Perfection is not a solution: In her new book, ‘Enough As She Is,’ Rachel Simmons looks for ways young women can find balance in their lives

  • Rachel Simmons, seen here in her office at Smith College, talks about her new book, “Enough As She Is.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rachel Simmons, seen here in her office at Smith College, talks about her new book, “Enough As She Is.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • In addition to “Enough As She Is,” Simmons is the author of “Odd Girl Out” and “The Curse of the Good Girl.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rachel Simmons, seen here in her office at Smith College. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rachel Simmons’ new book, “Enough As She Is.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rachel Simmons in her office at Smith College, flanked by posters for workshops she leads for students that, among other things, teach them it’s OK to fail at something. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “I didn’t really want to have to write this book,” says Rachel Simmons (pictured above), “but the stories I kept hearing made it clear there was this need that had to be addressed. When girls are saying ‘I can’t stop thinking about all the things that are wrong with me,’ you can’t hear that and not respond.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “I didn’t really want to have to write this book,” says Simmons, “but the stories I kept hearing made it clear there was this need that had to be addressed.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Posters in Rachel Simmons’ office at Smith College. Second from left at bottom is a “Certificate of Failure” from her workshop designed to teach students that failing a test, as one example, is not the end of the world. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Posters in Rachel Simmons’ office at Smith College. Second from left at bottom is a “Certificate of Failure” from her workshop designed to teach students that failing a test, as one example, is not the end of the world. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/21/2018 2:47:11 PM

Hillary Clinton made history in 2016 when she became the first woman to be nominated for president by a major U.S. political party. And though she didn’t make it to the oval office, a record number of female candidates are now running for political office across the country

Meanwhile, 22 women — another record number — are serving in the U.S. Senate, while Fortune magazine reported last year that there are now 32 female CEOs of the 500 biggest U.S. companies, another all-time high. And the U.S. Department of Education says over 56 percent of American college students are women.

The opportunities for young women, in politics and other fields, would seem to be boundless, far beyond the limits of what their mothers and grandmothers faced — or so goes the conventional logic, says Rachel Simmons. 

The reality, says the Northampton educator and best-selling author, is that the many choices young women have today, in combination with other factors, are creating a crisis of insecurity, self-criticism, isolation and dread of failure among many of them.

It’s a topic Simmons tackles in her newest book, “Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives.”

“We’re seeing the dark side of all the opportunity that we’ve given girls,” Simmons said during a recent interview at her office at Smith College, where she works part time as a leadership development specialist in the college’s Wurtele Center for Work and Life. “Because with all those expanded opportunities, we haven’t cut loose the more throwback expectations — that you need to have a bikini body, that you’re going to be gorgeous on social media and look like you’re always having fun.

“That’s exhausting,” she added. “The expectation that ‘I have to be all these things’ inevitably leaves them with the feeling that ‘I can’t do anything.’ It’s what’s called ‘role overload.’ ” 

Simmons is the author of a number of books about the lives of girls and young women, including “Odd Girl Out,” an examination of bullying among girls, and “The Curse of the Good Girl,” a study of how girls are prevented from reaching their full potential due to expectations that they always be “nice.” Though she has an office at Smith, she’s on the road a good part of the year, leading workshops for teens and young women at schools and colleges around the country.

It was while doing some of those sessions, including at Smith, that she became aware of the problems many young women were dealing with, particularly the need to present their lives as perfect when they were actually feeling overwhelmed, lonely and depressed. Data showed a dramatic increase of young women seeking mental-health counseling at colleges and universities, Simmons added.

“I didn’t really want to have to write this book,” said Simmons, who grew up in Maryland outside Washington, D.C. “I love doing leadership development, but the stories I kept hearing made it clear there was this need that had to be addressed. When girls are saying ‘I can’t stop thinking about all the things that are wrong with me,’ you can’t hear that and not respond.”

Simmons, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar College, dropped out of a Rhodes Scholar program — much to her parents’ dismay — at age 24 and later rebuilt her career as a writer and educator. And much of what she has been hearing from young women in the past several years, she says, “tapped into my own personal experience. I went through a similar set of circumstances, pushing myself to be perfect and then cracking into a million pieces.”

Her book offers advice for parents and for young women on how to combat these issues, and how young people can lead more fulfilling and less stressful lives. “It’s not all gloom and doom,” she said.

Free to fail

For “Enough As She Is,” Simmons says she interviewed close to 100 teenage girls and young women, mostly from schools in the Northeast; she also talked to parents, high school and college counselors and administrators, as well as some researchers. She argues that though “women and men on balance are more alike than different,” there are fundamental differences in how the former process different issues.

Self-criticism, for instance, is higher among teenage girls and young women, she says, and it’s a tendency aggravated by the self-consciousness many girls develop about their bodies during adolescence. It can even become a strange form of self-defense, she writes. One college student, Julia, told her she calls herself “totally fat” when she eats ice cream “before someone else gets the chance to think it and judge me.”

Writing her new book, Simmons said, was complicated by the fact that there’s no single factor undermining young women’s confidence. “The impulse is to find a villain — it’s the parents, it’s the kids, it’s society,” she said. “It a very complex issue.”

She also notes that the economic insecurity in the U.S. today — the end of the assumption that each succeeding generation will do better than their parents — “has many parents rightly worried that if their children aren’t competitive, they’ll struggle financially.”

One thing that stands out for her is the rise, just within the past four to five years, of young women using social media sites such as Instagram and Snapchat to post alluring pictures of themselves and paint their social lives as a great success. That fosters a competitive atmosphere that can even drive friends apart and lead to greater insecurity and loneliness, she said.

“Social media has become a very toxic teacher,” said Simmons, who added she’s already fighting battles at home with her five-year-old daughter, Estee, about screen time.

But telling their daughters to stay off the Internet is “absolutely not an option” for parents, she added, given the ubiquity of cell phones and laptops. What parents can do, she said, is offer guidance and help teach their kids to regulate themselves, in part by finding ways to use social media “to connect, not compete.”

It’s a message she gives to girls and young women in her workshops as well, Simmons said, and “they do listen, even if there’s sometimes a certain amount of eye-rolling.”

She also believes young women, especially high achievers, need to learn that failing at something — an exam, a relationship, a sport — is not the end of the world. Last year, she led a workshop at Smith where students were invited to offer an example of their worst flop; they received a “Certificate of Failure,” resembling a diploma, that reads: “You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.” She keeps a copy of the certificate on her bulletin board at Smith. 

Parents could be part of the problem here, she says: “Telling kids endlessly that they’re smart and wonderful undermines that phrase … And as parents, 85 percent of our mistakes come from not regulating our own anxiety, whether it’s out of fear our kids aren’t doing well, or not doing what we think is important, or not finding some perfect career.”

In the end, Simmons says she believes young women, with their parents’ help, can become more resilient and find balance in their lives by refocusing on emotional health and strong relationships, alongside any professional goals they may pursue.

As she writes in her book, “Despite what girls may be hearing … income and academic achievement will not determine their happiness or life satisfaction. Neither will materialism … Emotional health is what matters most. I want girls to prioritize self-care, nourish their most important relationships, and seek support as much as they strive to succeed.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Rachel Simmons will lead a presentation April 4 at Northampton High School in a benefit for the Northampton Education Foundation. For more information, visit eventbrite.com/e/enough-as-she-is-with-rachel-simmons-northampton-ma-tickets-43145016907.

Simmons’ website is rachelsimmons.com.

  

 

 

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