As an educational consultant, Ana Homayoun interacts daily with teenage girls and the adults tasked with mentoring, educating and shaping them.
"As one high school academic counselor from the Midwest explained to me, 'These girls are so often expected to be finished products,' rather than ever-evolving and changing young people," Homayoun writes in "The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life" (Perigree), the new book she wrote to guide teenage girls and their parents through a period of overwhelming demands from school, friends and family.
Even as they outpace their male counterparts in academic achievements and college admissions and continue to level the playing field in athletics and other extracurriculars, teen girls have remarkably higher rates of depression and anxiety, eating disorders and negative body self-image. Girls between 15 to 20 have more than double the rates of depression as their male peers, Homayoun writes. In short, she says, they're pleasing everyone but themselves.
"Without reflection, we're vulnerable to the agenda-setting whims of the many minor authorities that are propped up in our culture — from celebrities to diet-book gurus to abstract notions like 'prestige' and 'perfection,'" she writes. "The problem is that girls are not often taught how to identify their deepest desires, and when they are taught, it's not early enough."
We talked with Homayoun about her book and some possible solutions. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: You talk about promoting purpose rather than vocation. What do you mean?
A: Finding out what drives you and motivates you internally and intrinsically. We need to ask that of girls earlier. They're so good at working the system. They figure out what they need to do to get that A, but it becomes an empty A. When I ask girls, "What gives your life meaning?" they look at me like, "Oh my God. Nobody's ever asked it that way." If we allow girls to start discussing this earlier, maybe we can start to change the emptiness that's leading to some of the compensatory behavior.
Q: Can we model purpose for kids?
A: Kids are always watching. You're modeling how you treat your time, how you treat others, how you treat yourself: Do you give yourself breaks? Do you allow yourself to make mistakes and laugh about them? Do you say, "Well, that didn't work out. What's plan B?" We need to model figuring out solutions rather than becoming overwhelmed.
Q: Is it ironic that girls feel so boxed in by expectations in a time when they have more opportunities than ever?
A: It's presented to them as undying pressure to do it all. Not only can they do it all, now they're supposed to do it all — really well, all the time, perfectly. School and athletics and extracurricular and looking right and having friends and wearing the right things and having the right personality online and offline.
Q: Why do boys seem more willing to excel at one thing and relax about others — say, if he's a jock, he doesn't mind if he's not also an honor student.
A: Girls, more than boys, tend to be pleasers. They want their friends to like them. They want tacit approval from their parents. They want to do well at everything. It's not that boys don't have that desire, but they don't take it as personally. They get one rejection and figure another thing will work out.
Q: Are these problems exclusive to adolescence?
A: The book is not just for moms to read about their daughters. It's also for moms themselves. Many women deal with this undying need to feel perfect. When I talk about the book, so many women turn to me and say, "Oh, I have that."