"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

These girls will, after becoming overwhelmed with the need to be perfect in all aspects of their life, often become obsessed with finding a way to feel as if they are handling the anxiety and stress stemming from their lifestyle, according to Sax, and end up "missing the point to build a robust sense of self," he said.

The end result of many of these things is the same, something Sax refers to as anorexia of the soul, a term first used in a 2007 New York Times article about the pressure on girls. The meaning behind the metaphor is that there is more of a drive to be perfect on the outside, but without the priorities to be well-rounded and emotionally healthy, on top of everything else.

"All of these girls feel like they have to be effortlessly perfect in academics and athletics and personal appearance," Sax said. "These girls who have anorexia of the soul may have anorexia of the body, they may cut, they may have an obsession with fitness; it's a very important role of the parents to figure that out."

Racing through

Anxiety is becoming a prominent, everyday part of girls' lives, making it just another thing for them to juggle and keep under control as they fight to be balanced and stay in control of everything else.

"We're taught and have learned that we can do anything and be anything — we can do sports and be highly academic," said Dr. Kimberly Williams, a clinical psychologist who works specifically with teen girls.

"Because it's so competitive, if you're frustrated and stressed out and if you voice it, it looks like you're weak ... if you feel overwhelmed, it means you can't hack it. Nobody wants to be the one who can't hack it; it's important to look like you are just racing through."

Internalizing much of the pressure felt by teen girls happens because expressing anxiety or stress only seems to make one incompetent, which is the result desired least for these girls in the first place.

Research done by Fredricks looked at the number of hours spent on extracurriculars for children, and the end result of their academic performance.

Positive effects, specifically with test taking, were visible for those who were involved in one to 13 hours of structured activities outside of school. However, those who participated in more than 17 hours of supplemental activities saw a decline in achievement and grades.

Anxiety is heightened with the more stress put on children, and unlike Truesdale's personal desire to excel and be involved with so much, the parents are often the main source of pressure to "be the best," according to Sax.

Parents and pressure

In Williams' work with teen girls, the majority of pressure comes from parents wanting their children to go to the best school, become involved with everything and ultimately be successful enough to attend an influential, and often big-name, college.

"I have girls I work with who are in an academically rigorous school, and ... they are struggling academically, but because it is the première school for them to be in, their parents want them in there and they inundate them," Williams said. "(The girls) are falling apart; it enhances anxiety when parents are not worried they are not performing well — it enhances any difficulty they are having."

Recognizing the signs of stress with a child is the foremost step to take as parents when aiding in decreasing pressure and anxiety for young girls, Williams said. Every person shows signs of stress differently, whether it's by being irritable, grumpy or moody. Parents may just assume their child is being like any other moody teenage girl, when they are actually internalizing their stress.

"Parents need to use these moments for keeping the dialogue open — if the child is moody or irritable, acknowledge the mood ... let the child know it's okay to show frustrations to them, the parent," Williams said.

Developing self-esteem, mutual understanding and communication among family members are also ways to keep dialogue open when children need to let frustrations and worries out, all things Donna Bozzo, a mommy blogger in the Chicago area, has tried with her three teen and pre-teen daughters.

The most important part of her day is taking 10 minutes to walk her youngest daughter to school each morning, and being able to talk about anything with mom helps to alleviate pressure her daughter may be feeling, she said.

"I just think when you're able to spend time as a family, that is a cure-all for everything," said Bozzo. " ... When you spend time with your kids it really makes them feel better about themselves."

Mandy Morgan is an enterprise intern for the Deseret News, reporting on values in the media. She is a true-blue Aggie, studying Journalism and Political Science at Utah State University, and hails from Highland, Utah.

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