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Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body

4.2 6
by Courtney E. Martin

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"Why does every one of my friends have an eating disorder, or, at the very least, a screwed-up approach to food and fitness?" writes journalist Courtney E. Martin. The new world culture of eating disorders and food and body issues affects virtually all — not just a rare few — of today's young women. They are your sisters, friends, and colleagues — a


"Why does every one of my friends have an eating disorder, or, at the very least, a screwed-up approach to food and fitness?" writes journalist Courtney E. Martin. The new world culture of eating disorders and food and body issues affects virtually all — not just a rare few — of today's young women. They are your sisters, friends, and colleagues — a generation told that they could "be anything," who instead heard that they had to "be everything." Driven by a relentless quest for perfection, they are on the verge of a breakdown, exhausted from overexercising, binging, purging, and depriving themselves to attain an unhealthy ideal.

An emerging new talent, Courtney E. Martin is the voice of a young generation so obsessed with being thin that their consciousness is always focused inward, to the detriment of their careers and relationships. Health and wellness, joy and love have come to seem ancillary compared to the desire for a perfect body. Even though eating disorders first became generally known about twenty-five years ago, they have burgeoned, worsened, become more difficult to treat and more fatal (50 percent of anorexics who do not respond to treatment die within ten years). Consider these statistics:

  • Ten million Americans suffer from eating disorders.
  • Seventy million people worldwide suffer from eating disorders.
  • More than half of American women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five would pre fer to be run over by a truck or die young than be fat.
  • More than two-thirds would rather be mean or stupid.
  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychologicaldisease.

In Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Martin offers original research from the front lines of the eating disorders battlefield. Drawn from more than a hundred interviews with sufferers, psychologists, nutritionists, sociocultural experts, and others, her exposé reveals a new generation of "perfect girls" who are obsessive-compulsive, overachieving, and self-sacrificing in multiple — and often dangerous — new ways. Young women are "told over and over again," Martin notes, "that we can be anything. But in those affirmations, assurances, and assertions was a concealed pressure, an unintended message: You are special. You are worth something. But you need to be perfect to live up to that specialness."

With its vivid and often heartbreaking personal stories, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters has the power both to shock and to educate. It is a true call to action and cannot be missed.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

It is no longer enough for girls to be good, says journalist and teacher Martin in her debut book. Girls must now be perfect, and that need for perfection is played out in women's bodies. But beneath the high-achieving "perfect girl" surface, seven million American girls and women suffer from an eating disorder; 90% of high school�aged girls think they are overweight. Drawing on more than 100 interviews with women and girls ages 9�29, Martin constructs a cultural critique of a generation of girls steeped in the language of self-control. "If I'm not thinking about my body or calories, I'm probably sleeping or dead," a 14-year-old confesses. Such heartbreaking quotes fill the book and fuel Martin's anger. In chapters devoted to the influence of "porn culture," the role fathers play in shaping their daughters' self-image, eating disorders among athletes, the narrowly circumscribed role of women in hip-hop and more, Martin explores the forces that drive young women to sacrifice themselves on the altar of perfection. A self-described perfect girl, Martin brings a personal perspective to the topic. If occasionally overambitious in her reach, Martin has a valuable mission: calling on young women to harness their intellectual and emotional energy and learn to enjoy their bodies, "imperfect" though they may be. (Apr.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

Martin's first book is ostensibly about eating disorders. But its real topic and real usefulness concerns women of Generation Next, who are trying to move from having potential to building a life of their own. The move to adulthood can be full of frustration and disappointment, especially for a generation of women, the author argues, that thinks it has to be perfect. These women make up the third wave of feminists, and their expectations and those of their parents can be crushing. Martin's argument that eating disorders reflect the spiritual emptiness of these young women is sometimes overwrought, but it will resonate strongly with young women in this early stage of adulthood. The book can be wordy but offers several strong chapters, especially those on girls and athletics, what men want, and post-college disappointment. The author has interjected some statistics, a resource list, and some words from authorities in the field of eating disorders, but this is not a scholarly work. Recommended for public libraries and a good addition for self-help collections and for YAs.
—Fran Mentch

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Free Press
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6.30(w) x 1.20(h) x 9.30(d)

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Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters

The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body
By Courtney E. Martin

Free Press

Copyright © 2007 Courtney E. Martin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743287968


I have carried this book around inside of me for years. At age twenty-five, far from the gluttony of college and even further from the angst of adolescence, I suspected I might finally be rid of the gagging noises echoing in dorm bathrooms and the scrape of plates sliding against Formica tables. I thought I might be able to feign ignorance about the next wave of thirteen-year-old girls discovering the ritual language of self-hatred -- fat, disgusting, weak, worthless.

But then my best friend -- one of the few girls I had ever been close to who had not had an eating disorder -- looked at me, eyes wet with tears, and admitted that she had been making herself throw up after meals. I felt the hope leak out of me, like air out of a punctured balloon.

Then my small-town cousin came to visit me in the big city, and as we wandered the echoing halls of the Met, she admitted that she felt, as I had in college, often on the edge of an eating disorder. I felt rage.

Over coffee and some history homework, a fourteen-year-old girl I mentor told me that her friends thought about nothing so much as their weight. I felt dread.

My students at Hunter College, working-class, first-generationAmerican, ethnically diverse, shocked me by standing up in front of the class and admitting to struggling with undiagnosed eating disorders for years and watching their mothers take out loans for tummy tucks.

It wasn't just my private world either. Though few talked about it, Terri Schiavo was suspected to have had a heart attack and gone into a coma as a result of her battle with bulimia. Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie shrank down to nothing in plain view. Anorexic fashion models in Uruguay and Brazil, both in their early twenties, died. On websites, girls from all over the country pledged their devotion to Ana (aka anorexia) and Mia (aka bulimia) -- sharing starvation tips with anyone old enough to type in a URL.

Evidence was everywhere, yet people were not talking about the cultural causes or the larger implications. Few were expressing public outrage at the amount of time, energy, and emotion being displaced onto diets and disease. When I thought about starting the conversation, it scared me. I could already hear the critics in my own head: You are making vast generalizations. You are unprepared, untrained, unqualified. How can you tell other people's stories for them? What about men with eating disorders? What about older women? Queer folks? What about the obesity epidemic?

But the critics could not speak louder than the voices of my best friend, my cousin, my mentee, my students. The risk of having critics, I realized, could be no greater than the risk of losing more young women -- metaphorically or physically. And so I sat down at my computer and did the only thing I know how to do when I am in great pain and feeling powerless: I wrote.

In the process of writing and reading and talking and thinking, I have been compelled to make generalizations. I know no other way to talk about culture. I recognize that there are women, young and old, who feel great about their bodies and won't connect with the mental and physical anguish I describe in this book. These lucky, rare women have sidestepped the cultural imperative to be perpetually unsatisfied with their form. I hope they will share their secrets of self-protection with the rest of us.

I am not an expert on eating disorders, nutrition, health, or psychology, but I do have expertise in quiet desperation. I can spot the light fuzz that covers an anorectic's body, the mysterious disappearances that signal bulimia, the dull cast in the eyes of a teenage girl who feels bad for eating too many cookies, the real story behind the stress fractures sustained by an avid runner who can't take it easy. In this book, I act as an observer, an outraged idealist, a storyteller, a bleeding heart, an eavesdropper, and an ordinary young woman.

A writer takes great responsibility when trying to speak for another -- whether that other is a best friend or a whole generation of women. While some of the stories in this book are based on my memory of past events, I am also honored to have been trusted by many women whose interviews fill this book. I can only hope that I do their stories and their beauty justice. Most of them have asked for pseudonyms (signaled throughout the text by asterisks). In some cases, certain identifying characteristics have been changed. A few of them have bravely opted to use their real names. I not only welcome but implore other young women to add their voices to this conversation. I do not intend to be a voice in the wilderness; I intend to be instead the first note in a chorus.

So many are suffering from food and fitness obsessions -- the victims are becoming younger and younger, older and older, male, gay, lesbian, and transgender. In order to explore even a fraction of this terrain with any clarity, I had to construct limits (however artificial), and so focus on the ways in which young, heterosexual women feel and fear. What they believe men find "hot" feeds their obsessions with food and fitness. A version of this dynamic exists also between lesbian women and between gay men, but I have not gathered the evidence necessary to address the ways in which it is undoubtedly different. This is intended to be not the definitive book on food and fitness obsession, but a beginning.

The obesity epidemic, which I explore in Chapter 8, is in truth the flip side of the same coin. Being underweight or overweight so often stems from the same roots: a society of extremes, struggles for control, learned behavior, self-hatred. I talk throughout this book about food and fitness obsessions as existing along a spectrum. Being on either end of the spectrum -- totally obsessed or completely unengaged -- is hazardous to your health. These extremes are crippling our society's collective economic, intellectual, and even spiritual health.

Copyright © 2007 by Courtney E. Martin


Excerpted from Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters by Courtney E. Martin Copyright © 2007 by Courtney E. Martin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Courtney E. Martin, M.A., is a writer, filmmaker, and teacher. Her work on eating disorders, perfectionism, and feminism has appeared in The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Village Voice, The Christian Science Monitor, and Poets & Writers, among other national publications (see her website, www.courtneyemartin.com, for a complete list). She has a B.A. from Barnard College in political science and sociology and an M.A. from New York University's Gallatin School in writing and social change. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Courtney Martin lectured here at Vassar College and it has literally changed my life. Maybe because she is still in her 20s or because she has recently gone through the college experience, whatever the reason all of the issues she raises in her book and in the lecture just simply clicked. I think that every female college age woman should read this book, but I think all of the mothers of these woman should read it also. Courtney addresses the 'superwoman' mom that has the best intentions for their daughter, but ends up creating a destructive mentality. I plan on getting this book for all of the young women in my life for Christmas presents because it is truly the best and one of the only books that addresses the everyday eating disorder mentalities that we face.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book helped me to realize how much i really do obsess about the way i look. Thankfully im not to the point of a disorder but i do have an unhealthy way of thinking and im only 15 years of age. What started as a summer reading book for my sophmore year of high school, ended as a needed wake up call into how i live my life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The underlying message of the book is a positive one. Women need to stop pressuring each other into unhealthy behavior; they should be more open, accepting, and less judgemental. A number of girls and young women from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds are feeling pressure to be thin. The desire to be thin is linked to the desire to be perfect; a desire born out of the last wave of super-woman feminism. We are not recognizing milder forms of unhealthy behavior. We need to talk about it. Get it into the open as a way to combat the silent suffering of these women. However, the presentation of these ideas are messy. It is not a calm voice of reason, but an emotional and illogical attack firing every which way. The author doesn’t take long to make herself appear biased and unreliable. I was particularly impressed that “Thinness is unremarkable. Everyone and her mother are thin.” when two thirds of americans are overweight. I would describe majority of the book as a superficial account of many women’s challenges and behaviors that does nothing to dig beneath the surface. The pieces of interviews used in the book prove that these women are concerned with thinness and being perfect, but we don’t talk with the about why. Somewhere in the middle of the book, the lack of depth in her interviews starts to make sense. The author reveals her experience with such a struggle in her youth. And you can see how the author looks at the behavior of all these women and assigns her own reasons for doing similar things to their experience as well. We have one story of why and many stories of similar behavior, but nothing to truthfully link the the many stories to the same source behavior. At times, I found the book offensive. The blanket statements are too extreme without justification to be taken seriously. If you ever consider food “good” and “bad,” you are suffering from a problem. These types of statements contribute to the unreliability of the author. Your body might “know” it wants that cookie, but that might not actually be a good choice. If you do any research on how sugar, fat and salt affect the brain, you’ll know the companies creating the processed foods are playing you. There is such a thing as making smart eating choices and attempting to do so shouldn’t be preached as having an eating disorder. I want to know more about what each girl has experienced. Not just short quotes that prove “she was concerned about being thin.” I would have enjoyed a more thorough look into how to fix the issue. Spirituality can’t be the only choice. A lack of spirituality can’t be the only cause. Every atheist and agnostic person in America would have an eating disorder. Why don’t these girls know how to be healthy? Why don’t they value their health? Why didn’t they tell their one-leaf-salad-eating friends that they’re being ridiculous? These things aren’t explored. In conclusion, the book reads as a justification for the author’s youthful experiences as a young, insecure woman who struggled with peer pressure and her own her desire to be thin. It’s a collection of other women’s accounts that proves the author wasn’t alone in her suffering. There are some gold nuggets, but you have to be thick-skinned if you aren’t part of the choir.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read this book over and over, recommended it to all of my college friends and classmates, as well as my mother, and have greatly benefitted from Martin's experiences and research. I cannot explain to you enough how much this book changed my life. As a soon-to-be college graduate, it was exactly what I needed to read. I recommend this book to every woman who has every felt the pressure to be strong, independent, intelligent, and have "everything" under control - especially within the realm of her own body and self-esteem. I finally felt that someone else felt what I felt, in terms of the desire to be essentially "perfect." I will take this with me wherever I go.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago