Worried talk about the next generation of high-achieving, health-neglecting "perfect girls" is everywhere.
Girls Inc. just published the results of its depressing, nationwide survey called "The Supergirl Dilemma," which reveals that girls' obsession with thinness has gotten significantly worse in the past six years. Despite the efforts of the Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty – well-intentioned, though undeniably market-driven – and Love Your Body Day events sweeping every school from San Francisco to Syracuse, 90 percent of teenage girls think they are overweight today, compared with 24 percent in 1995, according to a recent ELLEgirl survey.
So what gives? Is it our celebrity-obsessed, extreme makeover culture? Is it the newest version of the age-old story of dysfunctional family relationships? Is it peer pressure – mean girls critiquing one another's every lunchtime indiscretion? Is it the $30 billion a year diet industry?
It is, in truth, all of the above. But there is also another profoundly important – yet little noticed – dynamic at work in the anxious, achievement-oriented lives of America's perfect girls: They have a sometimes deadly, often destructive, lack of faith.
So many perfect girls were raised entirely without organized religion, and the majority of the rest of us – I reluctantly admit to my own membership in the perfect girl club – experienced "spirituality" only in the form of mandatory holiday services with a big-haired grandmother or unconscionably elaborate and expensive bat mitvah parties, where everything but the Torah is emphasized.
Overlay our dearth of spiritual exploration with our excess of training in ambition – never mind SAT prep courses; today, even community service is linked to college application brownie points – and you have a generation of godless girls. We were raised largely without a fundamental sense of divinity. In fact, our worth in the world has always been tied to our looks, grades, and gifts – not the amazing miracle of mere existence.
In this climate, we feel perpetually called to perfect our own "body projects" – the term used by historian Joan Jacob Brumberg. Thinness and achievement stand in for the qualities of kindness and humility. We think that our perfect bodies – not God's grace or good works – will get us into heaven. We have no deeply held sense of our own divinity, so we chase after some unattainable ideal. Perfect girls, as a result, feel they are never enough. Never disciplined enough. Never accomplished enough. Never thin enough.
The worst of this can be seen in the frightening websites that purport to be support groups for girls with anorexia and bulimia. Such sites claim that these two disorders are a religion, not a disease, and pray to false gods named after them: Ana and Mia. Though highly deluded and dangerously ill, girls who frequent these sites have taken the black hole at their centers and filled it with an obsessive faith in the power and purity of thinness. In essence, they are crying out to our godless culture, showing us just how damaged a child can be who is thrown to the wolves of advertising and amoral media without any spiritual armor.
I'm not calling for a return to conservative religion or restricting dogma. I'm envisioning an inspired movement toward community where girls are nourished with dinner-table conversations about the values of kindness and charity; where girls undergoing puberty are encouraged to embrace the miraculous, complex, and perfectly imperfect bodies they possess; and where girls can find inspiration – not condemnation – in religious texts.
For starters, the Bible has something to teach the perfect girl who calculates beauty in terms of pounds and dress sizes: "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment…. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight" (I Peter 3:3,4). (New International Version)
And Buddha, the man often portrayed as blissful with his belly, has a paradigm-shifting message for the average American woman accustomed to self-hate: "You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection."
In the age of the skeletal celebrity-filled US Weekly and shrill sound bite commentators such as Ann Coulter, these are the kinds of deep reflections and recommendations we perfect girls need most.
A supermom of an elite college hopeful told New York Times reporter Sara Rimer, "You just hope your child doesn't have anorexia of the soul." While she is spot on in her fears, she seems woefully shortsighted about her responsibilities. It is we, all of us, who have the power to resurrect a society that values spirit above skinniness. We have to start doing it – one prayer, one family hike, one heart-to-heart discussion about what really matters – at a time.
• Courtney E. Martin is the author of "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body."