The bombardment of image- and status-driven messages today’s girls and young women receive through media and our culture at large is destructive. Success is the currency for entree—or rather, the illusion of success. Finding just the right Instagram filter to ensure your latest selfie as enviable and drool-worthy as possible is a must for boosting your social capital. And girls are often the most impacted in this “nothing-less-than-success” theater.
Social media recently erupted over the controversy surrounding the cover of the September issue of Girls’ Life magazine (touting multiple beauty tips and how-tos on luring a potential boyfriend for its core audience) compared to the cover of Boys’ Life (splashed with the more substantive headline “Explore Your Future”). These dueling magazine covers highlight the stark difference between how society communicates life priorities and the trappings of success to girls versus boys, and serves to reaffirm an obsession with cultivating a perfect, unattainable façade.
If girls internalize the idea that everything undertaken in life must be image-centric, flawlessly executed and successful, that may cause fear of venturing beyond one’s comfort zone—or of even trying. Because if there’s a chance that you’re going to mess up, and not do something perfectly, why risk it? Just imagine all the rites of passage a girl might not pursue for fear of embarrassment or failure: not trying out for a sports team, not raising her hand in class to answer a question, not approaching a classmate to make a new friend, not volunteering for an exciting class project. Being too afraid to embrace these important growth milestones has serious implications, putting girls at a disadvantage as they grow into women and venture out into a deeply competitive and demanding world.
And this harmful view could permeate the learning process, such as in the classroom, where girls could be afraid to challenge themselves for fear of embarrassment should they not have the right answer. One paper published by the National Association for Research in Science Teaching suggested girls could avoid tasks labeled difficult in the classroom, and could not return to those types of tasks if they fail.
Unfortunately, it’s not just young girls who could struggle with fear of failure. Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University, found in an analysis of economics majors at Adams College that female students who earned lower than an A grade in their introductory courses were more likely to switch majors than their male peers. Although her findings are based on the results of a small population at one school, the results of her paper may suggest that fear of failure may persist into adulthood, which could have repercussions for women’s educational attainment and eventual career paths.
To successfully fill the pipeline of future leaders of tomorrow, we need girls to feel empowered to confront, not retreat, from challenges, as they build the skills, the confidence and the emotional muscle to lead us boldly into a better world. In the words of Madame Marie Curie, the pioneering scientist who persevered through research trial and error, “Have no fear of perfection; you’ll never reach it. Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood.”
As difficult as it may seem, girls must eschew the superficial, and rise above society’s arbitrary constraints, designed to assign limits to what is possible. Girls of the world, be bold, be fearless, embrace challenge and encourage others to take chances as well! And as women, let’s lead by example and demonstrate the value of owning our failures as we triumphantly rise above them. For when we support each other in taking healthy risks, we can conquer the distractions that prevent us from soaring to new heights and realizing our boundless potential.
Andrea Bastiani Archibald, Ph.D. is the Chief Girl & Parent Expert at Girl Scouts of the USA. To join Girl Scouts as a girl member or adult volunteer, visit www.girlscouts.org/join.