Courtney Martin’s new book, “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,” addresses a topic that affects every single one of us, female or male, young or old, brown or white, rich or poor. It is a book about the physical, and, more importantly, mental effects of our obsession with being thin. Going beyond the usual reasons of how society influences our behavior, Martin candidly, and at times, poetically, explores the hidden world of our deepest, darkest, desires to be perfect. While the book focuses primarily on young women, it applies equally to those of us women in our thirties and older, as well as men who are increasingly adopting dangerous eating habits themselves or are surrounded by women they love who are anorexic/bulimic or on the verge.
“Perfect girls” are intelligent, high-achieving, often athletic, and effortlessly thin – or so they would like to seem. But inside each perfect girl is a starving daughter who is aching to fill a void inside herself, who binges and purges with regularity, or who counts every calorie and skips meals toward starvation. This analysis by Martin aims at a particularly vulnerable place for every single one of us. We all know the psyche of the perfect girl and the starving daughter. We have either been there ourselves or are surrounded by people who have. Refreshingly in her book Courtney Martin reveals her own past struggles with being on the verge of an eating disorder.
The only rational reason for wanting to lose weight, says Martin, is for health reasons. Yet, the drastic measures many women (and increasingly men) take to lose weight are anything but healthy. Yo-yo dieting strains the heart, over-exercising ruins the joints, constant starving and malnutrition worsens the immune system, bingeing and purging causes gastro-intestinal problems, anorexia while pregnant increases the chances of birth defects, and so on.
On the other hand, eating sensibly, while occasionally indulging in a glass of wine, or a slice of chocolate cake is far more healthy. A regular and reasonable exercise regimen of 3-5 hours a week improves the immune system, maintains a healthy heart, etc, etc. But, it may not be enough to make those among us who are naturally heavy, appear skinny. So our image-conscious, skinny-obsessed society condemns us to perceptions of laziness, ill-health, and avarice. When in fact it is likely the other way around. Worse, our society rewards the emaciated, the bony, and the unrealistically proportioned among us. Hence, it rewards starvation, body obsession, and ultimately, ill-health.
But who among us has not observed our thick waistlines in the mirror and balked in disgust? Who among us has not skipped a meal as a result of that disgust? And who among us, after feeling starved for a few days, has not broken down and consumed a pint of ice cream or a package of cookies? The only ones among us who are effortlessly thin are those who are genetically pre-programmed to be so. They are the lucky ones whose DNA has hit the jackpot in our thin-rewarding-era. No matter what or how much this small minority eats, they remain skinny. The rest of us pretend we are really naturally skinny people trapped in the bodies of outwardly normal people. We want our battles with weight, when they are successful, to seem effortless, as though we too are among those pre-programmed by our DNA to be thin and thus powerful. But eventually we have to face our truths and our bodies as they are. And we have to love ourselves as we are.
But it is SO damn hard when everywhere around us women are pictured on billboards as stick figures coveted by all, filled not with flesh, but power. These emaciated women, whose thighs are the size of my upper arms, are physically waif-like, but appear omnipotent. And if the women in the magazines and on billboards are not really as skinny as they are supposed to be, a little creative Photo-shopping will do the trick! Such images must make even the models and actresses themselves unable to live up to their air-brushed selves. And if they can’t who can?
One of the most disturbing things Martin reveals near the end of her book is the increasing prevalence of pro-Anorexia and pro-Bulimia websites run by and for young women looking for positive affirmation of their endless pursuit of skinniness. The sites are short-handedly called “pro-ana” and “pro-mia.” Imagine if alcoholics began posting to one another about the pleasures of their addictions, happy to have found a community of like-minded drunks!
Three times a week I sweat away at a local gym, lifting weights, dancing on steps, struggling to lose my pregnancy weight. I often notice the bodies of two of my instructors in particular – women taut with muscle but also fleshy. They teach up to 4 classes a day at various local gyms. I envy their bodies but then realize that I would have to match their grueling exercise routines in order to get where they are – and these two women are not even skinny enough for MTV or Cosmo! And then I wonder – what would their bodies look like if they didn’t work as exercise instructors, spending 3-4 hours, 5-6 days a week, working out? Perhaps they would look like mine.
And if I spent all that time working out, I would have little time left in the day to play with my son, cook a creative meal, enjoy eating it with my husband, read books like Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and, of course, write blogs like this. I would spend more time worrying about my appearance than enjoying my brief time on this earth. I would waste away striving for a perfection that is illusory and more painful than it is worth. No thanks.
I highly recommend Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters to parents of young girls who may have started to become self-conscious about their growing bellies and hips, friends of “perfect girls” who seem to be disappearing in front of their eyes, and anyone who has ever personally struggled with their weight.
For more information about Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and its author, Courtney Martin, visit www.courtneyemartin.com.
NOTE: I interviewed Courtney about her book when it first came out in hard cover last year. Read/listen to the interview here.