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Over-Achievers With Low Self-Esteem

A look into the conflicted inner lives of young women who appear to kick ass everywhere -- in school and on the soccer field -- while secretly struggling with self-worth.
If you read the most-emailed article in the New York Times at the end of last week ("To All the Girls I've Rejected"), then you know that some college admission offices are holding female applicants to a higher standard than their male counterparts in hopes of achieving a greater gender balance on campus.

That's because women's enrollment in college is dramatically outpacing men's. By the 2009-2010 school year, according to the Business Roundtable, women will earn 142 bachelor's degrees and 173 associate degrees for every 100 awarded to men in these categories.

American girls, meanwhile, are not only advancing in the classroom but on playing fields as well. One in three high school girls now plays a sport, compared to one in 27 before Title IX (an act that called for more college scholarships for women to ensure parity with male athletes in 1972). The cultural landscape has shifted accordingly, offering up highly empowered female heroines both real and fictional, including Mia Hamm, Lisa Leslie and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

But for all the undisputed advances made by young women, evidence suggests there is more to this story, a dark side that has long been acknowledged but seems all the more baffling in this era of increasingly accomplished girls.

Foremost, a young woman's body is still a battleground -- the relentless focus of the porn industry, the celebrity and the weight-loss industries. Advocates in the field of eating disorders remind us that these illnesses have doubled their reach in the last 30 years, that they are fatal in 10 percent of cases, and that they are affecting younger and more ethnically diverse girls. And it's not just about food and other forms of bodily self-abuse such as cutting. In a 2001 Harvard study, one in five teen girls reported being hit or being forced into sex by their partners. Depression is another pervasive affliction among college women, despite their groundbreaking achievements and presumably bright economic prospects.

The hazards that young women face on the way to adulthood are real -- as real as ever. The problem is how to understand them in light of girl power, Buffy and the WNBA.

Going public in Ohio

One window into the conflicted inner lives of young women who appear by every measure to kick ass -- in school, on the soccer field -- while secretly struggling with self-worth, was made available to me as an instructor at Miami University of Ohio. Founded in 1809, Miami is a mostly residential college of old brick buildings with ivy tendrils, majestic trees and verdant lawns. The social life is Greek-dominated, and the college is famous for its "Miami Mergers," that is, couples who meet in their undergraduate years and go on to marry.

But even a traditional campus in southwest rural Ohio -- deep in the red zone -- shows signs of change. Miami is one of the state's most competitive universities, drawing a select group of highly motivated, achievement-oriented young women among its students. These largely middle- and upper-class women are as vulnerable as anyone to the afflictions of modern American girlhood. Four years ago, a group of female students at Miami formed an organization to go public with their struggles.

The group was called Achieving You, and it was modeled on an organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The goal of its members was to provide support to one another and to younger peers. Many members of the group had faced down self-esteem-related disorders, and now they wanted to talk about their experiences and their recoveries. Eventually, the Miami students hoped to speak frankly about their lives to high school girls in the area.

Sharing stories

In late 2003, a group of about 20 Miami women came together at a large meeting room in the school's student union to share their stories of struggle. Pulling their chairs into a circle, many discussed depression, others eating disorders and still others abusive boyfriends or compulsive promiscuity. They described their lives in college and high school, where they had played a variety of sports, such as lacrosse, swimming and soccer. Most if not all said that in high school they took advanced placement classes and held leadership positions such as class officer. Now in college, many had joined sororities and relished the female camaraderie offered by Greek life.

Unlike the starving ballerina types so often depicted in journalistic accounts of female self-esteem disorders, all the speakers were wryly funny, self-aware and fully confident young women, or so it seemed:

"I was the captain of my water polo team in high school, in the honor society "

"I was a perfectionist in every sense of the word. I came home from school and would rewrite my notes from class. I had to be the president of every organization. You can guess my grades "

"I was tomboy central ..."

"I was an A student in AP classes ..."

"I was a valedictorian ..."

"I was on two championship teams ..."

Foiled expectations

Given these introductions, the stories that inevitably followed -- clogging the shower drain with vomit or being kicked and taunted publicly by a boyfriend, or fantasizing about the best method of suicide -- seemed all the more unlikely. As the group's founder, Brie Henry, put it, "You wouldn't expect these problems from these girls."

The improbable combination of strength and frailty on display that night raises tough questions. Shouldn't the educated, physically empowered and ambitious young women of today be less susceptible to disorders of self-esteem than the girls before them? And how do you maintain a balance between potent self-confidence, on one hand, and crushing self-doubt, on the other, without eventually losing your grounding?

As it turns out, you don't. I learned that most of the women in Achieving You who had struggled in their teens had ultimately broken down, either late in high school or soon after starting college. Some simply stopped going to class, focusing instead on grueling exercises for hours at a time every day. Or they played with razors, or their parents finally caught them with their hands down their throats. In the more dramatic cases, some reported relief when the balancing act was over, and they could begin rebuilding more authentic identities through therapy, honest communication and introspection.

Finding strength, serving others

The women I interviewed said they needed the connection provided by Achieving You, which allowed them to share their stories and to celebrate triumph in their recovery. What made Achieving You more than a typical peer-support group were two important factors: The women had organized themselves rather than being led by well-meaning adults such as health teachers and therapists. In addition, the young women in the group had taken it upon themselves to contact local high schools to arrange to tell their stories -- with emphasis on recovery -- directly to adolescent girls, and in so doing, offer positive models of leadership.

And so the Miami students began arranging visits in Cincinnati-area schools, contacting health teachers and setting up meetings with girls only. The Miami students would walk into a class of 30-40 girls, usually starting at 8:30 a.m., breaking for lunch and continuing to meet with successive classes until the end of the school day. After every session, audience members were asked to write comments and questions on index cards. The high school girls' comments were a mix of relief and admiration:

"Your stories inspired me. I know I'm not alone now."

"The girl who talked about the guy who raped her, and who said she was ugly and not worth it -- I can relate!"

"Hey, I'm really sorry that this happened to you all, and I'm glad that people like you are helping make a difference with young women's lives."

"I love the girls. You're amazing girls. Girls rock!"

A sort of schizophrenia

The striking thing about Achieving You is how clearly its members represented the very combination of empowerment and victimization that is so perplexing among American young women today. These and other young women embody a sort of schizophrenia in which they surge ahead in academics and athletics while at the same time adopt behaviors that compromise them. The obvious question is why.

My interviews and observation suggest one possible explanation: That the girls' self-destructive anxieties and compulsions arose, at least in part, to meet a powerful need. That need was to maintain a check on their own forcefulness, that is, to dilute their otherwise formidable strength.

"A girl worries about being too smart, too successful, too intimidating, too blond, too promiscuous," says Erin Lenger, 23, an original member of Achieving You, which is still active at Miami.

Not surprisingly, the members of Achieving You never arrived at a single answer to the question, 'Why did this happen to me and so many other girls?' But they were able to establish at least one thing: In their struggles they had found the strength to heal themselves and now stood in a position to help others to do the same. Unbowed, emboldened even by their own battles for self-worth, they had emerged stronger, more connected to other women and more aware of the complexity of being female.

"I turn to other girls and stories that make me feel a little more normal," Lenger says. "Achieving You did that for me, most definitely. I realized that my abusive relationship was just one of a million things that girls struggle with daily. I turn to my mother, my sister, and my girlfriends to understand their lives, and then align their experiences with my own. Open communication with other females, especially ones that you can confide in, is imperative."
Amy DePaul is a writer living in Irvine, Calif.
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