Clarksburg, Maryland, U.S.A. – I realized that I was struggling when I began to lose my fear of the dark. When I was younger, I was always scared of going into my basement at night, fearing that I would be snatched up by some grotesque monster or boogeyman.
Now, I tell myself that this would be a blessing.
It was unsettling to realize that my biggest nightmares were no longer ghosts or ghouls, but failure. I genuinely believed – and I think a small part of me still does – that if something were to steal me away into the darkness, at least I would escape from the rat race of high school.
I learned in third grade about Darwin’s theory of evolution: only the strongest survive, creating their own niches to distinguish themselves from weaker competitors. Ever since then, perhaps even before, I carved out my own niche in my little world. I was determined to be the one to beat, the best, the brightest.
Very quickly, I realized that my niche was not, in fact, unique – so many others around me wanted the same things. I had to set myself apart, be even more extraordinary. I built my sense of self on a fragile foundation of aspiring excellence which would inevitably crumble.
I didn’t have an identity outside my accomplishments.
It isn’t just me. My friend told me she felt like the only sense of control she felt was while running, which she did every day. She cross-trained in the gym and refused to take rest days. She said without it, she would be aimless.
She suffered a severe stress fracture a month ago and fell into a deep depression.
My friend and I – and likely countless other teenage girls – have attached ourselves so vehemently to a sense of identity based on self-destructive perfectionism. Just as my friend sought only to be faster, I sought only to be a better student. And just like my friend, when something goes wrong, I shatter.
And I find that this behavior isn’t always discouraged: it’s praised. We are encouraged to be the epitome of perfection, even if it comes at the cost of our well-being.
I go to school every day and hear my classmates try to one-up each other, deciding who got the least sleep. Being tired has become something to brag about.
There’s this unsung expectation of teenage girls to be amazing. Maybe it comes from my uber-competitive DC suburb. Maybe it comes from my college-focused high school. But I think it stems from something larger – our overall societal idea of what a girl should be.
Today, girls like me live in a pressure cooker, constantly being simmered in messages to get into a top tier university, become a varsity athlete and bring home assignments with big red ‘A’s’ on them.
Being us isn’t enough anymore.
We have to be the best, even if we lose ourselves along the way. The grades, medals, and accolades are all more important than the teenage girl cowering behind them.
Sreehitha Gandluri is a Correspondent with Youth Journalism International.