The headline in the New York Times this morning: Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen.
UCLA does this survey of hundreds of thousands of 17 and 18 year-olds every summer, and the results come out the following winter. It’s a great indicator of where hearts and minds are moving. (Both liberals and conservatives have been bewildered in recent years by the data that suggest that young people are becoming ever more accepting of homosexuality, and increasingly less accepting of abortion. Adult lefties and righties tend to couple either acceptance or rejection of both, and are both heartened and worried by this apparent inconsistency of the young.) Because I teach college freshmen (or frosh, the preferred gender neutral term), I’m keenly interested in the results of the survey each year.
But based on this year’s data, the headline ought to read: “record level of stress found in college freshwomen.”
Every year, women had a less positive view of their emotional health than men, and that gap has widened…
For many young people, serious stress starts before college. The share of students who said on the survey that they had been frequently overwhelmed by all they had to do during their senior year of high school rose to 29 percent from 27 percent last year.
The gender gap on that question was even larger than on emotional health, with 18 percent of the men saying they had been frequently overwhelmed, compared with 39 percent of the women.
There is also a gender gap, studies have shown, in the students who seek out college mental health services, with women making up 60 percent or more of the clients.
â€œBoys are socialized not to talk about their feelings or express stress, while girls are more likely to say theyâ€™re having a tough time,â€ said Perry C. Francis, coordinator for counseling services at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. â€œGuys might go out and do something destructive, or stupid, that might include property damage. Girls act out differently.â€
Linda Sax, a professor of education at U.C.L.A. and former director of the freshman study who uses the data in research about college gender gaps, said the gap between men and women on emotional well-being was one of the largest in the survey.
â€œOne aspect of it is how women and men spent their leisure time,â€ she said. â€œMen tend to find more time for leisure and activities that relieve stress, like exercise and sports, while women tend to take on more responsibilities, like volunteer work and helping out with their family, that donâ€™t relieve stress.â€
With what I call the “Martha Complex” very much in the news once more thanks to Amy Chua, it’s important to remember that perfectionism is gendered in our culture. Chua, the infamous Tiger Mother whose rigid parenting style has ignited international debate this month, raised daughters, not sons. And the evidence from the UCLA survey is that even parents who are far less controlling than Chua are ending up with anxious and exhausted daughters. With nearly 4 out of 10 girls (compared to fewer than 2 in 10 boys) reporting being “frequently overwhelmed”, it’s not alarmist to say that we have a major crisis on our hands.
I’ve said it, Courtney Martin’s said it, and a lot of others who write about girls have said it one way or another: we’ve succeeded in expanding opportunities for our daughters, and we’ve also saddled them with an ever-rising number of obligations. In the aftermath of “Reviving Ophelia” and other Nineties era books that focused on a crisis of self-confidence among teen girls, we’ve responded with more attention, eager to help young women become more successful. But that well-intentioned help, filled as it is with constant reminders to our girls of what they can be, is often interpreted as yet another reminder of all the things they should be.
The percentage of young women suffering from anxiety, depression, and the other side effects of perfectionism will only increase until we address the root problem. The root problem is people-pleasing: the sense that happiness and fulfillment come from meeting the expectations of others. We teach our daughters that they can be professional athletes and run for president, but we still teach them that their dollies have feelings and that their Barbies’ plastic heads hurt when bumped. We teach them to get good grades, but too often we teach them that the real reward of good grades is seeing pride and satisfaction in the faces of parents and teachers. We raise our girls to be successful, but to do so while being keenly attentive to the needs of everyone around them. So when they feel stressed, as Linda Sax notes, these young women tend to throw themselves into ever more volunteer work, piling people-pleasing on top of people-pleasing, like alcoholics taking shots of whiskey to cure hangovers. The vicious cycle produces the predictable result we’re seeing on measures like the UCLA Frosh Survey.
This is the same problem that Black Swan explores (and look at that film’s popularity among high school and college-aged women!) This is the same problem of what I call the Paris Paradox, the pressure to be “sexy” but not authentically “sexual.” Our girls are achieving more than ever before. But too many are still performing, still trying to please parents and peers, pastors and professors, coaches and boyfriends. With more places to perform than ever before, the fruit of the campaign for equal opportunity, that means an ever-rising sense of pressure and competition.
Equal opportunity for boys and girls has turned into unequal obligation. And as the new frosh survey shows, the cost of this unequal burden is not just hurting prima ballerinas and the daughters of Tiger Mothers: it’s hurting a huge and rising percentage of young women. This is not the fault of the feminist movement, it’s a sign that the feminist movement is not yet complete. It will not be complete until we lift the burden of relentless people-pleasing off our daughters, until we change how we socialize our girls to act in the world, until we teach them that their own pleasure matters more than winning praise.