The “it” girl is smart, popular, slender, beautiful and a great athlete — in short, she's perfect. In her book “Supergirls Speak Out,” writer Liz Funk, herself an overachiever, shares how trying to attain an impossible goal led her to have an eating disorder. An excerpt.
All of us Supergirls
I think somehow I've always been a Supergirl. In the seventh grade, I set my sights on Harvard and wanted to achieve academically. So I studied and got on the high honor roll. In the eighth grade, I got hooked on the Disney Channel show Even Stevens; I saw the main character, Ren Stevens, achieving in school and doing tons of extracurricular activities, and she looked really empowered! So I became an editor of the school newspaper, joined the foreign cultures club (I was president the following two years), was elected class treasurer, and wrote frequent letters to the editor of our local newspaper on social justice issues.
In the ninth grade, I became obsessed with my size and my looks, and I ended up becoming anorexic. I ate very little, ran four to six miles a day (more on some days!), and joined the school cross-country team. Although I gained the weight back, it only fueled my overachieving drive. In the tenth grade, I decided I wanted to become a writer, and I wrote screenplays, journalistic pieces, and even a full-length book; I became represented by a literary agent, and although my book was never published, I became engrossed in the inner workings of the publishing industry. In the eleventh grade, I got caught up in the college admissions fever. I worked my tail off in school and studied like a maniac for the SAT; it was actually somewhat of a heartbreaking experience, as I set a totally unrealistic goal score, and when I scored only fifty points shy of it, I couldn't even feel good about it. This was the same year that I became a progressive activist and organized protests, worked with local community service groups, and founded a feminist club for girls in my area. In the twelfth grade, I opted to attend community college for my senior year of high school in a special acceleration program, simultaneously finishing high school and starting my college coursework; this was the same year that I started freelance writing professionally.
The next year, I began my sophomore year of college in New York City (so much for Harvard) and began writing for more prestigious newspapers and magazines, learned how to network, and got a book deal; not to mention, New York City presented its own new opportunities and challenges, like parties, the unofficial lack of a legal drinking age, and shopping and sightseeing that was ultimately quite time-consuming.
Now, I'm 19 and still on the go. I have a writing career I'm fairly satisfied with, I have great friends, I have a supportive and loving family, I'm going to graduate from college next year at the age of 20, and I have finally achieved the perfect shade of blonde for my hair (and to emphasize how sexist this situation is, that's probably the achievement I'm most proud of). But I don't mean to come off as cocky or ostentatious, because what underlies all of these "accomplishments" is that I have never felt satisfied with myself. I had a pleasant, occasionally zany adolescence that perhaps one day I might chronicle in a memoir or something, but even on the sunniest summer afternoon or the wildest night with my friends in Greenwich Village, I have never felt complete.
The "it" girl isn't the right terminology anymore, though. The program, simultaneously finishing high school and starting "it" girl has too much weight on her shoulders and too many expectations to be a mere mortal. Now, she's a Supergirl. And as I've found out for myself (and as I've seen echoed in the lives of countless of my overachieving peers), this quest for perfection can have a very dark downside.
The stereotypical Supergirl has it all: the good grades, the blossoming career, the impressive activities résumé, the ambitions, and also the good-looking boyfriend, the perfect body, and the impressive social calendar. Supergirls are pigeonholed as young women of elevated socioeconomic status, typically from the suburbs, but who doesn't love a city slicker Supergirl? And the stereotype of the perfection-obsessed Asian or Middle Eastern young women is just as much, if not more, universal than the Supergirl WASP. Says Supergirl Cynthia, a California girl transplanted in Arizona, "I come from a Middle Eastern family and we lived as a strict Catholic household. There were really constant rules: you had to be a lady, you had to perfect, your grades had to be exceptional. Because of this ... I didn't have my own identity." Supergirls are also stereotyped as discreetly supportive of women's rights and concerned for the world (Supergirls are activists, too!) ... but they might not be feminists, per se.
However, these stereotypes evade the fact that Supergirls are everywhere. They are on TV (Ren from Even Stevens), they are on the radio (did you know that Hilary Duff sings, acts, diets, volunteers, and does venture capitalism?), and they are in the movies (don't even get me started on that actress/Ivy Leaguer/activist Natalie Portman). They live in homey towns in New Hampshire, the beaches of Florida, the sticks of Missouri, the Hills of California, and cities everywhere. But the same facades exist everywhere: these girls aren't particularly happy!
Says Cathy Wasserman, a Brooklyn-based life and career coach: "This is something that I see in my practice as a psychotherapist and career and executive coach every day, but in the last three to five years, I've seen a significant deepening in this trend. Girls get the message sadly from their own parents and each other that they need to excel at everything, academically, professionally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and be in perfect balance ... be a 'perfect 10' in every area. They think that perfection is not only desirable but possible. But this is at odds with our humanity ... it creates a total impossibility for women."
And it's this impossibility that keeps young women going: nothing we ever do will be enough! For example, one of my two best friends is a Supergirl. She attends an Ivy League university. She has a GPA of 3.75 in her policy analysis and management program, and earned one of the highest scores in our high school on the SAT. She is very cognizant of politics and is known for thinking before speaking, so every word that comes out of her mouth is cool and insightful. When we were kids, she wrote children's books for fun, and when we were in high school, our English teacher tried to get her to submit her class essays for publication in scholarly journals. Yet she feels slightly unremarkable.
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"When you Google me, nothing comes up. I need to have Google prowess. That's when I will be successful," she explains to me.
As I think about it, pretty much all my friends fit this mold: they're extremely high-achieving with some combination of great grades, a prestigious college, an impressive job, amazing friends ... and a steadfast feeling that they're nothing special. I'm fairly certain this has something to do with them being Supergirls.
But this is a little weird. Why are we all working so hard? It isn't just me, it isn't just my family, and it isn't just my friends. It's the girls behind the perfume counters at Macy's and the young woman on line behind you at Starbucks and that awful wretch of a human being who stole your crush and made him her boyfriend. Supergirls are everywhere.
Since when is being "super" a bad thing?
On paper, Supergirls look fantastic. When you actually talk to Supergirls, things still look fantastic (after all, all the world's a stage). But when today's young women are really encouraged to open up about the pressures they face, they wholeheartedly reveal that all is not perfect in the realm of perfect girls.
The concept of an overachiever is someone who does something to excess. An achieving girl is one who excels in school or sports or arts, and then makes time for (and values!) hanging out with her friends and family, having hobbies, and sleep. An overachiever isn't like this. An overachiever feels the unremitting requirement not just to be involved, but to be the best at every activity at her disposal, and she often feels guilty for penciling in time to relax or even sleep.
This could be written off as just part of what Generation Y is — today's young people do many things to excess. Statistically, we watch a lot of TV, we spend a lot of money (and we all wish we had more money no matter how rich we actually are), we have a lot of sex, we drink a lot, and we devote too much energy to pop culture. And like most of these excesses, working too much is something that is really going to burn us out and hurt us in the long run.
SuEllen Hampkins, co-author of "The Mother-Daughter Project: How Mothers and Daughters Can Band Together, Beat the Odds, and Survive Through Adolescence," served as the Smith College psychologist for several years and found that the overwhelming numbers of Supergirls on campus experienced some major issues: "Young women would feel that if they were not simultaneously having exemplary grades, maintaining peak fitness, keeping their weight at a specific slender ideal, and being unfailingly gracious to their friends and family, that they would feel extremely upset with themselves, and that would manifest in all kinds of ways: depression, anxiety, shame, self-hatred."
Says Jessica, a master of divinity candidate at Southern Methodist University in Texas, "Sometimes I have this horrible feeling I am going to let people down, because I really desperately want to make people happy. I don't know if that's just who I am or if it's who I was socialized to be."
Christy, a senior at the University of Washington and longtime Supergirl, is quite conscious of the pressures that drive her. "I've fallen into the overachieving category before where it was about how people viewed me, what society expects of a woman, keeping up with everything from appearance maintenance to pleasing other people to being on time to volunteering. It can be very exhausting for these young women if there's not something that they're passionate about that's driving them, rather than doing all this just to meet the wild expectations of too many people." Christy's working to change the way she was conditioned: she is in therapy and is working her hardest to practice "mindfulness" and live intensely: "I'm working to try to get the joy out of the moment, but it's so easy to get overwhelmed." Christy feels that whether it's being pretty, being sweet, organizing events, or volunteering, "the burden of unpaid and unnoticed work falls upon women ... it devalues women and it makes women overextended when they have to make a living like everyone else at the same time."Video: Teenage girls under pressure (on this page)
Clearly, this Supergirl culture can be a real problem. While we should be totally supportive of go-getter young women, we need to be cognizant of the girls whose assiduousness becomes an obsession, where 100 isn't good enough, and overachieving eventually becomes an addiction. Or a mental disorder.
What's troubling, though, is that the young women who have more opportunities than ever before feel so suffocated ... and they can't pinpoint where this hyperactivity sprouts from! I had always claimed that my Supergirl-ism was due to the fact that I never enjoyed mundane teenage schedules like entire weekends spent getting drunk, recovering from a hangover in bed all day, browsing celebrity blogs, and doing it all over again. The reality? I'd never actually tried it: my life always had a to-do list. Ever since I was an adolescent, I had an agenda: achieve something.
I suffered from eating disorders as a teen (anorexia, exercise bulimia, and overeating), and I always thought that it just screwed me up. But when I had totally candid conversations with my friends and other young women, I realized it's not just me. Totally healthy girls with no history of mental disorders were perfection-obsessed girls. It had to come from somewhere else.
In her book, "The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids," Yale grad and recovering overachiever Alexandra Robbins studied the immense pressure on high schoolers to get into good colleges. She writes, "When teenagers inevitably look at themselves through the prism of our overachiever culture, they often come to the conclusion that no matter how much they achieve, it will never be enough."
And this is exactly what is going on with the Supergirl dilemma, except that it's more trying for women. Students — male or female — who bust their butts in high school, popping study drugs and pulling all-nighters, know that there are hard measures of whether they've "succeeded," like grades, SAT scores, and whether they finally get into Penn State or Amherst. But for young women, there is no rubric for being smart enough, accomplished enough, or thin enough; young women don't know if they've completed all their goals to the extreme until they're — not to be morbid — in the hospital for exhaustion.
Tips for parents: Is your daughter a 'Supergirl'?
Look for Supergirl warning signs. Is your daughter constantly tired? Is she irritable? Is she drinking to much coffee or Red Bull in the morning? Does she wake up very early to shower and do her hair and makeup before school? Does your daughter berate herself? If your daughter seems to really resent her flaws, you might have a budding Supergirl on your hands.
Tip: Encourage her to have her imperfections and make them her own. Encourage your daughter to take time to herself … and stay cognizant so you notice if she develops other symptoms of teen overachieving.
Give your daughter praise … for everything. If you’re only praising your daughter when she gets on the honor roll or when she brings home trophies after a Model UN conference, she might feel like her parents’ affections depend on her success
Tip: Give her praise for lots of things, like taking up a new hobby, making great friends, and even taking a night off from work and friends to chill on the couch. Your daughter needs to know that she is unconditionally valued and that her identity isn’t tied up in her accomplishments — your Supergirl needs to know that she is a unique, interesting, special person, regardless of how pretty and how busy she is!
Ask your daughter questions! Many parents today are involved in their children’s lives — but only in the sense of providing rides to soccer practice and buying them instruments for the school band. And give yourself a reality check: Are you clueless about your daughter’s life? Do you know what time she goes to bed, what her latest report for school was on, and what she does online?
Tip: Become truly involved in your daughter’s life, and ask her about the pressures she faces, what her hopes are for her life, and whether she is genuinely happy. A startling number of parents today are out of touch. Parents need to take a look into the day in the lives of Supergirls so they can get a sense of whether their daughters are at risk.
When it comes to college, keep it cool. Today’s teens have pressure on them to score well on the SAT tests, build an impressive activities resume, get perfect grades, and investigate their chances at getting into the best colleges, coming from all angles.
Tip: So don’t sign your daughter up for SAT prep classes, don’t steer her towards the most prestigious colleges, and definitely don’t hire a college admissions coach. In fact, stay out of the admissions equation as much as possible, unless you feel it’s necessary to tell your daughter to chill out, which is the case for the majority of college acceptance-obsessed Supergirls!
Talk to your daughter about the media. Every girl today wants to be just like Serena van der Woodsen from "Gossip Girl" or Hannah Montana … but in real life, it’s nearly impossible to be as simultaneously beautiful, accomplished, talented and charming as the women on TV and in movies.
Tip: Make sure that your daughter knows that TV is scripted and conversations in the media can be tweaked to perfection, but girls in real life don’t need to be a “perfect 10” twenty four hours a day! Make sure your daughter also knows how much time and professional attention goes into making the women in the media look the way they do.
Help your daughter find herself. Encourage your daughter to take on hobbies, to explore her tastes and her personal style, and to learn to have fun spending an afternoon without their cliques or their boyfriends.
Tip: Girls need to enjoy being alone and they need to enjoy listening to their thoughts; girls need to go for bike rides or take themselves out for brunch and get to the point where they can be entertained by their own internal monologues. Once girls start to enjoy being in their own company — rather than feeling like losers from the moment they get up in the morning — girls are more likely to like themselves!
Excerpted from "Supergirls Speak Out" by Liz Funk. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Simon and Schuster.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive