Liz Funk, author of, Supergirls Speak Out: Inside the Secret Crisis of Overachieving Girls, and I recently had a chance to chat. I interviewed her about her recently published book, which describes the proliferation of overly-booked, overly-pressured, overly-perfect young women. . . you know, the kind of teenager who plays three sports, aces her classes, dates successfully, and has the perfect body?
Were/are you a "Supergirl?" Can you identify negative consequences associated with this phenomenon? See below for our Q & A:
Were you a Supergirl, and as a 20-year-old writer who just had her first book published, speaker, and college student—are you still a Supergirl?
Yes, I was a total Supergirl and my earlier years in college and now I’m a recovering Supergirl. I still have a lot of Supergirl behaviors (e.g., trying to work too hard, trying to please everyone, being obsessed with my appearance), but I think in becoming cognizant of why I act this way, I can make an effort to enjoy being myself and be less of a Supergirl.
I’m curious where you grew up and if you see regional/cultural differences in this phenomenon?
I grew up in upstate NY in a little town about 20 minutes west of Albany and it was suburban/rural, but it was still very much a pressure cooker for teenagers. In researching my book, I talked to young women from all over the country (women of various ages, races, socio-economic statuses) and it seems that being a Supergirl is a nationwide issue. As I was researching, I tried to draw some conclusions, like, “Is this more of a suburban thing, or an urban thing?” which helped me come to my eventual conclusion that the media definitely spurs Supergirl behavior, just because it’s the one thing that touches the lives of all young women no mater where they grew up or how much money they grew up with.
Is being a Supergirl actually incompatible w/happiness?
On some level it is, because so many of the Supergirls who strive to do 100% in every aspect of their lives are really trying to compensate for some sort of internal unhappiness. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a young woman who is disappointed when she gets an A- or comes in 2nd place who is also comfortable in her own skin. I think so often being Supergirl is actually a defense.
How do you see the idea of Supergirl playing into eating disorders?
There are so many intersections between Supergirls and eating disorders. I think the first thing is that being a Supergirl and suffering from an eating disorder are both about control. I think of all the girls in this country, Supergirls are the ones who feel most pushed toward attempting physical perfection, but because there’s no such thing as physical perfection, I don’t think they know when to stop (stopping to lose weight or developing moderation in their exercise regimen). They become so desperate in their striving for perfection, they lose this understanding of a healthy body type and a healthy lifestyle.
If we discourage women from accomplishing or excelling (if we accept sub-par jobs and relationships, isn’t this taking a step back with regard to feminism?)
I don’t think the goal is to achieve less, I think the goal is to achieve in a healthier way. We want women to be able to be high achieving and successful, and do it in a way that makes them happy. Tina Fey’s character is a great example on 30 Rock—if Liz Lemon could approach her work day a little more leisurely, I think it would be the perfect example of remedying the Supergirl lifestyle without feminism taking a hit.
What’s are some of your ideas about how to break this cycle? Do Supermoms raise Supergirls?
I think that the first step in breaking this cycle comes from inside. Girls need to realize that they have value for reasons outside of how they look and what they do. I think Supergirls need to take some time for themselves and get some hobbies, learn to be alone with their thoughts, and start learning to enjoy spending time alone! In fact, I think that’s a great step one: Supergirls should all take themselves out to lunch and see how much fun they can have doing something for themselves and spending time with themselves, and take it from there!
I think in terms of the moms, overachieving moms today do set an example for their daughters, so I think that today’s moms need to set some boundaries in terms of how much time they spend doing stuff for other people. But moms are also a huge ally for their daughters, and I think that there are some really crucial conversations that Supergirls and their Supermoms can have about confronting the pressures that society and women put on them.