I Am Not A Perfect Girl: Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters

perfect girls starving daughtersI approached Courtney Martin's Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters with trepidation. I knew that I should have read it a long time ago, ever since Denise posted about it on BlogHer. I've had disordered eating patterns in the past. I've written about if before in other places but I don't think I've done anything but allude to it here.

My issues did not stem from body image but rather from fear and poverty. It was never about the food, it was always about the money. My "budget" in university was such that at times that something as small as a bag of potato chips could send me into the red (assuming that I was ever in the black to begin with). I had a pantry full of food I was terrified to eat because when it was gone I didn't know where the money would come from to buy more. I never, ever felt guilty because of the food. Food wasn't food. Food was money and money was not something I had. Money was the source of my guilt and fear. When I ate food I ate money and where was I going to get more? I don't think I can express how terrified I was of not being able to replace my food if I ate it. As long as I had food in my pantry I was ok. The food in my pantry was my security blanket.

At my lowest weight I weighted about 104lbs. I am just under 5'5. It was absolutely not a healthy weight and it wasn't one I was at for long (thankfully). I was there long enough that I had to buy special "skinny" pants so that I'd have a pair that actually fit. It scared me. There were so many stressful things going on at the time. I had been living on my friend's floor for three weeks because I couldn't find an apartment. The week I returned to school I had broke up with my boyfriend of 1.5 years. My student loans were delayed. I couldn't buy the books I needed for class. I got sick and thanks to a penicillin allergy $75 of the last $100 in my bank account was spent on antibiotics (had to do it as I had a sinus infection and two different kinds of ear infections, I was really very ill).  I had finally moved into my apartment when two days later my cousin went missing and five days later I was on my way home because his body had been found (suicide).  I was scary skinny. I did manage to not fit into those pants after a month and threw them out six months later. At that point they couldn't even get half way up my thighs. It was a relief and also a benchmark. As long as I never needed to buy skinny pants again I was doing ok.

There were other times when even though I wasn't quite so skinny, I wasn't healthy. There were times when my blood pressure would drop and I'd almost pass out on a busy street. There were things I would want to do but my body would not be able to do it. Sometimes even something so simple as a long walk would find me weak and exhausted and I walked everywhere.

And if I'm being totally honest, there were times when not eating was a way of punishing myself. Life was too out of control. I wasn't controlling things so I didn't deserve to eat. I wasn't worth the money that it cost for the food. Again, it wasn't about the food or needing to be a certain size. It was about money and control and fear.

After school when I had steady income it was better. There was still stress though and my body? It does not like stress. When I reach a certain point of stressed my body just revolts and I suffer from digestive distress. It was as though my body was now punishing me for not being able to control things. There was a joke in one of my jobs during particularly busy times, when there was much greasy junk food consumed, everyone would gain 10 lbs and I would lose close to the same amount.

I switched careers, got a better job, had a better income and it got even better. It was really good for a few years, though I didn't really gain any weight I wasn't losing it. Then it got just plain stupid and I was very unhappy. Money was no longer the sole cause of my stress, but let's be honest, money will always be stress for me. I wanted to quit my job but if I quit would I go back to the old money worry pattern? Not that I was always doing so much better when I was working. It was easy to glue myself to the computer in an effort to put out all the fires and forget to eat.  If I was at the computer I was controlling things, or at least trying to. When my days were scheduled from 7:30am to 5pm with phone meetings it was hard to eat lunch so more often I didn't. Days would go by where food wouldn't pass my lips until 4pm (coffee does not count as food).

Eventually I quit and I gained ten pounds. It was fantastic. I do not say that lightly, gaining those ten pounds was an accomplishment. I'm maintaining that weight and while it's sometimes frustrating that my some of my old clothes which I loved don't fit anymore I'm so much happier at this weight. (The clothing thing though is very frustrating as I had been wearing more or less the same size for close to ten years...that's a lot of clothes to replace...and I can be pretty cheap. It's that money thing again.) My body is stronger. Stress still kills me and extreme heat (hello summer!) isn't much better but I eat.

Living with someone helps. The times in the past ten years that I've been healthiest have been when I was living with someone else. It's harder to forget to eat when someone is around to give you cues to eat. Not eating was a habit and like most bad habits, it's a comfortable dress to slip into on those bad days. Not because you want to, but because it is just there. Not eating is my way of dealing of stress. It's the same as people who emotionally eat, I'm just at the other end of the spectrum.

I kept putting off this book because I wasn't sure I was "ready" to read it. There are certain shades of yourself that you are never ready to see in print. I didn't truly find myself in Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters but I didn't not find myself either. I was surprised by how many of the girls in the book I recognized as girls I knew in my life. It made me examine things, especially those university years.

At one point I went to a counsellor in university and said that I was worried I had eating issues. (I had not yet truly figured out the food/money connection.) She said, "I doubt that. Now tell me about your father." I never went back.

I remember eating at the unlimited salad and soup bar a lot during my one year in the dorm in university. It wasn't a "that meal looks so good but I can't have it" scenario like was discussed in the book. It was, "Wow, it's that nasty ass meal again." (Our food was not what you would call tempting.) Plus I'm just a sucker for a salad bar (I just lost some foodie stripes with that admission I think). But now I'm wondering if it was the same for the other girls at the table. I know we never talked about calories or diets. Maybe it would have been different if we had lived in an all girl dorm instead of a fully co-ed one.

I stayed with a friend for a few days during the summer once, while I was looking for an apartment in the city. One of her roommates, whom I had known in the dorm, commented that every time she saw me I was eating. She was only around during meal times and I don't think I ever saw her eat more than a piece of toast. She was an athlete. My friend and one of her other roommates told me that she never ate and then about once a month she'd get drunk and in the middle of the night eat an entire container of peanut butter. They laughed about it. Then they went on to negotiate their own dinner that night. They made plain broiled chicken breasts (no oil!) and debated whether the side dish really needed margarine (never butter!) and if it really did could they only use half the recommended amount because "that was better, less fattening."

There's the sorority girl I knew. She was smart, friendly and had a fantastically sarcastic wit. She was on the tennis team and had a strong athletic body. She was told by her father that she had to lose weight because he couldn't be seen playing tennis with her at their club when she was so fat.

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters is a phenomenal book to have been written by a twenty-five year old woman. At the same time, it was a book that could only have been written by someone that age. As we get older our issues with perfection change. It becomes about being the perfect career woman. Having the pre-baby body. Being the perfect mother. Being the perfect partner. It's still all about perfect and best. We just find other ways to beat ourselves up about it. It goes beyond our bodies. It's our entire world. Oh wait, it already was.

I started off this post saying I am not a perfect girl. I never wanted to be a perfect girl. I never wanted to be best. I wanted to do well, because I knew that if I didn't do well my choices were seriously limited. Doing well meant survival. It meant options. It meant choices. Not doing well meant failure. Failure wasn't an option. Maybe I'm more a perfect girl than I want to believe.