The cost of striving for perfection for girls

16th November 2012 at 00:00
Idealistic imagery can trigger eating disorders, academic claims

The image of pretty girls jumping for joy at their A-level results is a cliche that has accompanied newspaper exam stories for years. But such pictures are contributing to intense pressure on girls to be "perfect at everything", which can prompt binge drinking and eating disorders, according to a leading academic.

The pressures are particularly intense at private schools, where pupils feel that they have to conform to the stereotype of the straight-A student, Professor Carrie Paechter will tell the heads of leading independent girls' schools next week.

Professor Paechter of Goldsmiths, University of London, will tell the Girls' Schools Association (GSA) annual conference that too many independent school girls lead "overscheduled" and stressful lives in pursuit of perfection and a desire to "live up to expectations".

Although schools are implicated in the problem, they are in a unique position to counteract its impact, heads will be told. Schools need to encourage their pupils to be highly aspirational, without them feeling compelled to do everything.

Talking to TES prior to the conference, Professor Paechter said: "There are girls in private schools who are 'projects' of their parents, learning two or three instruments to grade 8 standard and excelling in sport and academia because they feel that is what is expected of them, and that is what they expect of themselves ... But a few of them end up in anorexia clinics complaining that their schools only cared about their results. Good schools need to start saying: 'You can't do that many A levels, even if you want to.'

"The schools need to start looking at girls, saying: 'This is too much, you do too many things.'"

Professor Paechter said media images contributed to the pressure heaped on girls. "Every year we see girls jumping for joy on the front pages of the papers," she said. "This is another form of pressure: to conform to the image of the high-achieving girl." This kind of celebration of "perfection" meant that girls with lesser results, who had nevertheless done very well for their ability, were "invisible".

Girls needed "a hard dose of reality" about the sexist world they would be plunged into when they left school and the "very serious glass ceiling they could confront", Professor Paechter added. It was also important to avoid a situation where schools were turning out young women who expected to have four children, a fulfilling career and a full social life, she told TES. "You want to keep them aspirational, but you want them to be confident enough to say, 'I don't want this', if it is too much."

The GSA recognises the problems that can result from encouraging girls to aim too high. An article on its My Daughter website, which offers advice and support to parents of girls, points out "the danger of expecting 'the best' from each girl".

"The fall from dizzy heights of success can be a painful experience and undoubtedly it can be lonely at the top," the article reads. "Our job is to ensure that the girls are ready and armed to cope with such challenges and the inevitable ups and downs."

Professor Paechter's speech will come a week after research revealed that although 57 per cent of working executives in the UK are female, they are paid on average #163;10,000 a year less than men in similar roles. They are more likely to be made redundant and to receive smaller bonuses, the report from the Chartered Management Institute said.

Last month, the incoming executive director of the GSA, Charlotte Vere, said that women who came back to work after a career break with children were "treated like a subspecies".

Other key speakers at this year's GSA conference will include Michael Davidson, a senior analyst in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's education directorate, and Mark Featherstone-Witty, founding principal of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts.

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