The myth of the perfect girl
Obviously since finding out I am having a little girl, I’ve ordered lots of books about raising girls. Obviously. (My husband is thrilled 😉 )
I started and finished The Myth of the Perfect Girl in about two days. Although (kind of oddly) the author’s experiences come from a consulting company meant to support teenage organization and college admissions, it’s a surprisingly well-thought-out and insightful book that I wish I had stumbled upon when I was a teacher of middle schoolers. But, I’m glad I found it now.
Sadly, when I was reading this book I also felt like I saw myself a lot in her descriptions of these girls who are striving for success, but ultimately, very unhappy. The fact that I see myself in this book is the very reason I’m reading it – I want to make sure that as a mom I’m doing my best to support my own daughter through these difficulties (or maybe keep her from them in the first place? I don’t know if that’s wishful thinking!).
In her prologue, this statement jumps out as a pretty good summary of the book at large:
“Both school and our culture at large offer countless ways for girls to follow externally set standards – how to get
good grades; how to be involved extracurricularly, socially, and athletically; how to look, dress, and feel – and many girls have become so busy trying to squeeze themselves into fitting such standards they have lost touch with their own power to shape themselves and their lives,” (p. 7).
The Myth of the Perfect Girl (or “box filling”)
Instead of learning about themselves and their interests, girls today have become very good at the activity Homayoun calls “box filling”. Driven girls know what needs to go in the box (great grades, AP tests, looking pretty and thin, getting an internship, playing a competitive sport, etc), so they do them all to the exclusion of their own selves. She has five reasons for why the world of girls seems so different from that of their moms:
1. a “changing academic landscape” – exemplified by rigorous SAT prep classes, and the push to get kids (which obviously isn’t limited to girls) to achieve at earlier and earlier grades.
2. “getting older younger” – a rise in precocious puberty (or girls as young as 8 starting to hit puberty… and all the changes that that brings about); add on to that marketing and tv shows where girls are sexualized (also she brings up something that has always bothered me: young women as old as 25 being cast to play star-struck high school sophomores. talk about unrealistic expectations for how you’re supposed to look when you’re 16!).
3. “technology” – ugh. all of it. I began to hate facebook/twitter/ whatever else is out there as a middle school teacher. I can only imagine the hatred I will have for it as a parent 🙁
4. “differing views of healthy” – not getting enough food, sleep, self-care, etc. She mentions lots of indoor tanning among teens – is that a thing?!
5. “you can and should have it all, all the time” – She brings up the interesting argument that “girl power” is backfiring a bit. Yes, its powerful and true, but it’s also instilling the message that there’s no reason why girls shouldn’t be able to have it all and do it all. Hmm, sounds alot like the “lean in” message that grown women are working through right now, doesn’t it?
In each chapter she goes more in-depth on each of these issues and includes “exercises” to help girls (and parents) think through what their daughter is doing, and why. A lot of them are basic “is this what I really want” exercises and self-reflection, but really, if you have a daughter you think is struggling then they really do break down the issues into small, achievable chunks.
Now that I’ve finished this book, I think it still leaves a lot of holes unfilled (hence, the Literary Jane Project), like: how do you raise a girl when she’s 2, 3, 4, 7, etc so that you can escape these “perfect girl” problems in high school? How do you raise a girl, from the beginning, to love herself and to care for herself? How do you as the parent let a girl try what she wants but also be protective? (And yeah, it’s easy to say that girls shouldn’t be driven to fill the box for college and perfection, but isn’t that what ALL of society tells us to do?? – Obviously I’m not over these issues myself, but that’s another blog to be titled “the stay at home mom’s conundrum.”)
I think it’s positive that more people are talking about the crazy drive for achievement. Not every kid (girl or boy) can get into Harvard, but maybe that’s okay.