In her new book, "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body" (Free Press), journalist Courtney E. Martin asks readers to confront the issue every girl, teenager, woman and parent face on a daily basis but that no one seems able to explain: why do girls feel so much pressure to look good and why does it manifest in excessive attention to everything they eat? Cultural critics like Betty Friedan and Naomi Wolf have for years questioned society's expectations of women, but Martin says the desire to look good has reached epidemic proportions: Although eating disorders entered the public consciousness 25 years ago, Martin, who is 27, says they have burgeoned, become more difficult to treat, and more fatal, and that she's concerned not just about women who are clinically sick but about the millions of others—including dozens of personal friends—who waste time and energy obsessing over their physique and diet. NEWSWEEK's Julie Scelfo recently spoke with Martin. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Why did you write the book?
Courtney E. Martin: Growing up, I was surrounded by women with eating disorders from the time I was 16. Then I thought it would be better at Barnard [College], with its all-girl feminist ethos, but it was a lot worse. I had been surrounded by these beautiful friends who were self-hating for so long. The journalist part of me took over and found there are 7 million girls and women with eating disorders in the U.S. [Back in 2000, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that the number of American women affected by eating disorders had doubled in the preceding three decades.] As horrifying as that number was, I was even more interested in the number of women you can't really count who are obsessing about food and who don't meet the textbook definition of a disorder. Why is there such accepted normalcy of women focusing so much on what they eat and hating their bodies?
There are a lot of books on this topic. How is your book different?
There are a lot of memoirs from women who are really sick, but they're the most extreme cases. There's also tons of academic books, but there's very little out there from an average woman, talking about what she experiences and what she's seen.
One thing I'm curious about is why smart girls, women who succeed academically and professionally, still obsess over their bodies. Why do those things go together?
Academic excellence is part and parcel of this whole orientation towards perfection. I think of it as the body becoming the battleground for that quest for perfection. It's actually rather ironic: Here we are, women outnumber men in college by 2 million. We've taken over in nearly every single arena. We were raised with a feminist ethos. But somehow we decided we had to be excellent, be perfect.
Yeah, a study at Duke University a few years ago tapped into this notion that girls felt they were expected to be "effortlessly perfect." How exactly did we get from the feminist teaching "you can be anything" to "you have to be everything?"
My theory, which I lay out in the book, is the idea that our mother's lives spoke much louder than their words. While they were telling us you're perfect, you're beautiful and you can be anything, we were watching their lives. They were doing a second shift, having part-time jobs, raising us. They were exhausted. And we knew that. They were self-hating, mercilessly self-critical about their looks and shortcomings. So this generation of supermoms raised supergirls who learned to muscle through exhaustion and any authentic signals from their bodies that they need to slow down. It's what we grew up with.
What about the sexual component of all this? I was struck by a statistic in your book from Jean M. Twenge's research that young women today are twice as likely as their mothers were to have multiple sex partners by the age of 18.
I think people have overlooked how closely linked the ways we treat sex in this culture and the way we treat food. Both are forbidden for young women on the one hand, but both are totally pushed in their faces. There's all this anxiety around sex and food … It's like there's "Girls Gone Wild" and the music videos where young women are really objectified at younger and younger ages. And at the same time, there's food porn everywhere, commercials saying you deserve the chocolate ice cream or whatever. When you're young, this is incredibly difficult to negotiate so women end up getting cut off from their own bodies, and end up using [sex and food] as either emotional coping tools, or trying to deprive themselves of both and become a perfect automaton.
There's been a lot of talk in the last few years about "mean girls" and whether some of girls' problems and high expectations are coming from one another. Do you think that's right?
Absolutely. The peer culture around eating disorders and eating-disordered behavior is so toxic. I spoke with a group of privileged white girls on Manhattan's Upper East Side and another group in New Mexico with a lot of women of color and a lot of low-income women, mostly black and Hispanic. In both cases I was horrified by the tactics of peer culture. The New York City girls had a pact against bagels. If someone touched a bagel, they would give one another the evil eye [in order to "help" each other stay on track]. They have shortened anorexia and bulimia to "a-rex" and "b-mic." So I really think these issues get far worsened by very toxic girlfriends.
Do you have an eating disorder?
I don't. I'm an average girl who never had a textbook eating disorder, but when I look back on college I certainly regret the amount of time I spent thinking about these issues. I definitely experimented with behaviors like working out too much.
What about this idea of the female body as currency?
My generation is the hip-hop generation, and in terms of music, the only presence women have is as a body. If you get into rap, you end up having to objectify yourself. I can't even imagine what huge effect that's had on this generation given that's the music that's listened to and loved the most.
Don't forget about pornography. How do you think porn affects men's relationships with women?
Guys say porn has nothing to do with their real desires with real women. I can't quite swallow that theory. If you spend a substantial amount of time looking at airbrushed, cosmetic surgery-ed women, that becomes part of your expectation. Even if you're critical of that industry, it has to have an effect on the way you see the ordinary woman next door. Women know this deep down, and when they're less than the airbrushed supermodel, they feel like they're not going to be attractive to guys. And it's not a far jump from that to the diet mentality and eating disorders.
So now what do we do?
Good question. It would be truly radical in society for women to stop settling for self-hate, to come to terms with their bodies and try to heal our self-images. And realizing that perfection is unattainable and in fact, uninteresting. There's no global political prescription. You can't take to the streets to change this. If people can individually come to terms with their own body, that's huge. Besides, the quest for perfection is joyless and boring.