March 20, 1998 | Commentary on Political Thought
In the 1950s, hardly anybody was super except Superman. But with today's habits of hyperbole, life is thick with super this and super that: superstars, superbowls, supermoms, supercops and-alas-supermodels.
Certainly these young ladies, favored by nature and heroically self-disciplined, deserve admiration. But adulation? Magazines and television shows follow their exploits. If they sprain an ankle in Aspen it's Page 2 news. Their annual Sports Illustrated appearance is so keenly anticipated that Swimsuit Day may soon be pre-printed on calendars. No wonder so many American girls look upon them as Womanhood Perfected.
Why is this bad? Because supermodels exist to be imitated. That's why they're called models. Millions of girls whom the gene lottery denied lithe figures and honey-thick tresses are driving themselves nuts-if not killing themselves-trying to replicate these reginas of the runway.
Writer Barbara Dafoe Whitehead notes that between 1980 and 1992, the suicide rate tripled among white teenage girls. Further, she says, this tragic trend coincides with a mounting obsession among young females to mold their bodies to an iron ideal of beauty.
For example, two thirds of ninth-grade girls will diet this month. In vain, it seems. A University of Texas study finds high-school senior girls-presumably despondent over their failure to obtain superbabe status -much less happy now than in 1976. Told by pop culture that they are no more than the sum of face and figure, girls fixate on those things. It is a game with high stakes-a girl's sense of fundamental self-worth-and woe unto her with thunder thighs.
Why am I, a public policy analyst, upset about this? Because it's a perfect example of what happens to culture when government gets too big and too expensive. Before the expansion of the federal government in the 1960s, parents, schools, churches and civic groups-"civil society"-tempered the less savory messages of the culture. If a girl or boy got a cheesy idea from a movie or magazine, chances were a mom, dad, teacher or minister was there to set Sis or Junior straight.
That's much less true today. With taxes eating up 40 percent of family income, parents work more hours to stay afloat, meaning less time with the kids. Between 1965 and 1985, the hours per week parents spent with their children fell from 30 to 17. The Nanny State has robbed churches and synagogues of their social welfare role, hobbling their ability to mentor the young. Public schools, meanwhile, define virtue as devotion to multiculturalism or environmentalism. That isn't character building. It's agenda pushing.
What to do? Repealing the "marriage penalty" and expanding the child tax credit would give parents more money-and more free time with their kids. Welfare reform that shrinks government's role would spur religious institutions to more people-helping endeavors. School choice would let low-income parents select private schools-including religious schools-with a full moral menu.
Private institutions must drum into young people that kindness, intelligence and goodness are also the stuff of beauty-and that these qualities don't smear in the rain.
As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently noted in a speech celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Heritage Foundation: "A free society will not survive without people of character who foster virtue through example. Doing good deeds and hard work is habit forming and ultimately builds character for them and for us."
Superman came to Earth when his home planet blew up. Too many kids' lives are exploding, too, under pitiless cultural pressures. Hope lies in caring adult "super models"-moms, dads and others who are free enough from financial burdens to raise kids with a healthy outlook.