Perfect Women

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

What is the connection between anorexia and a woman’s relationship with her mother? Colette Dowling, in her book PERFECT WOMEN, postulates that when a mother fails to properly “mirror” her infant daughter, the child will not develop an accurate sense of self and will grow up feeling invisible, empty, and sad. The deprived daughter will need the approval of others in order to feel happy. She will strive for perfection in appearance and performance and may consequently develop anorexia and other compulsive behaviors. Consumed by her sense of inadequacy, she will be too self-absorbed to properly mirror her own daughter, thus beginning the cycle all over again.

This syndrome is a reaction to society’s ambivalent attitude toward women, according to Dowling. The women’s liberation movement has made it acceptable to say that women are equal to men. Nevertheless, latent and profound beliefs about the innate inferiority of the female sex persist. Society demands that women behave as if they were completely confident, even though they may suffer from the gnawing suspicion that their gender renders them inadequate.

Dowling’s theories spring from her own experience. She traces her own perfectionistic tendencies back through her mother to her grandmother. She believes that her daughter became bulimic as a result of the high expectations Dowling had for her. Through therapy, Dowling says that she has learned to accept the imperfections in her daughter and herself, and believes, therefore, that she has broken the legacy of perfectionism in the women of her family.

Dowling comes dangerously close to holding mothers responsible for all of their daughters’ mental quirks. Men seem to have no place in her cycle at all, even though they are the ones who originated and perpetuate the idea of the inferiority of the opposite sex. Nevertheless, Dowling’s opinion on the origin of low self-esteem in women is interesting and at least partially useful.