Meet the supergirl. She is at the top of her class, kicks ass on the soccer field and the debate team, plays a mean violin and is the life of every party. Everyone loves her: mom, dad, the coach, teachers, the boys at school and, of course, the media. The supergirl is the embodiment of the “go-girl” feminism that has become the staple of mainstream coverage, the focus of feel-good stories about female empowerment. Everything a boy can do, this gal can do and more…and maybe even better.
But as it turns out, all this adulation doesn’t seem to be making the girls themselves very happy. Sure, the “amazing” students like Colby Kennedy featured in an April 1 New York Times article (“a great student, a classical pianist, fluent in Spanish, and a three-season varsity runner and track captain”) may claim to be “living up to my own expectations,” but the supergirl ideal is not quite so liberating for most young women.
“It sucks. Lots of pressure is put on girls to be pretty in the world’s eyes, and still get good grades, and be popular, and have an awesome job, and do extra-curricular activities, and spend loads of time with their families at the same time,” says one twelfth-grade girl. A fourth grader couldn’t agree more: “[There’s a] lot of pressure to be athletic, pretty, and skinny plus smart.”
These comments sum up the findings of a 2006 nationwide study of school-age children conducted by Girls Inc., which found that 74 percent of girls in high school, 56 percent in middle school and an astounding 46 percent in grades three through five say they “often feel stressed.” The numbers for those who “often feel sad and unhappy” are 42 percent, 32 percent and 23 percent, respectively.
The underlying cause for all this misery is summed up succinctly by a sixth grader: “I feel girls are even more pressured than boys because we have to ‘make’ something of ourselves, whereas for boys it’s natural to become [something].” So no wonder middle school girls are just as worried about achievement (73 percent) as appearance (74 percent). These fears only get worse in high school, but the average elementary school kid is already well on the way to supergirl neuroses: 59 percent are worried about getting good grades; 54 percent are concerned about their appearance.
In her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Courtney Martin writes, “Our mothers had the luxury of aspiring to be ‘good,’ but we have the ultimate goal of ‘effortless perfection.’ This was the term that young women at Duke University used to describe ‘the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort.'”
Martin argues that young women from the ages of 9 to 29 have internalized the go-girl rhetoric of feminine achievement as a duty to excel. “[My mother] told me, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ My translation: ‘I have to be everything.'” Or more accurately, be the very best at everything. Anything less is interpreted as failure: a failure to perform, and therefore a failure to please; ergo, a failure to be worthy. “We have called this insatiable hunger by many different names–ambition, drive, pride–but in truth it is a fundamental distrust that we deserve to be on this earth,” writes Martin.