Never too good nor too thin

A Girls Inc. survey finds girls stressing over looks, weight, sex and achievements.

Published October 30, 2006 7:06PM (EST)

Today's girls should get extra vacation time for the stress they suffer as a result of our culture's mixed messages about modern girlhood. Cool nonprofit Girls Inc. recently surveyed 2,000 third- through 12th-grade girls around the country, and learned that many girls suffer from what researchers call the "supergirl dilemma," the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Sunday. Previous surveys have found that girls struggle with simultaneous pressure to meet current beauty standards while getting great grades; the Girls Inc. study found that these and other competing pressures mean that 60 percent of girls report frequently feeling stressed. And it's not just a high school problem -- nearly half of the elementary schoolers surveyed said they suffer from stress, too.

Admittedly, perceived stress is a slippery thing, and in our fast-paced, achievement-oriented culture, stress can be treated as a badge of value. So it's hard to know how many girls are reporting on their genuine feelings and how many are aping parents and other role models who moan, "Oh, I'm so stressed." And just because girls report high stress levels doesn't mean that boys aren't stressed, too. But the survey results reveal that girls carry around enough self-limiting beliefs to stress anyone out. When Girls Inc. surveyed girls in 2000, it found that 75 percent of girls believe they have to be thin to be popular. In this year's survey, 84 percent of girls believed in the thinness-popularity connection. No surprise, 70 percent of girls also reported being worried about their appearance.

According to the Chronicle, "60 percent of high school girls and nearly 40 percent of middle school girls said they worry about sex, getting pregnant and relationships." Which is understandable, given that a related survey found that most sexually active girls surveyed choose to have sex because they feel pressured by their partners -- and, scarily and sadly, half the girls surveyed don't require their partners to wear condoms.

The unifying thread here is that girls feel pressure to meet others' standards rather than their own. Pat Loomes, the executive director of the Girls Inc. chapter in California's Alameda County, told the Chronicle, "One girl said, 'The problem is I can never be thin enough, I can never be pretty enough, and I can never be good enough.' It just kind of breaks your heart." Filmmaker Debra Chasnoff said that teens interviewed for her documentary "Straightlaced" cited peer pressure, media pressure and parental pressure, noting that parents sometimes "reinforce stereotypes by commenting on a girl's weight or whether she is wearing clothes that are feminine enough." Both Loomes and Chasnoff told the Chronicle they were surprised that feminism hasn't had more of an impact on girls' self-image; Chasnoff noted, "I feel like we could have been doing these interviews in the 1960 or 1970s." True, girls don't face as many gender-based limitations as they once did -- Loomes says that "girls believe they can be accepted as leaders, and they are doing better in math and science." But leadership and academic skills don't seem to have displaced diets and makeup; instead, girls' task lists seem to have just gotten longer. Loomes gloomily reports that "we haven't let go of the traditional stereotype: How you look is more important than what's in your head."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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