Sunday, April 01, 2007

Stressed Out Super Girls

Today's New York Times covers the SuperGirl phenomena-- the trend that girls are under enormous pressure to be smart, demonstrate leadership, get into the best college, all while being thin, pretty and wearing expensive jeans. Competition among teen girls is fierce for college acceptance, as girls now make up more of the college-attending population than boys. In a world where we are still encountering barriers to break (Nancy Pelosi is the first female Speaker of the House, only a miniscule percentage of Fortune 500 Companies have a woman at the helm, and yes, Harvard finally has it's first female college president) girls today live in a world where it's not only possible to break the barrier, it's expected of the best and the brightest girls to do so.

Many studies and articles have begun to articulate the cost of this pressure. Check out Courtney Martin's new book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters for a frank picture at the lengths girls and young women will go to overachieve and the toll this pressure can take when their bodies are the testing ground.

Unfortunately, this pressure is not limited to teen girls. Girls are feeling this pressure at younger and younger ages, as a 2006 Girls Inc study, "The SuperGirl Dilemma: Girls Grapple with the Mounting Pressures of Expectations" reveals. Among the findings:
  • Persistent gender expectations are being compounded by a growing emphasis on perfection, resulting in mounting pressure on girls to be supergirls. Three-quarters of girls (74%) in the study agree that girls are under a lot of pressure to please everyone, and 84% of these girls say that they dislike that this is true.
  • Girls say they are under a great deal of stress today. Three-quarters (74%) of girls in grades 9-12, over half of girls (56%) in grades 6-8, and just under half of girls (46%) in grades 3-5 say they often feel stressed (describes them "somewhat" or "a lot").
  • Girls want to seize the opportunities available to them, with 71% of participants reporting that they aspire to go to college full time after graduating from high school. However, stress and concerns such as the cost of college undermine girls' quality of life, particularly as they get older.

Order the study here or check out the Power Point here

Girls in the NY Times article discuss the pressure they feel to be "genuine," or to be "themselves," a demonstration of one of the normal passages of adolescence to understand who you are as an individual and at the same time a recognition that one common insult of teenagers is to call someone fake or phony. Helping teen girls navigate all of these pressures, and come to an understanding of who they are as a person is a tall order for the adults in their lives.

What adults can do:

  • Most teens want someone to talk to, who will listen to them without judgement. Try listening without talking or giving advice.
  • Support girls and young women taking some "me" time. This means taking time to do something not related to achievement, like reading a book, watching some tv, or hanging out with friends, not a study group.
  • Encourage girls to participate in an activity as a member, not having to be the leader. It's okay not be in charge of everything.

3 comments:

Monica said...

Wow, what an awesome study on so many levels!

On the one hand, I am completely sympathetic to the SuperGirl curse. There's plenty of time in life to be a stressed out Superwoman; youth should be for playgrounds and silliness!

On the other hand, what a great problem to have! Not too long ago, society didn't value girls enough to put any kind of expectations on them. What a dream to think that the world now pressures girls to be high achievers, to excel intellectually, socially, and as leaders.

For far too long, girls have been tiptoed around, for fear that the stress is too much for the feminine fragility. Getting out of your comfort zone, pushing yourself, and testing your limits are all character building experiences that the world seems to think girls can't handle. So I'm all for sending the message to girls that they should strive to be strong leaders and strong people.

Now while I applaud the push for achievement, sadly my heart still aches for the emerging definition of achievement. It is frustrating that the world expects supergirls to be hot and popular on top of smart and ambitious. How stressful!! I don't think I would make it as a teen girl in this day and age. So my heart does go out to the issue.

As a last rant, I have mixed reactions to the recommendations. I agree that adults need to listen, to understand, and to guide without judging.

However, I disagree with the statement on encouraging girls to be participants sometimes becuase "it's okay not to be in charge of everything". I understand the sentiment and maybe it's just the wording, but I think the message should be less on the dichotomy between leader & follower, and more on thinking critically about what role I can play and how I fit into the success of the activity through my overall actions.

The problem with perfection is that the world isn't framing expectations to girls properly. Adults should be encouraging girls to think critically about themselves and decide how to focus their energies and balance their lives rather than blindly strive for perfection in every arena. Easier said than done, obviously, but I think there is room for better messaging.

It's a hard time to be a teen girl these days, but wow, what opportunities! I'm eager to see how the situation evolves for the next generation of teens, borne of this generation's teens who can pass on the lessons learned to their daughters.

Monica said...

Wow, what an awesome study on so many levels!

On the one hand, I am completely sympathetic to the SuperGirl curse. There's plenty of time in life to be a stressed out Superwoman; youth should be for playgrounds and silliness!

On the other hand, what a great problem to have! Not too long ago, society didn't value girls enough to put any kind of expectations on them. What a dream to think that the world now pressures girls to be high achievers, to excel intellectually, socially, and as leaders.

For far too long, girls have been tiptoed around, for fear that the stress is too much for the feminine fragility. Getting out of your comfort zone, pushing yourself, and testing your limits are all character building experiences that the world seems to think girls can't handle. So I'm all for sending the message to girls that they should strive to be strong leaders and strong people.

Now while I applaud the push for achievement, sadly my heart still aches for the emerging definition of achievement. It is frustrating that the world expects supergirls to be hot and popular on top of smart and ambitious. How stressful!! I don't think I would make it as a teen girl in this day and age. So my heart does go out to the issue.

As a last rant, I have mixed reactions to the recommendations. I agree that adults need to listen, to understand, and to guide without judging.

However, I disagree with the statement on encouraging girls to be participants sometimes becuase "it's okay not to be in charge of everything". I understand the sentiment and maybe it's just the wording, but I think the message should be less on the dichotomy between leader & follower, and more on thinking critically about what role I can play and how I fit into the success of the activity through my overall actions.

The problem with perfection is that the world isn't framing expectations to girls properly. Adults should be encouraging girls to think critically about themselves and decide how to focus their energies and balance their lives rather than blindly strive for perfection in every arena. Easier said than done, obviously, but I think there is room for better messaging.

It's a hard time to be a teen girl these days, but wow, what opportunities! I'm eager to see how the situation evolves for the next generation of teens, borne of this generation's teens who can pass on the lessons learned to their daughters.

John said...

I dont think girls should stress out soo easy, I mean common, if guys can do everything and more girls can without the stress why cant girls just keep their mouths shut and relax.

I think all this talk about stress actually cause girls to think their stressed when their just doing their thing.