May 29 2007

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters

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Perfect Girls, Starving DaughtersGUEST: Courtney E. Martin, journalist, film maker, teacher and author of “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body.” She has written for Newsweek, New York Times, and the Village Voice, and is an adjunct professor of Women’s Studies at Hunter College

“Most women spend at least … about a hundred minutes a day scrutinizing instead of loving their bodies… That’s one hundred minutes they could spend reading an amazing book, feeling grateful for family and friends, memorizing a poem, considering concepts of God, or taking action against global warming.” Those are the words of Courtney E. Martin. Understanding why women obsess about their bodies is a question that Martin struggles with in her new book, “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body.” As a young woman who has watched with dismay as her friends and peers obsess regularly about caloric intake and the shape of their bodies, Martin explores an unhealthy world of young women that starts the body obsession in middle school and continues past college, that cuts across race and class lines, and that most Americans barely acknowledge exists. Ariana Huffington says, “I’m the mother of two teenage girls, so Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters hit me like a hardcover punch in the gut. Courtney E. Martin sounds a clarion call for all of us ”mothers, daughters, pundits” to stop counting calories and start changing the world.”

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Rough Transcript:

First, let me ask you to explain the motivation for writing this book. Why did you write it, and what were some of the sources that you used when you put it together?

Martin: Well, you know my original motivation came from a very personal place. I’m twenty-seven years old, and I felt from the time I was about sixteen I was surrounded by young women friends – brilliant, beautiful women, full of potential – who were obsessing about food and fitness, if not textbook eating disordered. And when I went to Barnard College, I thought, I’m going to this feminist institution, it’ll be much better here, and it turned out that it was actually far worse than even my high school experience. And so, coming from that personal outrage I started to put on my journalistic hat, and start to research, and just sort of look at some of the broader social and cultural contexts of this issue. And so that’s really how the book came about. I ended up interviewing about a hundred women between the ages of nine and thirty, as well as experts, but really I wanted women young women’s stories to be what spoke throughout the book.

Sonali: Now most of the young women that you describe are daughters of feminists, so what happened?

Martin: Well, you know, I call it the unintended side-effect of feminism. I think a lot of us were raised with either self-proclaimed feminist mothers or just mothers who really kind of talked about that go-girl feminism that’s sort of more generally acceptable in the culture. Some people are still scared of the F word, but certainly it’s generally accepted that young girls should be encouraged to do just as much as young boys in today’s society. I think the hard part about that message is that a lot of young women end up deciding that not only could they be anything, as so many of our mothers told us, but we had to be everything. I think, given the sort of pressured, perfectionist society that we live in, that feminist message was often sort of twisted in our minds. And instead of seeing the landscape of opportunity, we saw it as a landscape of pressure.

Sonali: So in doing everything, and doing it all effortlessly I suppose.

Martin: Yes, exactly. That’s the real insidious and dangerous part of this whole thing. There was a Duke University Study in 2004 where young women were asked what is the ideal, what is the imperative these days, and they over and over said effortlessly beautiful. So it’s not just that you should strive to be brilliant and save the world and be the captain of the basketball team, but also be beautiful, and be beautiful in a way that has this illusion of total lack of effort, which as any of us know who’ve been involved in exercise regiments or restricting diets, is the most effortful, draining process in the world.

Sonali: What are the expectations that most American young women tend to have about their bodies, and how realistic or unrealistic are they?

Martin: Sonali, it’s incredibly unrealistic. I think that’s one of the things that struck me the most, especially in sort of a generational comparison. I would talk to women my mom’s age, you know in their fifties, kind of the baby-boomers, and they would say, you know when I was growing up there was a real body type. There was a sense that so-and-so is pear-shaped, and so-and-so is thin. You know, there may have been some sense of wanting to diet, but there was realism about what body type each of us had. Today’s young woman is socialized to believe that if she has enough will-power or money, she could look like anyone regardless of how her body type really dictates. I would talk to young women who were clearly a size twelve, very tall, maybe 5’11” and they would say I’ve always thought I could be a size two. And it’s just this really compelling and dangerous delusion that your size is completely in your control, as opposed to what all of the recent research on weight-lose shows which is that we all have a set-point within which our bodies will adjust our metabolism to stay.

Sonali: In fact, on that issue of the new science around weight-loss, a new book that we discussed before this interview, by Gina Kolata called “Rethinking Thin,” is the kind of thing that of course the diet industry and all of the social pressures that women feel are ignored, this new science given that basically says that a lot of women’s weight, most of us, have our adult weight pre-determined by our genes, and there’s not that much you can actually do about it.

Martin: Yeah, exactly, and it’s really groundbreaking, this idea, because we have a thirty billion dollar diet industry in this country that fails ninety-five percent of the time, and that’s because this diet industry is based on a totally unscientific idea that you could starve yourself into any body type, and the truth is that your body will continue to adjust; so if you do lose weight, your metabolism is going to change. I mean you actually change your physical, metabolic intake of calories, so it’s really amazing that we continue to pump this much money into the diet industry. It’s actually quite embarrassing.

Sonali: Let’s talk about the prevalence of eating disorders. You explain in your book the several types of eating disorders there are, and then one thing which I thought was very interesting was that the same kinds of emotional and psychological issues that fat women or women who are considered fat go through are also the kind of things that women who are quite thin go through. How is that possible?

Martin: Right. Well you know, it’s really a state of mind, and that’s what I found out when I would interview women. You know, there’s so much envy of thin women in our culture, all the way from sort of on the global scale when you think about mass media, and kind of the valorization of thinness down to these very interpersonal interactions that people have on a day to day basis where they sort of scoff at the thin woman on the train, and think you know her whole life must be perfect. It’s actually something psychologists call the Halo Effect, where we imbue something like thinness with qualities that have nothing to do with it like happiness or like success, but the truth is that thin women, just as fat women in this society, are often experiencing their lives as inadequate human beings. They’re walking through their day feeling not enough, and so being thin in fact is not generally a wonderful experience as a women although we valorize it to such an extent that a lot of women of a bigger body size think, oh well if I’m thin, my whole life will be perfect, when in fact a lot of thin women that I spoke to are battling these same insecurities regardless of the number on the scale.

Sonali: What about the intense social pressure that we feel from pop culture, from billboards; I mean everywhere you look around you see extremely thin women, women who on our TV screens appear to be the average body type, but who in fact in reality are ridiculously underweight?

Martin: Right, absolutely. I mean, you even think about this weekend, we’re supposed to be thinking about the war and the number of casualties in the war, and instead the headlines are about Lindsey Lohan and her potential coke addiction. She’s one of these celebrities that has sort of disappeared right in front of the public’s eye’s, you know Nicole Ritchie – the list goes on and on of young women who are in the spotlight, and are really disappearing. And the really difficult and insidious and dangerous part of this is that a lot of the young women I spoke to said, you know I was raised with media literacy. I’m young, I’m aware of air-brushing, I’ve seen all this stuff, but the absolute onslaught coverage of these women makes it difficult for me to continue to rigorously interrogate every single message I’m getting, so even if I have been trained to think about the media critically, at a certain point I just become exhausted, and feel like it’s this overall impression as opposed to my capacity to continue to interrogate what all these messages really mean from these young pop celebrities who are frankly not taking responsibility for the example that they bring to young women.

Sonali: Now it’s not just the celebrities, it’s our own mothers and fathers, and sometimes ourselves who make other women and young women feel completely inadequate.

Martin: Yes, absolutely. I mean, every interview I did at one point would circle around to the story of a mother, especially I think our mothers are our deepest physical connection to another human being and they also happen to be an incredibly large influence on what we think about femaleness in society, what we think about our own potential. And the thing I found most commonly was that many mothers would say to their young daughters, you’re beautiful, you’re perfect, as I said you can be anything in the world, and then these same women would turn to the mirror and in the next breath criticize themselves. Say you know, I’m fat, I’m exhausted, I will choose to sacrifice for everybody else and take care of but myself, I can’t prioritize taking care of myself. And so the lesson in all of that was that femaleness was about exhaustion, and girls saw that the actions spoke louder than the words. If the mothers hated their own bodies – that’s these daughters future selves, so that contradiction was so much at the center of many of the interviews I did.

Sonali: Now eating disorders and just this total obsession with body weight is not just an issue affecting rich, white girls. Talk about the way in which young women of color are increasingly also falling prey to this obsession.

Martin: That’s a really important point, Sonali. A lot of people still have this delusion that it’s a white, rich girls disease, and in fact I did to a certain extent when I first started my interviews, but the more and more that I encountered these amazing young women of color who I thought might be sort of protected from the thin ideal, the more I realized that there is a possibly even more dangerous ideal for some of them, which is what I call the fat in all the right places bodies. A lot of young women would say to me, you know I don’t want to be Kate Moss, but I do want to be Beyonce, and that’s an incredibly difficult body type to obtain. It requires a lot of working out, and in the cases of some of these women, plastic surgery. I teach at Hunter College, which is a university mostly populated by working class, first generation, immigrant, lots of students of color, and these women whose parents lived in section eight housing in the Bronx would say, my mom is taking a loan out for a tummy-tuck. There’s also lots of academic research that confirms that eating disorders are more an issue of social mobility than color, so women of color especially those in college are just as likely if not more likely to be abusing things like laxatives than their white peers.

Sonali: Now another thing that really struck me was the early age at which women and young girls basically start this obsession. You cite a study of I believe five year old boys and girls who are asked to describe the ideal shape for a women, and the young girls – five year old girls – wrote or are expressing much less realistic body type for women then the boys.

Right. I mean, I think this goes along with like the general developmental compression we see. Developmental psychologists are very concerned that it seems like everything external in our society is pushing young girls especially to act older and older, although of course the real internal, important, resilient wisdom, you know all that stuff that you can’t speed up is still very undeveloped. So we have young women who are, you know even pre-pubescent, we have eight and nine year olds showing up with eating disorders because they’re just exposed to such an intensification of the culture around them.

Sonali: I think the point you make about all the time that girls and women spend obsessing about their body could be so much better spent trying to figure out how to improve the world and make this a better place to live in. I think that’s a really really good point. For parents, finally Courtney, what sort of advice can you give for parents who are raising children – and I should say that you also point out that boys and men are increasingly becoming prey to all this though certainly not to the same extent as girls – but what should parents of young children be doing to counter this very very unhealthy trend in American society.

Martin: Well, the number one thing that I think both mothers and fathers – and especially mothers – must do is make the very radical choice to deal with their own body image, and that they heal their own relationships with their own bodies because, as I said, the modeling is really key here. Second, is just to sort of create as much as you can a haven of conversations about well-being instead of weight, focusing on authentic hungers as opposed to very specific diet plans, focusing on encouraging kids and adults alike to move in ways that make them feel happy instead of always talking about these very strict fitness regimens. It’s really what Buddhists call the Middle Path; you know, the only healing that will come from this issue is if we can figure out how to reconnect with the very wise needs of our bodies – what they’re telling us they want and need, and really embrace that the shape you’re born in is really, in my mind, kind of a divine expression of your possibility in the world.

Special thanks to Daniel Kolendowicz for transcribing this interview

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters”

  1. […] As I continue talking, talking, talking about Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters–on the radio, at colleges, in documentary interviews–the more I am convinced that I have written the book I was supposed to write. Which, of course, is an amazing feeling. […]

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  3. […] NOTE: I interviewed Courtney about her book when it first came out in hard cover last year. Read/listen to the interview here. […]

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