Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body
Courtney E. Martin (2007)
In decades past, chauvinist traditions suppressed the advancement of young women. In the 1980s, conservative, mostly older women helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. None of these barriers prevented America’s young women from taking over higher education and, within a decade or two, dominating professions like law and, soon, medicine, and forging a feminist revolution of unprecedented proportions.
Suddenly in the 2000s, as young women are pushing into unheard-of education, economic and political territories, several feminists have joined conservatives and mainstream commentators in creating fear of young women. A troubling example is Huffington Post and Alternet journalist Courtney Martin, who relentlessly magnifies her own and her acquaintances’ middle-class anxieties to fabricate an unprecedented generation-wide pathology she links to their very success.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Martin writes, “there is a whole nation of young women doing incredible work:”
We outnumber men on college campuses by two million and rising every year. We hold more offices in student government and are more likely to have taken AP biology and chemistry than our male peers. I recently interviewed over 100 women between the ages of 9 and 30, for my book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and was consistently amazed at the work ethic and good works of the women I spoke with.
But underneath the Pollyanna story of our high achievement is an ugly underbelly. We are more diseased and more addicted than any generation of young women that has come before. Perhaps in the face of all of this pressure and perfectionism, we are succumbing to dangerous emotional numbs—eating disorders, binge drinking, and even harder drugs (Huffington Post, June 7, 2007).
Martin depicts girls’ lives as a joyless hell of perpetual misery, self-loathing, danger, and self-destruction—“a bubbling, acid pit of guilt and shame and jealousy and restlessness and anxiety,” as she puts it (page 4).
Whose horrible lives is she talking about? “My friends and my friends’ friends, and sometimes even my friends’ friends’ friends” (page 10). Martin, like other youthphobes, appropriate the voices of all girls and young women (based in her case on interviews with “100 women between the ages of 9 and 30” she selected out of a young female generation of 30 million) to their own particular agenda. What are her interviewees like? “At the age of twenty-five, I can honestly say that the majority of the young women I know have either full-blown eating disorders or screwed-up attitudes toward food and fitness,” she declares. “… My generation is expending its energy on the wrong things” (page 2).
Martin morphs “my friends” etc. into “my generation” and normal angst into mass trauma. In an era in which feminists should be celebrating the strengths of young women, Martin’s image of them resembles that of 19th century anti-suffrage preachers who warned that women’s fragile psyches would collapse if exposed to the pressures of men’s cruel, crude outside world.
Martin’s negative stereotype (shared by culture-war conservatives such as the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz and backwards-thinking traditionalists) is that today’s girls and young women are uniquely weak, masochistic, and shallow. In her depiction, young females perversely seek the most damaging aspects of popular culture to facilitate their self-destructive obsessions. Martin and others ignore the rich diversity of popular culture and girls’ affirmative expressions through online forums, zines, and similar new media. Instead, these commentators typify the most offensive popular culture messages they can find and declare, in Puritan tones, that girls will be drawn to them by some kind of self-destructive imperative.
Having ferreted out the worst of cultural imagery, Martin and similar girl-fearing commentators then proceed to ferret out the worst young-female expressions they can find, supplemented by the worst media stories, advocacy groups’ claims, and anecdotes; that is, the usual materials for books about youth. Youthphobe commentators’ search for 12-year-olds wearing “slut” t-shirts to misportray as The Everygirl is poisonous. They ignore—in fact, seem to resent—the vast array of more solid measures that show girls today are happier, healthier, and safer than those of the past, a time today’s commentators bizarrely nostalgize as one of tranquil, girl-affirming community.
In Martin’s unhappy world, crushing anxiety about body image is what the large majority of girls and young women “wake up in the morning to… walk around all day resisting… go to bed sad and hopeless about” (page 3, emphasis hers). If Martin and interviewees really spend the whole day miserable that they can’t all be buxom gamines, that is shallow. How is self-hatred, fixation on celebrities, and endless negativism about young women feminist? Writes Martin:
The sheer volume of celebrity illegality, and the specifically female faces behind the mug shots, is indicative of the new normalcy of addiction for young women–of all classes, cultures, and locales–in this country.
It is time that the dwindling state of young women’s mental health stop being treated as outrageous titillation, and start being seen as grounds for serious outrage.
This, simply, is idiocy. That a tiny minority of female celebrities get in the news for drinking or drugs proves all young women everywhere are addicts? What “dwindling state of young women’s mental health”? By what right does Martin use the term ‘we” to appropriate her own troubles to 30 million young women?
This isn’t to say that Martin is wrong that body image, eating, pill popping, and related anxieties are a “social problem” for some girls and women—around 10% to 15% seem seriously affected, which merits attention. But why does Martin insist on conscripting an entire generation into her walking wounded regiment while refusing to acknowledge the obvious: that for the large majority of girls and young women, negative issues are managed along with life’s other difficulties?
Fortunately, it’s clear that the vast majority of girls today do not succumb to Martin’s style of misery and do not appear to require sequestering from harsh realities. They do not obliterate themselves with pills, booze, hopeless sex, and suicidal depression to cope with the inevitable discovery of personal imperfections. True, the vast majority of females can never achieve the anorectic glamour certain fashion models display or the troubled celebrity of a few divas. But realizing you can’t be the best at everything is part of handling growing up and everyday life.
What, then. constitutes an authentic voice of girls? Certainly not authors, psychologists, interest groups, and pundits whose narrow agendas impel them to cruelly misrepresent girls. Nor would writers like me, who would write sunny (and low-selling) books by generalizing from the girls and young women I’ve encountered as students, coworkers, and in programs, ones who overwhelmingly appeared happy, optimistic, and handling their lives well. But whether grim or optimistic in their personal outlooks, authors who select girls to interview, media stories to quote, and rare anecdotes to illustrate their points wind up suppressing the genuine voices of the young female generation they claim to represent.
None of us can know what millions of girls really think, but we can look at measures designed to probe representative samples. There are two places we can turn to find the girl generation’s voice: long term, non-ideological surveys, and public health, crime, and other referential statistics against which to check girls’ self reports.
I’m no fan of surveys, but Monitoring the Future’s annual surveys of thousands of teenage girls at least objectively queried a larger, representative population—not the girls Martin and others select. Monitoring the Future found that girls, allowed to respond anonymously to questions themselves rather than having misery-projecting adults appropriate their voices, presented a much happier image.
For example, we would never expect from Martin’s “acid pit of guilt and shame and jealousy and restlessness and anxiety” that 70% of high school senior girls today report being happy with themselves, 86% are happy with their friends, 66% are having fun, and 77% are happy with their lives (Table 1).
|Table 1. But don’t girls admit they’re more depressed,
scared, peer-tortured, alienated, and selfish today? NO!
|Percentages of high school senior females telling Monitoring the Future:|
|I’m “very happy”||21%||18%||18%||23%||23%|
|Satisfied with life as a whole||63%||66%||65%||64%||66%|
|Enjoys fast pace and changes of today’s world||45%||42%||58%||56%||50%|
|Daily participation in active sports/exercising||36%||38%||34%||35%||36%|
|Are you satisfied with (percent agreeing)…|
|Your material possessions?||75%||75%||71%||73%||75%|
|Your personal safety?||68%||67%||66%||69%||71%|
|Values (percent agreeing)|
|Important to be a leader in my community||19%||20%||33%||40%||46%|
|Important to make a contribution to society||55%||52%||62%||65%||70%|
|Important to have latest music, etc. fashions||77%||78%||70%||59%||51%|
|Important to have latest-style clothes||42%||47%||57%||42%||39%|
|Wants to have lots of money||35%||41%||63%||57%||59%|
|Wants job with status and prestige||52%||60%||69%||65%||67%|
|Wants job that provides lots of money||84%||89%||86%||86%||86%|
|Wants job with opportunity to help others||92%||91%||92%||88%||90%|
|Women should have equal job opportunity||82%||88%||96%||97%||95%|
|Wants to correct social/economic inequality||37%||35%||44%||39%||39%|
|Happier to accept things than create change||37%||39%||36%||39%||35%|
|Dissatisfied with self||12%||10%||13%||10%||12%|
|Sometimes thinks “I am no good at all”||28%||27%||28%||25%||24%|
|I’m “not too happy”||13%||17%||12%||14%||13%|
|Feels I am “not a person of worth”||5%||5%||6%||7%||8%|
|Often feels “left out of things”||33%||34%||36%||34%||29%|
|Feels there’s usually no one I can talk to||6%||5%||6%||6%||5%|
|Feels “I can’t do anything right”||10%||11%||12%||14%||14%|
|Wishes “I had more good friends”||50%||46%||50%||52%||44%|
|Not having fun||19%||13%||16%||20%||17%|
|Can’t get ahead because others stop me||22%||21%||26%||26%||20%|
|Thinks “things change too quickly” today||54%||56%||44%||44%||46%|
|Thinks “times ahead of me will be tougher”||47%||54%||45%||42%||41%|
|Don’t participate in sports/exercise (<1/month)||22%||20%||25%||22%||22%|
|Feels “people like me don’t have a chance”||6%||5%||5%||5%||5%|
|*Source: Monitoring the Future, 1975-2005.|
Demolishing Martin’s drama about young women’s supposedly record levels of addiction, high school girls also report drinking and using drugs less today, and at older ages (Table 2). Fewer are prescribed mood-altering stimulants or use them on their own. The use of prescription narcotics has held steady, but all other drug, tobacco, and alcohol use has dropped, often substantially.
|Table 2. But aren’t today’s girls smoking, drinking,
and using dangerous drugs at younger ages? NO!
|Percentages of high school senior females telling Monitoring the Future:|
|Drug use (began with 1977 survey)||1977||1980||1990||2000||2005|
|Smoked cigarettes daily||45%||41%||30%||32%||20%|
|Smoked daily before 9th grade||12%||17%||10%||13%||4%|
|Drank alcohol (more than a few sips)||91%||92%||89%||78%||74%|
|Drank alcohol before 9th grade||21%||24%||32%||28%||19%|
|By physician’s prescription||15%||11%||5%||6%||5%|
|Without a prescription||22%||25%||13%||11%||9%|
|Used amphetamines before 9th grade||1.0%||1.0%||2.6%||1.2%||0.6%|
|Used marijuana/LSD/other psychedelics*||60%||64%||44%||58%||45%|
|Used heroin/other narcotics/cocaine*||11%||14%||8%||13%||11%|
|*Treats those who used more than one drug as a single user of each drug.
Source: Monitoring the Future, 1975-2005.
These healthier trends are now persisting past high school. Female first-year college students averaging 18-19 years old report feeling much less depressed than 20 years ago, when The American Freshman survey first asked that question (Table 3). However, there has been an increase in the percentage who feels overwhelmed by all they have to do, which may reflect the fact that women students are seeking higher degrees and are working more to pay off larger student loans than in the past.
|Table 3. Percent of first-year college women saying they feel:|
|Years||Frequently depressed||Overwhelmed by all I have to do|
|Source: The American Freshman, annual survey, 1985-2006. UCLA: Higher Education Research Institute.|
Nor does any measure substantiate popular claims that college women are now smoking and drinking more than in the past or than men; both show declines (Table 4).
|Table 4. Percentages of college first-years students who say they…|
|Drank beer in the last year||56%||57%||42%|
|Smoked cigarettes in the last year||12%||8%||5%|
Do vital measures confirm girls’ self-reported safety and responsibility? Violent deaths, pregnancies, and other ills have plummeted among girls in recent years (Table 5-9), trends that are hard to explain if girls are more troubled and addicted. Rather, it is their mothers, now middle aged, who are showing the most destructive trends and are now most at risk. Covering up older generations’ problems may be why girls are being scapegoated.
|Table 5. Young women getting safer, middle-aged women now most at risk|
|Female violent deaths/100,000 population|
|Age group||1980||2004||Change, 2004 vs. 1980|
|Sources: WISQARS, National Center for Health Statistics, 1980-2004|
For all the supposedly apocalyptic body image problems Martin and others postulate, girls under age 20 obtain fewer than 2% of cosmetic procedures today, a declining number. Once again, it’s older generations that seem to suffer the worst self-image crises, with burgeoning cosmetic surgeries and makeovers (Table 6).
|Table 6. Teens aren’t the ones getting surgical makeovers
Cosmetic procedures, 2001 Cosmetic procedures, 2005
Age group number percent | number percent top surgical procedure
under 19 298,000 4% | 175,000 2% Rhinoplasty
19-34 1,870,000 22% | 2,700,000 24% Breast Augmentation
35-50 3,740,000 44% | 5,300,000 47% Liposuction
51-64 2,100,000 25% | 2,700,000 23% Eyelid Surgery
65+ 425,000 5% | 530,000 4% Eyelid Surgery
Total 8,500,000 | 11,500,000
Source: Plastic Surgery Research.Info. Cosmetic Plastic Surgery Research, Statistics and Trends for 2001 – 2005 http://www.cosmeticplasticsurgerystatistics.com/statistics.html
If girls today are having unsafe sex by rising legions, we’d expect pregnancies and STIs to be rising as well. Again, just the opposite is the case (Table 7).
|Table 7. But aren’t teens getting pregnant and having
babies and abortions at younger ages today? NO!
|Pregnancies per 1,000 teenage females|
|Change, 2002 v 1976||-61%||-25%||-46%||-20%||-37%||-30%|
|*Indicates no data are available for that year. Miscarriage rates were higher in earlier years, and illegal abortions were estimated by public health authorities at 750,000 to 2 million per year prior to legalization in 1972.
Source: National Center for Health Statistics.
Further, given Martin’s and other culture-warriors’ claims of misogynist imagery pervading popular culture and corrupting young people of both sexes, surely rape and other sexual violence against young women has skyrocketed in recent years? The best measure of crime, the National Crime Victimization Survey, tells exactly the opposite story (Tables 8, 9).
|Table 8. Rape victimization has declined dramatically among young women|
|Rapes/attempted rapes per 1,000 females ages:|
|*Survey changes in 1993 expanded definition of rape. Adjusted for female proportions of total rapes, 1993-2005. Source: National Crime Victimization Survey.|
|Table 9. All sex crimes against young women also are declining rapidly|
|Rapes and sexual assaults* per 1,000 females|
|*Includes all rapes and other sexual assaults, whether completed, attempted, and threatened. Source: National Crime Victimization Survey, 1993-2005.|
Nearly all of Martin’s other negative implications and “facts” about the dangers facing young women today are reactionary junk as well, derived from mainstream media, drug-war, and other secondary sources without any context or history. For another example, in her June 7, 2007, column, Martin writes:
According to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, 15 million girls and women use illicit drugs and misuse prescription drugs, 32 million smoke cigarettes and six million are alcohol abusers. In fact, misuse of controlled prescription drugs is even higher among girls (14.1 percent) than boys (12.8 percent).
Risk-taking behavior is no longer the purview of the “bad boy.” From 1977 to 2000, there was a 13 percent increase in the number of women drivers involved in fatal, alcohol-related crashes, compared to a 29 percent decrease for male drivers.
CASA is a grossly unreliable drug-war marketing agency headed by ideologue Joseph Califano, Jr., with a history of wildly biased surveys and documented errors in service to toughening laws and boosting client programs. Because CASA surveys predictably produce the wildest numbers, they’re cited more often today by youthphobes.
Martin’s secondhand citation of CASA to make girls look bad has the usual problems. She (like CASA) fails to mention several key facts. First, even if the CASA report is right, 88% of girls and women ages 12 and older don’t use illegal drugs at all, 75% don’t smoke cigarettes, and 95% don’t abuse alcohol. Second, Monitoring the Future finds, today’s percentages are vast improvements over 25 years ago:
- In 1975, 41% of high school senior girls used an illegal drug in the previous year, compared to 36% in 2004.
- In 1975, 62% drank alcohol in the previous month, including 26% who binged on alcohol (drank five or more drinks in a row). In 2004, 45% and 24%, respectively.
- In 1975, 36% smoked cigarettes in the previous month, including 16% who smoked half a pack a day or more. In 2004, 24% and 5%, respectively.
CASA’s misleading claim, embellished by Martin, that women drivers’ alcohol-related crashes rose by 13% since 1977 similarly becomes much less alarming when historical context is provided:
- The number of females licensed to drive rose by 49% from 1977 to 2000 (1.7 times faster than the increase for men).
- During that period, the proportion of fatal crashes involving women drivers in which alcohol was a factor plummeted, from 27% in 1977 to 15% today—a drop much faster than recorded by men (44% in 1977, 28% in 2004).
- CASA’s reported 13% increase in the number of fatal alcohol-related crashes among women drivers over that period translates into a 25% decrease in the rate of drunken driving by female drivers. Noted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in a more recent report: “Female drivers not only are less frequently drunk than males but also show a greater reduction in alcohol involvement in fatal crashes from 1982 to 2000” (page 14). NHTSA, Alcohol Involvement in Fatal Crashes, 2000
- From 2000 to 2004, women driver’s drunken driving crashes dropped by another 5%, to their lowest level ever recorded.
Thus, contrary to Martin’s contrived panic, women today actually are far safer, especially from alcohol-related accidents, than in past decades. Women drivers are involved in more traffic accidents today because they are driving many more miles every year than they used to. Women are more out in the world, displacing men to a more significant degree than in the past, and so women’s exposure to the risks of the larger world (such as traffic wrecks) has risen as well. That women are more exposed to risk today makes the decline in the per-capita rate of traffic crashes, especially alcohol-related ones, among women drivers over the last 25 to 30 years even more impressive.
Today, 40-year-old men alone kill more people in drunken driving wrecks than all teenage girls under age 20 put together. Martin’s egregious reversal of reality shows why it’s crucial for writers about youth to stop relying on second-hand sources for facts.
TRENDS IN ALCOHOL-RELATED FATAL TRAFFIC CRASHES, UNITED STATES, 1977–2003, NIAAA
However, even amid spectacular improvements, there do remain some girls who do suffer troubles. Monitoring the Future, like other studies, finds around 5% to 15% of girls rate themselves as suffering difficulties (Table 10), enhancing their risks of harm, which validates Martin’s point that these are “social problems.”
|Table 10. But what about the fraction of girls who ARE troubled?|
|Percentages of high school senior females telling Monitoring the Future:|
|Are you DISSATISFIED with… (percent answering “completely or mostly dissatisfied”)|
|Your material possessions?||6%||5%||8%||7%||5%|
|Your personal safety?||8%||7%||9%||7%||5%|
|Your life as a whole?||7%||7%||7%||8%||7%|
But there is a major difference between normal setbacks, unhappinesses, and recognition of one’s imperfections growing up (or in adulthood) and displaying the kind of obsessive, prolonged misery Martin dwells on. Had Martin confined herself to the segment of girls and women suffering abnormal depression and anxiety without stigmatizing a whole generation as crazed and addicted, her book would have been a valuable service.
Martin’s stigma toward girls is far from harmless. Girls, as a gender and as an age group, are under terrific political attack today, one justified by exactly the image of an apocalyptically messed-up younger generation Martin and other authors carelessly dispense. Forced legal and policy interventions into girls’ lives of the type Martin clearly wouldn’t support, increased policing and even incarceration, and the continued neglect of girls’ real problems such as widespread poverty and family abuses* all stem from the widespread misimpression that girls face and perpetrate new, extreme dangers brought on by popular culture.
It’s wonderful that girls today do not embrace the self-loathing Martin and others falsely extend to an entire generation. One would think feminists, of all people, would be celebrating the fact that girls’ successes in the formerly male world also brought improved safety, mental health, and behaviors.
Reviewed by: Mike Males, YouthFacts.org
*On a personal note, a great deal of my anger at Martin and feminists who indulge yuppie culture-war dramas is that I spent years working with girls with real problems. Girls who had been raped in their beds by their mother’s live-in man-friends, who grew up in utter destitution, whose families were cesspools of violence, addiction, crazed grownups, who had to shoulder grownup duties at very young ages. Despite the fact that real poverty and real abuse are firmly tied to far more problems among girls than pop-culture’s fictional fashion ads and thinness messages, these disadvantaged girls were far stronger and more optimistic than the misery-bound young women Martin lionizes as typical.