The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body

This article is excerpted from "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters" by Courtney E. Martin. Copyright 2007 by Courtney E. Martin. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.

There is a girl, right now, staring in a mirror in Des Moines, scrutinizing her widening hips. There is a girl, right now, spinning like a hamster on speed in a gym on the fifth floor of a building in Boston, promising herself dinner if she goes two more miles. There is a girl, right now, trying to wedge herself into a dress two sizes too small in a Savannah shopping mall, chastising herself for being so lazy and fat. There is a girl, right now, in a London bathroom, trying not to get any vomit on her aunt's toilet seat. There is a girl, right now, in Berlin, cutting a cube of cheese and an apple into barely visible pieces to eat for her dinner.

Our bodies are places where our drive for perfection gets played out. Food is all around us, as are meals and the pressure that goes with them. Well-intentioned after-school specials teach us, from a very young age, how to purge our snacks. We are inundated with information about "good" and "bad" foods, the most effective workout regiments, the latest technological advancements in plastic surgery. We demand flawlessness in our appearance -- the outer manifestation of our inner dictators.

To some degree, this makes sense. People in general like to look at a pretty face -- which means they also like to be friends with a pretty face, do business with a pretty face, and marry a pretty face. Attractive people are desired and coddled in our society; they have an easier time getting jobs, finding boyfriends and girlfriends, getting parts in music videos, simply getting the average waiter's attention.

Even smart girls must be beautiful, even athletes must be feminine. Corporate CEOs, public intellectuals, and even accountants must be thin. Lorie, an 18-year-old from Portland, Maine, wrote, "Everyone wants to be skinny, because in life the skinny one gets the guy, the job, the love." A 10-year-old I interviewed in Santa Fe, N.M., broke it down for me even further: "It is better to be pretty, which means thin and mean, than to be ugly, which means fat and nice. That's just how it is."

The body is the perfect battleground for perfect-girl tendencies because it is tangible, measurable, obvious. It takes four long years to see "summa cum laude" etched across our college diplomas, but stepping on a scale can instantly tell us whether we have succeeded or failed.

The cruel irony is that although we become totally obsessed with the daily measures of how "good" or "bad" we are (refused dessert = good; didn't have time to go to the gym = bad), there is no finish line. This weight preoccupation will never lead us anywhere. It is a maniacal maze that always spits you out at the same point it sucked you up: wanting. We keep chasing after perfection as if it is an achievable goal, when really it is the most grand and painful of all mirages.

Beauty is the first impression of total success. Social psychologists call this the halo effect: We see one aspect of a person -- such as her nice hair -- and assume a host of other things about her -- that she is wealthy, effective and powerful. Looking good indicates control, dedication, grace. If you are beautiful, we learn, you are probably rich, lucky, and loved. You are probably sought after, seen, envied. You probably have ample opportunities for dates and promotions. Our generation does not generally equate beauty with stupidity the way our parents or grandparents sometimes did. Beautiful, to us, has come in savvy packages -- Tyra Banks creating her own empire, Candace Bushnell writing her way into found-hundred-dollar Manolo Blahniks.

If you are beautiful we have concluded, you can construct the perfect life -- even if you are not brilliant, well-educated, or courageous -- because the world will offer itself up to you. By contrast, if you are overweight -- even if you are brilliance, dynamic, funny and dedicated -- you have no chance at the perfect life. Thinness and beauty are the prerequisites for perfection, which to my generation appears to be the only road to happiness.

From a very young age, we see weight as something in our control. If we account for every calorie that we consume, if we plan our fitness schedule carefully and follow through, if we are exacting about our beauty regimen -- designer makeup, trendy clothes -- then, we conclude, we will be happy. And we can be beautiful if we are just committed enough -- no matter our genetics, our bank account, or our personality -- as we have learned from advertising and the American Dream ethos. This logic leads us to believe that, if we are unhappy, it is because of our weight and, in turn, our lack of willpower. We are our own roadblocks on this road to 21st century female perfection and happiness.
The Jungian psychologist Marion Woodman has our number:

In an effort to be mature and independent ... a woman tries to be more and more perfect because the only way she can alleviate her dependence on that judgmental voice is to be perfect enough to shut it up. Thus the opposites meet in a terrifying contradiction. As she runs as fast as she can for independence via perfection, she runs into her own starving self, totally dependent and crying out for food.
Was I just your average temperamental, overcommitted teenage girl in the middle of America? On some level, yes. I grew up in a middle-class household with a lawyer daddy, a homemaker/community volunteer/consulting therapist mommy, and a Nordic-looking, overprotective older brother (captain of the tennis, lacrosse and basketball teams, and a math genius). I rode my bike around the neighborhood, sold lemonade on the corner, and sneaked out of the house at midnight to toilet-paper big Victorian houses. The first time I told my boyfriend, who is from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that I used to get to middle school by carpool, he scoffed: "I thought those only existed in television sitcoms. Oh my god, you really do come from the Beaver Cleaver family!"

Colorado Springs, Colo., was suburbia to the nth degree, home of strip mass, chain restaurant heaven, and Focus on the Family. Normal doesn't begin to describe how homogenous my hometown was.

Perfect girls

But as in any American town with picket fences this white, something dark lurked underneath. Like American Beauty's psychopathic real estate agent, the mothers I knew were often grinding their teeth and trying to outdo one another in landscaping and SUVs. The fathers -- mostly doctors and lawyers -- were socially accepted workaholics who attended big games and graduations still in their suits. The sons were out on the field 24/7, dreaming of Big Ten schools. And the girls ... were perfect.

Yet these perfect girls still feel we could always lose five more pounds. We get into good colleges but are angry if we don't get into every college we applied to. We are the captains of the basketball teams, the soccer stars, the swimming state champs with boxes full of blue ribbons. We win scholarships galore, science fairs and knowledge bowls, spelling bees and mock trial debates. We are the girls with anxiety disorders, filled appointment books, five-year plans.

We take ourselves very, very seriously. We are the peacemakers, the do-gooders, the givers, the savers. We are on time, overly prepared, well read and witty, intellectually curious, always moving.

We are living contradictions. We are socially conscious, multiculti, and anticorporate, but we still shop at Gap and Banana Republic. We listen to hip-hop, indie rock, and country on our iPods. We are the girls in hooker boots, wife beaters, and big earrings. We make documentary films, knit sweaters, and DJ. We are "social smokers," secretly happy that the cigarettes might speed up our metabolisms, hoping they won't kill us in the process.

We pride ourselves on getting as little sleep as possible and thrive on self-deprivation. We drink coffee, a lot of it. We are on birth control, Prozac and multivitamins. We do strip aerobics, hot yoga, go five more minutes than the limit on any exercise machine at the gym.

We are relentless, judgmental with ourselves, and forgiving to others. We never want to be as passive-aggressive as our mothers, never want to marry men as uninspired as our fathers. We carry the world of guilt -- center of families, keeper of relationships, caretaker of friends -- with a new world of control/ambition -- rich, independent, powerful. We are the daughters of feminists who said, "You can be anything" and we heard "You have to be everything."

We must get A's. We must make money. We must save the world. We must be thin. We must be unflappable. We must be beautiful. We are the anorectics, the bulimics, the overexercisers, the overeaters. We must be perfect. We must make it look effortless.

We grow hungrier and hungrier with no clue what we are hungry for. The holes inside of us grow bigger and bigger.

This quintessentially female brand of perfectionism goes on all over America, not just in suburban enclaves but in big cities, mountain towns, trailer parks. And perfect girls abound in Vancouver, Rio, Tokyo and Sydney. Their compulsion to achieve constantly, to perform endlessly, to demand absolute perfection in every aspect of life is part of a larger, undeniable trend in the women of my generation all over the world.

I satisfied my hunch that this was the case by consulting more than 25 experts in the fields of food, fitness, and psychology, interviewing twice as many girls and young women about their personal experiences (sometimes multiple times), and conducting focus groups with girls on the topic across the country. When I sent out an informal survey e-mail to all the women I knew and asked them to forward it to all the women they knew, I got more than 100 echoing responses in my in-box. Here are just a few:
I am DEFINITELY a perfectionist. To the extreme. Everything I do has to be perfect -- whether it be school, gymnastics, working out, etc. I do not allow myself to be the slightest bit lazy. I think if I heard someone call me lazy, I would cry! -- Kristine, Tucson, Ariz., 22
Perfectionists were rampant at my all-women's high school, as were eating disorders. I think I can remember two women in my class who really didn't have body issues, and I always admired them. I never had an eating disorder, but I definitely didn't get away without disordered ideas about food. -- Tara, Beirut, Lebanon, 27
I have always been and always will be a perfectionist in almost everything I do. It creates a struggle within me to truly define or determine when I will be good enough. -- Melissa, McKinney, Texas, 21
I do not consider myself a perfectionist, but others describe me that way. There is always room for self-improvement with my body, no matter how thin I am. -- Kelly, Denver, Colo., 28
People who know me call me an overachiever. I am hard on myself. My body fits into this mentality because I'm tall, long, lean, but that is the result of strict diet and lots of exercise. -- Kathleen, Jersey City, N.J., 28
I am quite a perfectionist. If I put on weight, I would be very upset. I would see it as a sign of failure on my part to control myself. -- Michelle, Dublin, Ireland, 24
Our bodies, our needs, our cravings, our sadness, our weakness, our stillness inevitably become our own worst enemies. It is the starving daughter within who must be shut down, muted, ignored ... eventually killed off.

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