Adios Supergirl

Many girls I work with tell me they are stressed — really stressed. They feel exhausted and overwhelmed. They have headaches, trouble sleeping, chronically tight muscles, fatigue and lack of appetite or weight gain, which are recognised signs of stress.

Why do our young women feel such debilitating pressure?

I believe many teen girls are suffering from the Supergirl epidemic. They feel they must be smart, popular, thin and attractive, all while displaying a Paris Hiltonesque worldliness. American writer Courtney Martin in her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters sums up the modern girl’s dilemma this way:

We have the ultimate goal of effortless perfectionism.

The reality is that striving for perfection is actually unachievable, let alone exhausting.

Many girls desperately fear making mistakes, believing they cannot let down their guard for even one moment. For my upcoming book, The Butterfly Effect, my interviews with girls gave me valuable insight:

I worry so much about getting things wrong in class. What will people think of me if I do? If I don’t know something, I pretend I do so the teacher won’t think less of me. Everyone thinks I am such a great student and that learning comes easily to me — and I do get good marks, but I feel sick sometimes thinking about how long I will need to keep up this effort for.  — Joanne, 14

The worst thing about being a teen girl is people condemning you when you fall when, in fact, you only just tripped and learned something. — Yan, 16

If I make a mistake I want to cry. I hate that I am a big failure. But you can’t let anyone know you feel like that so you just shrug it off and go, ‘whatever’. But I replay my mistakes over and over in my head later. — Lucy, 15

The message we need to send our girls is that while they can do anything, they do not have to do it all at once, nor do they have to get it right every time.

We can serve as positive role models by refusing to buy into the hype that we need to be “Yummy Mummys” who can do it all. This may mean letting our own guard down and setting aside our perfectionist tendencies. Amelia Toffoli, the Principal at St Brigid’s College Lesmurdie, one of Enlighten’s Western Australian client schools, offers this great advice:

A mother should share personal failures as well as successes and explain to her daughter what she may have learnt from mistakes. It gives daughters hope that they too can move on from a poor choice.

Another angle is to create opportunities for girls to engage in exploration and self-discovery, and pursue activities that make them feel good — even if they won’t result immediately in a concrete reward such as good marks or acclaim.  In a May 2009 article on teen girls and perfectionism, a teacher in the United States, Jamie Donohoe, shared his favorite assignment that he gives his English students: to fulfil a small secret dream, something the student always wanted to do but never dared to for fear of failure or embarrassment. I love this!

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that Enlighten Education’s Chill Out workshops are increasingly popular with schools. We involve girls in practical, fun techniques that can help alleviate the physical symptoms of stress. For instance, positive visualisation helps girls develop new, more positive self-talk so they can respond calmly and optimistically to life’s inevitable challenges and setbacks. This is something we perhaps all could benefit from. We cannot always control the events that we experience, but we can control how we respond.

Do you know of any other good ideas for helping girls move beyond perfectionism?

7 thoughts on “Adios Supergirl

  1. Sonia says:

    Great post Danni!
    As Enlighten’s Program Director for Victoria I have noted too that many girls we work with state that they feel they do not want to approach their mothers to reveal their true stress levels. I also encourage girls to seek other role models in their lives; aunts, teachers, sisters, friends, neighbours…this broadens the support network.

  2. Francesca says:

    In the ‘Get it Together’ workshop I run for Enlighten here in NSW we have had discussions where girls have shared with me that their worst fear is ‘stuffing things up’: making mistakes, getting it wrong. For some girls they have spent much of their time at school being marked wrong by teachers on an academic level or peers on a social level and they are then fearful of sharing the reality of how this makes them feel with their parents. Yet getting it wrong, or even feeling like we have got it wrong, gives us a chance to learn something new and move forward in our lives. We need to put mistakes and the perception of what defines perfect in a context. Our daughters will come across many situations that may inspire self doubt. We need to affirm girls for all the wonderful traits they have, and for giving things ‘a go’.

  3. elisa says:

    We live in such an airbrushed society that it is little wonder that young women are cracking under the pressure. It is a shame to be imperfect- physical or otherwise- it is seen as an absolute weakness and women of all ages are expected to have that ‘perfect’ balance: brilliant partner, smart careerwoman, social butterfly, gym junkie, creative host, etc.

    Obviously the key is in educating young woman but I wonder how that in isolation can be successful when young women are surrounded by toxic role models. For example, I know of a woman who is obsessed with her physical image (‘oh gosh I’m so bloated today’, ‘I’ve been good today, I’ve only eaten a smoothie’, “I’ve got 2 wks to fit into that size 10 dress”) but is completely oblivious that her teenage daughter is being bombarded by toxic messages. Do we need to train the role models (not unlike train the trainer): ranging from teachers, mothers, employers, etc. These women don’t intentional send out negative signals, they simply don’t realise the impact of their words and actions on impressionable and conflicted young women.

  4. Danni Miller says:

    Absolutely agree Elisa – in fact, this is the premise of my book.

    Classic example of the need to also educate women…I spent a divine day working with 60 teen girls at a school recently. Their teacher was a gorgeous, funky, vivacious woman who obviously had a strong rapport with the girls. At the end of the day, when she thanked me for coming and enthused about the day and the messages the girls had received she said, “I am just so thrilled you girls are critiquing all these toxic media messages now as you are all so beautiful, and unique. Trust me – make the most of this time as when you are old and wrinkly and unattractive like me, you’ll regret all this self-doubt.”


    How sad that she could not see how shiny she was too! For many girls – and women – our mirrors are the ultimate glass ceiling we still need to shatter.

    Beyond the beauty myth! Beyond Perfect!

    P.S Elisa has an outstanding blog of her own, do check it out:

  5. elisa says:

    Oh what a shame indeed.

    I purchased a book today called ‘Ugly’ by Constance Briscoe. It talks about a girl’s real life experience of abuse by her mother- a woman who would constantly tell her daughter that she was ugly. I’m dying to read it but know it will be heartwrenching to read how this girl’s most significant role model let her down.

    Getting back to your point about women feeling so stressed, I don’t know if you have heard about ‘The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness’ study conducted in America? Anyway, it ties in with your comment about women being unhappy/stressed and the study reveals that as women’s choices and opportunities have increased over the past 30 years, so has their level of unhappiness. You would expect it to be the reverse, wouldn’t you? It is quite a subjective study and I can’t help but think it’s all to do with the supergirl pressure that you speak of. Women are unhappy because of the pressure and expectations.

    Anyway, must run to feed small child.


    P.S Cheers for the blog plug!

  6. Claire Clements says:

    I wish I had your blogs and classes when I was going through school, Dani. I was one of those girls who strived for perfect marks and was so focussed on doing things right so that the teachers would like me but then I had to put up with being called a square and not having time for my real friends. I got sick after year 12 and am still recovering 5 years later.

    I’m glad there are people like you out there who are helping girls with similar views.

  7. Pingback: Personal Happiness | The Butterfly Effect

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