the woman problem

feminist cultural criticism and other provocations


To the death: Wrestling with post-masculinity

Darren Aronofsky’s recent film The Wrestler has been hailed as a classic comeback film for both its star, Mickey Rourke, as well as the character he plays, Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Like Rourke himself, Randy’s career peaked in the 1980s, and the film is set twenty years later as the once-pro wrestler as he negotiates his own process of aging. At once brutal and tender, the film is sincere without being sentimental.

Sincerity is a somewhat unlikely quality for a film about pro-wrestling, more spectacle than sport, in which artifice itself becomes art. Yet while the film quietly unmasks wrestling’s violent hypermasculinity to expose a much softer underbelly, its fascination with the masochistic rituals inside and outside the ring betray its ambivalence toward this curious new creature it portrays: the post-masculine man.

Randy is post-masculine in two important senses. Most obviously, he is an aging specimen of a type of masculinity that is no longer valued in mainstream culture; “an old, broken-down piece of meat,” as he describes himself. Like a prize fighting animal past its prime, the end of Randy’s career means a trip to the slaughterhouse, although in his case he is the one doing the butchering. Forced to get a job behind the deli counter at a grocery store, Randy is given a hairnet and an ID badge bearing his given name, Robin Ramzinski. In an interesting twist, Randy’s “real” name reveals not only gender ambiguity but also suggests a process of Americanization in which Randy’s ethnic identity is traded in for a more mainstream (whiter) version of masculinity. (Note that instead of being abjected completely, his surname becomes fodder for his animalistic wrestling moniker, “The Ram.”) Re-ethnicized and stripped of his masculine signifiers, “Robin” is now at the mercy of his boss Wayne, who snidely mocks his chosen profession (“isn’t that when you sit on other dudes’ faces?”). Whereas Wayne (played by comedian Todd Barry) was being slammed into lockers by guys like Randy back in the eighties, in the twenty-first century service economy, the rules of masculinity are reversed, and now the nerdy managers have the upper hand in the contest of brains versus brawn.

Yet as Wayne’s comment makes crassly clear, Randy’s narrative contains traces of another kind of post-masculinity, one that threatens to destabilize the very system that made Randy’s existence possible in the first place. From the fake tan to the fake highlights to the steroids, Randy’s masculinity itself is revealed to be artificially constructed. Just as drag performances rely on excess to destabilize gender identities, Randy’s embodiment of excessive physicality is anything but manly. Randy’s bleached tresses and bronzed hulk pay tribute to a superficiality that is unmistakably effeminate. Strangely at home in the feminized spaces of the hair salon and the tanning booth, he self-consciously creates an image that could easily be described as “Jersey girl.”

Gender play continues in the wrestling ring, whose hyperbolic brutality is juxtaposed with the gentle homosocial camaraderie of the backstage locker room. Randy offers encouragement to a bashful and softspoken younger wrestler, before agreeing on a set of guidelines for the match. One critic terms their relationship avuncular, which I take in all its Sedgewickian suggestiveness. In this theater for the performance of manhood at its rawest, the actors are in fact a bit queer. Outfitted in a black leather collar and boots, the younger wrestler’s S&M aesthetic almost unnecessarily exaggerates the sadomasochistic relationship between the two wrestlers. In this carefully choreographed performance of dominance and submission, the male body becomes both object and subject of not only violence, but desire.

It is precisely this desire which the film attempts to subvert by channeling Randy’s masculine energies toward more respectable, heteronormative relationships. After his doctor orders him to quit wrestling, Randy struggles with the meaning of “retirement” from his chosen career path. Haunted by the specter of his lost manhood (manifested most obviously by the castration anxiety-inducing scene depicting him signing autographs among a motley crew of retired wrestlers, all of whom are missing limbs), he turns to more traditional forms of masculine behavior. His clumsy attempt to ask out “Cassidy,” a dancer at the local strip joint, is almost pathetic (ironically, Randy doesn’t seem to understand that the strip club is just another theater of flesh and spectacle), yet there’s something winsome about his naivete and Cassidy (née Pam) gives him the second chance he probably doesn’t deserve.

We learn that Cassidy is in fact a single mom trying to get out of the business, which helps explain her motivation to encourage Randy to reestablish contact with his estranged daughter. Rebuffed coldly at first, and then with a torrent of rage (fatherhood was not his strong suit, we gather), Randy persists doggedly, and his unabashed willingness to admit his mistakes produces a sense of vulnerability his daughter is able to identify with.

Responsibility doesn’t suit Randy, however, and he blows it (literally) with his daughter when he shows up hours late to pick her up because he was sleeping off a coke-filled one-night stand. Acknowledging his failure to adhere to the provider model of manhood, Randy abandons the patriarchal project, and turns back to a more familiar – if less familial – arena for reclaiming his masculinity. Randy’s return to the wrestling ring marks his renouncement of reproductive heterosexuality in favor of the homoerotic fraternity of his fellow wrestlers and fans. In a dramatic speech to the crowds assembled at his much-hyped rematch with his longtime nemesis, “The Ayatollah,” Randy makes his affinities clear with heartfelt emotion: “You are my family,” he proclaims to the roaring crowd.

Unlike most family formations, however, which are structured around the creation and nurturing of life, Randy’s “family” is actually the site of destruction, and in fact this homecoming is the scene of his death. Ultimately, Randy gives up the struggle against mortality, choosing instead to indulge the masochistic logic of the death drive. The final moments of the film show Randy ascending to balance on the edge of the ropes in preparation for his signature move, the “Ram Jam.” Amid deafening cheers, Randy raises his arms in triumphant exultation and prepares for what we know will be his final jump. He’s in the air for a split second before the screen blacks out, thus immortalizing him. We are left with the troubling yet exhilarating suggestion that in death is ecstasy.

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The Palin offensive

This summer was an unusually dry one in NYC, and also quite barren on the blogging front. My brain cells were most unfortunately occupied with radicals, and not the fun kind. No, there is most certainly nothing radical about taking square roots, or any other element of 8th grade math that you apparently need to know in order to go to graduate school. Like the LSAT, the GRE exists purely to filter out everyone too lazy (or smart) to spend the better part of their summer studying interior angles and esoteric vocabulary words. It has absolutely nothing to do with how smart you are, how good you are at math, reading, or writing, or how likely you are to succeed in graduate school.

It has a lot to do, however, with the limited number of advanced degrees offered and the need for some kind of filter to keep the numbers of applicants down to a somewhat reasonable number. When you receive 300 applications each year, and admit only 30 students, you need an expedient method for weeding some of them out. Enter ETS, an organization devoted to finding new and devious ways to make smart people look dumb. As evidenced by an entire test preparation industry, the key to succeeding on the GRE, or any similar standardized test, has nothing to do with intelligence or prior knowledge. All it takes is weeks and weeks of mental drudgery as you unlearn whatever you previously knew about writing and math, and re-learn the tactics required to outsmart ETS. It can hardly be called “studying”; it’s more of a mental retrofitting process.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the exam was the so-called “analytical writing” portion, in which you are given a choice of two prompts and asked to compose an essay presenting your own perspective on the topic. In comparison to the multiple-choice verbal and quantitative sections, this part of the exam seems like it might actually hold some relevance for graduate school. After all, it seems likely that most graduate fields would require this type of analytical writing. Most graduate fields, however, do not require timed essay exams on topics so inane that it is difficult to take them seriously. My exam topic was:
"Those who treat politics and morality as though they were separate realms fail to understand either the one or the other."
Ironically, since Sarah Palin was named as McCain’s running mate, this topic has become more relevant than I could have imagined. In just one week the unlikely vice presidential candidate has eclipsed both Obama and McCain in the media, which is understandably transfixed by the idea of a moose-hunting, Jesus-loving, oil-drilling hockey mom in the White House.

It seems completely absurd, and originally I saw McCain’s pick as an act of desperation, an acknowledgment of his own failure to compete with the rising tide of Obama. And the fact that the Republican party was forced to put a woman on the ticket is a strong indication that this election marks a turning point in American politics. For the first time, being an old white man has become somewhat of a liability, rather than an advantage.

This is due in large part of course to the efforts of Hillary Clinton, whose epic bid for the presidency, though unsuccessful, did in fact succeed in cracking the white woman’s glass ceiling (women of color, I’m afraid, usually face a ceiling made of concrete and reinforced with steel). And the irony of ironies is that now Hillary, who was the battering ram against that ceiling (and has the scars to prove it), must stand aside and watch Miss Congeniality happily ascend to the level she herself failed to attain.

And here’s a lesson to all you ambitious young women: the path to the presidency is marked not by how many times you have defended children’s rights, but by how many children you have. It is marked not by your commitment to national health care reform, but by your commitment to driving your kids to hockey practice. In other words, if you want to reach the White House, don’t bother running for US Senate, just join your local PTA! Oh and by the way, you should probably trade in your pantsuit for a cute skirt and heels.

This is a man’s world, after all, and it turns out that men don’t like women who act like men. Hillary was punished because she wasn’t content to play by the (gender) rules. Instead of politely waiting to be offered second place on the ticket, she aggressively pursued the highest office in the land. Rather than tending to her wifely duties, she let her adulterous husband disgrace her. Hillary was trying out for quarterback but it turned out the only position available to her was on the cheer squad.

So now Hillary is back on the sidelines and we have a new head cheerleader in town. And despite our collective instinct to laugh her off the field, I believe that underestimating Sarah Palin is one of the most dangerous things we can do right now. As she said in her knockout speech at the RNC, “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.” We didn’t have hockey where I grew up but as the daughter of a former PTA president (who went on to run for public office), I am all too familiar with this breed of rabid supermom to take that joke lightly.

Some analyses have suggested that Palin isn’t going to last, that she will be undercut by her own administrative missteps and her daughter’s scandalicious behavior. Something tells me, however, that if a teen pregnancy out of wedlock can’t stop her, there’s not much that will. Rather, I agree with Adele Sten’s suggestion that Palin is the Christian right’s new “culture warrior,” who dresses up hardcore conservatism with a fresh face and a sassy personality. It’s true, she has single-handedly revitalized John McCain’s moribund campaign, giving him the grounds on which to claim his own agenda for change and providing a solid basis of conservative family values to counter his “maverick” forays away from the party.

For this reason, she is a formidable opponent and we should be very wary of the pit bull underneath the lipstick. And much as we may be tempted, it would be highly unwise to succumb to the desire to belittle her as nothing more than a ditzy beauty queen. Showing contempt for her policy positions is one thing, showing contempt for her background, her career, or her choice to have kids is quite another. If we stoop to this level, not only do we risk alienating the soccer mom constituency, we also come uncomfortably close to reproducing a patriarchal devaluation of women and motherhood. And although her daughter’s pregnancy seems like a perfect excuse to pillory Palin with her own conservative Christian hypocrisy, nominating Bristol Palin for slut of the year is hardly a feminist tactic.

Furthermore, focusing on these kinds of details distracts us from the real issue, which is that Palin is positioned to assume a very, very powerful role, in which she is likely to bring the full force of her pit bull personality to bear on a mission to destroy many of the freedoms we currently enjoy.

The fact of the matter is that Palin is a born-again evangelical Christian who believes that the war in Iraq is a mission from God. She believes in teaching creationism in schools. She opposes abortion unilaterally, even in cases of rape or incest. She opposes any form of sex-ed except abstinence-only programs. One of her top three stated goals as governor of Alaska was “Preserving the definition of “marriage” as defined in our constitution.” (source)

Indeed, it is precisely these ultra-conservative values that won her a place on the ticket, because the Republicans needed someone to appeal to their core constituency on the Christian right. McCain was far too liberal for this group, and without Palin they might have stayed home on election day. Yet Palin’s views are in fact far more conservative than most Americans, and so the Republican party is also working to mask some of her more extreme views in order to make her palatable to a wide group of swing voters, not least of which are some of Hillary’s followers.

That would explain why the article from the Eagle Forum Alaska that quoted Palin’s position on the topics above was removed from the internet. The task at hand, then, is to bring these issues to light, to demonstrate conclusively that Sarah Palin is most emphatically NOT your typical soccer mom, but rather a conservative extremist who poses a grave threat to the freedoms we cherish. It is on an ideological basis, rather than a personal one, that she must be attacked.

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Queering the Family

I am remiss in blogging and don't have time to analyze all the implications and media chatter and conservative backlash politics surrounding this, but I gotta say, I'm loving the separation of reproduction and gender.

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Thursday is the new Friday

While riding the elevator up to my office yesterday, I was stunned to see this headline on our news screen: “Utah mandates four-day work week”. Yes, it’s true, government workers are now required to work four days rather than five at most Utah state institutions (with the exception of things like prisons of course… I guess they didn’t want to make Fridays get-out-of-jail free day).

I’ve been advocating a four-day work week for years (okay, well, at least for the two years that I have been working five days a week). Obviously, from the worker’s perspective, I know very few people who would turn down a three-day weekend. But I’m also convinced that from a management perspective, a four-day week would not necessarily decrease productivity and might even increase it (in the short-term at least). Think about it. How much time do you waste during the average work day?

15 minutes scanning the New York Times headlines
5 minutes emailing article to your mom about how regular exercise prevents aging
5 minutes chit chatting with cubicle neighbor
20 minutes morning Starbucks run
5 minutes bathroom break
5 minutes complaining to coworker about lack of soap in bathroom dispensers
10 minutes personal phone call to insurance company
5 minutes watching hilarious youtube clip sent by friend
5 minutes composing hilarious email reply to said friend
10 minutes arguing with coworkers about where to order lunch
5 minutes deciding what to order on menupages

See? It’s only noon and you’ve already managed to waste an hour and a half! And this doesn’t even include gmail chat, AIM or facebook.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that there is anything wrong with wasting 1/3 or more of your working hours. In fact, quite the opposite. But these types of time-wasting techniques are generally a response to the ennui of office work (analogous to the “slow-down” techniques factory workers used to oppose industrial production). After all, salaried employees get paid the same amount regardless of whether we’re actually working for eight hours straight or working for three and idling away the other five. (Things are different, of course, for freelancers and the self-employed, who possess a kind of self-discipline I do not aspire to.)

So here’s the question: if you were given the choice between wasting your time sitting at your desk or wasting it not sitting at your desk, which would you choose? I know the internet is fun and all, but I have to say I’d rather be at the beach. I think that most people would have no trouble accomplishing the same amount of work in four days rather than five, if given the proper motivation.

Now, it should be noted that Utah is not actually reducing the number of hours in a work week (they are just breaking it into four 10-hour days rather than five 8-hour days). I am not a fan of longer hours under any circumstances, and if you are literally working a 9-5 job, then working from 8 am to 6 pm would be unpleasant. However, in most workplaces, 8-6 is already the new 9-5! In my office normal hours are 8:30 – 6:00 with no lunch. Nonprofits might be a little more relaxed, but it’s not unusual to work until 7 pm and/or come in on weekends.

Whatever happened to the 40-hour work week? Answer: we think we’re too good for it.

For most upwardly mobile young people in New York, the 40-hour work week applies to the blue collar workforce, not to us. We turn up our noses at anything that reeks of manual labor, including lunch breaks and overtime. Instead, we slave away at jobs that give us the dignity of using our brains rather than our hands (although anyone who thinks working construction doesn’t involve a brain hasn’t framed any houses lately) and compensate us with fancy resumes and a sense of superiority.

This is not a call to go back to the factories – for one thing, they’re hard to come by in this day and age. But we’re not gaining anything by disassociating ourselves from the folks who got us the 40-hour work week in the first place. We may not be wearing overalls and carrying a lunch pail, but as long as we’re selling our labor for cashmoney, we’ve got the same chips on the table.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that our blue collar brethren have fought successfully for shorter hours and higher wages, those of us in finance, technology, nonprofits, the arts, and the nebulous “information” sector are working more and more, for less payoff.

According to this study, when compared with workers in 1965, the least educated and least skilled workers today work far fewer hours, but the most educated and most skilled are working the same amount or more (source). When you take into account that productivity has more than tripled, that means that workers today should theoretically be able to earn the same standard of living in one-third of the time.

So why are we working as hard or harder than our 1965 counterparts? Well, for one thing, we have gotten it into our brains that more work = more money. To some extent, this is true. The folks who are working fewer hours are also making less money overall. But by the same token, when you divide your average i-banker’s salary by number of hours worked, it may not be quite so impressive. Time is money, after all, and we seem to have to choose one or the other.

Some people have responded to this dilemma by eschewing materialism in favor of “voluntary simplicity,” defined as a “non-consumerist life-style based upon being and becoming, not having” (source). Now, I’m glad there are people out there who enjoy harvesting corn in their backyard and milling their own grain, more power to them. But I do not enjoy organic farming, and I have a number of materialistic vices that I rather enjoy, thankyouverymuch! (Interestingly, many in the self-professed “simple living” crowd seem to have no problem with shopping either, if the proliferation of stores specializing in organic cotton and hemp sandals is any indication).

What I want to know is how can we maximize the amount of money we make while simultaneously minimizing the number of hours we work? This is why I think the four-day work week is genius. Sure, it’s still a fringe idea, but I think this is an opportune time to push for it. After all, with the economy tanking and costs rising, companies are looking for ways to cut corners. Sometimes this means encouraging people to work from home, which can be a good alternative and possibly a step toward the four-day work week. When you subtract the time it takes to get ready for work and commute, you probably just bought yourself an hour and a half. Plus, who doesn’t like to work in their PJ’s? A word of caution, though – keep in mind that when you work from home, your employer is just outsourcing more of its costs to you. If you are going to be subsidizing your employer’s rent and utilities, you may want to consider what form of compensation you’d like in return.

Moving from the shop floor to the office cubicle has signified a variety of changes, but in most places it does mean more autonomy for employees. Your boss doesn’t make you punch a timecard because s/he trusts you to manage your own time. Internalizing the timekeeper role can be severely damaging, but it doesn’t have to be. It seems silly, but something as simple as leaving your desk every day for an hour can truly be an act of workplace resistance. Or, if you’re working through lunch anyway, figure you might as well work a half day every Friday. And if you can, do both.

Happy three-day weekend!

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The last single girl in New York? Not quite.

[Note: contains spoilers. However, if you care about spoilers I’m pretty sure you already saw the movie.]

So, I gotta admit that I’ve never been a fan of Sex and the City. When the show first aired, I lived nowhere near New York and wasn’t particularly compelled by a story about women buying designer clothing. Later, I came to appreciate the symbolic importance of a series about confident single women having all the sex they wanted (and talking about it!) but every time I tried to watch it, I was turned off by the contrived plotlines and annoying characters.

As a single woman living in New York, however, I figured once Carrie et al. hit the silver screen, I’d better go see what all the fuss is about. So after a naïve attempt to get tickets for opening night (what was I thinking?) I finally ended up seeing it last weekend.

As expected, the film was little more than a two and a half hour montage of Sarah Jessica Parker scampering around in ridiculously expensive clothes, wearing even more ridiculously expensive shoes. Sure, there were a few very vanilla sex scenes amidst all the haute couture product placements, and I gotta give Samantha credit for doing her darndest to objectify the male body.

Indeed, Sex and the City excels at superficiality. The biggest mistake of the film was in trying to do more.

Witness Carrie’s miraculous recovery from her post-jilting funk, aided by her very own guardian angel, “Saint Louise” from St. Louis. The days of “Mammy” may be gone with the wind, but apparently rich lil white girls still need black women for spiritual guidance (even at, ahem, age 40). In addition to cleaning Carrie’s apartment and organizing her closet (really?), Louise helps Carrie learn what love really means.

And what does love really mean? Well, taking it from Louise, Carrie and even bitchy, callous Miranda, it means forgiving the guy who screwed you over and/or broke your heart, so you can get married and live happily ever after.

And herein lies the ultimate betrayal of everything this show was supposed to stand for. Even though I didn’t personally watch Sex and the City, I saw the show as a testament to women’s desire (okay, let’s make that straight white upwardly mobile women’s desire) to be single, have sex, and live in New York City. And while I take these things for granted, I also realize that the show (and its popularity) is a product of both the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution. There was a time not so long ago where being a single woman living in New York writing about sex would have been unthinkable, much less cause for a syndicated television series.

What made Sex and the City so fabulous was its unapologetic love affair with the glitz and glamour of being young and single and yes, addicted to shopping. Of course it’s unrealistic, of course it’s superficial. But it also speaks to a certain type of desire for autonomy (Charlotte is after all the only character without her own income) that holds water with millions of women across America.

But in the end, the message of the film was this: settle. Being single is okay when you’re young, but once you hit forty, you better get yourself a man post-haste. It doesn’t matter if he humiliated you (Carrie), dumped you (Louise), or cheated on you* (Miranda), if you don’t want to end up alone on New Year’s Eve (gasp!), you better take that asshole back.

Interestingly, Samantha is the only one of the four who decides to stay single, mostly because monogamous domesticity doesn’t particularly suit her (or, as she puts it, “I love you but I love me more”). This becomes apparent when she shocks her friends by gaining 10 pounds (gasp!). Turns out that Samantha has been eating in order to resist the temptation to cheat, displacing her sexual desires into food.
Carrie responds with a wholly unconvincing “Of course you would look great at any size, but… are you happy?” No, she's not, so she ditches the relationship in favor of the freedom of single life.

I hope that audiences saw Samantha’s decision as powerful and self-affirming, that being single is not the same thing as being alone, even at age 50. But the fact of the matter is that within the film, her narrative was a lonely one, unable to compete with Charlotte’s miracle pregnancy, or Miranda’s joyful reunion with Steve on the Brooklyn Bridge, or even Carrie’s no-frills “just you and me” wedding at City Hall.

Powerful female sexual autonomy, once the trademark of Sex and the City, is now marginalized within its own master narrative. Something tells me that doesn't bode well.

*which you probably deserved anyway because you wouldn’t sleep with him

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Politics as usual

Yes I know I'm behind but I have a few thoughts on the post-Clinton era:

1. Thank goodness someone is trying to set the record straight on the so-called feminists for McCain. With all due respect to the battleworn second-wave feminists, some of whom have said some pretty stupid things, they do not speak for all feminists, much less all women, the majority of whom know that voting for someone who is not only against abortion but against BIRTH CONTROL goes directly against our self-interest. A thoughtful discussion here.

2. S
hould I be excited that Obama is going to get the Democratic nomination? Probably, but I can’t help feeling absolutely terrified that instead of treating his success as a matter of individual accomplishment, we’re going to use it to as ‘proof’ that we’re in a post-civil rights era where Guess what! Racism no longer exists! This article sums up my fears. From Ward Connerly, anti-affirmative action crusader and Chairman of the misleadingly named American Civil Rights Institute:
“The entire argument for race preferences is that society is institutionally racist and institutionally sexist, and you need affirmative action to level the playing field,” Mr. Connerly said. “The historic success of Senator Obama, as well as Senator Clinton, dismantles that argument.”
You can bet he won't be the only one trying to make that point. Horrifying. Truly.

3. Now that Hillary is out of the picture, you might think we’d get a reprieve from the onslaught of misogyny and sexism in the media. Oh wait, here comes Michelle Obama, who *gasp* dares to open her mouth and speak her mind. Plus, she’s black! So Fox News couldn’t possibly help referring to her as “Obama’s Baby Mama”. No matter what Tina Fey wants you to think, that phrase is STILL OFFENSIVE. More analysis here.

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The price of perfection

Apologies for the blogging hiatus but I was busy doing my part for the tourist industry by exoticizing the other in Central America. There’s nothing like taking some light reading with you to the beach, so I brought on vacation with me a newly acquired copy of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body. Published last year, it was written by Courtney E. Martin (co-blogger on Feministing) at age 25.

This book hit me like a ton of bricks. I was expecting yet another preachy text on The Negative Effects of Media on Girls’ Self Esteem (yawn). Instead, this book is an incredibly honest and eye-opening examination of the bizarre new forms of gendered self-hatred that have sprung to life in a post-feminist culture.

This is how she describes the new generation of “perfect girls”:
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 take ourselves very, very seriously. We are the peacemakers, the do-gooders, the givers, the savers. We are on time, overly prepared, well read, and witty, intellectually curious, always moving…

We are relentless, judgmental with ourselves, and forgiving to others…. We carry the old world of guilt – center of families, 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 are the anorectics, the bulimics, the overexercisers, the overeaters. We must be perfect. We must make it look effortless.
Martin sees perfectionism as the driving force behind a generation of women who were brought up on girl power and Title IX, but are in no way exempt from the cultural imperative to beauty and thinness, try to do it all. The problem is, within every perfect girl is a starving daughter full of insecurity and self-doubt. The more we try to deny her, the more attention she demands. Our bodies quite literally become the territory upon which we battle ourselves.

I don’t know how many girls actually fit into this mold, but I couldn’t help feeling like she was talking directly to me and my friends. It can’t be a coincidence that some of the fiercest, smartest, funniest, most talented women I know are the same ones who only eat two bites of their dinner, or train endlessly for marathons, or schedule their life around spin class and weight watchers meetings.

And it wasn’t an accident that I packed this book in with my bikinis before vacation. As we are so constantly reminded by every advertisement we see, summer is no longer the carefree world of slip ‘n slides and popsicles we enjoyed as kids. Now it’s all about slimming, firming, tanning and toning for the much-dreaded swimsuit season.

I’d like to say that as a media-literate self-conscious feminist, I’m above it all. And yeah, I’m not doing a hundred crunches every night in hopes that I’ll wake up one day with a magical six pack. I’m not subsisting on carrot sticks and diet soda, and I’m not throwing up every other meal. I think Jennifer Love Hewitt looks WAY better in a swimsuit than say, Nicole Richie, and I think Jennifer Hudson looks even better than JLH.

But despite my best feminist intentions, I’m not immune to the enormous social pressure that is exerted on women to make us hate our bodies. A slim build and high metabolism may have saved me from an all-out eating disorder in high school and college but that didn’t mean I couldn’t find a million other flaws to obsess over. And in some ways post-college life has been even harder, as I’ve adjusted to the stress of living in a city where image is everything and working for a company where even the guys are on the Zone diet. It took reading this book for me to finally confess (first to my best friend, then my therapist) that for the past year I have been keeping a detailed list of everything I eat. What started out as a general effort to eat healthier and get more exercise quickly spiraled into obsessive calorie counting, food restricting, and guilt complexes for inevitably failing to adhere to my 1200 calorie goal. When I found myself sticking my finger down my throat in order to get rid of the “stomachache” I got from eating too many cookies, or French fries, or Italian food, I knew it had gone too far.

So, I took this book as my wake up call and after some stern advice from my therapist, I stopped. No more counting, no more purging. Of course, old habits die hard. I still know exactly how many calories are in my bowl of Shredded Wheat and soy milk, even if I’m not writing it down. I still couldn’t bring myself to order the Eggs Benedict at brunch so I settled for granola and yogurt. Honestly, I doubt my eating habits will change significantly, especially since if I’m not restricting certain foods I’ll be less likely to demolish entire chocolate bars in moments of weakness. But the main difference I notice is that I no longer spend all my time thinking about food –planning what to eat, thinking about what I ate, and calculating how much more I’m allowed to eat that day.

Martin estimates that if each of us spends the equivalent of an hour each day thinking about food, exercise, and what’s wrong with our bodies, by the time we’re 85 we will have wasted three years of our lives. Three fucking years. All I can say is thank god I came to my senses before it got any worse.

There’s a trade-off, though. Since I stopped counting calories, I have become less stressed out about food, but more stressed out about everything else in my life. Whereas I used to obsess about whether or not to get cream cheese on my bagel, now all of a sudden I’m freaking out about my career, my relationship, my future. I realized that I had been using my food obsession as an escape from the things that actually matter – when you feel like so many aspects of your life are out of your hands, it’s easier to focus on the little things you can control, like what you put in your mouth.

Until now, I didn’t fully understand what eating disorders are all about. It’s not about low self esteem, or the media, or your mom. Those things obviously contribute, but they fail to explain why so many smart thoughtful girls who “should know better” still fall into the trap. Fundamentally, disordered eating is about our fight to control our own bodies and our own lives. In a society that expects so much of us, yet gives us so few tools for autonomy and self-determination, is it such a surprise that we are battling ourselves?

I’ve recently come to realize that I’m not the only one who is struggling with the sense of being out of control. The quarter-life crisis may be a real phenomenon after all. Especially for us perfect girls – having been told all our lives that we can be anything, we suddenly find ourselves three years out of college and we still don’t seem anywhere close to becoming the famous writer/artist/actress/filmmaker/dancer that we wanted to be. Never mind that we are working full time, going to school, working part time, freelancing, volunteering, blogging, rehearsing, campaigning, performing, and all the while living in a place where something as simple as getting to work can turn into a full-blown MTA nightmare. But instead of appreciating the simple act of just being, all we feel is a nagging sense that we’re not good enough.

What makes it worse, though, is that we all feel so alone; since it's obviously not cool to admit that you are scared and insecure and unsure of yourself, instead we put on a brave perfect girl face and try to hide the starving daughter inside. This story by a dear friend of mine brings it home: each of us is busy comparing ourselves to our “perfect” friends who seem to have it all, without realizing that they are in the exact same boat as we are.

But one thing we have outgrown is the catty backbiting of adolescence; when it comes to our friends we are incredibly supportive and understanding. If we could only show ourselves the same compassion, maybe we could finally be comfortable in our own skins.

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