'I VALUE MYSELF FORMY CREATIVITY -NOT WHAT SIZE I AM'; Today's Perfection-Driven Society Has Produced a Rise in Eating Disorders and a Generation of Women Who Waste Hours Obsessing about Their Body Image. Courtney Martin Tells Jane Gordon Why She Is Urging Them to Stop

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There is nothing particularly striking about Courtney Martin's appearance when we meet in the crowded lobby of a fashionable New York hotel.

Tall and good-looking with long, dark wavy hair and a sweet smile, she does not display any of the extreme physical features that we associate with eating disorders.

She doesn't, for example, have the frightening disproportionate look that we have become used to in the women we mistakenly try to emulate - Victoria Beckham, Nicole Richie (more of whom later) or even Lindsay Lohan.

Nor does she have the pathetic - and shocking - physique of 20-year-old Allegra Versace (daughter of designer Donatella) or the painfully thin legs of 21-year-old Chloe Lattanzi (daughter of Olivia Newton-John), both of whom have recently been reported to be suffering from anorexia nervosa.

Yet it was 26-year-old Courtney's difficult relationship with her own 'normal' size 12 body (never actually anorexic or bulimic, but always uncomfortable about how she looked) - and her observation of her friends' continuing struggles with their weight - that prompted her to embark on research that would become a potentially revolutionary book. Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: the Frightening New Normality of Hating Your Body details the worrying obsession with body image that is, she believes, 'pandemic' among young women. It is a call to arms for them to stop wasting so much of their time and energy on pursuing an unattainable physical ideal. Courtney sees it as 'a beginning' in the fightback to health for a whole generation.

She's not an expert in the medical aspects of eating disorders, she admits, but does have what she calls 'expertise in quiet desperation' - she can spot the symptoms and the distress they cause.

'I began to question why the majority of the women I know have either full-blown eating disorders or screwed-up attitudes to food and fitness,' she says. 'Even those who regard themselves as healthy consider what they have eaten, and how much they have exercised, as a marker of their worth in the world. I was devastated - once I started

looking at this issue - by the way in which all these brilliant, accomplished, brave and beautiful women struggled with this problem, and I began to think, "How did this happen?"' It is currently estimated that some 70 million women worldwide suffer from diagnosed eating disorders - and what is new about the problem, according to Courtney, is the way in which her generation has come to regard an obsession with dieting, calorie counting and punitive exercise regimes as a 'normal' part of a woman's life.

Young women, she asserts, are much more likely to loathe than to love their own bodies (and according to a new report, a third of all British women dislike their own bodies so much that they will not take off their clothes in front of their partners).

'I think it's happened to my generation because of a cruel meeting of factors,' says Courtney. 'For instance, we have grown up in such a visual world - we are constantly bombarded with images of what we believe we should be rather than what we actually are. Then, a lot of us grew up with feminist mothers who told us that we were beautiful and that we could be anything we wanted to be. As a result we are ambitious on every level. We want to be perfect and this pushes us to extremes of behaviour which we now count as normal.' At this point in the interview I am tempted to shout 'mea culpa' because, as the mother of two daughters in their early 20s, I too brought them up to believe that they were beautiful, gifted and able to achieve anything they desired. What, I ask Courtney, should we have done differently and how - at a time when younger and younger girls are becoming body aware (a recent report in the UK revealed concern about body image in children as young as six) - should the mothers of the next generation be dealing with their daughters? …