Girls of the Times

A lengthy weekend feature looks at the challenges of girlhood through the eyes of a few affluent teens.

Published April 2, 2007 6:30PM (EDT)

Currently topping the New York Times' "Most E-mailed" list is a long Education article from Sunday's edition, titled "For Girls, It's Be yourself, and Be Perfect, Too." But despite the catchy headline and potentially worthy topic, the piece loses some oomph by focusing exclusively on affluent girls at a tony high school in Newton, Mass. (admittedly, not a huge surprise for the Times), and by failing to thoroughly examine why (or whether) the double message of authenticity and perfection particularly afflicts girls.

The story does flag the recent boom in college applications, and notes one possible reason for increased pressure on girls: "These students are aware that because more girls apply to college than boys, amid concerns about gender balance, boys may have an edge at some small selective colleges," writer Sara Rimer reports, further observing that high-achieving teenage girls may wind up "competing with all the other amazing girls around the country who are applying to the same elite colleges." But Rimer doesn't evaluate whether that sense of competition results from an actual admissions-office disadvantage for girls or is more a matter of perception.

Another proposed explanation for teenage girls' double bind is the appearance factor. The girls profiled in the piece report feeling the need to be pretty, thin and, as one subject puts it, "effortlessly hot." In the rat race of résumé building that is the college application process for today's privileged kids, feeling additional pressure to meet fashion and beauty standards probably represents both an added stress and an added time suck.

Beyond these factors, though, the Times article doesn't investigate why these "amazing girls" have it hardest. There's no discussion of whether parents or teachers have different expectations for girls and boys, or whether teenage girls might be more susceptible to the high-pressure college-prep environment. And even the anecdotal evidence seems mixed. The story doesn't profile any boys, but observations Rimer makes, like "parents bump into each other at Whole Foods and share news about whose son or daughter just got accepted (or not) at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Penn or Stanford," underscore not only that Newton is a schmancy town but also that girls and boys alike face stress and competition when applying to college. The one teenage boy quoted in the piece sounds pretty amazing himself; describing one of the high-achieving girls profiled in the piece, he says, "I see why she likes Kierkegaard -- he's existential, but still Christian. She really likes Descartes. I was not so into Descartes. I really like Hume, Nietzsche, the existentialist authors. The musician we're most collectively into is Bob Dylan."

I still liked reading about the vulnerable, cool-seeming girls profiled in the piece, and reading their college-application essays, featured as sidebars (which, at least to me, seemed like a coup -- I can't imagine having let my own application essays be published for all the tea in China). But since it failed to explore the challenges faced by less privileged girls, or explain in depth why these girls face tougher times than their male peers, I wish the article had come clean about what it is: Not a broad examination of the lives of girls but a sympathetic profile of a few affluent suburban teens.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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