I read “For Girls, It’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too”—from the front page of yesterday’s New York Times—with interest and a mounting sense of despair. It’s a profile of high-achieving teenaged girls, and this quotation, I believe, captures the essence of the article:
If you are free to be everything, you are also expected to be everything. What it comes down to, in this place and time, is that the eternal adolescent search for self is going on at the same time as the quest for the perfect résumé.
This is such a bummer. It’s a bummer because the idea that a girl can do anything was supposed to be—and, for many, has been—liberating. It was supposed to mean that a girl could take advanced science classes or run on the track team or be class president; now it seems to mean that a girl must take advanced science classes and run on the track team and be class president if she wants to get into Princeton or Stanford or Reed or Wellesley. Pursuits that should be passions, that should be a source of joy, become an exhausting exercise in brand-building.
It’s also a drag because the everything these girls are expected to be includes being hot. Smarts, athletic aptitude, artistic ability: These used to be the consolation prizes for the girls who were never going to be prom queen. They were sufficient, in themselves, to be the basis for subcultures in which even the fat and ugly might find adolescent happiness. I don’t want any girls to feel pressure to be pretty, and I have compassion to spare for the prom queen—heavy is the head that wears the crown, unlike the rest of her, which has a BMI of 16.5—but my profoundest empathy is for the fat thespian and the homely Junior Classical League champ who now must compete with the conventionally attractive even in their sub rosa refuges.
But what bothered me the most in this article, I think, was how these girls have lives devoid of downtime. One of the parents quoted raises his own concerns about it, and this is, of course, a problem not limited to adolescents: Part of being a grown-up is absence of free time, and even contemporary toddlers (well, contemporary toddlers who are the offspring of white, upper-middle-class, highly educated parents) can be overscheduled. But the years between, say, 10 and 17 seem to me to be a particularly terrible period in which to forgo loafing, because I believe that a certain amount of idleness is necessary for the creation of a healthy, authentic self.
I know that I am going to sound like a complete codger when I say this, but, when I was a kid (this is, to my knowledge, the first time I have employed the preceding phrase in writing), I had a lot of unstructured time—time to read for fun, time to draw, time to listen to the radio, time to ride my bike in aimless circles around the neighborhood, time to daydream. School was important to me—I liked it, and I was good at it—but time to myself was essential. At the very least, I believe that this time taught me to enjoy my own company. It taught me about self-sufficiency. But I think it also helped me develop the mental, emotional, and, I daresay, spiritual resources to resist what one mother quoted in the article so poignantly calls “anorexia of the soul.”
Ted and I want a lot for Frances, and I know that we are always going to struggle trying to find a balance between supporting her and pressuring her. I hope, though, that we have the courage and faith to let her be herself—truly and authentically—and I hope that we raise her to see the inestimable value of being just that.