In her new book Enough As She Is, Smith College Leadership Specialist and Campus School parent Rachel Simmons—a self-described “‘work in progress’ role model”—illuminates the dangers and pervasiveness of perfectionism in the lives of adolescent girls and young women. Written with an eye towards parents and educators, her original research features the stories of 55 interview subjects between the ages of 16 and 27 whose experiences combine with a review of cross-disciplinary literature to inform strategies for “[helping] girls move beyond impossible standards of success to live healthy, happy, and fulfilling lives.” Here at the Campus School, where students of all gender identities spend lunchtime leaping towards monkey bars, it is easy to feel as though 16 is far away. Simmons reminds us, however, that there is no better time to consider the pressures that our students will face beyond these fences, and how our presence in their lives can ensure that they continue to, not only jump wholeheartedly, but turn to trusted individuals when they fall.
It is “no longer enough [for girls] merely to excel in school,” Simmons writes of a cultural phenomenon that she terms “perfectionism 2.0” (143). “Since the 1970s, we believed telling girls they could do anything would translate to high confidence. But messages like these can actually undermine it. When we tell girls the sky’s the limit, they become afraid to admit when they can’t get there—and that, ultimately, makes them fearful of taking risks and being brave” (81).
Girls are coming of age in a time when they are expected to brand themselves before they have a chance to be(come) themselves, and Simmons reveals that the pressure is taking a toll. Yet the onus of such stress, she makes clear, is not on girls themselves but the socio-cultural forces that surround them. Social media bombards young women with curated depictions of others’ bodies, social lives, and successes. Celebrities are no longer the sole models of perfection on which girls project their insecurities; instead, it has become the everyday peers who enter young women’s virtual feeds that ignite unhealthy comparison. Simmons addresses this issue with a favorite maxim, “Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides,” a sentiment equally relevant for gendered and performative pressures that transcend the screen.
What Simmons terms the College Application Industrial Complex is a powerful external entity that similarly pushes girls into the pursuit of “more,” infusing their milieus with the message that they must compete with and beat their peers by having, not only the best grades or the most AP credits, but the most (and most prestigious) extracurricular achievements in order to achieve success. The Complex convinces girls– and many of their teachers, parents, and mentors– that achieving college acceptance at a highly-regarded institution is the key to ultimate happiness; it is what catapults women into the long-coveted world of potential that generations of their predecessors fought for. To waver from the Complex’s path, then, is to not only reject this hard-fought potential but is, ultimately, to fail– a word that girls are taught to reject at all costs, despite the Dweckian emphasis on learning from challenge that shapes much of today’s educational discourse.
This pressure to excel academically, socially, athletically, and professionally leads to “role overload,” placing girls’ well-being in peril: Levels of anxiety and depression are skyrocketing, and a recent study found that high school girls sleep the least of any other age-group in the United States. The stigma of failure; the illusion of control; the pressure to achieve what past Smith College Dean Donna Lisker termed “effortless perfection” leaves girls sacrificing and struggling in secret: “Grit isn’t always a good thing,” Simmons writes, referencing psychologist Angela Duckworth’s term for the “passion and perseverance that [makes] high achievers special” (Grit, p.8). “[E]levated levels of CRP protein,” a key inflammatory marker implicated in a variety of systemic diseases, is found in adolescent girls who “[refuse] to give up ‘unattainable goals’” (Simmons, 173). In contrast, “girls who cut their losses [have]… lower secretions of cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’” (174). Scientific evidence thereby suggests that a culture of perfectionism in which grit is conflated with the message to never give up, not only robs girls of the rich and necessary work of true resilience, but threatens their futures under the guise of assuring them.
Thanks to Simmons, however, the future need not be bleak. Concluding each chapter of her book are distilled, tangible suggestions that equip readers with tools for fostering—in themselves, as well as the girls they love—a healthy, balanced approach to achievement. Simmons writes of her own journey as someone who is “fiercely independent,” sharing:
“When I went into labor… I spent six hours tracking contractions on a smartphone app…. I didn’t wake my friend up, even though I was scared. I didn’t want to burden anyone until I absolutely needed to. Today, when I imagine my own daughter making that decision, I feel tears in my eyes. I want her to be a girl who invites the support she needs in her life, and who feels entitled to the love and generosity she showers on others. To do that, I have had to go on my own journey and learn how to model it myself” (169).
Modeling is, indeed, the most challenging and crucial lever of change. Making girls aware of the cultural messages that impact them while surrounding them with counter-messages are important actions to take, but exemplification is what truly paves the way. To model appropriate levels of vulnerability; failure; recalibration; and collaboration is to re-frame girls’ perceptions of what makes women “successful.” “Process praise tells girls that setbacks are a meaningful part of any learning process,” Simmons writes. When women make visible their processes, not only the products of their work, girls are more likely to embrace and change their own.
Written by Brittany Collins