Is Overachieving Bad for Girls?
Dan Kindlon's new book, "Alpha Girls: Understanding the New American Girl and How She Is Changing the World," begins in the pastoral setting of a typical suburban New Jersey high school. The students read excerpts from "Reviving Ophelia," Mary Pipher's 1994 bestseller that painted a Modigliani-esque portrait of teenage girls -- depressed, anxiety-ridden, self-mutilating and self-loathing.
But 12 years after the publication of Pipher's book, Kindlon and the Jersey girls he is chatting with are convinced that American girls have had a real psychological makeover. Sarah, a sophomore, asks, "Who are the girls in this book? I mean, I feel sorry for them, but they're pretty much losers."
Kindlon holds up young women like Sarah -- girls with high GPAs, stacked extracurricular resumes and Ivy League dreams -- as the new Athena archetype. An alpha girl, he explains, is "a young woman who is destined to be a great leader. She is talented, highly motivated and self-confident." Through interviews and an impressively large survey (900 girls and boys across the United States and Canada), Kindlon concludes that alpha girls have an "emancipated psychology." They are no longer slowed down by empathy or emotionality, and are now free to pursue success with rabid dog competitiveness.
Unlike Kindlon, I don't see Sarah's dispassionate reaction towards those in pain or her peers' full throttle drive towards achievement as cause for celebration. What are we teaching young women about success and well-being? How has the baby-boomer legion of superwomen influenced the way a new generation of "alpha girls" envisions their worth in the world? How do we measure progress?
Kindlon and many others cheer at the idea of a nation of young women resembling Reese Witherspoon's character in the movie "Election": hard-working and high-strung, taking classrooms and boardrooms across America by storm. A flurry of feminist self-congratulation followed Jennifer Delanhunty Britz's March 23, 2006, New York Times op-ed, "To All the Girls I've Rejected," in which she admitted practicing affirmative action for boys at Kenyon College because there were simply too many qualified young women.
I am more inclined to sound a word of warning. Ambition that is not tempered by wisdom is dangerous. It can lead to a soul-sucking, endless search for a sense of satisfaction that will never come from blue ribbons or promotions. It can lead to loneliness, secrecy, disease. Contrary to our very American disposition, achievement, accumulation and public recognition are not tantamount to true progress.
During the course of researching my book, "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body," I heard "Sarahs" across the country voice their suspicion that to be a success, they had to be infallible. Under this impossible pressure, many of them developed eating and anxiety disorders that they kept secret from even their closest friends. In a 2001 survey of Duke undergrads, the overwhelming concern of young women was to appear not just perfect, but effortlessly perfect.
It's true, my generation of women has broken records and taken names. Women now outnumber men on college campuses by at least 2 million. A recent report by the National Council for Education Statistics concludes that girls consistently outperform boys on reading and writing tests, and are more likely to have taken algebra II, AP/honors biology, and chemistry than their male peers. They are also more likely to participate in music, performing arts, belong to academic clubs, work on the school newspaper or yearbook, or hold office in student government.
Here's the big "but": 7 million American girls and women have eating disorders. Panic disorders and depression are twice as likely in women and 75 percent of autoimmune illnesses affect women. This is not progress without pain.
Kindlon's alpha girls are symptomatic of a larger trend in outwardly high-achieving and inwardly self-hating young women. This is not the feminist dream realized. This is a Gen Y version of the Puritan ethic -- work hard enough, long enough, look perfect enough, and you will finally be thought of as successful (even if you are also sick.) As opposed to being "emancipated" from what others think, as Kindlon attests, these girls are obsessed with recognition. As opposed to being equal and free, as 1970s feminism envisioned, these girls are better than and ensnared in an unenlightened more, better, faster ethos.
Later on in the book Kindlon tells the story of Holly, a depressed, anorectic with an alcoholic father who pressures her to be the best. Her story could star in Alyssa Quart's smart new book, "Hothouse Kids," where she too raises the red flag over all this over-zealous ambition. Like many of Quart's characters, the parents appear to be vindicated for their vicarious aspirations. Holly appeases her father by getting into Harvard. Apparently Kindlon is won over as well: "Holly's problems didn't keep her from excelling in school."
OK, great. Holly goes to Harvard. But is Holly well? Is she happy? Has she defined success for herself? Had these crimson pom-pom-waving men listened to Holly's version of her own story, they would have heard that despite her academic triumph, she is suffering. Isn't her tenuous mental health more important than her guaranteed place at one of the nation's most notorious destinations for "alpha girls"?
Kindlon ends with Calvinist commemoration: "One of the deepest impressions the alphas left me with was how hard they work." It's true. The young women I have known, the ones I have grown up with, interviewed, befriended, taught, are not afraid to set goals and do whatever it takes to reach them.
I couldn't be more proud of all that my generation has accomplished. We are award-winning musicians, documentarians and doctors, trailblazers in academics and politics, leaders in the independent media movement, transformers of corporate culture. But I don't mistake this accomplishment for health. We still have a long way to go if we are to realize our dream of being successful and well.