The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls”

In his new book Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls , psychologist and family physician Leonard Sax posits that many girls growing up in the 21 st century lack a stable, internally developed sense of self. The anxiety that absence generates, Sax argues, is behind girls’ increased rates of depression, cutting, and alcohol abuse; increased propensity to look and act sexy before they feel sexual; obsessive management of their personal brands on social networks; and the pursuit of academic or athletic excellence above all other concerns. External validation is everything. Today’s girls, Sax claims, often “find themselves not so much living as performing.” And when, for whatever reason, that performance stops eliciting external approval or comments on Facebook walls, girls implode.

Fortunately, Sax is up to more here than pronouncing young women irrevocably doomed. Less narrative-heavy than Reviving Ophelia , its best known ‘90s predecessor, Girls on the Edge doesn’t dramatize the self-destructive behavior it describes. And whereas many a teen daughter read Reviving Ophelia , Girls on the Edge speaks exclusively to parents and offers concrete ways to help their daughters cultivate stronger personal identities. The most useful chapters are those on why and how to protect your daughter on the Internet when she is already more tech-savvy than you ever care to be, and the one on the importance of cultivating a girl’s spiritual life, even if you’re a proud secular humanist. Sax also makes a good case for limiting your daughters’ exposure to chemicals in most plastics, which have been linked to early-onset puberty.

Since Sax’s first book was Why Gender Matters , it’s not surprising that the overall remedy he prescribes is to accommodate gender differences in everything from how girls are taught physics to how coaches warm up their athletes. This has always been a contentious proposal. Some feminists have long claimed that teaching, coaching, and parenting girls differently or separately from boys projects the idea that women can’t compete with men “in the real world.” Sax points out pretty convincingly that, actually, coed school is very different from the real world, and that we ignore girls’ unique needs, established by countless studies on gender and development, at their peril.