Our Brains Are Not Our Butts: Blowing the Lid off the "Perfect Girl" Syndrome

04/18/2007 10:21 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

When did it become acceptable to hate your body? And I'm not talking about those fleeting moments of dissatisfaction that are a ubiquitous part of human existence. I'm talking about the unadulterated self-hatred that has become so commonplace that we don't even notice it.

We don't blink an eye as women disparage various body parts. My recent favorite: "My legs look like tree trunks," from a girl whose ribs protrude. Young women in clothing stores say with pathological desperation as they try on $200 jeans, "I MUST lose weight."

And recently, a perfect stranger pulled up her shirt and displayed her perceived imperfections with disgust in response to my asking if she enjoyed the yoga class we took together.

There is a plague afflicting woman across the country--one that doesn't discriminate by class, geography, or race.

But finally it's being exposed.

Courtney E. Martin's book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body, draws on more than 100 interviews with young women, psychologists, nutritionists, and socio-cultural experts, and addresses the truth that women already know too well: their ultimate accomplishment is to be thin.

Martin analyzes this "perfect girl syndrome"--the post-feminist striving that has, in its best manifestation, shepherded in an unprecedented era of female achievement, particularly in the academic arena. Currently, three fifths of National Honor Society members are women.

But it's also spawning something insidious: a pursuit of weight obsession that Martin says (and she's spot on) women are approaching with "religious fervor."

Martin's meticulously researched book--that's peppered with anecdotes from perfect girls and recovering perfect girls--paints a picture so uncanny that you could be reading about your best friend, your college roommate, or yourself.

Martin writes, "They [young women] become ritualistic about their eating habits, describe food as forbidden or sinful, grow extremely dogmatic in their views on nutrition or fitness and in the process develop a view of themselves as almost saint-like figures--pounds away from messy human existence."
So while we are amassing our fancy degrees, we are distracted from our ambitions, such as becoming CEO of that record label, by body and weight obsession.

Martin calls on young women to think critically about all those seemingly innocuous moments in our lives that add up to a colossal waste of time.

She writes, "Those two minutes contemplating whether to head for the salad bar, one minute standing in front of the coffee counter, trying to figure out what drink is sweet enough that it tastes good but doesn't contain a lot of calories, and those five minutes lying on your bed contemplating whether to go to the gym or take a nap add up over the course of a life time."

According to Martin, women lose three years of their lives obsessing over these decisions.

And if time is the most valued commodity of the 21st century, good lord are we driving down the market value.

Martin takes on some other critical uncharted territory: the gray area of eating disorders.

In other words, the way many young women would describe half a dozen of their friends: "Well, she doesn't have a real eating disorder. I mean, she doesn't starve herself or throw up, but she's certainly obsessed with her weight and what she eats."

This quest for body "perfection" has spawned a culture where more than half of American women between the ages of 18 and 25 say they would rather be run over by a truck than be fat.

Is this--feeling ashamed and disgusted by our bodies--how we are going to inaugurate our incredible moment in history? A time when the prognosis for women's equality has never been brighter?

Heck, we might even have a female president next year.

Yet, we are tormented by how we look.

Martin explores with insight and prowess what is driving the frightening new norm of hating your body. Nope it's not men. Apparently they like some junk in the trunk. Sure, magazines aren't great for your self-esteem. A parent, of course, has some influence. If you were raised by a mother who had a negative self-image then it's likely you'll pick up on it.

So what is it?

My take is that it's deep-rooted in the psychology of womanhood. As Laura Kipnis, the prolific feminist writer, points out in her book, The Female Thing, feminism and femininity are two very different animals. Feminism is predicated on equality and femininity is predicated on feeling inadequate (see: Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf for a compelling analysis of how the beauty business has become a multi-billion industry by preying on women's feelings of inadequacies.).

However, what is also deep-rooted in women is the desire for a better future: the craving that gave us the right to vote, access to the workplace, and birth control.

But movements need a leader and a mantra, so it's time to heed Martin's adage--one that should be cemented in feminism the way "the personal is political" was in the 1960s.

"We are not our bodies. Our souls are not our stomachs. Our brains are not our butts."