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Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters

The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body

About The Book

"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.

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 to that with her mother, which resembles a "jungle hike." Is this true for you? What are the benefits and losses of having less intimate but steadier relationships with our fathers? What kind of father-daughter relationship best supports a daughter's healthy self-image?
9. What was your self-image like at age thirteen? Are the insecurities you felt then still with you in some way today? In what ways do they show up? Do you keep them hidden? If so, how?
10. Who was the perfect girl in your middle school or high school? What do you think she might be doing now?
11. Do you think of eating and fitness issues as a rich, white girl's disease? Were you surprised that so many working-class girls and girls of color were affected by these issues?
12. Instead of developing an authentic sense of their own sexuality, Courtney and her friend Jen struggle within a society that still reduces young women to virgin/slut stereotypes. Did or do you experience this same dichotomy? How has it changed since the 1950s and in what ways is it still the same today? What do those women labeled as prudes lose in terms of options for expressing the full range of who they are? What about those labeled as easy?
13. In what ways do you think women's appetites for sex mirrors their appetites for food? What would have to change about our culture in order for women to be more in touch with their authentic appetites?
14. Who do you see as healthy role models in pop culture for young women today? Why is there such a lack of contemporary heroines? Were there more in the past, and if so, why?
15. In what ways does hip-hop culture strengthen young women's sense of self? In what ways does it stifle it?
16. As mass media provides us with a more diverse range of female images, in terms of body type and race, how does this affect your perspective of the ideal body?
17. How does a woman's relationship with her own body affect her relationships with those she dates?
18. Were you surprised that the majority of the men Courtney interviewed emphasized how important humor was as opposed to a particular body type? Is this your experience? Do you think that porn socializes young men to have unrealistic expectations for women's bodies? Why or why not?
19. Courtney writes about the difference between being noticed -- catcalled, picked up in bars, etc. -- and being truly seen. Does one form of getting attention make you feel more beautiful than the other? Why?
20. In what ways do you see the epidemics of obesity and eating disorders as related? Do you agree that we live in a "bulimic culture," as Marya Hornbacher attests?
21. Courtney's friend Gareth helps her become aware of her own inner judgment about other women's bodies, particularly fat women. After reading that chapter, have you become aware of any subtle judgments in your own mind?
22. In what ways do you think involvement in sports has strengthened women's sense of self and in what ways has it exacerbated body insecurities?
23. Whose responsibility is it to create a sports culture where young women are encouraged to maintain a healthy relationship with food, fitness, and their bodies? Whose responsibility is it to identify when athletes cross the line between dedication and disease?
24. Why is food and fitness obsession so rampant on college campuses?
25. In what ways do single-sex environments (all women's schools, sororities, etc.) help and/or hinder the development of positive relationships with food and fitness?
26. Do you have friends with disordered eating or fitness addiction? What have you done to help them? Looking back, do you have any regrets about your decisions to either confront or not confront friends in trouble?
27. What do your spiritual beliefs teach you about the body? Do these coincide with or contradict the views of Western medicine? What about Western beauty standards?
28. In what ways can religious dogma exacerbate women's unhealthy relationship with their own appetites? In what ways can spirituality foster self-acceptance?
29. In what ways does the lack of ritual in our culture contribute to women's antagonistic relationship with their bodies, especially when in transition (puberty, menopause, etc.)? In what ways could you reintroduce body-affirming rituals into your life or the life of your daughter?
30. When have you felt most and least healthy about your relationship with your body? What influenced you at these times?
31. What woman's story in this book did you find most interesting, and how has that changed your understanding of these issues?
32. What is the ideal relationship for women to have with their bodies? Does it vary from woman to woman?
33. What is one small step you can commit to taking right now that will help end the culture of self-hatred for you and for other women?

About The Author

Photo Credit:

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.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (April 17, 2007)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416539698

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Raves and Reviews

"These beautifully written, sensitive, and empathetic stories tell the heart-wrenching truth about the critical, harmful way women and girls regard themselves -- with normalized self-hate. Martin gives voice to so many who are suffering, many whose self-hatred has insidiously become part of everyday conversation. She offers the reader deep insight based on extensive research and authentic interviews, and demands that we stop settling for self-hate. Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters will undoubtedly change lives."
-- Dr. Robin Stern, feminist psychoanalyst and author of The Gaslight Effect

"Original, passionate, and important, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters shines a light on a troubling trend in young women's development. Martin's gripping stories give us a new way to understand the plight of the struggling young women we love, if not a new way to think about ourselves."
-- Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls

"Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters is a courageous, intelligent, and provocative exploration of the matrix of psychosocial forces that influence the development of contemporary young women. Thoughtfully researched and rich with trenchant insights, compelling interviews, and eye-opening anecdotes, I will recommend it without reservation to patients and colleagues alike. Ms. Martin is to be commended for the lucid and astute perspective she brings to these complicated but essential matters."
-- Brad Sachs, PhD, psychologist and author of When No One Understands, The Good Enough Teen, and The Good Enough Child

"Courtney Martin's book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, is a courageous, intelligent, warm, and insightful deconstruction of the complicated experience of becoming a woman for this generation. She tells a new story, from the inside looking out, at the ongoing issues that anyone tuned into the media or in relationship to a young woman sees but may not understand. Her relentlessly honest and exposing account of interviews, research, and personal experience reveals a daunting reality: the self-destructive ways women cope with the impossible pressures and expectations of a society obsessed with achievement and perfection. Anyone wanting to know the truth of how our vital, brilliant, talented young female generation is slowly being eroded, and also wants to travel the road to re-empowerment, must read this."
-- Ellen M. Boeder, M.A., L.P.C., primary therapist, The Eating Disorder Center of Denver

"An engaging and heartbreaking account of the tragic circumstances girls and women find themselves in today as they struggle to find a body they can feel secure with."
-- Susie Orbach, author of Fat Is a Feminist Issue

"Reading this book, I said to myself, 'If only.' If only girls were demanding applause instead of starving for food, thirsting for knowledge instead of hungering for support, and knowing how perfectly perfect they are in every way instead of letting doubt run rampant. Fortunately, Courtney E. Martin is here to move women in the right direction. She writes about body image with passion, intelligence, savvy, and curiosity. Best of all, readers will know that this will be just the first of Martin's many worthy reads."
-- Wendy Shanker, author of The Fat Girl's Guide to Life

"For health professionals, Courtney Martin gives an indispensable guide into food behavior. Using compelling personal insights, she effortlessly conveys the tangle of nutritional health and disordered eating. Stories of dieting daughters and young women seeking their worth in weight are told with uncommon wit and wisdom. Tragicomic accounts of Martin's college experience combine with sharp analysis that anyone can enjoy and employ, from dietitians and physicians dealing with full blown eating disorders to parents and their children who face the impossible paradox of perfect girls and starving daughters."
-- Sharron Dalton, Professor of Nutrition and Registered Dietitian, New York University and author of Our Overweight Children: What Parents, Schools, and Communities Can Do About the Fatness Epidemic

"It was INSPIRING, NECESSARY, and REVOLUTIONARY for me to read this book. Courtney E. Martin has written one of the most important, comprehensive looks into the malnourished souls of today's girls and women. You owe it to yourself to read this book and give one to every daughter, mother, and woman you know."
-- Jessica Weiner, advice columnist and author of Life Doesn't Begin 5 Pounds from Now

"Martin presents an inspirational collection of research and stories about the problem young girls are tormented by in today's society. No ethnic group is excluded from this epidemic. Perfect girls are not anorexic daughters. The desire to be thin is masking the true underlying problem -- the desire to be loved and acknowledged. This book is an invaluable tool for all of us. A MUST READ!"
-- Laura E. Corio, MD, author of The Change Before the Change

"With a sharp analysis communicated through heartbreaking stories, Martin exposes how hard most women have it these days when it comes to being secure in their physical appearance. Martin delves into the psychological, emotional and social side effects of a generation gone perfect. Anyone who has ever felt that twinge of not being good enough, skinny enough, pretty enough for the world at large should sit down with this book and see how deep the rabbit hole goes. We can only begin to act on our own behalf once we see how comprehensive this social disorder is -- Martin makes it clear that the time to act is now!"
-- Adrienne Maree Brown, Executive Director, The Ruckus Society

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