Tuesday, March 17, 2009


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.


justelise said...

I went to a specialized high school for academic achievement in NYC, and there were a few Supergirls, but the vast majority of girls didn't care about the more shallow/frivolous things described in this article. Academics, honors, charity work, and getting into the right college trumped the body image obsession, compulsion to please everyone, super athlete/cheerleader/social climber mentality, and the obsession with dating the perfect guy, and it held true across race and socioeconomic statuses. Mind you, the population of this school was close to 70% female, so there was less pressure from the male population to live up to a certain physical standard.

It really depends on the parents, school, and social group the girl is in. It has nothing to do with feminism, and everything to do with the environment the girl is raised in. If individuality is not encouraged and praised, the chances you'll end up with a Supergirl/Superbot are exponentially higher. Young women need to stop measuring themselves up to other people's standards and look inside to find what is right for them.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

See also Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters for a slightly less recent look at eating disorders (mostly anorexia) among high-achieving young women.

Sheena said...

I found this very interesting. I definately had "supergirl" tendencies through my life -- I only made 1 B on a report card between 2nd grade and senior year of high school, in high school I was editor every year for some part of the newspaper, held officer positions in groups, played varsity softball, took AP and honors classes, and played tournament softball outside of school.

It wasn't until college when I gained weight that I developed an eating disorder that I have now struggled with for over 5 years.

I was less than perfect, and I could take that. Now I have been through every eating disorder there is and am finally really trying to actively seek recovery on both a mental and physical basis.

I think the idea of the "supergirl" is definately pushed on our society and that it can have very detrimental consequences when one of those "supergirls" falters.

azusmom said...

I was a Supergirl without the perfect grades (I think that was maybe my first act of rebellion). I also think that perfectionism is, in a way, anti-feminism. We don't put pressure on boys or men to be perfect in every way. We don't expect men to be hyper-successful at work AND THEN go home and keep a perfectly clean house, raise perfect children, put the perfect amount of fabric softener in the laundry, cook a gourmet meal for 10, then take their wives to bed and give them 10 perfect orgasm in a row, all while looking as if they were still 19 years old. But this is EXACTLY the message girls and women receive.
A few weeks ago I did an experiment: I watched daytime TV and paid close attention to the ads, which are geared toward women during that time. (Because, after all, WE'RE the ones who don't work outside the home, right?) Between the hair care, makeup, moisturizers, teeth whitening products, weight loss gadgets/pills/services, feminine hygene products, hair removal devices, shoes, and callus exfoliators, there wasn't an inch of the female anatomy that couldn't be "improved." I mean, c'mon, EYELASH EXTENSIONS?!?!?! And don't even THINK of leaving the house if you have a yeast infection, or of spending time with your kids until the house is completely spotless (and white; that was kind of interesting).
As a recovering perfectionist, I know that perfectionism isn't about making yourself happy. It's about pleasing others. Sometimes it's about trying to please people who simply cannot be pleased. Sometimes, we don't even KNOW WHO IT IS we are trying to please!
And, BTW, I ended up with an ED.

Leigh said...

Not sure I would be classified as a Supergirl, certainly not these days when kids and teens seem to have every inch of their lives accounted for. I did get good grades, played team sports, had lots of friends and boyfriends, blah blah, in high school but was quite healthy. It wasn't until my freshman year of college - when everything started to fall apart - that I developed an ED. After all, ED is all about control and when you feel like you can't control anything...well, you all know the drill. I think it's not the Supergirl tendencies but the sudden realization that there is so very little you can control in the world that leads to ED. If nothing else, at least I can affect what I eat.

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Lose That Girl said...

I think it's really interesting to examine the connection between supergirl behaviours and the rise in eating disorders. Today was my first visit to your website and it's really interesting.

Slackey said...

Like Nancy, I immediately thought of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters.

I think that both perfect girls and supergirls look for control, which ties in with eating disorders.

I was in everything throughout junior high and high school, I cheered, I was the president of multiple clubs... but I was heavy, and constantly tried to lose weight. It didn't matter to me that I had straight A's and was very involved- I still felt that because I wasn't "skinny", I wasn't good enough.

There's a quote from Martin's book, something along the lines of "they told us we could be anything, we heard that we had to be everything" that I think really can be applied here. Even when you know that these expectations are an external and non-realistic thing, it's still hard not to succumb to them in some ways.

Grace said...

I found this post really interesting because at my middle/high school, it was not the popular girls (generally) who were overscheduled to the point of insanity, did three thousand different things, and got good grades. It seems that this book is missing the phenomenon of "good grades aren't cool" that was prevalent when I was in middle/high school (I graduated in 2006). I was definitely a "supergirl" but I didn't buy into the whole popularity show. Sure, I had a lot of friends, but they weren't the "right" ones. I was scheduled all the time, I danced, was in plays and musicals, played cello (still do) and a bunch of winds and was super busy on top of getting good grades. But, I hated the high school fakeness and refused to be around people considered "popular" and even though I was obsessed with my appearance and have had an ED since I was 12, I went to a number of lengths to remove myself from mainstream culture, because I saw it as fake. Out of high school, in college where there really isn't a "popular" crowd, I'm still a perfectionist/supergirl. But I'm paying for it.