By any measure, Alhambra High senior Jordan Wight is a Supergirl. The UC Berkeley-bound teen is student body president, captain of the cross country and track teams, and homecoming queen. Her schedule is so crammed there's little time, she says, for "scheduling errors" and track practice is the only thing that comes close to her "down time."
"Society is more expecting of girls to be better than boys to compete for jobs, schools, and honors, especially with the media, the 'homecoming queen' image, and constant pressures to get into the top universities," she says. "Other people are working just as hard as I am."
Wight seems to be surviving the pressure thanks to good time management skills and "taking things one day at a time." But others are not as fortunate.
In what may be the ultimate irony, there's never been a better time to be an American girl — or one that's as risky. Teen suicide, depression, cutting and eating disorder rates are soaring. In 2004-05 suicide rates jumped 76 percent for tweens and 32 percent for teenage girls ages 15-18, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And some experts say the troubling mental health statistics have much to do with the crushing burden society puts on teenage girls.
"Let's look at what we ask of our teenage daughters," says Stephen Hinshaw, a UC Berkeley psychology professor and author of "The Triple Bind: Saving our Teenage Girls from Today's Pressures."
It's no longer enough to do well in school and be a caring, devoted friend. Today's young women are expected to combine high-caliber academic, athletic and extra-curricular performance, with the style and looks of "Gossip Girl's" Serena van der Woodsen.
"You have to look a certain, narrowly defined way," Hinshaw explains. "You can't be taking care of family and friends, and studying all night, and practicing all afternoon and looking relentlessly hot without giving up sleep altogether. This is physically impossible to do. Even more, psychologically, you're living up to a false self."
Tackling the triple bind
Hinshaw calls its a triple bind: "Be pretty, sweet and nice. Be athletic, competitive and get straight A's. Be impossibly perfect."
And the quest may be, quite literally, killing these girls.
Hinshaw says this "epidemic among teen girls" can't be correlated with economic or racial divides. It's happening in every town.
"Have women's genes mutated in the last generation?" Hinshaw says. "I don't think so. Something in the culture is pushing the genetic envelope. What has upped the ante?"
College admissions have become so fiercely competitive, two-thirds of UC Berkeley's 2007 rejected applicants had 4.0s. And from every corner of the pop culture world, girls are assailed by images of ever more perfect people. It's no longer enough to win Wimbledon. Venus and Serena Williams are fashion designers, too. Danica Patrick: Indy race car driver and Sports Illustrated swimsuit hottie.
It was different when her mother was young, says Liz Funk, 20-year-old author of "Supergirls Speak Out: Inside the Secret Crisis of Overachieving Girls."
Funk who describes herself as a "recovering" over-achiever, spent the school year gathering research for her book and discovered supergirls across the nation — and they're exhausted. On the surface, she says, they're not breaking a sweat. But after a while, they confess they're practically mainlining caffeine and Red Bull. They're using Aderall, the ADHD medication that's misused on college campuses to sharpen focus and pump up test-taking ability.
One girl in Funk's book took such high doses of Aderall, she began having seizures. Others had breakdowns by their high school lockers, cutting, or bingeing and purging. Even those who withstand the pressure, such as Jordan Wight and Berkeley grad Patrici Flores, feel the heat.
"I felt it a lot," says Flores, now a grad student at the Academy of Art. "You had to be good at everything. It did stress me out a lot and make me feel insecure about myself and why I wasn't good enough. I remember hearing some of my friends say they saw counselors."
What worries Funk is that the constant quest for perfection can easily translate into a frenetic busy-ness for busy's sake, not because the girls love what they're doing. No matter how extraordinary their achievements, there's "a steadfast feeling they're nothing special," says Funk. "They always feel like 'before' versions of themselves. You can't fill an internal void with work."
It worries Hinshaw, too.
"We're going to a place we just don't want to go as a society," he says.
These activities are extrinsically motivated — they're intended to enhance college or grad school applications or to fulfill society's expectations. But psychologically and developmentally, the teen years are a time for exploration and self-discovery. That can't happen if, as the girls in Hinshaw's focus groups told him, the pressure to be perfect means you can't risk the slightest chance of appearing imperfect.
It's a concern for teachers, as well. Campolindo teacher Jamie Donohoe's favorite assignment for his AP English students involves fulfilling a small secret dream, something the student always wanted to do, but never dared risk for fear of failure or embarrassment.
Self discovery critical
Hinshaw adores that assignment. It's the type of self-discovery teens should be doing, and it's a ground up approach. Frankly, he says, waiting for society to change or trying to legislate anti-pressure laws isn't exactly realistic.
Families need to intervene when they see their daughters take on too much. Encourage exploration. Appreciate non-academic, non-athletic achievement. Teach critical thinking before the teen years by discussing media messages: Do girls really look like that? Why are there so many makeover shows and what message does that send?
UC Berkeley junior Molly Green agrees. She's seen that pressure and felt the heat, but she rose above it.
"I was able to decide what was important to me," she says, "instead of what others said should be important. I think my parents helped instill values that were different than society's and that encouraged me to do the same."
Reach Jackie Burrell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more tips from Liz Funk and Stephen Hinshaw on how parents can help their daughters and spot problems, visit our parenting blog, aParently Speaking, at www.ibabuzz.com/aparentlyspeaking/.