Ever since pop star Karen Carpenter died in 1983, anorexia and bulimia have been in the public eye. And since then, we've learned much about causes, outcomes and treatments. So when I picked up the recently released book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters by Colorado Springs native Courtney Martin, I didn't know if I'd find anything new.
In fact, much of Martin's book feels like familiar territory. You've probably heard about the desire for perfection, the role of parents, the influence of media messages and the diet industry, and the links between eating, sexuality and body image. Yet, there's something especially striking about Martin's book: It illustrates how little progress we've made.
One of the first statistics that Martin cites is startling. "In 1995, 34 percent of high school-age girls in the United States thought they were overweight. Today, 90 percent do."
An even more frightening statistic follows. "More than half of American women between the ages of 18 and 25 would prefer to be run over by a truck or die young than be fat." In support of these numbers, Martin has filled the book with powerful and provocative interviews with more than 100 girls, young women, and experts who bear this out.
For readers who are tempted to think, "It can't happen here," there's a wake-up call waiting. Many of the young women struggling are Martin's friends and classmates, who grew up in the Springs. Martin herself is a 1998 Palmer High School grad and a recovering "perfect girl."
So why is this still happening, after all that we've learned? In a phone interview from her current home in Brooklyn, N.Y., Martin explains that even for this media-savvy generation, "There is a real disconnect between what we know in our heads and what we practice in our lives."
She believes this striving for perfection comes from many sources, including our Extreme Makeover culture and even (gasp!) feminism. She says that feminist mothers tell their daughters, "You can be anything you want to be." But young women hear, "You have to be everything."
As a mom who considers herself a feminist, this is difficult to swallow. But rather than debate the "real" messages of feminism, I ask how we can respond to the reality of young women who interpret it this way.
"The first thing that any mother can do is to change her own modeling," Martin says. "Mothers can say 10 times a day, "You're beautiful,' or "You don't have to be everything.' You can fill your daughter's head with as many messages as you want, but if you are modeling that you have to be everything to everyone and you hate your body, that speaks so much louder than the words."
Martin shares a story that illustrates how difficult good modeling can be to achieve.
"I was on the Today show recently, and beforehand they airbrushed my face with makeup," she says. "The whole time I was thinking, "I'm going on this TV show to tell women to accept their imperfections, and here they are totally eradicating any blemish I could possibly have had on my face.'"
In a perfect world, it would be so much easier. Or maybe not. I guess that's the struggle.
Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body
By Courtney E. Martin
Free Press, $25/hardcover