Finally getting around to posting some excerpts from Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, mostly because I'm chatting with a friend of mine about it right now. It really did ring very true.
Anna Quindlen, in her 2005 short book aptly titled Being Perfect, wrote, "Someday, sometime, you will be sitting somewhere. A bench overlooking a pond in Vermont. The lip of the Grand Canyon at sunset. A seat on the subway. And something bad will have happened: You will have lost someone you loved, or failed at something at which you badly wanted to succeed. And sitting there, you will fall into the center of yourself. You will look for some core to sustain you. And if you have been perfect all your life and have managed to meet all the expectations of your family, your friends, your community, your society, chances are excellent that there will be a black hole where that core ought to be."
My friends and I, girls and young women across the nation (and even, I have learned, across the world), harbor black holes at the center of our beings. We, the perfect girls, try to fill these gaping holes with food, blue ribbons, sexual attention, trendy clothes, but no matter how hard we try, they remain. We have called this insatiable hunger by many names -- ambition, drive, pride -- but in truth it is a fundamental distrust that we deserve to be on this earth in the shape we are in. A perfect girl must always be a starving daughter, because there is never enough -- never enough accomplishment. Never enough control. Never enough perfection.
Our mothers had the luxury of aspiring to be "good," but we have the ultimate goal of "effortless perfection" This was the term that young women at Duke University used to describe "the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort" in a series of discussions held in 2001 as part of their Women's Initiative. This is not, of course, just a Duke thing. "Effortless perfection" has become the unattainable and anxiety-producing ideal for women across the country and across the world. We must not only be perfect -- as in accomplished, brilliant, beautiful, witty -- but also appear as if we achieve all this perfection through an easygoing, fun-loving approach. Perfect girls are powerfully afraid of seeming too uptight, rigid, or moralistic. We don't just want to achieve; we also want to be cool. (p. 5)
A starving daughter lies at the center of each perfect girl. 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.
The starving daughter within annoys us, slows us down, embarrasses us. She is the one who doubts our ability to handle a full-time job and full-time school. She gets scared, lonely, homesick. She drinks too much, cries too loud, is nostalgic and sappy. When neglected, she seems comfort in cookies, coffee ice cream, warm bread -- transgressions that make the perfect girl in us angry.
The starving daughter emerges in midnight confessions, a best friend's sudden tears, a suitemate buried in mountains of cover, shades drawn, eating ice cream in the middle of the day, and watching Buffy reruns in the dark.
Starving daughters are full of self-doubt. We don't want to worry so much about making other people happy but feel like we can never say thank you enough times, never show enough humility, never help enough, never feel enough shame. We feel guilty. We fear conflict. We are dramatic, sensitive, injured easily. We are clinging to all kinds of attachments that, in our minds, we know we should let go of, but in our bodies, we feel incapable of relinquishing. We are self-pitying, sad, even depressed.
We are tired of trying so hard all the time. We feel like giving up. We feel hopeless. We want love, acceptance, happy endings, and rest. We wish that we had faith, that we weren't ruled by our heads and could live in our hearts more often. We want to have daughters -- little girls who will love us unconditionally. We still small things, such as candy bars and bras -- that make us feel special for just a moment. We try to fill the black holes inside of us with forbidden foods. We never feel full. We always feel cold. We starve for a god.
We don't like to talk about this part of ourselves. Our whole lives, we have received so much affirmation for the perfect part that the starving-daughter part feels like an evil twin. Sometimes we can even convince ourselves that the sadness, self-doubts, and hunger don't exist, that we like to be this busy, that we like to eat small, unfulfilling meals or work out constantly.
For a while... but then the phone doesn't ring when we want it to or we get passed over for a job or a fellowship. Then the starving daughter makes herself known like an explosion. We collapse from exhaustion, or pick fights with our boyfriends or families, or sob inside the locked bathroom stall. Some girls experience their deep sadness in going on binges (food or alcohol), sleeping all day, sleeping around, buying a lot of clothes they don't need, ignoring professional or relational opportunities, dropping out of the race altogether. Some of my best friends have retreated inside themselves in this way, refused help, wasted away, or cloaked themselves in excess weight. We get mono and can't move for weeks. We hate losing control. We hate being "wimps." We fight these breakdowns, but the starving daughter emerges, young and scared and sick of our shit.
Young women struggle with this duality. The perfect girl in each drives forward, the starving daughter digs in her heels. The perfect girl wants excellence, the starving daughter calm and nurturance. The perfect girl takes on the world, the starving daughter shrinks from it. It is a power struggle between two forces, and at the center, almost every time, is an innocent body. (pp. 20-21)
My hesitation in posting this latter bit is that I think it can easily be misread as implying that women are "soft" or "weak" at their core -- which would be outrageously anti-feminist. However, the author isn't saying that at all. Rather, she's saying that we women, modern women, women of or generation, however you want to put it, are determined to be so strong that sometimes we neglect the softer parts of ourselves. (I imagine similar things could be said about some men, although there are different societal pressures at work.) I myself am constantly aware of whether something I'm doing is going to be perceived as weak, or whether it is weak, or whether by doing something "weak" is going to bring womenkind back down into the dregs of past male hegemony. (That's a strange kind of awareness -- awareness of role as representative of group.) Anyway, the point is that women are strong, but they never give themselves a break, and that can lead to a breakdown. I used to repress a lot of anger and then lash out at people randomly -- I did it in high school a lot with female friends and then in college, too. I've now become a lot better at it. The point is to accept and work with the parts of yourself that you aren't pleased with all the time, instead of trying to bury them. Anyway. I could say much, much more, but I will leave it here for now. There will be more.