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The Myth of the Perfect Girl
Ana Homayoun
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INTRODUCTION

In today’s achievement culture, many girls seem to be doing remarkably well – excelling in honors and sports and attending top colleges in ever greater numbers – but beneath the surface, many girls are stressed–out and stretched too thin as they strive to be ”perfect.” In their efforts to juggle schoolwork and extracurriculars, family life and social lives, friends and frenemies, as well as relationships online and IRL (in real life), many girls begin to lose sight of who they really are, and instead work overtime to please their friends, parents, teachers and others.

With honesty, empathy, and a fresh perspective, Ana Homayoun presents advice to empower parents, educators, and girls discover what true success and happiness means to them – and how to work to achieve it. The tips, exercises and interwoven real–life stories provide a starting point to help girls develop their own sense of personal purpose and overall wellness, with transformative results.


ABOUT ANA HOMAYOUN

Since founding Green Ivy Educational Consulting in 2001, Ana has become a nationally recognized innovator of motivational organization and time–management strategies for junior high and high school students. She is the author of two books: The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life (2012), and That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week: Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in School and Life (2010). She is a frequent presenter to teachers, parents and students at schools around the nation and abroad on how to incorporate organization, time–management and personal purpose into the classroom and school environment.


A CONVERSATION WITH ANA HOMAYOUN

Q: Everyone is asking, ”can women have it all?” From Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men to Anne–Marie Slaughter’s front–page Atlantic article, the topic is unavoidable ––but there’s still no definitive answer. Why might girls struggle in a world where they’re told they can ”have it all” but aren’t told what ”all” is?

Girls are growing up in a modern world where they’re told women can achieve anything and have it all. Magazines and media portray women with high–powered jobs, loving families, peak physical fitness levels and a perfectly furnished and well–kept home, and it all seems to be easily within reach. While there’s certainly no shortage of amazingly successful and strong female role models who have accomplished amazing things, there are often trade–offs that are not actively spoken of or recognized. As a result, there becomes an overwhelming pressure that lurks beneath the surface—and can be one of the reasons why so many girls are struggling with rates of anxiety despite increasing academic success in school and financial success in the workplace as young adults (where women in their 20s make more than the male counterparts).

The Myth of the Perfect Girl introduces the problem of our current achievement culture, which has led us to inadvertently send the message to our girls that perfection is the new norm; the expectation. When girls struggle or fail to live up to this impossible ideal, stress and insecurity set in. The Myth of the Perfect Girl introduces ways for parents and other role models to help promote healthy patterns of success for their girls and to finally debunk the myth of the need (and ability) to have it all.

Q: Isn’t ambition a good thing? Sheryl Sandberg famously notes that the achievement gap won’t close until there is a closing of the ambition gap. What are some ways we can promote strategies for overall wellness without decreasing or dampening ambition?

There is nothing wrong with ambition that is balanced - and there are many who argue girls and young women stop themselves short of great accomplishments. On the flip side, though, this increased focus on achievement, accomplishment and ambition has created a scenario where many girls feel as though nothing they do is ever good enough. By all means, girls should be ambitious. But it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And right now, many of them are sprinting through school, following the rules and expectations of others instead of developing their own version of success, and end up burnt out in school, college and young adulthood. And, much of that burn out is what is resulting in the challenges we are seeing outside of the classroom with compensatory behaviors and mental health challenges.

Q: In your book The Myth of the Perfect Girl, you talk about how many girls tend to be “filling–the–box” which leaves them feeling empty and overwhelmed. What does that mean?

We often hear the phrase think outside the box used to describe the notion of thinking beyond rote and normal everyday expectations. Filling the box is the metaphor I use to describe the opposite movement: girls’ tendency to be compliant to others’ expectations rather than creating and pursuing their own version of personal success and fulfillment. The image of filling someone else’s box, rather than building and creating one’s own, is a way of capturing how many girls and young women accept the structures of achievement and definitions of success form outside themselves. Girls can easily become more apt to find and measure their self–worth through external validation than through internal reflection.

Q: What do parents sometimes do unconsciously (or consciously!) that promotes this detrimental box–filling behavior?

I truly believe that the vast majority of parents really want whatever is best for their children, and that many times the over–parenting or over–reacting is a result of misplaced fear and anxiety. Parents stress out other parents - I see it all the time in my office and on the road when I visit schools and talk to parents all around the country and abroad. But, in combination with the emphasis on standardized tests and numbers based achievement, we’ve created a society of shaming around education. It is no longer okay to make the natural mistakes that should be part of the learning process—there is NO room for mistakes. I always wince when I hear a parent say something like, “Janie’s getting her biology test back today and we’re gets a good score!” Or the parent goes online and checks the grade without their daughter’s knowledge. Or go through the girl’s backpack to find tests and quizzes rather than asking their daughter directly. Many times, the parent will say, “Oh, my daughter won’t tell me so I have to do this” but the greater question is, “Why is she ashamed when she does poorly on a test?”

We need to reframe the learning experience to be about actual learning - from experiences as well as from material. Understanding that it isn’t the short–term results, but the long–term efforts that make the most marked difference can be a first step in reducing the school induced shaming that often leads to box–filling behavior.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What does it mean to “fill in the box” instead of thinking outside of it?

  2. Is it possible to be too goal–oriented? What happens when we focus too much on achievement instead of happiness?

  3. Do you ever feel like you are running on a “success treadmill” (14)? Where does this lead?

  4. New technologies such as the Internet, cell phones, and social networking websites have drastically altered the way we communicate with each other. How do these technologies contribute to the pressures felt by many girls?

  5. How can goal–setting become a problem for girls who are focused on achievement, and how can girls set goals in healthy ways?

  6. Why is “Taking the B” sometimes a good idea, and how can it open up new opportunities instead of restricting choices?

  7. How do the new challenges created by the presence of the Internet make it more difficult for girls to focus on their work? Is it necessary to completely ban all unnecessary technology during study time and monitor girls when they are doing homework on the Internet to make sure they stay focused?

  8. What can be done to diminish the fear and anxiety associated with big tests, long–term projects, and final exams?

  9. How can preparation for big tests, projects, and finals be broken into smaller pieces to make seemingly impossible tasks more manageable?

  10. If a girl is having trouble making friends at school, how can she find a support system and connect with her peers in a different setting?

  11. How does a girl reach emotional bankruptcy, and how can she make more deposits than withdrawals in her emotional wellness bank?

  12. Why do girls have so much difficulty opening up about their problems, and how can we encourage girls to actively look for solutions and seek support?

  13. Does the common, “no pain, no gain” philosophy in sports reflect a healthy perspective on exercise or does it suggest that today’s girls are being pushed too hard to excel in their sports? Why are so many girls sidelined with sports–related injuries, and how can we prevent them?

  14. Why do you think spiritual wellness is often ignored in today’s world? What can we do to help girls understand the importance of developing a strong inner voice and reflecting on what matters to them?