All of These Are About Emptiness: “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters” (Courtney E. Martin)

In Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Courtney E. Martin makes the argument that many girls of her generation are starved for more than just food – they’re starving for perfection, for fulfillment, and are prey to the internalized belief that we are only perfect if we’re sacrificing something for that perfection. The need for an empty space in us is the voice of the “perfect girl;” the sometimes irrepressible need to fill that space is the voice of the “starving daughter.”

All of these are about emptiness, about misdirected attempts to fill internal voids, and all of them tend to spring from the same dark pool of feeling: a suspicion among many women that hungers themselves are somehow invalid or wrong, that indulges must be earned and paid for, that the satisfaction of appetites often comes with a bill.

-Caroline Knapp

Comments on potential triggers in this post: I will be encouraging a “no numbers” rule in the comments. This is for my sake as well as for others in recovery stages for whom comparisons are triggering. Please also avoid details (methods, etc.) of extreme weight loss. Because I understand that talking about these can be cathartic in the proper context, feel free to link to personal stories written elsewhere, if you like. But for the benefit of everyone, I ask that the comments be as safe as possible.  Safe topics include, but are of course not limited to: diet culture (as opposed to individual diets); self-image; race-, size-, and age-ism (especially as relates to body issues); thoughts about the book itself; etc. Because of my background, this review will be avoiding my own triggers and as many common ones as possible, but there is discussion of eating disorder as well as rape culture, so as always, take care of yourself! I try to emphasize the other questions in the book as much as possible, but eating disorders and body image are a major part of  most of the arguments Martin makes.

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters is marketed as a book about eating disorders, but it is – or tries to be – about much more than that. The point isn’t as much eating disorders as the presence of a culture that normalizes an enforced emptiness in ourselves that can only be filled by perfection in everything, and that our bodies are part of that. For our inner Perfect Girl, need of any kind is a fault worthy of punishment. Martin says,

Second wave feminism accomplished sweeping, grand social change. Despite this life-altering transformation, neither our mothers nor we can eat without feeling guilty. We still can’t seem to eradicate the idea that a woman must be physically perfect, in addition to being liberated, brilliant, funny, stylish, and capable – all effortlessly “¦ (63)

And later:

In other words, Athena – the Greek goddess of wisdom, efficiency, achievement, justice – is not a free and happy chick. She is, like so many of us who chase after our fathers’ dreams, disconnected from her own body, self-hating, frustrated, and anxious about what feels like the ultimate and incessant distraction from work: soul. The perfect girl is Athena, marching on, checking items off her to-do list, making Dad proud with her grades and her vocabulary, without listening a lick to the starving daughter inside “¦ (90)

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the positive hand, I struggle to find books about eating disorders that are relatable without being triggering – many of these books, like Harriet Brown’s Feed Me, analyze eating disorders by describing them, and having too much discussion of individual methods of limiting food intake pushes me to emulate rather than recover. Perfect Girls was much more manageable in this regard, though at points it does slip. I also enjoyed a distinct consideration of internal and external factors that contribute to the “need-is-fault” mentality that can lead to eating disorders and other dangerous behavior. The very emphasis on other dangerous behaviors as related problems was also refreshing.

In her chapter on the obesity epidemic, Martin treads a cautious line. Whether this is due to a knowledge that full-on fat acceptance is sometimes hard to publish or her own doubts on the matter is unclear, but she does keep the alarmism to a minimum and pushes the acceptance front, even at one point making an intentional and open analysis of her own prejudices about fat people. She also openly acknowledges the all-too-often ignored fact that many fat people engage in the same behaviors – destructive and productive alike – that thin people do, from eating disorders to perfectly healthy behaviors that simply treat individual bodies differently. Writing a chapter about the obesity epidemic that deliberately focuses on health at every size (HAES) is rare, and her approach is one that may serve to enlighten some readers who may never otherwise encounter HAES ideologies and the medical evidence behind the movement. There is also an excellent monologue from one of Martin’s friends in this chapter, and if you read nothing else of this book, I really encourage you to read this particular section (in my edition it starts on page 215 – which is unfortunately not an available page in either of the “look inside” versions on Amazon or Google). A quote at the beginning of another chapter helps drive this home:

The slender girl in our culture is not the healthy antithesis of the pathological fat woman, but is in fact her sister; the kinship forged by the emotional attitudes that find expression through the body but remain otherwise mute, unknown and unexamined.

– Kim Chernin

Another major positive is that sex-ed and rape culture are handled incredibly well. Promiscuity is discussed in a two-fold way, acknowledging that it is a destructive force in the lives of many young women while emphasizing that it doesn’t have to be, and that it isn’t for everyone. Likewise, she makes a point of emphasizing that while early onset of sexual desire and behavior can be a symptom of something, this isn’t necessarily the case and it’s perfectly possible for young people to simply encounter their sexual selves at earlier points in their lives. Moreover, in addition to the usual feminist fodder of women realizing only later that an encounter was rape, Martin describes the way our culture discourages people – men and women alike – from considering questionably consensual intercourse as rape. While she doesn’t shy from calling these encounters by their name, she also acknowledges that in the same way women are trained to submit even if they’re not in it wholeheartedly, men are trained to accept this as the way sex works, and while that doesn’t excuse rape or make the encounters any less rape, it’s a deeper problem than an individual can carry on his or her back.

Unfortunately, alongside these things that I loved, there are some major faults in the book. First and foremost, and really at the heart of most of my qualms, is the fact that Martin paints a very specific picture of what exactly a “perfect girl” really is, and what kind of girl she’s really talking about in this book. This may not be intentional; Martin’s introduction makes clear that the start of this book was her personal experiences, and many of those interviewed are from within her own circle of friends and acquaintances. At the same time, however, because the book tries to be so many things, it’s incredibly disappointing that it falls into this trap.

“The perfect girl,” Martin writes, “focuses her energy on controlling her appearance “¦ all so she can feel worthy of attention when her job garners her none. The upkeep of her appearance, in essence, becomes her preferred full-time job “¦ “ Though the context of this particular quote is specific, it illuminates the larger image of what Martin is writing about. She is talking, in this book, about average-sized girls who fight with themselves for perfection. The girls who never show tiredness, but there are not only those who are afraid to falter but also those who rarely do. This book is not about naturally thin girls, who are painted almost without exception as sad, broken people who have fallen prey to their need for perfection and have been ruined by it. No happy and skinny girls here. And for all her HAES emphasis in the obesity chapter, the same is true of fat women in much of the book, who are the examples of the Recovered, the ones who have largely won their battles with the disorder and are better off for it, with fatness as a side-effect. Though some degree of succumbing to diet culture is acknowledged, fat women with eating disorders aren’t really mentioned. “Perfect” girls are those who struggle but stay firmly secured in the middle, perhaps straying temporarily in one way or another but always going back to that middle ground.

There’s also an unfortunate degree of ageism going on. The older generation of women, Martin asserts, owe it to their newly emerging young adult counterparts to discourage talk about their own issues (with food or otherwise) lest they reinforce the behavior in the younger women. While I’d love to see a world where nobody scolds a young woman for having macaroni and cheese instead of a salad for lunch when she wants it, I find it incredibly unfair to put that burden onto another generation’s back. Martin details that the prevalence of eating disorder and mental health diagnosis among women over 40 is on the rise, but at the same time discourages them from discussing these things honestly. Teenage girls, too, are blamed for missing the lessons of their older sisters. Martin’s perfect girls, then, are post-college paraprofessionals (she does, for the most part, do OK on the race question, insofar as she recognizes the prevalence of disorder among women of color and never recants by asking them to fix the problem for other women), and no one else need apply.

With a strong start and a wonderfully refreshing premise, I think Martin could have done better than this. I am disappointed that she didn’t.


Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women / Courtney E. Martin. Penguin, 2007. U.S. $15.00

Cover image via Amazon. Post image Apie Tutsuma / Emptiness, about… via flavijus on Flickr.

14 replies on “All of These Are About Emptiness: “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters” (Courtney E. Martin)”

I’ve never had an actual ED but I do have problems with disordered eating, I guess you’d call it. I’ve had depression since I was about 13 and not eating/binging became part of it, part of my desire to be the perfect daughter. Thankfully, I have parents who have a great attitude towards eating and health, so it didn’t get out-of-control, but looking back I was pretty close. I will definitely be checking this book out but I have a question: part of my on-going struggle is with my perfectionism and my belief that I am awful for failing to meet impossible standards- will this book be triggering? You mention her talknig about the perfect girl- does she set out what a girl should be? I don’t want to reinforce bad thinking habits you know?

I would be cautious, but if you read the introduction and don’t see anything that raises red flags, you’ll probably be fine for the rest of the book. The intro shouldn’t trigger, but it does give a good idea of where the book’s going to go.

I (possibly among others!) recommended a review of this book. I’m still (slowly) working on it, but I have similar reservations to you, Anna, and have had a hard time working past them. Her description of “us” is so singular and it doesn’t seem to capture my experience. So far her implications about women who enjoy working out, or who enjoy activities that can be classified as fitness activities (like, I run, swim, and take ballet, both for health reasons and because I love doing those things and challenging myself and improving in a way that isn’t about my school reading/writing for a couple hours a day/week!), are that we’re all kidding ourselves. And that really bothers me. I don’t want to be told that the methods I’ve found of keeping my health–mental and physical–are “bad” because I’m buying into the pressure to be perfect; I’m trying to be well balanced and happy, and mostly I think I am those things. I don’t know who the “us”/”we” she talks about is, and her blanket descriptions of my generation have been off-putting to me. But maybe that means I have more of a problem than I want to admit. I don’t know.

Anyway, thanks for a great review and conversation starter.

I am glad this posted at last! :)

Having avoided most books studying EDs for triggering reasons, I was anxious to see how this one did. I think you are completely correct, Anna, that most ED books focus too much on numbers and too little on underlying reasons. The only one I’ve read that didn’t was The Hungry Self, whose premise I found interesting but ultimately flawed, at least for my experience.

While I’d love to see a world where nobody scolds a young woman for having macaroni and cheese instead of a salad for lunch when she wants it, I find it incredibly unfair to put that burden onto another generation’s back. Quoted for utter truth.

I do think there is a lot of merit in the argument that physical “perfection” is just another shade of the perfection women are taught they must attain or else. It’s unfortunate, then, that this book falls prey to the middle-class, smart, white girl idea of what a person with ED is; the approach to HAES does sound promising, though.

Thanks so much for this article; I love your reviews.

What are your feelings on ED memoirs? For instance, I read You Remind Me of You and found it very meaningful and moving, despite my never having been diagnosed or in treatment. Do you think that memoirs/fictionalized memoirs/novels like YRMOY and Wintergirls are better or worse at the triggering possibility than these nonfiction examinations?

Personally, Wintergirls was very triggering for me, and not much triggers me at this point. It’s an amazing book and I love Laurie Halse Anderson for tackling such a tough subject, but it was hard for me to get through.
(I’m not saying not to read it, I just want you to be careful with yourself!)

Wintergirls was very triggering for me as well. It’s a testament to LHA’s skill; she so perfectly captured the thought processes of the main character.

YRMOY was much less triggering; it’s a poetry novel, though, which not everyone likes.

I will have to check YRMOY out–I actually really have come to like poetry novels, so it might work for me.

I think Wintergirls was particularly triggering because the main character’s thought process was so similar to how I was when I wasn’t well. Everyone is different in their disordered eating/thinking, so obviously some things are going to hit a nerve more than others. My sister was getting on my case for not exercising (running) any more, and I couldn’t even begin to explain to her how that could be a downward spiral.

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