Eight Cousins: health and welfare – what should women do for beauty?

Rose goes through the goodies in the box Uncle Alec gave her; Aunt Peace looks on. Illustration by Robert Doremus (1955)

Just a quickie today from Eight Cousins, chapter 5, “A Belt and a Box.”

First, the Belt

Uncle Alec jumped right in with regards to Rose’s health and welfare by suggesting that she take a run. He noticed her panting and suggested she loosen her belt so that she could breathe more deeply. It turned into a treatise about about true beauty and happiness as he compared her to Phebe, the girl from the poorhouse whom she was so attracted to (and who was very robust):

“If you dear little girls would only learn what real beauty is, and not pinch and starve and bleach yourselves out so, you’d save an immense deal of time and money and pain. A happy soul in a healthy body makes the best sort of beauty for man or woman.” (bold italic is my emphasis)

Suffering for beauty

Doesn’t that sound like something straight out of today’s headlines regarding teenage girls and anorexia/bulimia? Nothing much has changed, has it? And on a smaller scale, think of the 3 to 5 inch heels women wear (and endure) so their legs will look better. Remember Madonna stumbling on her heels during the Super Bowl half time show?

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me – women doing extreme things to themselves in order to achieve a certain kind of beauty (and all of this approved of and encouraged by society) has been going on since women came to be! I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: Louisa had an uncanny ability to tap into about topics that transcend time. It’s no wonder new generations of readers keep finding her.

The voice of the author

Alec really does have Louisa’s voice. It makes  sense since she thought more in male terms rather than female (although she definitely had her own vanities, especially regarding clothes and hair). Sometimes I think I do too even though I never had the physical ability to live the life of a tomboy (I just lived it in my head).

And then, the Box

Later, we come upon the “box” where Rose is showered with treasures. She thinks of her new friend Phebe and wants to share her goodies with her as if Phebe were her sister. “Adoption” is the way and Phebe is deeply touched by the gesture. Sure, it’s a corny scene but Rose’s impulsive generosity and affection for Phebe is very cool.

Do you think Alec is Louisa in male form? What did you think of his advice to Rose?

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13 Replies to “Eight Cousins: health and welfare – what should women do for beauty?”

  1. When I first read the book I thought that Uncle Alec was Louisa. You could hear her no nonsense approach to fashion and health. I don’t remember which book it was, but Rose gets a new dress from her aunts, and Louisa’s description of it made me laugh.

    1. It’s funny too because I doubt many women authors could get away with being the voice of the main male character. But Tomboy Louy sure could!

      Louisa may have found writing “moral pap for the young” a chore but it seems she often found subtle ways to get the last laugh.

  2. Hm, I feel like my connection to some of Alec’s health reforms might eventually morph into a blog post of my own, but I’ll use this as a rough sketch.

    Speaking of that belt, slenderness and anorexia… I remember coming across a book in the library about “religious” female anorexics in America (I can’t remember the exact era, but I think around the turn of the century). Throughout history the female form has been objectified, and there are ever-changing and impossible standards, and yet a spiritual asceticism tells girls they will never be good if they have a healthy appetite.

    Do you know of any information about what Louisa and her mother taught about fashionable clothing? Do you know if she was reading doctors or feminists who were revealing the deleterious nature of fashion? I grew up Seventh-day Adventist and the church pioneer and visionary, Ellen White, wrote extensively on the health risks of the era’s fashion. The first time I ever read “Eight Cousins” I was struck by the similarities of the books’ “health message” and “dress reform” to that advocated in Adventism at roughly the same time. Of course, I suppose there were many health reformers agitating along the same lines, and perhaps both women read some of the same sources.

    Have you gotten to the chapter where Rose gets a new costume yet? (I haven’t, I’m just anticipating.) If I do a blog post on this stuff, I’m going to be pulling together pictures/drawings of fashions and what Rose’s new “costume” may have looked like.

    By the way, I haven’t read any bios, so I’m curious about LMA’s “vanities” that you mention.

    1. I do not know of anything other than what Louisa inserted into her books with regards to fashion but I have posted the question to a listserv of people who might know and if and when someone replies, I will get back to you on this. Your theory is very interesting!

      Despite being a tomboy, Louisa was apparently very into fashion but wouldn’t indulge herself (not feeling worthy or pretty enough?); instead she indulged May. Especially when she was young and in Boston, she spent a lot of time window shopping and became very familiar with the details of fashion. She herself would only wear muted colors of grey (although she would indulge in silk dresses which she loved). The detailed descriptions in her books are the result of her interest.

    1. Wow, great post! I have an update regarding fashion that I plan to post soon and I’m going to add your blog link to that post.

      Love the pictures!

    2. p.s. thanks for the mention on your blog. 🙂

      On Fri, Feb 17, 2012 at 9:51 AM, Susan Bailey wrote:

      > Wow, great post! I have an update regarding fashion that I plan to post > soon and I’m going to add your blog link to that post. > > Love the pictures! > >

  3. I don’t think Alec is Louisa per say but more the voice of Transcendentalism and the reform movement. In neighboring Providence, RI in the mid-19th century there was a movement of women studying women’s health. Paulina Wright Davis edited a radical women’s periodical and lectured on the effects of corsets and child bearing on women’s bodies complete with an anatomically correct model ordered from France. She spoke to “promiscuous” audiences of men and women. The group didn’t last long though the thoughts remain.

    1. Indeed! Just having an anatomically correct model on display must have been considered scandalous. You have to admire women like Paulina Wright Davis who so fervently believed in the message they conveyed that they would risk scandal.

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