To say I was blown away by Courtney E. Martin's Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, would be a huge understatement. I've read lots of books on eating disorders, having gone through a bout of anorexia and bulimia in college, and struggled with "disordered eating" and body image issues ever since. Martin's tone hits the perfect edge between journalistic and compassionate; one never gets the sense that she is talking down to her readers or has conquered all these issues and is now looking at them from a distance. By including her own stories and those of her peers, she personalizes the issue, as both someone who's been "on the edge" of developing an eating disorder as well as someone caring for people with eating disorders. One of the most poignant moments here, in fact, is when a friendship ends over one woman confronting another over her eating issues.
Martin is angry, but also hopeful, and, most of all, non-judgmental. Clearly, she doesn't like what she sees but rather than direct her wrath against her subjects, she takes a more nuanced, helpful approach. She feels for her subjects even as the culture (including families, friends, peers, coaches, and media) around them pushes them forward. She wants them to succeed, but not at all costs. In fact, in the last chapter, she praises these starving girls for their strength, albeit a twisted kind of strength. By highlighting the ways girls cut each other down and size each other up, Martin brings some needed honesty to the ways women try to please each other, and how harsh we can be about our own kind.
There are so many brilliant insights here, I cannot document them all. Sometimes, I was just swept away by the passion of her prose; Martin doesn't let any element of flow or storytelling slide even as she works in statistics and original research. There's a continuity to the book that allows her to connect "Sex as a Cookie," her chapter on sexuality and body to "Spiritual Hunger." Also, she wisely looks beyond the minutiae of eating disorders and their technical classifications to a broader problem that still needs addressing, whether the medical profession chooses to do so or not. By linking the urge to be "perfect" with body issues, Martin also explores other ways women push themselves to the brink, whether at work or school or in sports.
Martin talks about "the ugliness underneath all of our prettiness," and it's precisely because so many of the behaviors and feelings she documents are so hidden that we may think we're better off than we really are. It's not only about the ones who wind up in clinics, who are visibly ill. As Martin shows, it's about the hours spent obsessing, the ways that dieting and desiring to be thin are so normalized that Martin even faced doubt that she had something worthy to explore in her book.
To prove how powerful her argument is, even while I was reading this book, tabbing up pages as if to memorize them, I was still berating myself in exactly the ways she describes. I went to get an omelette for breakfast at a deli, and ordered a Western one, not realizing it had ham. Only after I got it did I notice I could've had one with spinach or a garden omelette with vegetables. Part of me was horrified that I "chose wrong," and I made a stern mental note next time to order one of the veggie ones. In part, yes, I love spinach and would eat it at every meal if I could, but the other part of me was ready to pick out the ham lest I have something too fatty, too gross, too not me. And the guy taking my order, who doesn't know me at all, even says, "She's on a diet," when I order my food with plain dry wheat toast on the side. "But she doesn't need to be, she looks good the way she is," he tells the cook.
This is also the message of Martin's book but, and it's a huge but, one we can only learn for ourselves, from ourselves, for it to truly sink in. Martin's voice is so vital and necessary, close to her subject and close to her subjects in age. The vulnerability she shows, the tension between her strong feminist self and the voice(s) in her head, is real and relatable. The message here is not that Martin has all the answers, but rather that we need, individually and collectively, to look at "eating disorders," "body image," and "perfection" much more broadly. "What practices do *you* need to adopt in order to feel less weighed down by the burden of your own self-loathing?" Martin asks. For me, I am left with the task of trying to figure that out, something that may take a lifetime. This book is not only one of the best books I've ever read on eating disorders, it's one of the best books I've ever read and takes readers inside this "issue" without patronizing them. Martin knows there are no easy answers, but she doesn't let that stop her from fighting for the not-so-easy ones, and dreaming of and working toward a future not consumed by consumption.