I have lived my life with a sort of luminous double, a potential self I’ll call the “good girl,” as close as my own breath and as far away as a star. As I come from a conservative Christian background, in which messages about appropriate feminine traits were inescapable, this imaginary figure gained a good deal of power over me, and I spent many years of my life trying to attain the promise of perfection she held out. It was a very traditional, even retrograde, type of perfection. Being a good girl meant being obedient, modest, meek. The good girl did not speak until spoken to, concealed negative emotions, and if she didn’t have anything nice to say, she didn’t say anything at all. For those traits, I believed, she would ultimately be rewarded with approval and love.
I don’t remember now where I heard the phrase “recovering good girl,” but it resonated deeply with me. It provided a framework for thinking about the internal changes I’ve undergone in the last decade.
Is a good girl born or made? Like every element of personality, it’s probably a bit of both. Girls receive constantly the dual message that they are too much and not enough. Our bodies and emotions are too much; we spill over the sides of the containers we are meant to fit. But we’re also not enough—not good enough, not talented enough, not popular enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough. We all internalize these messages to some extent, though some may be hard-wired to internalize them to an especially dangerous degree.
Despite my very loving family, I internalized those cultural imperatives as a child. As I entered my teens, I desired fiercely to be perfect. Receiving the smallest criticism was like being struck. Astonishingly narcissistic as it seems, I genuinely believed that if anyone was capable of thinking a negative thought about me, I needed to improve.
There’s an accomplishment-driven type of perfectionism, the type that needs to do everything perfectly, and then there’s the type that strives to be perfect. I sometimes think this latter is largely a product of cultural conditioning and almost exclusively female. It’s the kind that has haunted my life.
Girls overwhelmed by the imperative to be perfect often turn all their negative emotions, their anger in particular, inwards. They cut themselves or starve themselves or become addicted to some substance which mutes the constant pressure. I was anorexic for three years in high school, placed twice for extended periods in partial hospitalization programs. Thus, my recovery from being a “good girl” is inextricable from another recovery.
Self-starvation is the good girl’s rebellion: attempting to diminish oneself, to take up less space. At the same time, I found in it a weird sort of self-indulgence; it was a thing that belonged to me, a source of power—if only the power of refusing food. It was also a tool for simplification: Confronted with the vast array of ways in which I needed to be perfect, I had narrowed it down to just one, thinness. I only had to worry about one thing.
I am fortunate that—actually, am probably only alive because—my teens preceded the days of internet thinspiration and pro-ana websites. But the imperative of female perfection is pervasive enough to be absorbed from any medium; I was less influenced by the bony bodies of celebrities and models in magazines than by the self-effacing heroines of the Victorian literature I’ve always loved, those disembodied, appetiteless Dickensian angels—and I’m apparently not alone in this, as Katy Waldman’s riveting recent article indicates. In fact, Ginia Bellafante in a recent review called out an essay collection that seemed to suggest “that women who starve themselves to Villette ought to lay greater claim to our interest than the girls who waste away with Vogue.” The influencing medium is not the important thing: the message about female perfection is.
At fourteen, I decided to go on a diet to lose a few pounds. I was 114 pounds to begin with, but when I lost weight people started to say how good I looked, even my Mom’s friends, people whose approval and half-joking expressions of envy were exhilarating. I felt very in control of my life, even as the expressions of approval changed to ones of concern. I have always seen myself as tending toward internal and external messiness or sloppiness, but by starving I was keeping that chaos at bay, receding into something small and tidy. In the first few months of high school I lost thirty pounds. When I went for a physical the alarmed doctor did an EKG, and found my heart was beating too slowly.
In my first treatment program, an adolescent partial hospitalization program, I was the only person there for an eating disorder. It was a program for teenagers with psychological problems serious enough that they needed to be monitored, mostly to prevent self-harm. We were generally treated like deviants. About twice a day we sat in the big therapy circle, outpatients and staff. One day, for some reason, there was a moment when no staff were sitting in the circle; perhaps they were running late, perhaps handling a crisis. But for an exciting couple of minutes, we were unsupervised. So this group of young people bared their scars to each other—not in spoken language, as we would have to do when the staff returned, but in our chosen language of bodily wounds. Everyone around me pulled up their sleeves; every single arm but mine furrowed with scars from razors or scissors, every wrist but mine marked by a desperate slicing. A therapist approached. The sleeves rolled down.
At home that night, I watched my older sister doing dishes at the kitchen sink. We didn’t talk much about my days in the program, but I wanted to tell her something. “I’m the only one there,” I told her, “the only one who hasn’t tried to kill myself.” She turned around to look at me for a moment, then turned back to the dishes. She said, “Yes you have.”
A counselor in the program one day posed this question to me: “Your parents say that besides all this” (“all this” being not eating) “you’ve always done whatever was asked of you. Do you see why there might be anything problematic in that?”
I tried to find the trick in this question. Finally, in absolute sincerity, I suggested: “Maybe I shouldn’t wait till I’m asked to do the things I’m supposed to do. I should just know to do them.”
I sat in the program’s cafeteria one day next to a suicidal girl I’d befriended. She was eating fries. Somehow our conversation, whatever it was, led to me breaking out into a plea: “Promise me you’ll never try to kill yourself yourself again. Promise me.”
She smiled, sad, sardonic. She looked down at her paper container of cafeteria fries. “If you eat an entire order of fries,” she said, “I’ll promise not to try to kill myself again.”
There was nothing I could say to that. It wasn’t that easy, for me or for her. I didn’t eat the fries.
I was stubborn enough that it took over three months for me to gain the ten pounds necessary to be released from the program.
The second program, my junior year of high school, was specifically for women with eating disorders. We were allowed no dietary restrictions. We had to clean our plates. One patient was in her thirties and I would hear her trying not to cry as she called her kids. If there was a moment of epiphany for me, maybe it came as I was watching her. I don’t want to still be doing this in my thirties, I thought. Disconnected from the ideal of youth, anorexia seemed deflated of its glamor, seemed, somehow, just sad.
During my recovery, I had a therapist who wouldn’t let me use the word “should.” She’d catch me every time I said it. It was maddening, but it made me realize how central to my vocabulary are the phrases “I should” and “I shouldn’t.”
In the years following my recovery, I found myself feeling strangely rootless. No longer defined by my eating disorder, I had to seek for other sources of identity. I threw myself back into the academic world, with its own ruthless emphasis on achievement. But I also had to accept that I would never be perfect. There was no cathartic moment of embracing my flaws, but instead a weary resignation to their presence. I still don’t know where the healthy boundary lies between admirable self-improvement and unrealistic perfection-seeking.
I expend much less time now—sometimes I think, too little—trying to please people, to be likeable. I like to be alone a lot, away from possible scrutiny or criticism. But when I am around people, I express my opinions forcefully. Sometimes after a martini I express them very forcefully. Spending some time teaching has helped me to speak with authority—even, sometimes, to like the sound of my own voice. I know now that I am that thing so terrifying to the Victorians, a strong-minded, strong-willed woman.
I have a dear friend, another recovering good girl, who adorns the body with which she once struggled with big, beautiful tattoos, and who swears with profane vigor. Neither of us have exactly made Miley-Cyrus level transformations into “bad girls,” but we’ve given ourselves more room to breathe. We don’t need to fit anyone’s pre-constructed models of perfection. And sometimes I even eat fries.
Even now, I occasionally romanticize my teenage self, to wish for a little bit of her rigorous self-discipline. But there are other times when it is a relief to know that I can relax into myself, that I can be a bit of a mess and still be fine.
There is another girl, a fellow anorexic, who I used to see at the college gym, both of us acting surprised when we ran into each other there, as if it was a coincidence, rather than a mathematical probability, that we should both be there. (You again!) She is still in and out of treatment programs. I feel sadness for her, though also, deep down, a bit of envy. She’s still fighting the fight for perfection. She’s never given up. At the same time, I hope, for her sake, that she does.