Teenage girls are facing impossible expectations

At a moment when girls enjoy historic opportunity -- watching Chloe Kim and Mikaela Shiffrin soar to gold, and Oprah ...

Posted: Feb 28, 2018 10:17 AM
Updated: Feb 28, 2018 10:17 AM

At a moment when girls enjoy historic opportunity -- watching Chloe Kim and Mikaela Shiffrin soar to gold, and Oprah preach girl power from the Golden Globes stage -- teen girls tell researchers they are twice as depressed, anxious and stressed out as boys. And though girls beat out boys in college and graduate school admissions, according to a University of California-Los Angeles study, female college freshmen have never been lonelier or less happy.

In the so-called age of girl power, we have failed to cut loose our most regressive standards of female success -- like pleasing others and looking sexy -- and to replace them with something more progressive -- like valuing intelligence and hard work. Instead, we have shoveled more and more expectation onto the already robust pile of qualities we expect girls to possess.

And social media -- where, according to Pew Research, girls tend to dominate, using visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat in far greater numbers than boys -- isn't helping the matter. The pressure to get at least one like per minute on Instagram and keep up scores of daily Snapchat "streaks" is unending.

"I can't go to sleep at night until I answer all my notifications," one high school student told me last week. Adolescent girls get the least sleep of any group of youth.

Plus, a daily feed of friends and celebrities showing off tight abs and thin arms deepens girls' body shame, new research has found.

Girls who spend the most time using technology, a 2017 study revealed, were most likely to say they were sad or depressed nearly every day. They were also more likely to want to change their appearance, not enjoy coming to school and not participate in sports and other activities.

But social media and the internet are only part of the issue. I have been asking adolescent girls to describe what it means to them to be successful. They tell me they are under pressure to be superhuman: ambitious, smart and hardworking, athletic, pretty and sexy, socially active, nice and popular -- both online and off.

Psychologists call this "role overload" -- too many roles for a single person to play -- and "role conflict"-- when the roles you play are at odds with one another. The effort required to get a bikini body will cut away at the hours you need to spend in the lab to get into medical school.

The sheer impossibility of measuring up has left a generation of girls with the enduring belief that, no matter how many achievements they rack up, they are not enough as they are. The path their mothers and grandmothers cleared so their girls could enjoy every opportunity is marked by self criticism, overthinking and fear of failure.

In other words, we are raising a generation of girls who may look exceptional on paper but are often anxious and overwhelmed in life -- who feel that, no matter how hard they try, they will never be smart enough, successful enough, pretty enough, thin enough, well liked enough, witty enough online or sexy enough.

An "anything is possible" mentality has transformed into a mental health crisis. Affluent girls, in particular, who get the most access and opportunity to achieve, exhibit more adjustment problems, across more domains, than any other group of American youth -- yet continue to push themselves forward. And high achieving girls, Stanford professor Carol Dweck found, are the group of youth most "debilitated" by failure.

Girls need help redefining success in healthier ways. New research has found that self-compassion, a three-step practice that teaches self-kindness in the face of setbacks, relieves symptoms of anxiety and depression for teens, especially those who suffer from chronic academic stress. Notably, high school girls currently have the lowest levels of self-compassion of any group of youth.

Finding purpose -- doing something you genuinely love that joins you to something bigger than yourself, or makes the world better -- can also shield adolescents from the most negative effects of stress. At a moment when so many teens get the message that what a college admissions committee wants matters more than anything they care about, helping girls find their "north star" has never been more important.

Adults should also stop telling girls they put too much pressure on themselves, and instead reassure daughters that it's a toxic culture that is asking too much of girls. This can mitigate girls' feelings of isolation and self-blame.

To defer to someone else's definition of a life well-lived is a Faustian bargain. As Anna Quindlen has written, "If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all."

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