Sunday, February 27, 2011

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, by Courtney E. Martin

The last couple of weeks I've been reading an outstanding book called Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body, by Courtney E. Martin.  It is an indictment of our culture today and how young women are caught in a vise of trying to please and to be perfect.  These young women give the impression of having their act together.  They excel in school, sports, and extra-curriculars, but at the same time they detest themselves for not being completely perfect, and they often take out that hatred on their bodies.  It isn't just an upper middle class white girl problem either.  Martin's research has shown her that unfortunately this issue is gender-wide, bridging economic and racial lines like few other problems.  And in fact, she is also seeing a huge rise in eating disorders in young men who are also starting to feel pressure to have perfect bodies - six-pack abs, calves the right size, pecs that are muscular as can be.

Here are some of the statistics Martin quotes and address in her book:
* 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 prefer 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 psychological disease.
Her take on the problem is that young women today were raised to believe they can be anything - unlike their mothers or grandmothers who were on the front lines of feminism and had to fight to break through the glass ceiling.  Apparently, according to Martin, this affirmation has been devastating to these young women.  She says, "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."

Wow.  What a Catch-22.  I certainly want my daughter to feel like there are no doors closed to her, that she can, in fact, do whatever she wants to do, but I would hate it if at the same time I was somehow giving her the message that she had to be perfect  in order to be able to do that "anything" she set out to do.  What a painful bind.

Does this ring true to you in your experience?  Have you experienced this?  Or has your daughter? 

The world Courtney Martin describes is powerfully dysfunctional, with nary a woman able to have an intimate relationship with herself or with someone else because she's so worried that she looks too horrible to be worth loving.  And the men, too, are focused on but one thing - the woman's body and getting a piece of it.

Martin does ask young men what they look for in a woman - many respond from their hormonal place - big tits, tight ass (please excuse the crudeness of those descriptions - they're from the book) - but if they allow themselves to get under than shallow response, they usually are looking for a woman who likes herself, is confident, has a good sense of humor.  Martin posits that women would actually have an easier time finding a partner if they would take classes at the local comedy improv club than if they went to the gym every day for hours on end.  Authenticity and self-acceptance are the keys to filling in the inner void and finding love.

I was not caught up in the popularity thing in high school.  I didn't fit into that environment, and I knew it, so I didn't even try to play the game.  It wasn't about my body size - I just didn't have a clue how to play catty or do the girl compliment thing.  I wasn't really aware it was going on until my sister got into middle school.  I would hear her on the phone with her friends gossiping about another friend, saying what a &^*(_(*(& she was, then calling another person and gossiping about the person she'd just been talking to.  There was always drama in their circle, always someone mad at someone else.  It didn't make sense to me.  My friends and I sat around talking about religion or boys or the book we'd just read.  We liked each other and let each other know it.  We hung out together, had a nice time, but there wasn't social drama to speak of.  It was a different way of being, I realize now.

So this "mean girl" thing is unfamiliar to me.  I don't know how it works. But I certainly feel for the girls who are in it and do feel compelled to play by its rules.  It looks like it takes so much energy away from other things. 

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