Sexualising the Body
Compared with the cross-gender identifications with parents and with the elements of degendering that characterise the childhood of the middle generation, their period of youth is described in surprisingly gendered terms. If the eldest generation could be described as having become gendered within their families, the middle generation instead became gendered among their peers during adolescence. The strengthening of the youthful gender script in this period is closely connected with the new flourishing youth cultures, and young people becoming a new and important consumer group (see Chap. 4). This does not in itself, however, explain what feelings of gender these new practices could possibly connect to. Is there a link between the marked sexualisation of the body in this generation and the ambivalences towards one’s own gender in a time when gender was still a strong symbolic and structural reality? For the men, it appears that the same-sex peers became a more important model for masculinity than fathers, who were not only more absent than before, but also too ‘old-fashioned’ to emulate in these new, dynamic times. For the women, both female friends and heterosexual relations appear to have become important sources of closeness as well as liberation from their mothers. These gendered peer relations were to a large degree mediated through bodily practices.
The men in this generation perceived, as their fathers did, their bodies as unproblematic: ‘No, I cant remember that being a problem. It has been fine’ is Helge’s immediate response when asked about how he experienced his body when he came of age. The self-evident body is no longer connected with the mentality of work, but rather with sports and physical competitions, which seem to have replaced work as the arena for masculine physical achievements. But the insistence on body strength coming ‘naturally’ is the same as in the previous generation, implying, for instance, that bodybuilding is scorned as effeminate ‘self-indulgence’.
In one respect the body has become a more explicitly male issue in this generation, which is evident in the worry about what their bodies reveal about their masculine sexual identity, and especially whether their genitals were masculine enough. When Knut in the oldest generation was asked about puberty, he started talking about the war instead. When his son Kjell is asked the same question, he relates in detail to his own bodily insecurity:
Yes, I remember quite a bit of that ... To go into the shower and see ... I remember well that it was difficult to have a smaller willy than some of the others. Than many, maybe. I didn’t have hair down there either, as one should.
So I was probably abnormal. I don’t know if I was scared, but I was definitely very insecure and unsure whether I was like everybody else. And then we read that this willy was supposed to be hard around the clock. And if it didn’t do that then it was definitely no good. You were supposed to be very tough. I wasn’t tough and didn’t have a hard-on around the clock either. And then one after another started going to bed with girls. If it was true or not, in retrospect ... there were probably lots of lies. I found this hard and I guess I experienced an insecure puberty. I probably did. (Kjell, b. 1946)
This bodily uncertainty also involves competition among the boys: comparing penis size in the school shower is a dark memory for many. There are also stories of hurtful ignorance and embarrassment, for instance, when it came to buying condoms. Thus, we are able to discern a new vul- nerability—and therefore objectification—in contrast to the ‘self-evident’ body of the men in the eldest generation, but it is also an objectification that puts more emphasis on sexuality.
However, the sexualising of the body is much stronger when the men talk about the female body and in the importance they give to the physical attractiveness of women. For instance, this is seen in the way they formulate their ideals for the woman of their dreams. Whereas their fathers, when asked about such ideals, either went silent or vaguely gestured towards their own wives, the men in this generation readily offered details concerning breasts, figure, hairstyles, hair colour and so on—often with reference to film icons. Sometimes this focus on female bodies is depicted in the interviews as a sort of youthful sin, which later in life becomes disturbing in relation to ideas of gender equality. Kjell tells us that he was body-obsessed as a young man, dreaming about girls with long hair and big breasts. His ideal of a woman has evolved since then, he says, but evidently some of the old dreams are still alive:
If I have to pick an ideal, it has to be a woman who ... who has courage and
audacity ... who is highly intelligent... who is engaged, and who is attractive.
Not necessarily as beautiful as a film star, but she must have large breasts.
For the women in the middle generation too, the body is much more in focus than for the women in the eldest generation, and much more problematic than for the men in their own generation. The relation to the generative body is now the least of the problem. Half of the women were informed by their mothers in advance and the rest knew about it from their friends. Puberty is discursively installed as a life phase and questions about ‘when did you feel that you were grown-up?’ are most often answered with ‘my first period’, in contrast with the eldest generation, who mentioned their confirmation and end of school when asked the same question. In this generation it is also less problematic to tell the mother about what had happened and get her to help with sanitary belts and pads. The experience of menstruation is more varied than it was among their mothers, who all felt that it was a ‘curse’. Most of the daughters are clearly ambivalent—menstruation is a nuisance but also a fact of life.
The sexualisation and gendering of the body become most evident in the women’s intense beauty routines. Compared with their mothers’ innocent joy of getting new dresses and shoes, the practices of the women in this generation are much more elaborate and detailed. There is quite a lot of pleasure in this kind of beauty work, which was often done together with female friends. Fashion, consumption and a more sexualised youth culture are all involved in this process—and both the lack of same-sex generational bonds and the heightened levels of conflict between daughters and mothers may promote the insistent wish to be different and to preside over their own bodies and looks. However, in the overwhelming number of cases, the project is described as a hopeless affair. Almost all the women remember having very negative feelings about their own bodies as young girls, and their stories circle around the new concept of ‘flaws’, a word only used by the women in our interviews in this generation. The contrast to the men is striking: the image of the relatively unproblematic bodies, where only penis size and embarrassment when purchasing condoms were issues to worry about, is countered by the women’s long list of flaws, complaining about being too big, too fat, too tall, too thin, too flat-chested, having too big a nose or too large a space between the front teeth. ‘I got nowhere with my looks, Dagny’s daughter Drude says, even if her mother—like most of the upper middle-class mothers—told her that she was pretty. Even women who show us pictures of themselves as lovely young girls remember how unhappy they were with their appearances. This is also the first generation that mentions dieting and exercising to keep their weight down. Olaug kept a record of her weight and always compared it to ‘Miss Norway’s’, of whom she had a picture on her wall in her bedroom. Some of the women remember weight loss that would have been understood as eating disorders today, but at that time their parents just wondered if they might have some caught some infection that caused them to lose weight.
Youth in this generation coincided with the period of the ‘sexual revolution’, which obviously had an impact with regard to both discourse and behaviour, but again in quite gender-specific ways. No one in this generation waits to have sex until they are engaged or married, but for the women, their first time is most often with the partner they later marry, whereas for the men it is not. The fear of pregnancy is present for both genders and it appears to have been well founded, since the use of contraceptives is quite haphazard. The dread of pregnancy is in this generation not due to social shame, as it was for the women in the previous generation, but threatened freedom. Pregnancy meant that one ‘had to marry’, and quite a few of both the men and the women in our sample experienced exactly this.
The looser norms seem to have left this generation in a void concerning what one should and should not do. The sharp line between nice and cheap girls that guided the informants in the eldest generation has become blurred. A new division between ‘fun’ girls and ‘dull’ girls arises. The ‘fun’ girls are the popular ones, the ones attractive to boys and the ones who are always invited to parties. The middle-class girls in our sample mainly chose the safety of ‘being smart’, resigning themselves to the fact that this also made them bores. Drude kissed a boy she did not know from before on her high school graduation trip to Copenhagen in 1958 and had severe moral qualms afterwards. When she later, at 23 years old, was pondering having sex with her steady boyfriend, she had pangs of doubt. She consulted her mother Dagny, who, as a liberal and educated woman, thought it was quite OK as long as Drude felt it was a serious relationship. But this only added to Drude’s ruminations because then she had to think about whether the relation was serious enough. The absence of moral standards seems to have promoted reflections on personal morality, which again led to more variation in behaviour. Vigdis, a working- class girl born in 1951, recalls: ‘I pondered a lot: what can one do? What cant one do? What do the others do? What can I do? Some girls, like Drude, became extremely careful; others took advantage of the liberal norms and went around searching for exciting boys. But that the sexual pressure on girls became much stronger than in the previous generation is beyond doubt. Many of the working-class girls whose sexual respectability was more vulnerable than that of the middle-class girls solved the problem by entering into steady relationships at an early age (see also Skeggs 1997).
Also among the men in this generation, we sense some confusion about what rules the girls followed and how to interpret the signals from them. Quite a few of the men experienced as young boys falling in love with a girl and being rejected for reasons they did not understand. The working-class boy Jan (b. 1947), says that ‘infatuations are actually really painfUl. You become a volcano, violent forces really. Emotions that you think you don’t have, right. That enter [laughs]. For some of them, this meant giving up intimacy and instead going for all the sex they could get. But the sexual debut could be embarrassing, and the rules of conduct when it comes to sex were not experienced as clear-cut either. The working-class boy Geir describes his sexual debut quite defensively:
It wasn’t rape, it wasn’t. She wanted to, but it wasn’t quite 100per cent OK, I remember that. Struggled a little, but I don’t know if that was to, what do you say, play hard to get or something. It never quite dawned on me ... We were making out... and you can feel her body underneath the clothes and all that, and you begin to undress her, and, it’s fine that there’s a limit sooner or later, you knew that because you’d been there before. But when the whole thing, there was no raised finger or verbal protest, nothing like that. It was more like giggling and laughing, and as I said, if it had been rape, I’d have known. But for me... I was sure she was holding back to tease me. That was my experience. But when the clothes were off and stuff, it had to be OK. (Geir, b.1948)
Confused or not, what clearly has changed in this generation of men is that the feelings of guilt or shame that were so obvious among the eldest generation of men have disappeared, and the fear of hurting the girl also seems to have diminished. Almost all of the men had their first heterosexual intercourse outside a steady relationship. It is often talked about as a fun story about youthful clumsiness, finished on the way in, but also involving excitement and ‘violently good feelings. Some of the men are rather brutal—they seem to have grabbed whatever was offered them, but afterwards they describe these sexually active women as almost nymphomaniac, and not girlfriend material. Sexuality is clearly anchored in the body—almost what the male body is all about—and yet is also seen as a separate thing, not really a part of the man himself. Helge comments on his own youthful sexuality in this way: ‘sex is something the body came up with. Their choice of marriage seems to have come as a rather pragmatic decision, not involving a lot of romantic feelings. Some of the men dreaded the idea of losing their freedom, some ‘had to marry’, while others realised that the time had come. Seen in retrospect the men do not recommend the split between intimacy and sexuality that guided their youth. More than half of them divorced later and stress that it was only in their second marriage that they learned about the value of closeness and intimate relations. This process should probably be seen in the light of the changing discourses of both sexuality and gender relations in the period, but perhaps the psychological roots of the dilemma could also be found in the cross-identifications with their mothers?
Whereas the men occupy the new youth cultural arena with gusto, sexuality is not discussed in terms of female desire and satisfaction at all. Just like the men, the women reject the possibility of female initiative when they were young girls: ‘not even thinking about it, as one of them puts it. Some of the women use the euphemism of being ‘swept off their feet to describe their infatuations, but we are a far cry from the more or less uncontrollable lust that the men in this generation describe. On the contrary, the heterosexual debut of the women is often depicted as rather indifferent or even hurtful. The most important and almost only legitimate reason for sex among the young women is to be in love, and romance is a much more elaborated theme among the women in this generation than in the previous one, where only some of the middle- class women talked about it. Yet this focus on romantic love often had a somewhat instrumental touch to it: across social class, the young women’s relationships with boyfriends often became part of the liberation from parents. That this relatively unprotected journey out into the world is quite risky is not so surprising given the stories we heard from the men. In some of our interviewees’ cases the risks involved rape and abortions, with all the humiliation, anxiety and bodily pains that these involved. The route to autonomy could also lead to a new asymmetrical relationship where the young woman found herself controlled by her boyfriend instead of her parents. Kirsten describes a psychologically invading mother as well as a controlling father, depicting her own ‘restless’ and ‘wild youth as a way out. At 16 she became involved in a gang where the older boys were attractive, not least because of their access to cars. As a grown-up, her description of this exciting life is still enthusiastic:
We drove around, Opel... huge car, it was very exciting, but I was only about seventeen years old myself. down to the centre, of course, people-watching and going to the Main Square, and... in winter we drove to this other place outside the city centre and drifted around there, it was very exciting, it was quite cool because not that many of us were allowed to have a car, and this guy was . nineteen. (Kirsten, b. 1953)
Alas, Kirsten’s wild youth only lasted a year as she became pregnant and the two families—her own and her boyfriend’s—arranged for the young couple to get married. This marriage did not last, since the young man proved to be both irresponsible and childish, never taking care of the baby but remaining one of the boys. In retrospect it is hard for her and many of the women in this generation to explain why they chose the men they did, and almost half of the early marriages ended in divorce.
The paradoxical liberation through sexuality on the men’s terms seems to have implied stronger gender differentiation and heterosexual norma- tivity among young women in this generation, in spite of their identification with their fathers and disidentification with their mothers. Yet, the lack of clear-cut moral guidelines also resulted in a stronger awareness of their own responsibility and a potential reflexivity with regard to the double standards involved. This may have instigated the frustration that for this generation of women would not remain a subdued irritation in the way it did for their mothers.