​ Perfect Girl Syndrome

Who's feeding this syndrome??

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A small piece in The Times headed ‘Perfect Girl Syndrome fuels eating disorders’ drew my attention earlier this week. This phenomenon is ‘fuelling a sharp rise in eating disorders among high-achieving girls as they strive to be ‘’perfectly’’ underweight’. What a chilling phrase that is - ‘’perfectly underweight’’. Why oh why in a society where women have fought, died for and in most cases won battles for equality, the vote, equal pay – where women now occupy the very highest echelons in business and commerce, politics, the armed forces and the medical profession - is being ‘perfectly underweight’ still seen as the pinnacle of success?

The phrase ‘Perfect Girl Syndrome’ was used way back in 2007 in a blog by Hannah Seligson for the Huffington Post entitled Our Brains Are Not Our Butts. Here she raises the same question. How come on the one hand we have achieved so much but on the other belittled those wonderful achievements by still believing that how we look demonstrates far more about our character and worth than anything else?

She sites research from Courtney E. Martin's book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body where Martin says ‘the post-feminist striving that has, in its best manifestation, shepherded in an unprecedented era of female achievement, particularly in the academic arena………..but it's also spawning something insidious: a pursuit of weight obsession that women are approaching with "religious fervour."

In my mind, we don’t seem to have moved far forward in those intervening 8 years, and again I find myself asking why that is? Because it doesn’t pay that’s why. Seligson sites Naomi Wolf’s powerfully compelling ‘The Beauty Myth’ here which analysis how the beauty business has become the multibillion pound industry it has by ‘preying on women’s feelings of inadequacies’. And you know what, it’s so true and we need to wake up to this.

I have been equally as naive at times. Blamed all sorts of factors for the rising tide of eating disorders and self-harm in our youngsters but failed to really think about who has been financing a lot of this. It’s very easy to point the finger of blame at the media industry, at the advertisers. I know I have done and no they are far from blameless. But we need to ask ourselves who are paying them to do this? The mega bucks industries of fashion, health and beauty that’s who. ‘Buy this and you will no longer feel inadequate’ they say ‘wear this and you will no longer feel like a failure’. ‘Use this, eat this, drink this, ingest this and you too can have a fabulous life just like these young, ultra slim, ultra beautiful people we are using to advertise our products. However, if you don’t, you will be a sad unattractive failure all your life – so really we’re doing you a huge favour here. SO BUY OUR PRODUCTS!’ And now, not content to target adults they are using the same tactics on the children’s market and hey presto – eating disorders in kids are rising.

Undoubtedly there are many many factors involved in the development of such illnesses. It’s far too simplistic to blame just one area. However, so far the big wigs of the fashion and beauty industries seem to have fallen under the radar when it comes to analysing why cases of anorexia, self-harm and mental illness are on the rise. This can’t go on. They need to stand up and be held accountable, take responsibility for their part in creating this tidal wave of eating disorders and mental health issues.

They won’t though. Of course they won’t. Because us being happy doesn’t pay for their penthouses, yachts and Ferraris. So let’s try and remember that shall we. The more dissatisfied we are with our own wonderful, beauty selves the richer we are making them.

I for one don’t like that. Not one bit!

Susannah Hebden


Person centred/existential counsellor, stylist, mum of two, adoptee