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Paradox of the Perfect Girl

While overachieving girls are knocking on the front doors of America's best colleges, admission officers are letting their slacker brothers slip in the back door.
 
 
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It's college admission season, that time of year when high school seniors and their parents await the day's mail with all the hope and dread of one awaiting the results of a pregnancy test.

To further the anxiety, Kenyon College Dean of Admissions Jennifer Delauhunty Britz recently wrote a New York Times op-ed, glibly titled "To All the Girls I've Rejected." It is an apology-of-sorts for the recent trend of what might be called "reverse gender discrimination" in college admissions. While a surplus of supergirls armed with ambition, impressive CVs, and expressive personal essays are knocking on the ivy-covered front doors of America's best colleges, admission officers are letting their slacker boyfriends and sheepish brothers slip through the backdoor.

Though Britz dresses this very public statement up in personal reflection about her own college-bound daughter's disappointment upon receiving a thin envelope, don't be fooled. This is not a quaint maternal reflection on the end of her daughter's innocence. It's the beginning of a national conversation, or at least it should be, about the legal and cultural implications of the growing imbalance.

The 2003 Supreme Court decision concerning U. Michigan's law school admission upheld previous rulings supporting admissions processes that aim at creating diverse communities on campus but outlaw formal quotas or point system admissions policies that privilege certain races. They argued that there is inherent social value to having diverse classrooms, and that an informal effort to encourage that composition is sound.

The Title IX Education Act of 1972, however, may prove more challenging to institutions, especially public, that are incorporating gender preferences into their admissions policies. It states, "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

Well-intentioned admissions counselors trying to create gender-balanced learning communities may find themselves in deep water if they can't prove that their policies don't violate Title IX. Unequal athletic programs that have been tried in courts and transformed are proof of that.

The cultural implications of gender-based college admissions is no less complicated. Britz writes, "We have told today's young women that the world is their oyster; the problem is, so many of them believed us that the standards for admission to today's most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men. How's that for an unintended consequence of the women's liberation movement?"

Some of us with feminist parents were told "You can be anything." Somehow we heard, "You have to be everything." The unintended consequences of the women's liberation movement aren't just informal and possibly illegal college admissions policies, but the oppressive paradigm of the perfect girl.

The perfect girl is everywhere. She is your niece, your daughter, your friend's genius kid. She is the girl who makes the valedictorian speech at your son's graduation and the type-A class president in the skimpy black dress that he brings to the prom. The perfect girl is thin and hungry, not for food, but for honors, awards, scholarships, recognition. The Princeton Review book is the perfect girl's bible. Her appointment book, even at 14, is filled morning to night with scheduled activities. She speaks three languages. She has five varsity letters. She never stops to breathe. She is voted most likely to succeed. She knows she will because she devotes every last iota of her energy, and then some, into achieving.

I know, because I was one. In 1998, when I applied to college, I struggled through the night to cut my list of accomplishments down to the tiny space provided on my college applications. How do you abbreviate captain, editor, president? Should I emphasize the child abuse prevention work or the magazine publications more? Though two years earlier my mother had typed every last comma onto my brother's college applications (what an anachronistic clacking that now seems), I refused to let her even look at my finished packages. I was unhealthily driven and fiercely independent.

When I got to Barnard College, I met a skyscraper dorm full of women just like me -- perfect girls incurring a variety of eating and anxiety disorders via their rabid-dog achievement orientation. Zoloft and Paxil were doled out like candy. Girls traded all-nighter tales like war stories. Eight hours of sleep was considered weak. We spent our Fridays in competitive internships and our Saturdays volunteering at soup kitchens. I lost my roommate for days once, only to find her passed out on a library carrel, highlighters and empty coffee cups strewn about, drool dripping onto her thesis paper -- 50 pages longer than the requirement.

My friends and I were accomplished, no doubt. We were also horribly unhealthy. Theresa Foy DiGeronimo and Richard D. Kadison describe "a steady and alarming rise in the severity of student's mental health problems" in their new book "The College of the Overwhelmed." In 2000, almost seven percent of college students reported experiencing anxiety disorders within the past year. Women are five times as likely to have anxiety disorders. Eating disorders affect 5-10 million women with the highest rates occurring in college-aged women. According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12.3 percent of women ages 18-24 report frequent mental distress. According to a recent UCLA survey, 38 percent of college women report feeling frequently overwhelmed.

While there is an ethical question about whether or not to push aside all of the Reese-Witherspoon-ala-Election applicants in pursuit of a gender-balanced student body, I'm more interested in the larger question raised by Britz's editorial: Is it physically, mentally, spiritually ethical to push young women (and turn a blind eye when they push themselves) to be accomplished, imbalanced, anxiety-ridden perfect girls?

My answer, after seeing my friends crumble under the weight of their own expectations, is definitively no. Of course it is important that girls today know how to work toward our goals. Of course Title IX has taught us to be competitive and strong. The hallmark of feminism, as far as this third waver can tell, is educated choice. We need women getting college educated so they can choose to do anything they damn well please. But we neglect to tell young women that one of those choices could be "no" to a traditional list of accomplishments, and that, even if they chose to achieve in traditional ways, they may not necessarily be rewarded for it.

Despite all the buzz about the trouble with boys -- the latest of which was a Newsweek cover story -- I think they have a few things figured out in terms of self-preservation. In my experience, young guys are pretty good at saying no. They are also better at taking risks, resisting gratuitous guilt and excessive caretaking, and brushing off imperfections. Most of the perfect girls I know would have to pencil in "fun time," but only if it became a real priority in their action plan for self-improvement.

The second wave of feminists -- our mothers and teachers -- created a world in which we feel entitled to accomplish anything we set our minds to; which, it turns out, includes just about everything. Now the task of the next wave of feminism is to turn the tide of this unhealthy achievement drive. Yes, women can be anything. But we don't have to be everything.

Courtney E. Martin is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, will be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in March 2007.