I Am That Girl Now

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Perfect Girls, Staring Daughters: a review

I've read this almost twice now, some parts more than that. I've told my Hub all about it. I am, in a number of ways, still digesting the whole thing, but I feel like I need to talk about it in order to work it through my mind properly.

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.


  • I agree that this is a really powerful book, but to me, there was one major flaw - it assumed heterosexuality. Sometimes, that doesn't matter to me - sometimes it's not relevant, and then I don't care.

    But this book devoted a fairly significant chunk to "what attracts a man," and throughout the book, referred to all women as desiring/dating/wanting men - and that really put me off.

    I don't need a whole chapter about gay/bisexual/queer women (and, for that matter trans women) and their body image and related issues - but I feel invisible when I read about what men want, without even a sentence addressing the fact that not all women are straight.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:11 PM  

  • True, that's a flaw, and I should have addressed that; thank you for doing so. I think that the book's extremely personal feel works against it in that regard, by limiting the experience to this particular generation of heterosexual girls, since that's what the author has experience with. I have to admit that half of why this book connected with me so much is that it was written by someone who's experienced this; I suspect that the author would not have been able to summon the same authenticity for queer relationships because she hasn't experienced such.

    I did see in the preface that the author limited her scope purposefully, and admitted that there's a lot out there that she hasn't covered-- not just queer relationships, but the transgender experience (and how stupid is it that spellcheck is flagging "transgender"? WTF???), and there's at least one cranky review from an older lady on Amazon.com who thinks that the book assumes that eating disorders didn't exist before this generation.

    So... at the best, it's a flaw, and it comes off as just mean not to mention it. You're absolutely right, and I kind of feel like a privileged shit now for not noticing it. Hell.

    By Blogger Meg, at 6:33 PM  

  • That's funny you mention scholarships: I remember being upset at getting the Presidential Merit scholarship when I went to college, because it was "only" $1200 a year. But my parents were thrilled, and apparently it helped a lot!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:06 PM  

  • So, I gotta ask. It seems like we saw quite a few blogs that focused on you changing after discovering "the gym". I have to say, after reading your blog for more than a year, I really felt happy after reading those blogs...maybe because you seemed so happy, and content, and excited (and strong!). Now it seems lately your blogs have focused more on accepting yourself--and while I love what you are saying and I wish more people would embrace personal love, it seems to me like your tone has changed (and while it doesn't offend me at all, I have noticed a change in your language also). I am just wondering if you will continue to go to the gym, and write about it. I suppose the very question goes against what your last few blogs have been trying to say, but like I said, while I have enjoyed your recent messages of "love yourself" I also really enjoyed the "smug" Meg who could squat more than any woman in the gym.

    By Anonymous Fallon, at 10:22 PM  

  • You left out the 'v' in "starving daughters" in the title. After such an interesting & thoughtful review, I really wanted to read the book, but couldn't find it in a title search at the library!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:58 PM  

  • I just found your blog from The Amazing Adventures of Diet Girl. I loved this post! Wow. I am going to buy this book today and I will be back to discuss. Your story sounds very similar to mine... it's really hard to let go of the quest for perfection and begin to believe in yourself at the same time.

    By Anonymous kim, at 9:53 AM  

  • I hope you don't feel too bad about not noticing the queer issue - we all have our forms of privilege. It didn't occur to me that the book doesn't acknowledge eating disorders in generations past. And I hadn't noticed that the preface mentions that she knows the limitations - that actually makes a real difference to me. It's one thing to just leave out a group; it's an entirely different thing to consciously limit the scope of something.

    Of course, I still wish she could have devoted a little space to non-heterosexual relationships, but hey, it's still a valuable book.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:47 PM  

  • You've piqued my interest in this book. I just put in a hold request for it at my local library. I'll be back with my impressions after I have a chance to read it!

    By Anonymous Maggie, at 2:17 PM  

  • Have you read, Eating In The Light of The Moon? It's my absolute favorite book on ed recovery and continues to help me so much!

    By Blogger ms. em, at 3:48 PM  

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