Cognitive Daily

Courtney Martin makes an interesting argument about the phenomenon she calls The Paradox of the Perfect Girl. It’s the result of the recent upsurge of girls outperforming boys academically:

The perfect girl is everywhere. She is your niece, your daughter, your friend’s genius kid. She is the girl who makes the valedictorian speech at your son’s graduation and the type-A class president in the skimpy black dress that he brings to the prom. The perfect girl is thin and hungry, not for food, but for honors, awards, scholarships, recognition. The Princeton Review book is the perfect girl’s bible. Her appointment book, even at 14, is filled morning to night with scheduled activities. She speaks three languages. She has five varsity letters. She never stops to breathe. She is voted most likely to succeed. She knows she will because she devotes every last iota of her energy, and then some, into achieving.

Far from being an advantage, Martin claims the phenomenon is harmful:

My friends and I were accomplished, no doubt. We were also horribly unhealthy. Theresa Foy DiGeronimo and Richard D. Kadison describe “a steady and alarming rise in the severity of student’s mental health problems” in their new book “The College of the Overwhelmed.” In 2000, almost seven percent of college students reported experiencing anxiety disorders within the past year. Women are five times as likely to have anxiety disorders. Eating disorders affect 5-10 million women with the highest rates occurring in college-aged women. According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12.3 percent of women ages 18-24 report frequent mental distress. According to a recent UCLA survey, 38 percent of college women report feeling frequently overwhelmed.

The solution, according to Martin, is to learn something from the boys and scale back this desire for achievement. While the argument is appealing, I have one question for Martin (and it’s an honest question): would you give up your own achievements — most notably, your contract to write a book about this very phenomenon — to attain this more balanced approach to life?

(via Rebecca Blood)


  1. #1 Gordon Worley
    June 1, 2006

    I think the trend I have seen is girls who achieve for achievement’s sake, not as part of some larger goal. Women have been convinced that they can and should achieve something, but that something is often poorly defined. Until a person, male or female, determines what it is that they want to do, they can easily overwork themselves trying to make progress on many fronts.

    You can get a lot done without putting yourself under stress, but it requires knowing what you want to achieve. Without setting some life goals, you have limited ability to prioritize actions and you’ll end up doing a lot of everything on your plate without getting anywhere other than completing unrelated projects. I think in recent time boys haven’t had the same pressure put on them, so when they reach majority they either apply themselves to a goal or become slackers until they figure out what they want to do (at least in America). You might say these slackers are wasting their lives, but is that much different than women who are wasting their lives doing lots of work towards nothing?

  2. #2 glenn
    June 1, 2006

    I think it safe to broadly assert that different traits have been favored over the millenia. The qualities needed by the hunter are not necessarily those needed by the gatherer. The qualities of an expeditionary adventurer are not necessarily those of a mother.

    Now, to venture into pure conjecture, I see a world that has become more communal, more cooperative. A world in which the maverick is quickly excised from the corporate world. For better or worse, the qualities one sees in males, broadly speaking, seem less adapted to beaureaucratic environments of school and work.

    Martin’s perfect girl, unlike boys, is able to recognize, accept and succeed within a rigid environment… the same environment that males would reject and fail in. The perfect girl is thin and hungry, not for food, but for communal recognition. Adolescent Males, BROADLY SPEAKING, are idealistic dreamers disdainful of authority. And appointment books? That’s why secretaries were “invented.”

    And so I see no “problem” with the advancement of women… but I am troubled with how we, as a society, can get the most from our boys.

  3. #3 Michael Anes
    June 1, 2006

    I remember reading this piece about the perils of girls performing well, not on their stress, which is of great import, but on even getting into good schools (in this case a top-notch liberal arts college)…

  4. #4 John M. Orr
    June 1, 2006

    Having two daughters (ages 13 and 7), I certainly see this drive for achievement. I know that I cause it in part as well. I have always made sure the let them know that they can do do, or become, whatever they want. I see the confidence that results, but also the drive to be good at something(s). I wrote up the post linked below earlier this week, and just posted it. It’s an interesting take on women and career success. What interested me most was the surprise of one women who had worked hard in an industry dominated by men. She as surprised that little seems to have changed throughout her career. Her sense of “breaking ground” for other women didn’t feel to her that it paid off.

  5. #5 John M. Orr
    June 1, 2006

    I forgot the link in my last comment. Sorry- here it is:

  6. #6 Guitar Eddie
    June 13, 2006

    What is interesting about this whole issue is that it is an issue in the first place. Would we be having this conversation if it were young men who striving to achieve something in their lives? I doubt it.

    To me, the important is for the individual to find her own balance. After all: “I’m the one whose got to die when its time for me to die. So let me live my life the way I want to.” (James Marshall Hendrix, circa 1967)


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