female body. In both the scientific and popular works, including women's autobiographical writings, bodily ideals changed from rounded, plump figures to straighter, slimmer contours, and from relatively immobile to relatively active bodies.