Reading Group Guide
Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters
By Courtney and her mom, Jere E. Martin, MSW
1. Do you think food and fitness obsession is a normal part of being a woman?
2. Does the description of the perfect girl resonate with you?
3. How does the starving daughter part of you -- your unspoken needs, fears, desire for comfort -- get expressed? Are you comfortable with this part of you? Why or why not?
4. What do you see as the biggest losses of the epidemic of eating disorders and the larger culture of food and fitness obsession?
5. How do you differentiate between healthy ambition and unhealthy perfectionism? How did your mother and/or father influence your perspective? How do you think you might influence your daughter's perspective?
6. How did your mother's relationship with her body influence your relationship with yours? What was the talk about health and beauty in your family? Was there one person whose comments were particularly influential? If so, why do you think that was?
7. Courtney writes that feminists taught their daughters that they could be anything, and that their daughters, instead, decided that they had to be everything. What do you think about that interpretation? Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not? Do you think feminism means different things for different generations?
8. Courtney describes her relationship with her own father as a "walk in the park" compared to that with her mother, which resembles a "jungle hike." Is this true for you? What are the benefits and losses of having less intimate but steadier relationships with our fathers? What kind of father-daughter relationship best supports a daughter's healthy self-image?
9. What was your self-image like at age thirteen? Are the insecurities you felt then still with you in some way today? In what ways do they show up? Do you keep them hidden? If so, how?
10. Who was the perfect girl in your middle school or high school? What do you think she might be doing now?
11. Do you think of eating and fitness issues as a rich, white girl's disease? Were you surprised that so many working-class girls and girls of color were affected by these issues?
12. Instead of developing an authentic sense of their own sexuality, Courtney and her friend Jen struggle within a society that still reduces young women to virgin/slut stereotypes. Did or do you experience this same dichotomy? How has it changed since the 1950s and in what ways is it still the same today? What do those women labeled as prudes lose in terms of options for expressing the full range of who they are? What about those labeled as easy?
13. In what ways do you think women's appetites for sex mirrors their appetites for food? What would have to change about our culture in order for women to be more in touch with their authentic appetites?
14. Who do you see as healthy role models in pop culture for young women today? Why is there such a lack of contemporary heroines? Were there more in the past, and if so, why?
15. In what ways does hip-hop culture strengthen young women's sense of self? In what ways does it stifle it?
16. As mass media provides us with a more diverse range of female images, in terms of body type and race, how does this affect your perspective of the ideal body?
17. How does a woman's relationship with her own body affect her relationships with those she dates?
18. Were you surprised that the majority of the men Courtney interviewed emphasized how important humor was as opposed to a particular body type? Is this your experience? Do you think that porn socializes young men to have unrealistic expectations for women's bodies? Why or why not?
19. Courtney writes about the difference between being noticed -- catcalled, picked up in bars, etc. -- and being truly seen. Does one form of getting attention make you feel more beautiful than the other? Why?
20. In what ways do you see the epidemics of obesity and eating disorders as related? Do you agree that we live in a "bulimic culture," as Marya Hornbacher attests?
21. Courtney's friend Gareth helps her become aware of her own inner judgment about other women's bodies, particularly fat women. After reading that chapter, have you become aware of any subtle judgments in your own mind?
22. In what ways do you think involvement in sports has strengthened women's sense of self and in what ways has it exacerbated body insecurities?
23. Whose responsibility is it to create a sports culture where young women are encouraged to maintain a healthy relationship with food, fitness, and their bodies? Whose responsibility is it to identify when athletes cross the line between dedication and disease?
24. Why is food and fitness obsession so rampant on college campuses?
25. In what ways do single-sex environments (all women's schools, sororities, etc.) help and/or hinder the development of positive relationships with food and fitness?
26. Do you have friends with disordered eating or fitness addiction? What have you done to help them? Looking back, do you have any regrets about your decisions to either confront or not confront friends in trouble?
27. What do your spiritual beliefs teach you about the body? Do these coincide with or contradict the views of Western medicine? What about Western beauty standards?
28. In what ways can religious dogma exacerbate women's unhealthy relationship with their own appetites? In what ways can spirituality foster self-acceptance?
29. In what ways does the lack of ritual in our culture contribute to women's antagonistic relationship with their bodies, especially when in transition (puberty, menopause, etc.)? In what ways could you reintroduce body-affirming rituals into your life or the life of your daughter?
30. When have you felt most and least healthy about your relationship with your body? What influenced you at these times?
31. What woman's story in this book did you find most interesting, and how has that changed your understanding of these issues?
32. What is the ideal relationship for women to have with their bodies? Does it vary from woman to woman?
33. What is one small step you can commit to taking right now that will help end the culture of self-hatred for you and for other women?