Anxiety, exhaustion plague girls in pursuit of perfection

The misguided pressure to be perfect is taking its toll on women across the globe who misinterpret the feminist movement to mean having it all and at the same time.  As opportunities for lofty careers close to and through the glass ceiling are added, nothing is taken away leaving these mythical Wonderwomen completely exhausted.  

High school girls considering careers and colleges are already struggling to keep up with AP courses, travel soccer, applications to elite colleges, and shopping for prom dresses size 2 and below.  The pressure to be thin as well as successful has somehow shown up uninvited to the women’s movement.

New York’s Barnard College President Debora Spar, speaking at the Renfrew Foundation Eating Disorders Conference in Philadelphia last week, says she was part of the first generation of girls in the early 60s told they could be whatever they wanted to be thanks to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which upended a generation of women taught to look good, get married, cook dinner and have babies.

By 1975, at age 13, Spar recalls Revlon’s Charlie perfume ads of a pantsuited woman crossing the street in a long stride, her briefcase in hand. Off to work looking “gorgeous, sexy and young” with a man’s name to drive home the message.  And, she was thin.

Feminism took a wrong turn, she says, when it became about the individual woman and her “perfect” life, marriage, children, body and career as a neurosurgeon, astronaut, or Fortune 500 president.

“We didn’t mean to do this, but as we added these expectations, we didn’t take anything away,” she told mental health and nutrition professionals in the audience who are already aware of the pitfalls of too much, too soon.

The result is that girls today are exhausted. They pursue perfection, some to the point of eating disorders Spar dubs, “the disease of the perfect girl trying to do everything right.”

The chaos in her own life, as well as a reveal of her own disordered eating that she thought promised some control, are central to a book she wrote in 2013 titled Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.

Friedan’s message was for women to get out of the kitchen and into the work world. Unfortunately, women still do the bulk of housework, while working outside the home, going to the gym three times a week, and making cupcakes for the school bake sale, quips Spar, whose own message is that women need to give up the notion of perfection, redefine success, and begin to understand life is about trade-offs.

Conversations about the work-life balance are not new.  Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Department official and Princeton professor, rejuvenated the topic within the last five years.  Sandberg’s book Lean In urges women to hold on to ambition at work, while Slaughter warns of a superwoman myth in a 2012 issue of The Atlantic, saying it was impossible to have it all without significant change at home and at work. Just land a job with flexible hours, affordable day care, family-friendly policies and partners who take on a greater share of house chores.

Slaughter says in The Atlantic article that she would tell young women at her lectures they can have it all and do it all regardless of the field.

“I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot),” she writes.

Mental health and nutritional professionals at the conference are familiar with the conundrum.  Eating disorders for both sexes are fueled by expectations of an elusive “ideal” that burns out many of them before their time.

Parents often push their children way too hard, hoping a 5.0 GPA (thanks to AP and Honors courses) or record-setting distance running award will assure an upper level college admittance with a hefty scholarship.  

Spar says admissions at Barnard, a private women’s liberal arts college in New York City, and like co-ed colleges are competitive, but in reality they aren’t looking for perfection.

“We are looking for girls who are interesting, care about something,” she says. “If too perfect, we can tell. The difference between a B and an A- doesn’t matter.”

Spar says resiliency and grit are valued more than perfection. Girls and boys need to have the ability to fail and move on, knowing no single set back determines their futures.  She says report cards that look like a roller coaster often signal a more well-adjusted teen.

“If you are exhausted, overwhelmed, and guilty, then you didn’t do it right,” she says.

Diane Girardot is a psychotherapist in Chadds Ford and Philadelphia.


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