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The Paradox of Girls’ Success Why Girls, Why Now

When Natalie and I first met, she talked a mile a minute. An overachiever in every sense of the word, she told me how she juggled water polo with student government and volunteering at the local hospital, and that her weekends were often busier than her school weeks. In the summer, she got up at six a.m. for water polo practice, often going nonstop until ten or later at night. She kept her daily schedule on her computer, neatly color coordinated and organized, with more than a few time slots that were double- or triple-booked. I am a fairly energetic person, but listening to her was starting to wear me out. As I noticed her winding down, I asked a simple question: “What do you like to do for fun?” After ten minutes of bubbly effusiveness, I was met with stone-cold silence. She furrowed her brow and looked at me quizzically. “What do you mean, for fun?” “If you had a day to yourself to do whatever you wanted, what would you do?” I had rendered her speechless, at least for the moment. “I don’t have

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The Myth of the Perfect Girl

a lot of free time,” she started slowly, trying to make a statement but unable to be definitive. I pressed on, asking what she would do for fun if she had a few free moments or days—not for a résumé or obligation, but just for pleasure. Quietly, she recoiled—she was a senior in high school, with good grades in fairly challenging classes, an extracurricular activities résumé more than a mile long, but she had no idea what she liked to do for fun. She had no hobbies, and everything she was involved with had an agenda behind it; it was all about receiving another accolade or getting to some next level of achievement. I wish I could tell you that Natalie was an anomaly, but in fact her story has become alarmingly common among the girls I listen to on a daily basis in my office.

The Big Picture When I started working with junior high and high school students on organization, time management, and goal setting, it initially seemed that working with boys was more challenging. Trying to get a young boy to remember to write down his assignments, complete them, and turn them in on time sometimes felt like a constant struggle. At the same time, most (though not all) of the girls seemed much more compliant and eager to please—as if they had an internal motivator to please and perfect that couldn’t be turned off. They would perform and perform and perform, rarely needing to be coached back into line with school expectations. Sometimes I even wondered what my role should be with girls who were so proficient at regulating themselves. Over the past decade, I have consulted with students, parents, faculty, and administrators throughout the United States and abroad. Through my work, it has become painfully obvious that girls are facing a different set of problems—problems that are, if anything, more challenging than the kinds of issues boys face. The girls I see are exception2

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The Paradox of Girls’ Success

ally tough on themselves for even the slightest deviation from what they deem to be the social or academic norm; many take life so seriously that it is impossible for them to feel a sense of satisfaction or fulfillment. They so fearfully dread academic humiliation that they resign themselves to taking few risks in the learning process. They learn how to “work the system,” as one young woman readily explained, and in doing so fail to focus on discovering their own sense of self. For most girls, it now seems to me, the real challenge is encouraging and teaching them how to identify, disengage from, and take decisive ownership of the external expectations they are all too often blindly obeying. In other words, girls often need to be encouraged to find their own voice, make their own decisions, and be more skeptical of all the external expectations consciously and subconsciously placed upon them. I think it may be helpful to step back for a moment and analyze the situation broadly. It is not at all obvious why girls should be struggling as they are. In fact, by many measurable standards of achievement, girls are doing amazingly well today. In our office, we work with many girls who are driven, motivated, and inspired to go above and beyond. Many junior high and high school principals flatly acknowledge that the majority of the top students in their classes are female. Compared to their male counterparts, young women perform better on standardized tests, outnumber men in colleges and have better college graduation rates, and now frequently outearn young men in the marketplace.1 As Jennifer Delahunty Britz, the former director of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College, notes in her New York Times op-ed piece “To All the Girls I’ve Rejected,” the demographic reality is that many colleges now find that the stats of their female applicant pool outranks their male pool and that subsequently “the standards for admission to today’s most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men.”2 In the workforce, women in their mid-twenties are, on average, making more money than their male counterparts—something that would have been unheard of thirty or forty years ago.3 (It should still be noted that recent research shows women still make about seventy-seven cents for 3

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each dollar made by men, though those statistics are frequently challenged.4) All of these indicators suggest a radical shift in the kinds of large-scale cultural freedoms girls and young women can now claim and exploit in both the classroom and the workplace. And yet, it is disappointing that there is still somewhat of a glass ceiling in place, as though the ultimate paradox exists: achieve, achieve, achieve, but you can probably go only so far. There is another, less-visible level to this story. Despite these widespread advances, both girls in school and women in the world are confronted by a paradoxical consequence of these statistics of success. Even though they are moving forward in all sorts of measurable ways, they often feel, when they stop to consider their accomplishments, that their outward successes are not matched by a sense of inner fulfillment. What sometimes emerges from these moments of self-examination is a more complicated and troubling relationship: Girls and young women feel that they are succeeding in school and that they are failing in life for the same underlying reason窶馬amely, they are all too good at becoming who they think others want and need them to be. Many have yet to develop their own central core and authentic sense of spirit and are consequently apt to be toppled by whatever wind passes by. No matter what they accomplish or achieve, some girls and young women feel stuck on a treadmill of never feeling good enough and feeling convinced that happiness and fulfillment will come with the next set of accomplishments or achievements or after they have gained a certain level of social attention or perceived popularity. But, as the stakes continue to rise and the achievements mount, these girls and young women become worn down and burned out, which contributes to a host of other social and emotional challenges.


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Excerpt for The Myth of the Perfect Girl Book  

Ana Homayoun's "The Myth of the Perfect Girl" gives new insights and practical solutions for overworked and stressed-out girls and their par...

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