Monday, July 02, 2007

Courtney E. Martin on Food, Body Image, and Eating Disorders

More than half of American women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five would prefer to be run over by a truck or die young than be fat. More than two-thirds would rather be mean or stupid, writes Courtney E. Martin in her new book on food, body image, and eating disorders, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: the Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body.

As we all well know, eating disorders are skyrocketing—some ten million Americans now suffer from them, and 90% of high school-aged girls think they are overweight. Courtney E. Martin, the 20-something writer extraordinaire (check out her bio at the end of this post), set out at age 25 to figure out the WHYs on food, body image, and eating disorders—Why did all of her friends suffer from a full-fledged eating disorder or, at least, struggle with food and fitness? Why are eating disorders still claiming the lives of so many young women? Why is it that when girls are told, “you can be anything,” they hear, “you must be everything”?

As she wrote, “I set out asking: How did we become so obsessed with perfection, so preoccupied with food and fitness, and what can we do to reclaim our time and energy?” Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, published by Simon & Schuster in April, is her answer.

It’s an incredible book. I don't hesitate at all in telling YOU, the New Moon blog reader, to read it, then share what you've read with your friends, your sisters, your cousins, your teachers, your parents… Not only because the book is so compelling, but because it’s so important that we as girls and women finally get to the bottom of our obsessions with our food and our bodies.

Courtney was nice enough to answer New Moon’s questions on her book, eating disorders, body image, and feminism. First, a teaser from her Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters:

“There is a girl, right now, staring in a mirror in Des Moines, scrutinizing her widening hips. There is a girl, right now, spinning like a hamster on speed in a gym on the fifth floor of a building in Boston, promising herself dinner if she goes two more miles. There is a girl, right now, in a London bathroom, trying not to get any vomit on her aunt’s toilet seat. There is a girl, right now, in Berlin, cutting a cube of cheese and an apple into barely visible pieces to eat for her dinner…Our bodies are the places where our drive for perfection gets played out. We demand flawlessness in our appearance—the outer manifestation of our inner dictators.”

Perhaps you don’t have an inner dictator, but don’t all of us have that lurking desire to be the supergirl? As Courtney writes, “Our mothers had the luxury of aspiring to be 'good,' but we have the ultimate goal of ‘effortless perfection.’”

Read on for Courtney’s fascinating responses to New Moon’s questions.


NM: What inspired you to write Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters?
CM: Through out high school and college, I felt surrounded by brilliant, beautiful friends who were obsessed with food and fitness, perfectionist, and often self-hating. When I asked older women about this phenomenon, they would often essentially respond, “Get used to it. This is just part of being a woman.” I refused to believe that. The book grew out of the outrage that I felt over my friends’ pain and what appeared to be the general acceptance of it as a natural part of femaleness.

What audience is your book intended to reach—the perfect girls and starving daughters themselves, or their greater society?
I wrote this book for the 16 and 17 and 18 year old me, the girl who ached for something familiar and fiercely honest, the girl who really needed a call to action to stop settling for self-hate. So in essence, I wrote it for sophisticated teenagers and college students, primarily, and secondarily, for their mothers and fathers, educators, and coaches.

Describe a typical day in the life of Courtney E. Martin.
Almost every day is different for me, depending on whether I am conducting interviews or meeting with my agent or colleagues. Here’s what a day spent writing is like:

I wake up in my Brooklyn apartment which I share with my big brother, Chris, and do a little yoga or meditation. I make a cup of coffee and some toast with peanut butter and then settle in front of my computer. I try not to check email for a couple of hours so that I can get some focused writing time in before the onslaught of the outside world. Sometimes I’m working on a book, more often an article on feminism, politics, or pop culture.

I take my lunch break and read something—maybe a book I’m incorporating into an article, a magazine I’d like to write for, or the New York Times. Then I might take a walk in Prospect Park, which is right near my house. When I get back I’ll shower and then get right back to the computer. Email, email, email. Maybe a blog post or two. Pitching to editors. Trying to make contact with those I’d like to interview for a story. IM with my boyfriend, who works in film editing. Maybe a quick chat with my writing partner, Jennifer. More email, email, email.

I try to always stop working around 5 or 6 regardless of where I am in a process. I think freelancers can have two tendencies—underworking or overworking. I’m always in danger of the latter so I have to be vigilant with myself about stopping when the sun goes down.

At night I do a range of things—meet with my amazing writer’s group (, go to the movies, attend a friend’s reading etc. I always get eight hours of sleep. I’m a total nerd in that way.

What is the link between, as Arianna Huffington wrote in your book's advance praise, the need to “stop counting calories and start changing the world”?
The amount of time, energy, and willpower being displaced into dieting and fitness obsession is enormous. I get giddy just thinking about all of the amazing work we could do in the world if we spent that energy focusing on ways in which we can make the world more fair, and experience more joy, and fully embrace who we are and what we have come here to do with our lives. There is so much incredible potential locked up in counting calories and churning away on the exercise bike.

You focus on girls and women whose perfectionism drives their disordered eating and low self-esteem. What about girls and women with just plain bad body image, who don't necessarily have issues with perfectionism-how do they fit into the equation?
Not all women with eating disorders or disordered eating are perfectionist, certainly. I think that group of women is less prone to trying to fit into an unattainable ideal, and more prone to processing their emotions through food or a lack thereof. Though arguably all women struggling with these issues are having trouble healthily processing their emotions, perfectionist women tend towards anorexia as opposed to bulimia. There are plenty of nuances.

When it comes to body image and eating disorders, who is being an 8- to 14-year-old girl today different than it was for earlier generations?
I think that eating disorders have existed for earlier generations, but they were far less common and far less extreme. This generation of young women has been socialized to think that if they have enough will power and/or money they can look like anyone—Nicole Ritchie, Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry—regardless of what their genetic body type is. Young women today often have no idea that we each have an innate set point within which our body’s metabolism will naturally adjust. That’s why diets fail 95% of the time (and we still pump $30 billion a year into the industry!) We live in such an extreme makeover culture nowadays.

I also think we are dealing with a whole new world of opportunities—thanks to feminism—that can be paralyzing. We’ve watched our supermoms strive for super-achievement, and so often, their own health and care were sacrificed in the process. As a result, so many of us associate femaleness with exhaustion and self-sacrifice. Our mothers told us “You can be anything” and somehow we heard “I have to be everything.”

What will it take for more girls to start eating healthily-and start loving their bodies?
So, so much. To start with, each young woman can make the radical commitment to heal her relationship with her own body. That means reconnecting with your authentic hungers—when are you hungry? For what? When are you full? What does your body crave? (Usually, your body’s signals are smarter than your mind’s intellectualization of what you need.) How can you move in ways that make you feel happy as opposed to feeling trapped in joyless fitness regimens?

It also might take some outrage. Does it incense you that there are multiple markets making millions off of your insecurities? ($30 billion diet industry, $28 billion plastic surgery industry, $26 billion skincare and cosmetics industry) If we can externalize some of that anger instead of taking it out on ourselves, that can be hugely transformative.

If you could pinpoint the single best solution for improving girls’ body image and self-esteem, what would it be?
Focusing more on joy!

For a generation of girls that, in the words of Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, have grown up with feminism “in the water,” why is body image still such a huge issue? Why are rates of eating disorders still skyrocketing?
I think that the Second Wave of feminism [1960s-70s] did a tremendous job of creating institutional change, but wasn’t terribly effective at internalizing their own ideas. We’ve inherited that unfinished business.

As Susie Orbach wrote, ‘fat is a feminist issue.’ Why has thinness, in relation to the topics of eating disorders and low self-esteem, become one of the focal points of third wave feminism's work with girls?
It’s so insidious. Seven million girls and women in this country have textbook eating disorders and countless others are struggling though not diagnosable. The sheer numbers are horrifying. And then when you consider how powerful and successful young women are, in general, the contradiction is too glaring not to notice.

You call perfectionism "feminism's unintended legacy." Overall, do you think feminism has helped or hurt girls, especially in terms of long-term effects on self-esteem?
There is no question that feminism has made girls’ lives better in huge and profound ways. We are safer, more educated, and more liberated than any generation of women before us, and that is in large part due to the vigilant and enlightened work of our feminist foremothers.

Having said that, I do think that the lack of internalization of feminist ideas (equality, self care, etc.) has been a real problem, as has the misinterpretation of Feminism for “superwomen feminism”—that not only do women have opportunities, but they have to take advantage of ALL of them and excel perfectly. Not possible and truly unhealthy.

New Moon was one of the first publications you ever wrote for. Can you share any advice for girls who aspire to be writers or journalists?
and write as much as you can. I learned so much from writing for my high school and college newspapers—not just from the faculty advisers, but from my peers. Read authors you respect and write them emails expressing your gratitude and seeking mentorship. Don’t think that you have to be an English major once you get to college, although that’s fine too. The best writers and journalists are those who are totally fascinated with all sorts of quirky facets and subcultures. Cultivate your interests, as varied and seemingly strange as they may be. Eavesdrop, observe, write it all down. And finally, try to cultivate a group of peers who are interested in writing. I have been so enriched and supported by my amazing writer’s group, who are not famous, fancy writers but just my friends who are in the same boat, trying to make our way in the world.

You're definitely an author (and activist) to watch. What's next on your horizon?

I'm working on a few book projects, including an anthology on interracial relationships, a memoir by an amazing young woman from Nashville who is HIV positive and spreading the word about this devastating disease, and a book about “what matters now.” I’m blissfully all over the place!

Anything else you'd like our blog's readers to know?
Please check out my website ( and feel free to write me emails. I love hearing from girls and I try to answer every email I get.



Originally from Colorado Springs, Courtney now lives in Brooklyn. She writes for an amazing range of national publications, including Newsweek, Newsday, Alternet, The Christian Science Monitor, The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Utne Reader, Women's eNews, Poets & Writers, Publisher's Weekly, BUST, Bitch, and ReadyMade, among others. Courtney is also a contributing blogger for Crucial Minutiae and Feministing.

Courtney has an M.A. from New York University in writing and social change [very cool!] and a B.A. from Barnard College in political science and sociology. She spent six months studying in Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently an adjunct professor of gender studies at Hunter College.

When she isn't working, which is not nearly enough of the time, she is daydreaming about playing the blues harmonica, cooking dinner with her big brother, or making video documentaries with her boyfriend in Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. Oh, or conspiring to create unselfconscious dance parties.




Heather said...

What a wonderful and insightful interview. As an educated, 20-something perfectionist feminist myself, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters is a read I am throughly devouring--along with that extra slice of pizza--minus the guilt!

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Anonymous said...

It's amazing Arianna Huffington has anything empowering to say to women. She had her chance to run against Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2003 California recall race...and she QUIT!!

These days her days are spent between bashing two leading women in the democratic party, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.

So much for women empowerment.