Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: a stream-of-consciousness reaction

I read the article “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters” in the spring ’07 issue of Bitch this morning. It’s an excerpt from the book of the same title and really struck me. It made me feel both better (because it was a reminder that I’m not alone in my perfectionist self-loathing) and worse (because it highlights what a struggle it is to overcome this self-imposed misery).
Martin makes the point that most women my age and younger feel like we have to be perfect. We hear “you can be anything!” as “you have to be everything.” It resonated with me very strongly. Whenever I’m stressed, I slip into the perfectionist way of thinking and it becomes a struggle not to see every cluttered horizontal surface in my dwelling as an accusation, every extra pound as a failure. I have got to get this book.

A few choice bits:

These perfect girls feel we could always lose five more pounds. We get into good colleges 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.

We are relentless, judgmental of ourselves, and forgiving of others. We never want to be as passive-aggressive as our others, never want to marry men as uninspired as our fathers. We carry the old world of guilt — center offamilies, keeper of relationships, caretaker of friends — with the new world of control/ambition — rich, independent, powerful. We are the daughters of feminists who said “You can be anything,” and we heard “You have to be everything.”
We must get A’s. We must make money. We must save the world. We must be thin. We must be unflappable. We must be beautiful. We must be perfect. We must make it look effortless.

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 seeks comfort in cookies, coffee ice cream, warm bread — transgressions that make the perfect girl in us angry.

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 try to fill the black holes inside of us with forbidden foods. We never feel full. We always feel cold.
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-doubt, and hunger don’t exist, that we like to be this busy, that we like to eat small, unfulfilling portions 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 herlself known like an explosion. We collapse from exhaustion, or pick fights with our boyfriends or families, or sob inside the locked bathroom stall. We fight these breakdowns, but the starving daughter emerges, young and scared and sick of our shit.

That last part sounds like a description of my college years. Weeks of achievement, punctuated by fits of hysterical crying that would last for hours, and then disappear as though they never happened. I felt like an impostor in my own life, and was constantly terrified that I’d be found out — revealed as the scared, stupid girl with no self-control that I was so sure I was. Therapy helped. Learning to talk to my friends about it helped (once I persuaded them that yes, I really did have problems under the perfect facade). More recently, finding a wonderful man to share my life with has helped, much as the feminist in me is loathe to admit it (and why should I be loathe to admit it? Because he’s a man? Because the “all she needs is a good husband” trope is so pervasive? Fuck it. I’ll give credit where it’s due. He changed my life for the better.)
But that perfectionist streak is still there. I can’t quite shake the feeling that the clutter in our apartment is an indictment of my ability to cope, that the fact I make under six figures a year is a testament to my laziness, or that the fact that I’m a few pounds overweight means I am a fat slob with no self-control.
It’s a constant struggle, beating back the perfectionism. But it’s the good fight. If I lose it, if I give in to that perfectionist streak again, I will make myself and my loved ones miserable. And no amount of “perfection” is worth that.

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