Mrs Sybil Edwards, Head of Lilley House
Originally published in 2012
The Hollywood movie I Don’t Know How She Does It, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, did not set the box office alight last year. It did, however, spark a spate of articles in the press about the lives of women in high-powered jobs who somehow manage to juggle children, marriage and impressive fitness regimes.
One Brisbane woman who was featured on the front page of the Courier Mail described her daily routine: she rises at 3.30 am to go to the gym, drops her children at childcare at 7.30 am, works in a demanding executive job all day and rushes home at 6 pm to do the ‘night routine’. Let’s hope her house is messy and her garden overgrown, because her superwoman lifestyle probably caused many readers to feel slightly inadequate (and exhausted).
‘Superwoman’ has a younger counterpart in our teenage girls who, like their mothers, feel the pressure to be everything to everyone. In recent years the term ‘supergirl syndrome’ has been coined to describe the unrealistic standards that many girls feel compelled to attain. Compared to their mothers and grandmothers, girls are presented with seemingly endless opportunities and told they can do anything.
Unfortunately this positive message can have its shadow side when girls confuse opportunity to do anything with compulsion to do, and perhaps be, everything. It is not enough to be smart and successful, they must also be thin, beautiful, kind and caring. Stephen Hinshaw, Professor and Chair of Psychology at the University of California, calls this the ‘triple bind’—a situation where girls are weighted not only by their parents and societal expectation but are also crushed by their own.
In his book The Triple Bind: Saving Our Teenage Girls from Today’s Pressures (2009), he reveals the contradictory messages about what girls should aspire to and how they are often devastated if they don’t meet these impossible standards. Hinshaw asserts that this explains why the current generation of girls has suffered a surge in serious mental health problems.
Brisbane Girls Grammar School students are not immune to the ‘supergirl syndrome’. This was brought home to me when, with my Heads of House colleagues, I wrote the Year 12 testimonials for the outgoing students. The phrase ‘I don’t know how she does it’ often came to mind when writing some students’ testimonials with their incredible achievements in a wide range of areas from academia, sport, arts and community service. How can they be so good at so many things? These girls are obviously extraordinarily talented and are able to operate at an extremely high level, apparently without any negative impact.
Problems can emerge, however, when some girls spread themselves too thin. They aim to be an ‘A’ student, perfect sportswoman, top musician, concerned global citizen and the best friend ever.
According to Liz Funk, author of the book Supergirls Speak Out: Inside the Secret Lives of Over-Achieving Girls (2009), young women should know that perfection is not everything. She says, ‘People do need to recognise that you do not have to be successful at everything. We should encourage young women to take time for themselves and think about what matters to them. If they are busy going from one activity to another then they have no real time to stop and think.’
While Brisbane Girls Grammar School does not shy away from enabling students to be the best they can be, this is tempered by addressing the question of balance. At the start of a new school year it is always a good idea to discuss your daughter’s co-curricular involvement. The benefit of participation in the Co-curricular program has been well documented, and certainly our School has an enticing array of offerings, but balance is crucial to a student’s happiness and mental health. Has your daughter factored in some free time for relaxation and contemplation into her busy timetable of study, sport and music? Solitude has long been linked with creativity and transcendence but hectic schedules, combined with an obsession with social networking sites, can obliterate any opportunity for it.
We recognise that our students sometimes need help juggling their commitments to cope with their stressful lives so the Year 8 Ethics program this term will touch on the topics of goal setting and time management. We hope to assist the girls with learning to prioritise what is important, and planning time to devote to those things can alleviate the pressure and the feeling that they have to do everything, all at once.
In a recent publication, Women’s Words of Wisdom, Power and Passion (2011), Julia Gillard asserts that her number one tip for success is ‘Prioritise—you can’t do everything’ (p22). It is interesting to think about our Prime Minister in the context of the ‘supergirl syndrome’. How does she feel about the constant media scrutiny of her hair, her clothes and her figure? It is not enough for her to run the nation that she has to be glamorous too?
The media bombards us with images of perfection causing girls to believe that they must strive to ‘have it all’—the perfect career, perfect relationship and perfect appearance. With those subliminal messages ever present, it is no wonder that our girls worry about falling short. Parents can counteract this inundation by teaching their daughters to be critical media consumers, pointing out the difference between fantasy and reality. Discuss how images can often be retouched to make models and actors look flawless and draw their attention to successful women who do not fit the media ‘ideal’.
At Brisbane Girls Grammar School, we encourage our students to aim for excellence but they certainly do not have to be supergirls to earn respect and attention. Young women should be acknowledged as human beings who are still lovable despite limitations and flaws, and their schedules should allow some free time rather than being crammed with activities. The supergirl life needs to be shown for the burden it is so our girls can get on with enjoying their youth.
Carne, L., & Higgins, K. (2011, November 07). Boardroom mothers juggle gym and junior. The Courier Mail, p. 02.
Funk, L. (2009). Supergirls speak out: Inside the secret crisis of overachieving girls. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Hinshaw, S. P., & Kranz, R. (2009). The triple bind: Saving our teenage girls from today’s pressures. New York: Ballantine Books.
Hughes, S. (2009, October 19). Supergirl meltdown: How middle-class girls today are under unprecedented pressure to succeed. Daily Mail.
Martin, C. P. (2011, July 11). Overcoming the ‘supergirl’ syndrome. Retrieved January 23, 2012, from https://www.achievesolutions.net/achievesolutions/en/boeing/Content.do?contentId=8745
Mysko, C. (n.d.). 5 ways to help girls resist the pressure to be perfect. Retrieved February 07, 2012, from http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/uploads/file/mysko%20perfectionism.pdf
Read reflective commentary from Head of Lilley House, Mrs Sybil Edwards, on her article, ‘The Supergirl Syndrome’.
Reflecting on my article, ‘The Supergirl Syndrome’, I was immediately struck by the paradox that while so much has changed in that time, so much remains the same. Grammar girls are indeed not immune to the ‘supergirl syndrome’ and the School still encourages students not to spread themselves too thin, which can be all too tempting with the range of co-curricular activities on offer at the School.
More broadly, society is still experiencing high levels of anxiety among girls aiming for perfection, and with social media still prevalent, it is important to encourage our students to be deep, critical thinkers who can discern between fact and fiction.
On a personal level, the intervening years have seen me become the mother of two Grammar girls, and the ideas in my original piece resonate as I have lived through my daughters’ own stories of success and failure.
My eldest daughter has now finished her secondary schooling and is studying at university and I can honestly attest to the fact that some of the most powerful and affirming experiences she had at school involved failure. Not being selected for a Drama production, being dropped to a lower grade in Netball and narrowly missing out on an academic award were all experiences that at the time were difficult to bear but gave my daughter invaluable lessons in perseverance, humility and perspective. Most importantly, she learned that she did not need to be the perfect ‘supergirl’ in order to be successful or happy.