Courtney Martin wanted to write a book about eating disorders and their prevalence in today’s society. She compiled interviews with people who suffered or currently suffer from eating disorders (this includes anorexia, binge eaters, bulimics, those with disordered eating tendencies but not diagnosed EDs), as well as therapists, nutritionists, and sociological experts. She also drew upon the experiences she had about “almost” falling over the edge into disordered eating, and her observations of the women around her as she grew up (and whom she interviewed). Her introduction outlined the questions she wanted to answer in her book: “How did we become so obsessed with perfection, so preoccupied with food and fitness, and what can we do to reclaim our time and our energy?”
The book is split into 13 chapters, 11 of which attempt to reveal a facet of the reasons why women engage in disordered eating, book-ended by a chapter before that explains the history of the medical understanding of eating disorders (this was the excerpt we read in the link provided above), and a chapter at the end explaining how we women can reclaim the power.
The second chapter (the first that deals with the hypotheses), labeled “From Good to Perfect: Feminisms Unintended Legacy,” proposes that the reason why women engage in eating disorders is because of the way our mothers raised us. This part focuses predominantly in America and its historical contexts from the 1950s onward. Mothers who had been born as baby boomers and grew up during the Civil Rights era of the ‘60s, the feminism movement of the ‘70s, and became mothers to children in the ‘80s and ‘90s, often have a “girl power” attitude that they passed on to their daughters. At the same time, pressure on fathers to be the sole breadwinners meant that husband and wife were separated for most of the day, and fathers were notably absent from their children’s lives. The mothers had to pick up the slack—a term that feminists call “the second shift.” As a result, mothers became super-moms, striving to be perfect. “Women in my mother’s generation still had the notion that ‘having it all at once’ was a very real possibility (silly, silly girls), so they heaved the weight of the world onto their shoulders and tried to run around with it (gracefully, of course). And guess who was watching the whole time?” (39) The little girls emulated their mothers and tried to be the best that they could be, in everything. Mothers were not aware that they were pushing this feminist agenda on their daughters, but phrases like “You go, girl” helped pressure the younger girls into becoming perfectionists. I found this quote, about how these younger girls twisted the equality agenda in their heads, to be very telling:
[My mom] told me: “You can be anything you want to be.”
My translation: “I have to be everything.” (45)
Additionally, girls emulated their mothers when it came to body image. Their mothers taught them self-hate because they themselves were dissatisfied with their bodies. Eating habits, scrutinizing protein-carbohydrate-fats ratios, emotionally eating, and their own eating disorders (if they had them) influenced the girls. But mothers are only one half of the equation.
The third chapter deals with the way girls interacted with their fathers, and how fathers, in their involvement or absence in little girls’ lives, affect our relationships with men. One way that fathers did this, especially among divorced parents, was by fostering an unhealthy relationship with food. Kids would go to their house and eat junk food, in a perennial “don’t tell mom” weekend binge. Mothers were seen as tyrannical and controlling, and fathers were emotionally “fun.” Martin asserts that this dichotomy between controlling mother (who the kids find restrictive and mean) and fun father (who is emotionally absent but fun to be around) is what makes grown women binge and purge. She eats and indulges herself, like she is her father. When she purges it out, she is feeling her mother.
Another way that Martin believes that fathers encourage distorted body image among their daughters is by commenting on their changing bodies. As girls go through puberty and gain hips and breasts, the fathers seem terrified by the sudden change. The girls are no longer their “little girls” and are a whole new breed. Womanly problems are overwhelming. Comments about these budding bodies make the girls self-conscious. The girls themselves are scared by the change. Martin notes that
Womanly bodies seem fraught with complexity, sites of service, starvation, submission. When fathers ignore changing bodies, they contribute to the cultural messaging that surrounds girls and younger women: Ignore your bodies’ wisdom, tame your bodies’ hungers, they will only get you in trouble… Taught to fear, ignore, and control her own body, she loses essential attunement to her unique appetite. (64)
The next few chapters deal with girls and the relationships that they have with each other. Martin asserts that girls are often in competition with one another (“best friends, fiercest rivals”), not only with grades or sports, but with food as well. Teens know that their bodies are on display at all times, because they are watching as well. “If she is casting this eye on others, she rightly reasons, certainly her own thick thighs and little belly are being noted by the judges” (86). Comparisons are unhealthy, she says, and spurs competition among each other, despite the fact that they know it is wrong. The only way the teen girls know how to evade teasing is to be perfect.
The girls are also in competition to be seen by boys. Boys have a say in who is “hot” and who is not. The teen girls see the popular boys choose pretty and thin girls and assume that, in order to be accepted, they need to be thin and pretty too. Sex is another incentive to use the body in an objectified way. Despite the vast arena of grey space suitable for naming the girls’ sexual experience, girls have to choose between being known as a “prude” or as a “slut.” There is no in between. Teens are torn between the sex-saturated media and abstinence-only education. When girls begin to experiment with sex, they are known for that only. When a girl is labeled a slut, says Martin, “the rest of her identity seems to fall away. When that happens, her entire worth gets tied up in her ability to hook up with guys and, therefore, her ability to look beautiful, thin, and desirable, to be fun, to dance on the bar. She doesn’t have the opportunity to be taken seriously once she has garnered the ‘easy’ label” (108). Because the problem is about self-love and self-satisfaction, women who are used by men feel good during the encounter and then cheap afterwards. Their desires are fueled by hunger for attention and acceptance. These compulsions are fixed with more sex, alcohol, or emotional eating. Their bodies, and their sexuality, become a project that they can sculpt and mold. If this means eating more to ward off sexual attention after a traumatic sexual experience, the girl can develop a bingeing disorder. If she wants to be thinner, to be more beautiful, or to disappear, she will develop a restrictive disorder. Martin shows the correlating statistics: 80% of patients with eating disorders reported they had a history of abuse. “When a girl … endures rape, she feels as if her body betrayed her. When she cannot confront the real enemy of that betrayal, she focuses her energy on the most immediate substitute…. She has a place to put that energy, a conduit for all that anger and sadness, a simple distraction from the confusing reality” (113).
Despite all the talk about personal relationships and close influences, Martin notes that the media cannot be left out of the problem. Women these days are shown to be the “virgin-slut,” for example, Britney Spears clad in her Catholic schoolgirl uniform, growing up to be a Slave 4 U. Women are seen as quiet, gyrating bodies, with fake boobs and moaning back-up tracks. Martin notes (as we have all noticed) that once-normal-sized starlets are now shrinking: Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, the Olsens. Once again, emulation. Bodies are seen as fashion accessories, with the super-skinny look in style currently. Can’t buy a new Prada bag? No problem, says Martin. Your body shape can be altered with careful control, to look chic and fashionable.
In her chapter titled “All or Nothing Nation,” Martin describes how women are supposed to be all or nothing. If a girl is skinny, she must be an anorexic; she must be careful, in control, neat and observant, talented and smart. If she is fat, she must sit on her couch all day, eating donuts, a lazy bum who is worth nothing. Though Martin notes that obesity is a real problem, and catalogues the health risks associated with it, she explains that not all fat women are unhealthy, and not all skinny women are healthy. There are problems with both extremes, but society tends to be more forgiving towards the thinner folk.
Another chapter deals with athleticism and the female athlete triad. Martin partially blames Title IX, the equal-opportunity sports participation ruling, for the rise in athletic anorexia. She details the percentages of female athletes who suffer from eating disorders and notes that “sports are a performance” (193). Girls put in overtime to go further, to push herself for herself, as well as the betterment of the team. Even if a girl is tired, hungry, fatigued, or injured, she fights through these obstacles and feels better for it. Deprivation is seen as dedication. Pressure from the sidelines can also spur girls into eating disorders. Martin talks about Wendy*, her high school basketball team captain, who began to deprive herself of food and worked out harder each time the team lost. When the team did poorly, she increased her workload and decreased her food, to make herself leaner and more emotionally “lighter,” ready for the next game. Teammates could encourage disordered eating behavior, as well: they were so close, like sisters, that if one started to restrict, the others would restrict as a sign of support. As Martin states, “Girls are notorious for creating their own subtle contests—most notably the race to be slimmer, stronger, and more in control” (206).
Throughout the book, Martin writes the ways that we women shape our relationships with emotions, food, and our bodies. We are constantly becoming disassociated with our bodies, and stop listening to the subtle hunger cues and satiety signals. She also deals with college and the widening chasm between body and mind, and the after-college years, where this perfectionism and go-getter attitude can form a basis for a different, though still unhealthy, relationship with food and body image, including a piece on elective plastic surgery.
Though she shows many different reasons why women have eating disorders, and although many of the reasons struck me as accurate and spot-on, at least for me and my relationship with food and body image, the book still seems to have some gaps. I can see myself in some of these women, but it still does not seem to pinpoint MY reason for eating in a disordered way, or thinking in a disordered way. I guess I read this book hoping for some closure for myself, but I was still left with questions. However, it is an eye-opening read and there were a lot of quotes that I wanted to highlight and underline, to be like, "Yes! I understand completely!" Her last chapter deals with ways to reconcile the happy child with the grown woman, and it does end on a happy note, but I still feel that there is a piece missing.
Has anyone else read this book? Your thoughts? Need clarification on anything I wrote (I realize it’s kind of TL;DR)…