Countless women and girls struggle with all sorts of demands for perfection. Recently, my heart felt very heavy knowing that a young twenty-something girl that I know was having breast enhancement surgery. She decided to go under the knife and she voluntarily subjected herself to the general anesthesia, intense pain she would experience in her recovery, and time away from her work to heal.
Sadly, she must have believed that she was not “perfect” enough or pretty enough. She apparently desired to look different so that she will be more accepted, perhaps. I prayed for her to come through her surgery safely and to recognize that God loves her so much—just as she is.
Recently on one of my “Catholic Mom’s Cafe” segments on EWTN television, I spoke about the cultural issues and demands for perfection that women face. I said:
Down through the ages women have been forced to grapple with cultural issues. Today’s issues in many respects seem far more challenging. We can get entangled in the culture without realizing it or recognizing its dangers. The false life portrayed on billboards, sung in popular music, watched on reality TV, and transmitted all over social media can begin to seem real. We can become like zombies to technology, obsessed with gathering information, so preoccupied with the news that we totally miss out on living our present moments of life.
At every turn, women are barraged with demands for perfection in all areas of their lives. Ironically, women who struggle to achieve some crazy level of perfection can find themselves feeling less and less adequate. They buy into the world’s notions about worth and struggle to keep up with what society expects of them rather than heed what their hearts tell them. They worry about everything from their appearance to their place in society, often leaving their children to the care of others to prove their worth to the world. They join endless committees or spend small fortunes on their appearance and the décor of their homes, only to end up in the therapist’s office wondering why they aren’t happy and why they aren’t perfect.
Women often struggle due to countless temptations they feel they need to pursue such as the alluring, but false promises of our ungodly culture. On the other hand, they can feel exhausted from the strenuous battle to prevent the dangerous and damaging cultural influences from affecting or harming them and their families.
Women are bombarded
The simple fact that we are women subjects us to a myriad of expectations from our culture, perhaps even from our families and peers. Unless we are hermits, the constant visuals and chatter of demands are all around us. The advertising world, for example, entices us to try this cream for a wrinkle-free complexion, this makeup for just the right glow, this diet product or exercise plan to be a size zero—can there be such a thing?
Our goal as Christian women is to love and serve God, not ourselves or our culture. So let’s take a look at some of the expectations we face on a daily basis and explore what we can do about them.
Beginning With Girls
I want to look first at the societal pressures on young women, because I believe that this is where the demands for perfection start. As we recognize this, we can strive to make a positive difference in the lives of young girls, confront any unrealistic expectations we internalized in our own youth, and turn our attention toward God’s will for our lives.
Young girls are subject to incredible demands these days from our culture. We may naively believe—or maybe it’s wishful thinking—that our innocent girls are too young to be affected by this onslaught. The truth is, however, that they keenly feel pressure from many sources, including school, their peers, and society. As parents, grandparents, aunts, and friends, we should recognize and try to address the difficulties our girls face and help guide them safely into womanhood.
The impact of the insidious pressure on young girls hit home for me recently, when some friends had to send their teenage daughter to a rehabilitation center to be treated for anorexia and drug abuse. Apparently no one saw this coming, which is sadly not rare. A sweet young girl from a churchgoing family couldn’t deal with demands coming from her peers, who portrayed a more appealing and exciting lifestyle. These girls taught her how to cleverly hide telltale signs from her parents. She barely escaped death, she later confessed. More than a year later, she was able to return to her high school, where unfortunately she may again be subjected to such pressures.
Everyday life for a teenager is tough enough, having to struggle with hormonal mood swings—one minute exhilarated and the next minute immersed in a major trauma—acne, worry about boys, feeling that their parents just don’t understand, and academic pressures. But today our culture tops it all off with crazy expectations that can be overwhelming. Sometimes life seems like a pressure cooker to these girls, who should be experiencing a positive and happy childhood instead.
Statistics show that girls are three times more likely than boys to have a negative body image. Young girls are vulnerable, for they take criticisms personally and deeply. Feeling intimidated by the “in crowd,” they may honestly think that they are fat or ugly. They might deal with bullies and kids who talk about them behind their backs.
It’s impossible for us to miss the standardized body image for girls plastered all over the mass media—from Hollywood, the runway, television, and glossy magazines.
Young girls are brainwashed into believing that being a particular clothes size will bring them happiness and solve all of their problems. Most adolescents are unaware that what is projected to them as desirable is impossible to achieve anyway. The airbrushing used in the industry distorts a young girl’s perception of what standard of physical beauty is attainable.
There are other pressures on teens and “tweens” of both sexes. Consider their exposure to pop stars, professional athletes, and other celebrities who glamorize drug abuse and underage drinking. It’s pretty scary to think that these celebrities masquerade as role models for children today.
What to Do?
What can parents do?
First of all, the focus needs to be on a girl’s real beauty—her talents, her mind, her heart, her spirit, as well as her natural grace and physique. Parents should start early to build self-esteem in their girls, to enable them to resist the battering of pressures as they grow.
We should continue to show our affection even as they pull away during the adolescent years. We can respect their occasional need for solitude while welcoming and encouraging their participation in family activities and dinners.
A girl who feels loved by her parents and good about herself will still feel the pressures from our culture but will be better equipped to deal with them. Love is powerful. But one study revealed that a mere 32 percent of girls felt loved by their parents. We should find this alarming.
The best role models for kids are their parents. Our example speaks volumes. Our children look up to us and learn our behaviors. Prayers at the dinner table are not only wonderful but essential. They set a valuable family tradition and foster family values, as do get-togethers with relatives.
There’s nothing like supportive girlfriends to help ease the trials and tribulations of teenager-hood. Parents can steer their daughters away from cliques and toward wholesome friends. We can keep a close watch on our girls’ activities and peer groups by encouraging get-togethers at our own homes, where we can have some control. We need to know who they are hanging out with. We can usually sense when something is not right. We have to trust our gut as parents and then act.
I’ve watched my three daughters grow up and have been cognizant of their choices of friends. I have enjoyed watching their interactions and hearing their lighthearted giggles during discussions of school and other activities. Taking an active role and interest in their lives has allowed me to discover what’s going on and be connected lovingly, even when they are away at college. I’ve done this with my two sons as well.
Living in this world without being subject to it
Teaching our girls not to worry about what others are saying and encouraging them to be confident in their own shoes is key. If we can reinforce this while they are very young, we’re providing a solid and strong footing for them.
Very clear and consistent boundaries give kids parameters, establishing a safety net and helping them make wise choices. They actually want these guidelines, despite their attempts to rebel against them at times. Kids can even use their parents’ rules as excuses to not get involved in potentially dangerous situations with their peers. It’s a safe way out of trouble and one that parents can suggest their children use.
Our continual open communication and encouragement will reassure our daughters, nieces, and granddaughters that they can come to us with their troubles and their joys. We may discover opportunities for open communication while out on a walk, driving in the car, or participating in an activity with them. They may be more likely to open up in such situations rather than in face-to-face encounters, which can be awkward. Prayer and inspiration from the Holy Spirit will unveil opportunities for this.
To get them through these years safely, we absolutely have to show young girls our love in affectionate, understanding, and tangible ways and be there for them—always! We need to be examples of how to live in this world without being subject to its demands (see John 17:11–19). We must learn the way to the Father and show them the way!
We don’t have all of the answers—that is for sure. But, it is helpful to consider who will influence our decisions and who our role models should be. I suggest we all strive to imitate Mother Mary in her holy femininity. We can and should set a holy example.
Let’s ponder Blessed John Paul II’s words, “Woman can only find herself by giving love to others.” Let’s ask our Lord to help us unearth the beauty and richness of our femininity and our feminine genius so that we can be open to His love and be able to courageously pass it on to our families and communities.
Life is filled to the brim with challenges and our culture certainly does not make it easy for women. Let’s be encouraging to all those young women in our lives and let them know how beautiful they really are!
Meanwhile, I leave you with words to ponder from Saint John, “For all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever” (1 John 2:16-18).
Copyright 2015 Donna Marie Cooper O'Boyle.
Photo copyright 2015 Donna Marie Cooper O'Boyle. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle is a Catholic wife, mother, grandmother, international speaker, pilgrimage leader, award-winning journalist, and author of over 30 books. She knew Mother Teresa, participated in a Vatican congress, and St. John Paul II blessed her work on Mother Teresa. She writes for L'Osservatore Romano, National Catholic Register, Magnificat magazine, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, Catholic World Report, and more. Visit DonnaCooperOBoyle.com.