Cathy Arnst

This past weekend my 8-year-old daughter and I watched Disney's High School Musical, for about the 100th time (Get You're Head In The Game is permanently embedded in my brain). The next day I asked her if there were any TV or movie stars she particularly liked, and she named Vanessa Anne Hudgens, who plays Gabriella Montez in the movie. I assumed she chose Vanessa because she was the lead, and very pretty, but Jesse said she liked her because she is "really smart and really nice." Actually, she was thinking of the character in the movie, a whiz kid who can also sing, but who am I to disabuse her. At any rate, I was just relieved that she didn't name Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears, who, according to a recent Newsweek cover , are idolized by some young girls.

I thought about Jesse's Vanessa-worship when I read an article in Sunday's New York Times, For Girls, It's Be Yourself, and Be Perfect Too, about high-achieving
high school senior girls in Newton, Mass. The article was clearly meant to be a warning about the pressure girls today are under. They are being told they can be anything they want, which some girls internalize as meaning they should be everything--top of their class, a whiz at sports, a musical virtuoso, and pretty, of course. Here's an excerpt:

To spend several months in a pressure cooker like Newton North is to see what a girl can be — what any young person can be — when encouraged by committed teachers and by engaged parents who can give them wide-ranging opportunities. It is also to see these girls struggle to navigate the conflicting messages they have been absorbing, if not from their parents then from the culture, since elementary school. The first message: Bring home A’s. Do everything. Get into a top college — which doesn’t have to be in the Ivy League, or one of the other elites like Williams, Tufts or Bowdoin, but should be a “name” school. The second message: Be yourself. Have fun. Don’t work too hard.

And, for all their accomplishments and ambitions, the amazing girls, as their teachers and classmates call them, are not immune to the third message: While it is now cool to be smart, it is not enough to be smart.

You still have to be pretty, thin and, as one of Esther’s classmates, Kat Jiang, a go-to stage manager for student theater who has a perfect 2400 score on her SATs, wrote in an e-mail message, “It’s out of style to admit it, but it is more important to be hot than smart.”

“Effortlessly hot,” Kat added.

I didn't find this article all that alarming, unlike many of the letter writers in today's Times. Sure, these girls are under a lot of pressure, much of it unrealistic, but isn't that better than the alternative? Besides, I think these girls are the exception rather than the rule--far too many girls, especially in schools that don't have the money that flows into Newton North, suffer from low expectations, not high.

But these amazing girls are an example we might all like to see our daughters aspire too. I'm glad my daughter admires an actress for being "smart and nice," (though I'm sure the fact that she is very pretty helps). I know we parents have to guard against putting too much pressure on our daughters, and sons, but ultimately I have to believe high expectations will do them more good than harm. Perhaps there are some parents of teenage girls out there who might have a different take on this issue?

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