“Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters”: Author Courtney Martin Reflects on The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body

by Courtney E. Martin
- USA -

I placed the voice recorder near my subject, asking if it was at a comfortable distance, and then sat down in my own chair opposite. The list of questions I had prepared for this interview lay on my nervously bouncing knee. Tentatively, I began: “So let’s start from the beginning…”

You might guess that this subject was a perfect stranger, someone I was intimidated by or nervous about getting to know. Instead, she was my best friend.

Don’t get me wrong. Reporting and writing my recently released book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body did involve speaking with a lot of strangers. I interviewed over 100 girls and women between the ages of 9 and 19, as well as dozens of experts, including psychologists, nutritionists, medical doctors, and media critics. Nonetheless, I was convinced that to tell the real story of contemporary girls and their bodies, I would also need to sit down with my nearest and dearest—many of whom were my inspiration for writing the book in the first place.

I’m not one of those journalists who swallow objectivity as gospel. Depending on the subject matter, objectivity can be crucial to getting all sides of a complex story. If you are on the local crime beat and need to get the latest information about a police shooting, objectivity is key.

On the other hand, if you’re a young woman - as I was - outraged by your generation’s obsession with food and fitness (not to mention rampant, diagnosable eating disorders), then objectivity is practically irrelevant. It would have felt far easier and emotionally safer to stick with experts and strangers, but I would have also sacrificed the deepest, most honest, and potentially transformative stories.

Take my friend Gareth, the woman I was sitting down with nervously that night. Gareth has been my best friend for almost nine years. We met in Astronomy class at Barnard College. Gareth helped me with the physics problem sets; I brought her orange juice when she was sick.

Gareth is my best friend, and yes, she is obese by clinical standards. She is also brilliant, kind, popular, magnetic, and in a loving relationship. She dresses up to go out on Saturday nights, dances her ass off, gets the occasional free drink from a hopeful guy. She is a powerhouse at the office, blazing through her daily tasks with efficiency and conscientiousness. She is an activist and an actor – mentoring a little girl with AIDS, marching in pro-choice rallies, writing and performing monologues in off-Broadway productions.

This is not a woman who has ‘checked out,’ contrary to what so many thin people assume about those who are fat. She doesn’t sit at home and lament her size. She isn’t passive or embarrassed. She certainly isn’t lazy. In fact, she is the quintessential perfect girl; she puts a tremendous amount of pressure on herself to excel in everything. In college, she was so overextended that she basically stopped sleeping. She had to get her job in the college activities office, attend her a cappella group meeting, ace all of her sociology classes, memorize her lines for her part in the Vagina Monologues, and still have time to party with friends.

There is nothing atypical about Gareth’s biography. In fact, even at her present size, she is certainly not unusual – 64.5 percent of U.S. adults age twenty years and older are overweight, and 30.5 percent are obese. She grew up in Connecticut in a divorced, middle-class family, made it to New York City as soon as she could, excelled in college, moved to Brooklyn, and got an administrative job at a nonprofit. She spends her time trying to make the world a better place and figuring out how the hell she fits into it. On paper, she is a perfect girl. To the ignorant, naked eye, she is flawed.

Gareth has been overweight since I met her; certainly we had talked about some of the pervasive themes in my book before: body image, perfectionism, self-acceptance. But before that night, we had never had a down-and-dirty conversation about what it was like for Gareth to be fat in a world that abhors fatness.

Gareth looks up from her crochet project just as the train pulls into the Brooklyn Jay Street station, where she must get off and switch across the platform to the A train to Manhattan…

“Yeah, that’s right, get off the train, you fat bitch!” yells a man sitting nearby. He looks to be in his forties or fifties, dressed in jeans and a leather coat, possibly drunk but not obviously so. His words hang in the air like a noxious gas. A woman nearby gasps, clearly offended. An older man with white hair and a friendly, wrinkled face shakes his head silently. Two schoolkids in puffy jackets muffle their giggles with their hands.

It feels like the doors take a year to open. Gareth stands there, staring straight ahead, humiliated and silent, unsurprised. She has heard this kind of thing before. In fact, she has heard it so often that the effect is dulled at first. Later she will relive this moment in her head many times over, articulating the multitude of sassy responses she could have spat back, but ultimately this reflection will do nothing except give her the sharp stab of familiar pain. It is loneliness so deep that she must turn it into anger in order to survive.

It was a great emotional risk on both of our parts—hers more than mine, of course —to have a no-holds-barred conversation about what Gareth has experienced in her life, which includes being called a “fat bitch” as she exits the subway. It was scary, as if we were entering new territory in our friendship that we would never be able to truly come back from. But that emotional risk probably wouldn’t have been possible at all if we’d been perfect strangers.

Sometimes it helps to not know your subjects; it gives them a space to speak with a stranger. However, sometimes the most honest stories come out of an already thick-as-blood bond. I’m convinced this was the case with Gareth and me, and with so many of the stories of close friends that I told throughout the book.

To listen to their experiences of their own bodies and then turn all that complexity into one cohesive, moving story was incredibly difficult. But the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced as a writer—no question—was when I handed these stories back to them, asking them to read them over and let me know if they would like to (a) use their real names or a pseudonym, or (b) change anything. It felt as if I didn’t breathe for weeks, waiting for their responses. Would they feel seen, loved, heard? Or would they feel misrepresented, or worst of all, exploited?

As the responses poured in, I let out a deep, relieved breath. They were “moved to tears,” sometimes “touched,” and miraculously, all chose to use their real names. They saw their stories writ large as a way to salvage meaning out of what had sometimes felt like meaningless obsessions. They wanted to make public good out of personal pain, to have a voice.

I have to admit that not all of these journeys ended “happily ever after”. Some women didn’t process just how public their stories would become. There is one who feels, now that all has been said and done, that she would have been happier had she made a different choice. But I hope even the women who feel that way now will one day be able to look back and respect their own rare courage as well as my good intentions.

Writing is a funny business. You can stay out of deep water if you want to—write the stories that only affect “other” people’s lives, find the statistics, stick to the facts. Or you can dive into the deep end of human psychology, stories, hearts, bodies. Things get a lot messier, but also a lot more rewarding.

Courtney E. Martin’s new book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body is at turns poignant, hilarious and heartbreaking. But most of all, it is frighteningly accurate. Transitioning comfortably between the vernacular of today’s younger generations and the voice of a wise friend who is deeply concerned for all of us, Courtney carefully untangles and explains the intersecting threads of childhood need, social pressure and the relentless inner voice that perpetuate this complex and often tragic cycle. She has a knack for incorporating pop culture references that astutely depict the context in which this problem exists with stinging accuracy.

By combining personal experiences with comprehensive research, this book provides an authoritative analysis rooted deeply in the heart of a pervasive and destructive trend. Perhaps more important, it reaches beyond the usual rhetoric of body image and the dangers of eating disorders to offer a piercing and compelling window into what has become a global issue.

The fear of being “fat” and the inextricably linked need to be “perfect” plague young women all over the world today. But as Courtney confirms in her book, “Paradoxically, we as a society catastrophize the state of being fat for a woman like Gareth, but we have little awareness of the pain of her internal world.”

Courtney’s deft but compassionate handling of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters provides another tool in the proverbial toolkit necessary to keep this conversation going. Courtney has instigated a fresh and persuasive dialog that will invariably help heal some of the wounds born of the devastating cycle of pursuing perfection but never feeling good enough. Every day, new waves of young women join the already burgeoning ranks of those who hate their own bodies but desperately need to understand they are worthy, lovable and capable just as they are. Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters is a book to be shared with any woman who’s ever asked a friend, lover, mom or dad, “Do I look fat in this outfit?”

- Sarah McGowan, Content/Photo Ed.

About the Author

Courtney E. Martin is a widely-read freelance journalist and blogger. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor, metro—the largest circulation paper in the world, Alternet, The Huffington Post, The Village Voice, BUST and Bitch Magazine, among others. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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7 comments on ““Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters”: Author Courtney Martin Reflects on The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body
  1. Nancy Van Ness says:

    Thank you to the editors for publishing this article. As a performer in this society, I know what the pressure to hate my body is.
    The WIP is doing the world a great service by making a place for the dialogue we need as a society and a world on this and related issues.

  2. What a touching article. We definitely live in two very different worlds thats for sure. Here in Zimbabwe and in most parts of Southern Africa, being thin and according to you guys in the West, in shape, actually means for many people that you are not living well and having a balanced diet and the opposite means you are big or fat or weighty because you can afford the good things in life!

  3. Katharine Daniels says:

    I go back and forth about how I feel about this issue, sometimes feeling embarrassed as it feels like such a luxury in our culture to obsess about weight. But then I get angry – we are inundated with “perfect bodies” everywhere. The media contributes by idolizing Hollywood and size 0 stars are often given more airtime than “real” people making significant contributions in society.
    As Martin points out, our experiences with body image and weight are far from “meaningless obsessions.” I was robbed of years of my life where all I thought about was food and my weight. For others, this “obsession” has cost their lives.
    And yes, “writing is a funny business.” Courtney Martin, thank you for going deep, letting it get messy, and taking a huge risk, in order to share these stories with us. I look forward to your book.

  4. Ali Daniels, Los Angeles says:

    I spent most of my twenties trying to starve myself just to fit into to what I perceived as the accepted norm. Living in New York City it was always a surprise when I made friends from different cultures. I remember going on a date once with a man from Ivory Coast. At the end of the evening he said very politely “I really like you. And not just because of your big butt.” Another time, after spending a week on a juice fast just to try and lose 10lbs, I got dressed up to go out feeling successful after the diet. I arrived at the apartment of a Puerto Rican friend and she gasped when she saw me, “Ali, what’s wrong!? You’re so flaca (thin)! Have you been sick?”

  5. Sarah says:

    I will totally check-out this book; but in the meantime am compelled to ask:
    ~ Will it touch on the relationship between eating disorders & perceived “control” by the person in it’s throws??
    ~ As well as the very high-percentage of women & men that struggle with eating disorders are in fact sexual abuse survivors who are terrified to be/ to own their true bodies/adult form after such damage was done to them / a.k.a. it (the eating disorder) keeps them from feeling the feelings or experiences that they are trying to avoid/control/keep at bay.

  6. Nancy Van Ness says:

    Sarah, you are touching on two of the deep issues that lie beneath eating disorders, especially but not exclusively in women. When people feel that their lives are out of their control, some will find a sense of control in the way they feed themselves, either restricting food intake or eating massive amounts. The resulting sense of “control” is illusory and can eventually lead to health problems or even death. People with eating disorders driven by wanting control will need a lot of help that does not appear to have anything to do with food in order to recover.
    Similarly, sexual abuse victims who try to find protection or avoid dealing with their trauma need help to resolve these issues in order to be able to eat normally and maintain a normal sized, healthy body.
    Eating disorders are rampant in the US. The suffering they cause is still not well understood nor are we addressing this major health issue very well. We can do better.

  7. October 18th is “Love Your Body Day”
    Sponsored by The National Organization for Women (NOW) Foundation, the campaign is part of the Women’s Health Project in their effort to combat the media’s unrealistic standards of beauty. LYBD’s website features facts, activism ideas and ways to be a part of a growing movement to help women break free from the influence of media pressure, let go of weight obsession and learn to love themselves just as they are!
    Here’s to spreading body love…

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