Book Review of "The Myth of the Perfect Girl" by Ana Homayoun
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
Posted by: Christina Mimms
Reviewed by Payton Hobbs, Head of Lower School, Ravenscroft School, Raleigh, NC
While scanning the covers of popular magazines, scrolling through social media feeds, and listening to conversations in gyms and coffee shops, I quickly realize why young girls believe in this “myth of the perfect girl.” These girls see their mentors and role models struggling to find their own authentic success and happiness in our complex and interdependent world.
This is not an attempt to blame or pass judgment, but rather, a challenge for parents and educators to first consider how they value themselves, treat other people, and spend their time before they begin the process of trying to support young girls who are juggling the many demands that adolescent life presents them.
The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life by Ana Homayoun is a wonderful resource and starting point for those dedicated to helping young girls in their lives, and also those willing to reflect on their own values and behaviors in that process.
Ana Homayoun is a noted teen and millennial expert, author, speaker, and educator. Her opinions and advice are important and relevant in a society that values external standards of perfection and places unfair expectations on young girls based on comparison and judgment.
Homayoun begins by contextualizing the challenges young girls are facing and describes some of the key factors fueling this “myth of the perfect girl”:
- academic landscape present in schools where the resume drives the educational journey instead of the other way around;
- technology and the increased pressure to multi-task and conform to social media standards; and
- parental attitudes and approaches that micromanage and limit opportunities for growth and self-discovery.
Homayoun uses the metaphor of filling the box throughout the book to illustrate how girls are processing and dealing with these challenges. She explains the metaphor as, “girls’ tendency to be compliant to others’ expectations rather than creating and pursuing their own version of personal success and fulfillment.” (p. 6) Essentially, girls are allowing the opinions and validation of others determine how they value themselves, treat others, and spend their time - not a recipe for a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life.
She also shares the idea of emotional bankruptcy to describe the impact this behavior has on young girls’ physical, social, emotional, and spiritual wellness--”emptiness that results from being exhausted and unfulfilled from all the competing, chasing, and box-filling behavior.” (p. 210) Just like our traditional bank account, our emotional bank account needs to have more deposits than withdrawals in order for us to avoid this feeling of emptiness. Homayoun advocates for self-compassion as a must for overall health and wellness, with play, care, and sleep being the three main strategies for this practice.
As a mother of a 6-year-old girl and an educator charged with supporting the educational journeys of PK-5th grade girls at Ravenscroft School, I can’t help but feel anxious and hopeful after reading this book.
Anxious because I am the Type A+ mother who has her own internal battle to “have it all” and to “live up to the expectations of others” and already sees similar behaviors being passed on to my young daughter. Hopeful because of the partnership our school community has engaged in with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) to develop the innovative Lead From Here initiative that intentionally addresses all the challenges mentioned in this book.
It is more important than ever for parents and educators to recognize, value, and prioritize the well-being of the whole child and strategically develop young girls’ competencies related to self-awareness, motivation, reflection, resilience, and empathy. By mastering these competencies, young girls will be able to develop their identities, from the inside out, with strength and conviction as well as create a community of understanding for others that will have a positive impact on all young women.
“We need to work with our girls earlier to become more conscious of their choices, of the powers of their own choice, both for and against what they and others desire. At the same time, teaching girls to develop empathy and compassion for themselves, as well as others, allows them to look inward to reflect on their own dreams, desires, and interests and begin to fill the emptiness that has become so pervasive in our girls and young women.” (p. 46)
For those more interested in the what and how of this work rather than the why, after contextualizing, Homayoun transitions into the more practical part of the book where she provides reflection exercises and specific strategies to be used by parents, educators, and young girls. The exercises range from how to set up a weekly scheduling chart to reviewing a list of values and selecting the top five to discuss how they are practiced in their life.
In conclusion, a six-step plan is laid out that references chapters and exercises in the book and provides a scope and sequence for engaging in this work. Homayoun does make a point to state that the plan can and should be personalized to best meet the needs of each individual. She states the most important aspect is to encourage and support young girls in taking more active rather than passive roles in their own lives.
It is imperative that our young girls develop a sense of purpose and wellness; that they take time to identify their own core values and passions in order to design a life that allows them to live out these values and experience joy and fulfillment.
“One of the most freeing things you can do as a parent is to understand and accept that your child, like you, is an imperfect person with faults, struggles, and challenges. We all are.” (p. 88)
“Loving girls just as they are, with all their strange and wonderful homemade notions, is part of actively freeing them from being dependent on outside expectations.” (p. 84)
This book encourages us to trade in our anxiety for inspiration and follow the lead of Homayoun and schools like Ravenscroft and Parish Episcopal that are empowering young girls (and boys) with skills that go beyond facts and figures.
We will all find success and happiness when we learn to embrace our differences and connect on a human level; when we learn to combine intelligence with empathy, to tackle problems, to make thoughtful choices, to believe in ourselves, and to motivate others.
Payton Hobbs is head of Ravenscroft’s lower school in Raleigh, NC. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Twitter @paytonhobbs or read her blog at Hobbs' Highlights.