Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters

The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters

"Why does every one of my friends have an eating disorder, or, at the very least, a screwed-up approach to food and fitness?" writes journalist Courtney E. Martin. The new world culture of eating disorders and food and body issues affects virtually all -- not just a rare few -- of today's young women. They are your sisters, friends, and colleagues -- a generation told that they could "be anything," who instead heard that they had to "be everything." Driven by a relentless quest for perfection, they are on the verge of a breakdown, exhausted from overexercising, binging, purging, and depriving themselves to attain an unhealthy ideal.

An emerging new talent, Courtney E. Martin is the voice of a young generation so obsessed with being thin that their consciousness is always focused inward, to the detriment of their careers and relationships. Health and wellness, joy and love have come to seem ancillary compared to the desire for a perfect body. Even though eating disorders first became generally known about twenty-five years ago, they have burgeoned, worsened, become more difficult to treat and more fatal (50 percent of anorexics who do not respond to treatment die within ten years). Consider these statistics:

  • Ten million Americans suffer from eating disorders.
  • Seventy million people worldwide suffer from eating disorders.
  • More than half of American women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five would pre fer to be run over by a truck or die young than be fat.
  • More than two-thirds would rather be mean or stupid.
  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychological disease.

In Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Martin offers original research from the front lines of the eating disorders battlefield. Drawn from more than a hundred interviews with sufferers, psychologists, nutritionists, sociocultural experts, and others, her exposé reveals a new generation of "perfect girls" who are obsessive-compulsive, overachieving, and self-sacrificing in multiple -- and often dangerous -- new ways. Young women are "told over and over again," Martin notes, "that we can be anything. But in those affirmations, assurances, and assertions was a concealed pressure, an unintended message: You are special. You are worth something. But you need to be perfect to live up to that specialness."

With its vivid and often heartbreaking personal stories, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters has the power both to shock and to educate. It is a true call to action and cannot be missed.
  • Atria Books | 
  • 256 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781416539698 | 
  • April 2007
List Price $16.99 (price may vary by retailer)

Reading Group Guide

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters
Reader's Guide
By Courtney and her mom, Jere E. Martin, MSW

1. Do you think food and fitness obsession is a normal part of being a woman?
2. Does the description of the perfect girl resonate with you?
3. How does the starving daughter part of you -- your unspoken needs, fears, desire for comfort -- get expressed? Are you comfortable with this part of you? Why or why not?
4. What do you see as the biggest losses of the epidemic of eating disorders and the larger culture of food and fitness obsession?
5. How do you differentiate between healthy ambition and unhealthy perfectionism? How did your mother and/or father influence your perspective? How do you think you might influence your daughter's perspective?
6. How did your mother's relationship with her body influence your relationship with yours? What was the talk about health and beauty in your family? Was there one person whose comments were particularly influential? If so, why do you think that was?
7. Courtney writes that feminists taught their daughters that they could be anything, and that their daughters, instead, decided that they had to be everything. What do you think about that interpretation? Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not? Do you think feminism means different things for different generations?
8. Courtney describes her relationship with her own father as a "walk in the park" compared see more

About the Author

Courtney E. Martin
Photo Credit:

Courtney E. Martin

Courtney E. Martin, M.A., is a writer, filmmaker, and teacher. Her work on eating disorders, perfectionism, and feminism has appeared in The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Village Voice, The Christian Science Monitor, and Poets & Writers, among other national publications (see her website,, for a complete list). She has a B.A. from Barnard College in political science and sociology and an M.A. from New York University's Gallatin School in writing and social change. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.