Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Courtney E. Martin: Our Bodies, Our Anxiety, Ourselves

Written by Susannah Wexler


Courtney Martin published her first poem in Highlights when she was “barely walking.” It was about M&M’s. Since then she has written for The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Christian Science Monitor, among others, and taught at Brooklyn and Hunter Colleges. Not bad for someone in her twenties. Martin’s recent book, Perfect Girls: Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body, pinpoints and attempts to squash the interior self-hate monologues many women hear on a daily basis—“I’m fat and worthless” and “I’m politically powerless.”

 

 

Courtney Martin published her first poem in Highlights when she was “barely walking.” It was about M&M’s. Since then she has written for The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Christian Science Monitor, among others, and taught at Brooklyn and Hunter Colleges. Not bad for someone in her twenties. Martin’s recent book, Perfect Girls: Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body, pinpoints and attempts to squash the interior self-hate monologues many women hear on a daily basis—“I’m fat and worthless” and “I’m politically powerless.”

Described by The New York Times as a “smart and spirited rant,” Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body, explores the relationship between weight and obsession. It addresses the correlation between cultivating a perfect facade—good grades, gold medals, football-player boyfriends—and emotional, namely eating and anxiety, disorders.

Martin grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a town she describes as a sprawling epicenter of conservatism and evangelical Christianity. It was, Martin writes, “suburbia to the nth degree.” Mothers competed “to outdo one another in landscaping and SUVs.” Fathers were doctors and lawyers. Sons aspired to Big Ten schools, and daughters had to be perfect.”

Martin’s own father was a lawyer, and her mother, a therapist, was also a film festival and community volunteer, on top of being an extremely active mom. Her parents were products of feminism’s second wave and strived for an equal relationship. Instead, like many of her peers, Martin’s mother, often sick and frequently exhausted, played the “super-woman” role. Observing her parents’ relationship, Martin also absorbed some of her mother’s feminist theories. When, however, her mother told her, “You can be anything you want to be,” Martin interpreted it as, “I have to be everything.”

When Martin entered high school, she began to notice how many of the girls around her obsessed over food. She entered Barnard College, assuming that with its feminist ethos, her peers would accept their bodies. The women at Barnard however strived for perfection—academic, emotional and physical. As a self-admitted “perfect girl”—commentary editor of the newspaper, captain of the basketball and lacrosse teams, girlfriend of the captain and starting quarterback of the football team—Martin was in familiar territory. Like many of these women, she exhibited borderline eating disordered behaviors.

Of course, eating disorders have been part of the feminist dialogue for decades. From Gloria Steinem’s, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, to Myra Hornbacher’s, Wasted, women have examined their bodies in light of fashion magazines, the male gaze, and their parents. Many of us who grew up during the Weight Watchers era believe we understand the perils of dieting. Our mothers counted calories and our friends stopped eating bread. We read articles about girls who threw up after eating before we even entered puberty. But if we know everything, we ask ourselves, why are we still suffering?

Martin answers this question by updating the eating disorder discussion. For her, eating disorders are part and parcel of larger perfection obsessions. Her readers, she knows, did not grow up in a world where women were viewed solely as objects. They are straight-A students, high school newspaper editors and sports team captains. They want to be successful. They want to be thin. Their unrelenting quest for perfection, Martin argues, is feminism’s unwanted legacy.

Martin frames her argument as a dichotomy between the perfect girl and the starving daughter: “A starving daughter lies at the center of each perfect girl.” She writes: “The face we show to the world is one of beauty, maturity, determination, strength, willpower, and ultimately accomplishment. But beneath the facade is a daughter -- starving for attention and recognition, starving to justify her own existence.”

Martin’s prose is beautiful, powerful, and pleasantly authoritative. She creates camaraderie with readers, assuring them that they are finally understood. “We get into good colleges,” Martin writes. “But are angry if we don’t get into every college we applied to. We are the captains of the basketball teams, the soccer stars, the swimming state champs with boxes full of blue ribbons. We win scholarships galore, science fairs and knowledge bowls, spelling bees and mock trial debates. We are the girls with anxiety disorders, filled appointment books, five-year plans.”

Martin’s book appears at an opportune time. In August 2007, The New York Times reported that, for the first time ever, women in their twenties make more money in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas than do males in their twenties. In recent years, more males than females have dropped out of high school and many colleges are under fire for keeping young women out because, compared to men, there are just too many of them. Over the past several decades, women have made great strides. We play sports, attend competitive colleges and work fulfilling jobs. Martin however wants us to examine the costs. “I think that ambition and the success that comes with it is healthy,” she notes. “As long as it is measured with all other parts of life—joy, intimacy and integrity.” According to Martin, we must value qualities, as well as strides. “Live,” she tells us. “Enjoy your one, precious life, accept that imperfections and aberrations are what make you beautiful and unique; prize kindness, joy and resilience above all else.”

 

Images courtesy of Courtney Martin's mom 

 

 

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