Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy Of Hating Your Body
By Courtney E. Martin
Published by Free Press; New York, April 2007: 332 pp.
So this is what our daughters think of us. I’m a member of the second wave of feminism, who has a daughter not that much younger than 25-year-old author Courtney E. Martin, who is a self-described third wave feminist. Martin and I even share the same Alma Mater (Barnard College), and I shudder to think that it’s totally our fault that we’re the reason for the epidemic of eating disorders that plagues this generation of young women and girls.
But that’s pretty much what Martin says in this book. Although she acknowledges other culprits, such as the impact of popular culture—with those stick-thin models and impossible-to-wear fashions for any woman with a non-prepubescent body—sports competition for the first Title IX generation, the gym obsession, television and film images, fathers’ mixed messages, even other girls’ snarky comments to one another as part of the—sometimes–ruthlessly unforgiving middle school and high societies, there’s no escaping the relentless indictment of mothers.
Consider this harsh assessment: “My generation sees our mothers’ lives for what they are—often well-intentioned but failed experiments at being superwomen. Their bodies were the casualties of so many of these experiments.” Ouch. As an emphatically non-superwoman who never wore a power suit and abandoned the corporate world within two years of graduating from college (and whose daughter has a blessedly healthy attitude towards food and her body image), I realize I shouldn’t take what Martin writes personally.
But it’s hard not to, especially when I think about some of my younger relatives who are image-obsessed and on the verge of being too thin, or the high school and college-age daughters of some of my friends who’ve had their bouts with eating disorders. Did we, as a generation, really do that much harm?
Martin clearly thinks so. Part of the problem, she asserts, is that too many mothers told their daughters that they “could do anything one wanted”, with limitless potential. The shadow message, as it were, that daughters heard was to be perfect in every way possible, whether it was SATs, GPA, athletic triumphs, or a svelte body. Writes Martin, “We despise nothing more than weakness.”
Instead of changing the world, many of these young women are preoccupied with themselves and what they’ve achieved and how they look. It’s no surprise, then, that Martin writes, “We can’t look up and out because we are too busy looking down…my friends and I harbor black holes at the center of our beings…A perfect girl must always be a starving daughter because there is never enough—never enough accomplishment.”
Further, Martin observes, “Our bodies are the place where our drive for perfection gets played out.” She cites one study of 1,300 women that shows about half of them are obsessive perfectionists.
Is there a solution? Martin suggests that letting go of their insatiable need to be “perfect”, however it’s defined, is a start. “Perfection and thinness are not your most potent sources of authentic power; your potential is.” She offers a useful resource guide, (who knew there was something called Size Acceptance Activism?) as well as a reader’s guide, co-authored with her mother, Jere E. Martin, a social worker, with questions to help readers identify their own sense of self and body image.
One doesn’t have to agree with her analysis even her conclusions. This is worth reading—even if it makes you angry.#