"Anorexia of the soul": the pressure of perfection on young girls in today's world

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 5 2013 5:35 p.m. MST

Rebeca Mae Bloom shows off a pansy flower that is about to be planted at the Volunteers of America Teen Girl Transition Home in Salt Lake on Friday, April 22, 2011. Teen girls are dealing with more social pressures now than ever before, and it is something many need to be aware of.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

Hampton, N.H. — The alarm blares at exactly 6:30 a.m. Krissy rolls out of bed after deciding against the snooze button and gets ready for yet another packed day.

Backpack, check. Guitar, check. Day organizer, double check. She wants to doze a bit as she drives to school at Philips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., where she is involved with student government, woman's choir, varsity softball, music lessons and numerous clubs and classes.

Krissy Truesdale is a sophomore and has been an honor student since the third grade, which got her into the academy in the first place. She's also on an environmental action committee, participates in community service and has a boyfriend at a different school whom she sees every weekend.

"I know my parents are telling me to stop studying for a minute and catch my breath, but I feel like I can do better," Truesdale said.

The extracurricular activities available to kids and teens in today's world, on top of school, exceed those available at any time in the past. Additionally, the pressure teens feel, specifically girls, to take on all that they can and excel in every respect continues to mount. The average time spent on structured activities for kids, outside of school, is five hours a week, according to a report from the Society for Research in Child Development in Montreal. Though five hours weekly may not seem like much, 3 to 6 percent of children spend more than 20 hours a week in structured activities outside of school.

The pressure to be so heavily involved in activities and to be top performers comes from parents, peers, media, society and most importantly, the girls themselves. Many girls are expected to participate in multiple activities outside of school — sports, dance, clubs, music lessons — while performing well academically. There also are expectations for them to look a certain way — what society deems attractive — while doing it all.

Pressure is inevitable.

"There are so many aspects that people are looking at us from and it's hard to balance that all," Truesdale, said. "With the added pressures, we have to kind of do it and can't be frustrated about it, and we have to maintain good appearances with all of the pressures and stress."

Anorexia of the soul

Dr. Leonard Sax, a psychologist and physician based in Chester County Pennsylvania, has done extensive work with both young boys and girls to look at longitudinal differences between the two throughout the years. In his own medical practice, he has worked with families often more worried about their intelligent sons who slack in school than their daughters who are achieving perfect grades. However, the girls often are struggling more internally, and in many cases, more severely than their brothers.

"The younger girl is doing great, has straight A's, good friends, does lots of things. But — has trouble falling asleep, worries about if her parents can afford tuition at a private college," Sax told the Deseret News. "Both (boy and girl) have problems that are getting more serious, and not that boys shouldn't get attention, but we need to recognize that just because a girl is getting good grades and has friends, that she is doing well — she is still vulnerable."

Sax, author of "Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls," sees four specific parts of girls' worlds today that are contributing to serious issues, anxiety and oftentimes breakdowns for them — sexual identity, the cyberbubble, obsessions and endocrine disruptors, which are absorbed chemicals that block hormones.

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