Perfect Girls, Staring Daughters: a review
First and foremost, this is a great book. Courtney E. Martin will be here in Chicago to do a reading (at Women & Children First, up in Andersonville) on June 27, and you bet your ass I'm going to be there. I want to shake that woman's hand and thank her. Frankly, if I had the money, I'd be buying up copies of this book and handing them out to every woman I know.
It's not about eating disorders, exactly. It's about what makes us susceptable to them, what starts us down that road-- the deep yearning for acceptance, both from ourselves and from others, and the conviction that unless we're perfect, we can't get that acceptance and won't deserve it. I'm sure I must have met women who have utter buoyant confidence in themselves from top to bottom and all sides 'round, but I swear I can't name any off the top of my head. Which, really, is a shame, because the number of women I've met who have brainsmacked me with their sheer awesomeness is a number which would have to be written in scientific notation, it's so damn big.
The point being: Are you a woman and/or do you know women? Do you feel driven to perfect yourself, or ashamed of your own imperfection? Do you watch others with an eye to cataloguing their defects and comparing them to your own? If any of that rings a bell, then, regardless of your relationship to food and exercise and body image, READ. THIS. BOOK. If for no other reason, do it because I want to hear what you think.
I can remember crying for days after I found out that I got a scholarship, because it was only for $500 per semester. The ones that covered more, and particularly the full-ride scholarships-- I thought I was in the running for those, and when I didn't get them, I was devastated. I actually ended up getting three different scholarships for my first year of college, but I thought I was a horrible failure because I hadn't managed to scholarship my way out of having my parents pay anything.
I don't think I've ever mentioned that before, to anyone, because I'm aware of how it makes me sound like an ungrateful twit. (So now I post it on the internet! Hooray!) Not to mention, it makes me sound ridiculously full of myself. It's not so much that I thought I deserved those scholarships, as that I felt that I was expected to get them, and when I didn't, I felt like I had disappointed my family and my teachers. Any comments to the contrary sailed right over my head.
I'm not sure how I got it in my head that I was expected to achieve at that level, but I do remember my senior year of high school being a crushing horror for my sense of self, as I filled out form after form that basically asked why do you think you deserve this? and I couldn't think of a single damn reason. I abandoned whole applications just because I couldn't face the question anymore. Lord only knows what I might have achieved if I'd believed in myself a little more and expected a little less.
The thing is, I've been caught in a version of those applications since I was eleven or twelve. I was a "gifted" kid, a straight-A student, and ever since I can remember I've been told a) that I have great potential, b) I need to live up to that potential, and c) currently I'm not living up to that potential so I need to stop fucking around and get a move on. I've had great guilt for not being a published author by eighteen, not paying for my own college education, not getting the lead roles in the musical and the opera, not going on to grad school, not using my degree for my job, and, oh yeah, not being a size six. Nobody actually told me that I had to do any of that stuff, but I felt the pressure nonetheless: I was special, so I had to achieve special things, or I wasn't any good at all.
I never expected to read a book that laid out that mentality, that said, "look, this is common, you're not alone in this, and it's okay"-- much less one that was written by someone who's in it herself, who's part of this generation, who's seen what it's done to her friends, who's had the same pressures and fears, who can honestly say "there but for the grace of God go I" because she was the roommate of, cousin of, teammate of, friend of, so many of these women that walked a very similar path and walked it into darkness. That gives her credit, in my eyes, that an older woman wouldn't get. She's here with us. She knows what it's like. She's written our reality, spoken it out loud, made it admitted and real and something we can talk about and analyze and work with. I'm more than a little bit awestruck.
Even more impressive, this book is written with love. With compassion and empathy. Every woman whose story is told, here, is not a clinical subject described in terse terms, but someone seen as strong and beautiful and fiercely intelligent, someone with whom the author had a connection. I've seen reviews some places, obviously by older people from other generations, where this technique is sneered at, but if this had been a more clinical book, a more detatched book, it would be a lesser book. It would not have had the impact on me that it did. There's real mourning and real loss here, real anger, real fear, all of it spoken without shame.
This isn't a book about abnormal people, and it doesn't treat us that way. This is a book that looks at what is normal in our culture today, by an author that's experienced it. This is normal, and that's just not right. We should not be expected to hate ourselves for being imperfect. We should not be expected to attain perfection, and shouldn't be treated as if it's something we could do if only we get off our lazy asses and work just a little harder, kill off those weaknesses, ignore our bodies' messages. This shouldn't be normal. This should not be what we expect of ourselves, or of each other.
I cried, reading this book. Nobody in this book is me, and none of the stories are quite like mine-- some of them are so vastly different that I wouldn't have read them for themselves, had they not been part of this text-- but the emotional thread going through all of these stories was almost identical to my own. I looked in here and saw myself, saw my sister, saw my cousins, saw my high school friends and my college friends and the friends I've gathered, online and off, since graduation. I identified with this book, almost to a fault.
I think the main thing here is that this book has so much hope in it, so much complete conviction that we are worth more than what we think, that we are all so beautiful and so talented and so brilliant, all in our own imperfect, fragile, messily human ways. And because the author has that credibility, that knowledge of what it's like, it's like she knows each of us and is showing us our own potential-- not, for once, the potential to be thinner, or the potential to accomplish something, but the potential to love ourselves and find peace with our imperfection.
Go to the library, or the bookstore. Get the book. Read the book. Courtney's last chapter indicates that she believes that this won't be an issue to be solved by a large social movement, but instead via millions of individual stories-- and I was struck instantly by the fact that these stories are already being written on blogs. Ladies, go read this book, and come back; we have a conversation to begin, and I want it to begin as soon as possible.