Popularity and prettiness still the prize for high-achieving girls
19 July 2021
Approval on social media has a disproportionate impact on the self-esteem of high-achieving girls, a University of Auckland study has found.
Dr Eunice Price recently completed her PhD on gender, success, girlhood and social media at the University’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.
Her findings revealed the significant effect of the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and pop culture on whether girls’ identified as successful and intelligent or not.
“I was interested to discover that certain attributes, like beauty and popularity, continue to be favoured over others, like intelligence and academic achievement, for example, despite a strong societal emphasis on female empowerment,” she says.
Dr Price interviewed a group of Year 13 female students, 16 and over, from four schools across Auckland, varying from low decile, state and private to state-integrated, single sex and co-ed. To be included, students had to have achieved excellence endorsements at NCEA Level 2 the previous year.
She then wrote some collective stories based on their experiences for feedback and further discussion, with the final phase being a ‘dialogue circle’ a year later when participants were in their first year of university.
The enormous pressure put on high-achieving girls to do consistently well with little leeway to fail, the pressure to be a role model and the difficulties of balancing academic and extra-curricular life all emerged as common themes.
“The girls talked about the portrayal of intelligence in popular culture, where you can only be smart if you’re pretty, like Superwoman," she says. "They also felt that while the focus on external recognition, like prizes and awards, fuelled their internal drive, it also created more pressure, with negative impacts for their wellbeing, sleep and general health.”
The pervasive role of social media and the need for validation it feeds was a central concern.
“The girls all commented on the pressure to show only a certain side of themselves to get the positive responses, the excessive focus on body image, the fakeness, the façade and the sense of a ‘cultivated’ life that isn’t the reality.”
Others shared observations included being ‘measured by numbers/likes/friends and followers’, being constantly judged on image and stereotyped, and of social media feeding on people’s insecurities by creating impossibly high expectations, particularly of appearance, and the huge value put on popularity.
These findings stress the importance of not taking for granted these successful, high-achieving girls who seem to have it all, says Dr Price.
“What messages are they internalising about their worth, through media, social media and adult expectations?”
It seems clear that the ‘superwoman, having-it-all' narrative, which can often negatively affect adult women in the form of impossible expectations and high stress, has its seeds in girlhood.
Another key finding was that Māori and Pacific high academic achievers were aware of defying low teacher and society expectation.
“I think we are still giving these girls the idea that as high achievers, they are the exception to the rule rather than the rule. There are also areas within media literacy we are failing to address with our young people,” says Dr Price.
She would like these findings to add to a broader conversation about female well-being.
“It seems clear that the ‘superwoman, having-it-all' narrative, which can often very negatively affect adult women in the form of impossible expectations and high stress, has its seeds in girlhood.
“And in terms of social media, students have explicit teaching from schools about staying safe online, but perhaps the conversation has to be about the more insidious influence of social comparison, and how this impacts on young girls' developing sense of self.”
Julianne Evans | Media adviser
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