Alpha girls. Phat girls. Riot grrrls. Girly gurls. Divas. Jockettes. Suddenly they're swaggering everywhere, showing off curves that pop out of their hip-huggers. Dribbling basketballs with their meticulously manicured hands. Rolling their eyes at boys' catcalls and charging into an astonishing future. As my friends and I make way for them on sidewalks and ready ourselves for the rapidly approaching day they bound into our offices, we have one question: Where did they come from?
This winter I went on a fact-finding mission around the country to learn what's fueling this explosion of girlhood achievement and what it feels like to be growing up in the midst of a cultural blast ring. I interviewed more than a hundred girls, from ages 8 to 22—girls who are passionate about knitting, fractal geometry, green garbage, and their friends. Even before we started talking, they had me amazed.
- There are 124 girls for every 100 boys in high school advanced-placement courses.
- There are 158 girls for every 100 boys in high school academic honors societies.
- There are 169 girls for every 100 boys in co-curricular activities.
- Because young women now earn 57 percent of all bachelor's degrees, many colleges have lowered admission standards for boys.
- In 1972 one in 27 high school girls played sports. Today one in 2.5 does.
- Currently 41 percent of high school athletes are girls, and there are approximately 755 more women's college sports teams than men's.
- Today among African-Americans, women earn 66 percent of the bachelor's degrees, 58 percent of the MBAs, 61 percent of the law degrees, 61 percent of the medical degrees, 57 percent of the dental degrees, and 61 percent of the PhDs.
- Women account for 53 percent of all African-American workers and 60 percent of African-American managers and executives.
- More women graduate from college: 100 white women for every 76 white men who do.
Angel, a 17-year-old who is so ladylike I have a hard time believing she's a power forward on her West Los Angeles high school basketball team, gives me a shy smile and shrugs. "I'm 5'8" and 165 pounds. I'm not a size 4. I'm tall. I'm muscular. I'm a thick girl. I accept that."
Grace, a statuesque 17-year-old Virginian, the youngest of six children, attends an all-girls Catholic high school. Easily mistaken for a southern belle—well, if she didn't "live in sweats"—she seems a little put off by the question. "I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my body. I'm fine with it."
Brenna, 11, a sassy wisp of a sixth-grader from northern Nevada, tells me, "You shouldn't make yourself too skinny. But you should watch your weight. Sometimes I see someone who's incredibly too fat. You can stop that. You can do sports or something."
Where, you're probably wondering, did this burst of body-image sanity come from? There's some evidence that the media has been inching away from superskinny as the ideal female body size. Seventeen magazine's editor in chief, Atoosa Rubenstein, says that in every issue they use models and real-life teens with "diverse body types." And Hollywood has discovered that curvy actresses—such as Jennifer Lopez, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Drew Barrymore—can be huge box office draws.
But beyond all the statistics is the remarkable reality of the girls I met while reporting this article: They are truly different creatures from the girl I was and the girls I grew up with. Across socioeconomic lines, girls today feel entitled to do what they want professionally, to have what they want materially, and to be who they want to be emotionally. After talking to dozens, I came to believe that a good deal of their empowerment came into being on the athletic fields.
"I can't begin to tell you what javelin means to me," says Kayla, a petite 17-year-old New York City private-school senior who proudly shows me the biceps that pop out of her reed-thin arms. "When I throw, the world narrows down to me, the runway, and the javelin. I feel so strong. When I practice and practice and practice, and I approach throwing a hundred [feet], the impossible seems possible."
Ha'Ani, whose horn-rimmed glasses seem at odds with her silk-ribboned ponytails, was on crutches when we met. She'd torn a ligament playing soccer, and she was complaining bitterly about having to stay off the field and join "only" the target shooting team: "I mean, shooting is good for concentration. But it doesn't teach teamwork, leadership and stuff as much as soccer does."
A lot of credit for improving girls' body image may ultimately relate to athletics and go to Richard Nixon, our 37th president, who signed into law the groundbreaking Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Senators debating the legislation got so hung up worrying it would allow girls to play football they didn't even wonder about the beyond-the-gridiron ramifications of "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." Those ramifications, it turns out, have sparked one of the most sweeping cultural changes in American history.
There are a lot of theories about why boys are suddenly being outpaced. Testing-based curricula, reductions in recess time, and a lengthened school day top many experts' lists because boys, they believe, have greater difficulty being punctual, sitting still for long periods, organizing their thoughts for exams, and following precise directions on standardized tests. But the girls I spoke to didn't buy any of these explanations; they had their own very clear, very consistent ideas about why girls are trouncing boys.
"Girls today want to be respectable. They want to be like Diane Sawyer or Reese Witherspoon," says Jamey, an honors student who spent her toddlerhood in foster care because her mother was an alcoholic and her father absent. "But guys want to be all pimped out. Like sports stars or nasty musicians. It's okay for a girl to pay attention in class. But for most guys, it's geeky." Jamey and her friends, the Foxy Crew, require "members" to maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average, something she says her male classmates would never do. "I swear, they laugh when they get a .7 on their report cards."
So what really changed with this generation? When I did the math, I realized that if you're a teenager today, chances are your parents grew up during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the failed battle in the '70s to secure an equal rights amendment to the Constitution. My guess is that coming of age in this milieu created mothers and fathers who are hyperaware of the challenges women can face in the workplace and downright eager to talk about them with their daughters.