Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Some Like it Super: A Conversation With Supergirl Liz Funk

Written by Josie Schoel

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Liz Funk defines herself as Supergirl-In-Recovery. Her recently published book, Supergirls Speak Out: Inside the Secret Crisis of Overachieving Girls, is an investigative look at young women who think being at their best is still never good enough. She has been published in USA Today, CosmoGIRL!, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, New York Magazine, the Huffington Post, The New Jersey Record, The Baltimore Sun, The Nation, Tango Magazine, Vibe Vixen Magazine, The Times Union, and Girls’ Life. Oh, and did I mention she just turned twenty years old? It is rare indeed for a girl of twenty to get a published and recognized, especially for a nonfiction book. Liz Funk is well aware that, with tongue in cheek, she is taking the reader on a travelogue of her own journey through Supergirlhood.  This serves to make the book not only more compelling, but highly credible as well. 
                                              

Liz Funk defines herself as Supergirl-In-Recovery. Her recently published book, Supergirls Speak Out: Inside the Secret Crisis of Overachieving Girls, is an investigative look at young women who think being at their best is still never good enough. She has been published in USA Today, CosmoGIRL!, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, New York Magazine, The Huffington Post, The NationVibe Vixen Magazine and Girls’ Life. Oh, and did I mention she just turned twenty years old? It is  rare indeed for a girl of twenty to get a published and recognized, especially for a nonfiction book. Liz Funk is well aware that, with tongue in cheek, she is taking the reader on a travelogue of her own journey through Supergirlhood.  This serves to make the book not only more compelling, but highly credible as well.  

Supergirls Speak Out deftly manages to avoid both Powerpuff pseudo feminism, and the clinical jargon frequently sprinkled throughout books written about girl's development. What we get instead is a candid first hand account of what is happening behind the straight A’s, the after school clubs, and the shimmering veil of salon perfect hair.

Josie: Hi Liz!

Liz: Hi Josie!

Josie: So, first off, can you define the term “Supergirl” for our readers?

Liz: Sure! A Supergirl is a young woman who wants to be perfect at everything she attempts—whether it's school or work or being desirable. And while there's nothing wrong with girls being ambitious, many Supergirls believe they won't be worthy of the love and attention of others if they're not perfect. They often push themselves to the breaking point.

Josie: Do they have to try to be perfect at all these things at once?

Liz: Yes! That's the essence of the Supergirl. It’s not just being a "brain" or being "the leader" or being "the pretty girl.”

Josie: Ok, so it's being the beautiful, smart girl who also kicks ass at debate. When I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but think some of things you attributed to the Supergirl looked a lot like the things that men have been dealing with for centuries. Like needing to be a breadwinner, needing to maintain an aura of masculinity, needing to have multiple sex partners…yet men often don’t have the resources for emotional release that women tend to have. Do you see any correlation there?

Liz: Not really! Like, I understand that there has always been immense pressure on men to be the breadwinner and to make enough money to support their families and to find themselves in their careers… But I think the rise of Supergirls is a little different because I don't think the[se] girls have a sense of self to start with.

Josie: Ok, more specifically, I really noticed this when you were writing about girls and their relationship to sex.

Liz: I'm curious—what's the correlation you see [between] Supergirls’ [and men’s] sex lives?

Josie: Well, you wrote about the culture of hooking up, how girls seem to talk about boys almost as conquests without any real emotional attachment or interaction. This is something that’s been historically attributed to male behavior.

Liz: Yes, definitely! There's been a lot of role reversal. Girls see how many guys they've slept with as a tribute to them, but I think guys still see having "x" number of sex partners as a tribute to themselves in that they're studs and can aptly seduce. Whereas I think girls look at their number of sex partners and say, "Oh, good. I'm seducable. Guys find me attractive!" You know?

Josie: So, the girls want to be seducable, and the guys want to seduce? You describe yourself as a Supergirl in recovery. How did you know you were a Supergirl and what have you done to remedy the situation?

Liz: So, I'm a recovering Supergirl in that I've really spent my whole life trying to find myself in being skinny (although, regrettably, I'm no longer skinny at all), in having a good career, in trying to be urban, etc., etc. I had a major mental meltdown my junior year of college and I realized that part of why I was so depressed was because I had no sense of value outside of how others perceived me. It was really revolutionary and it ultimately helped me finish writing the book!

Josie: Had you noticed the rise of the Supergirl before realizing that you were one? Did you notice it in others before you noticed it in yourself?

Liz: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I got my book deal in May of 2007 and didn't have my meltdown until October of that year so I was halfway through writing the book.

Josie: Oh, wow.

Liz: And it just really helped me formulate my thesis. I went into this book without a thesis.

Josie: So you were experiencing Supergirldom while writing about the problem of Supergirls? That's a really interesting conundrum.

Liz: At my first meeting with my publisher, my editor asked me why I thought there was so much pressure on girls to be perfect, and I was like, ‘I have no idea. That's what I want to find out!’

Josie: So, in some ways it kind of validates being a Supergirl. I have to admit that in reading this book as a non-Supergirl I had a few moments where I ended up feeling like I was supposed to be a Supergirl myself, like as a Supergirl I would be this awe-inspiriing virago, even if it did come with a litany of psychological issues. What do you say to girls who aren’t Supergirls?

Liz: Oh no!

Josie: I'm only trying to make the point that the book seems to both strangely validate Supergirldom, even if simply in terms of accomplishments. I know the book can’t address both non-Supergirls and Supergirls alike, but…

Liz: I think girls who aren't Supergirls should feel lucky, though! I mean, I think that if a girl growing up in our society can feel good about herself and doesn't feel the need to validate herself through her accomplishments, that's a gift. And there definitely is a ton of pressure to be a Supergirl, especially because Supergirls get a ton of positive reinforcement from their communities for being [so-called] perfect. But in the long run, the ‘normal’ girls who don't need trophies and blue ribbons to feel good about themselves are so much better off.

Josie: So it isn't just about accomplishments—we’re all validated by our accomplishments—but there is something about doing it PERFECTLY that is very striking to me. We interviewed Courtney Martin a while back about her book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, which was about the interplay of attaining perfection and eating disorders. You write that one of the downsides of being a Supergirl is that they are often “deeply unsatisfied with their lives.” How do you think this dissatisfaction manifests itself besides in eating disorders?

Liz: I mean, anecdotally, I never got so much praise from other people than I did when I was anorexic and to be 100 percent honest, even though I was really physically sick, it felt powerful to be so skinny, so I think that's definitely a factor. I interviewed so many girls who, if they didn't have eating disorders that were full-blown, they had some level of disordered eating. It really seems to go hand-in-hand with overachieving.

Josie: Do you think this power comes because of the validation or because of the willpower or both?

Liz: Many girls perceive that being in control over their eating is part of the overachieving mold. Want to hear a funny secret?

Josie: OK!

Liz: I type in MS word and it has autocorrect and I just realized that I don't always spell the word "overachieving" correctly even though it's in the title of my book and I say it ten times a day!

Josie: That's pretty funny!

Liz: But yeah, anyway, eating disorders. It's so a willpower thing! I think that girls want to have a very precise "overachiever package" and that's the boyfriend/the great job/the designer clothes/and the designer body.

Josie:  Interesting. So, how much of a role do you think female competition plays in the Supergirl issue?

Liz: A lot! I think the way the Supergirl trend really took off was with girls comparing themselves to one another. This is, in effect, a form of competition in the context of a society where women are really pitted against one another. Girls more formally compete against one another, like who has the highest SAT score or the lowest weight in a group of friends. I remember a Berkeley student telling me that everyone on campus was "so sneaky" because there was so much competition.

Josie: Do you think all the reality shows have anything to do with this, like America's Next Top Model and such? Or do you just think this is how girls have been historically?

Liz: I think it's definitely en vogue to be a cutthroat woman, although a little less so now. I think [the movie] Mean Girls really illuminated how silly you look when you're intentionally mean. I think Tina Fey did women a real favor with that movie. I love her—Tina Fey.

Josie: She's pretty awesome. Do you think she’s a Supergirl?

Liz: No, only because I get the sense she achieves for the right reasons. Ditto for Michelle Obama. Everyone asks me, 'Do you think she's a Supergirl?' And I get the sense that she really has a healthy drive even though she's obviously so impressive.

Josie: Who do you think is a Supergirl?

Liz: Anne Hathaway, definitely. She went to Vassar; she was anorexic.

Josie: Oh really? Maybe Britney freaked out because she was a Supergirl?

Liz: Britney is definitely a Supergirl. I think she does perhaps have lesser critical faculties than most Supergirls. But I think Britney's various breakdowns ultimately were the results of doing too much and not having a sense of self. Hilary Duff probably also.

Josie : Yeah that makes sense. So, I had one issue with the book.

Liz: Ha ha…let me have it!

Josie: There was one place where the Supergirl you were discussing, Leah, made cookies and a fancy sign for a French meeting or something and my initial thought was, ‘OK, this is making stuff and could be considered doing something for herself but it was classified as overachieving most likely because she was doing it for others.’ And then on the next page, you wrote about an art history class and you wrote that the girl who was taking [the] class could probably have been able to BS her way through the test... So, it felt a little like a dismissive reaction to art in general.

Liz: That's a really interesting point, and I totally see what you're saying. I think part of the Supergirl problem is that these girls are already very busy, and they often make small, manageable tasks into big productions. Being overwhelmed is a huge part of [each of] their identities and it was occasionally puzzling to observe because many of the things these Supergirls were doing could have been done much more simply.

It was hard to write about Leah in a critical light, though, because she was one of the nicest, most genuine young women I'd ever met. And in terms of the art thing, I'm a huge art buff. I love going to museums, and I think that an appreciation for art is so important to enjoying the beauty of life, but this one class was really awful! There were kids talking and texting and on Facebook through the whole class.

Josie: OK, that makes more sense!

Liz: I think that if girls want to put 110 percent effort into things that are really important to them—so if they're crafty, making ornate flyers or getting 100 on tests in their favorite classes—[they should go for it.] But being perfect at EVERYTHING is the problem.

Josie: OK, thanks for clarifying that. Two more easy ones coming up!

Liz: Ha ha. Easy is good.

Josie: OK, so what do you think is the best was to cure a Supergirl? Can you say a few things that girls need to watch out for?

Liz: Sure! The most important thing to do is to develop a sense of intrinsic worth, like why you matter outside of what you look like, what you accomplish, and how others perceive you. And on a more micro level, slowing down is key [to] getting some hobbies.

Working no more than nine hours a day, turning off the BlackBerry after 10:00 p.m., perhaps ditching the iPod or the radio during commutes to work and school, and getting comfortable listening to your [own] thoughts. I think once young women find that they're entertained by listening to their internal monologues, they'll find that they like themselves, and then perhaps they'll stop [be]ing so hard on themselves.

Josie: Cool. Do you have any other projects coming up?

Liz: Well, my number one priority right now is graduating from college. I have a major case of senioritis!

Josie: Oh right, you are still in college! Good luck!

Liz: Thanks! Nice talking [to you].

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