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For girls who hate their bodies: a spiritual crisis

Many girls are filling their spiritual void with an obsessive faith in the power and purity of thinness.

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Worried talk about the next generation of high-achieving, health-neglecting "perfect girls" is everywhere.

Girls Inc. just published the results of its depressing, nationwide survey called "The Supergirl Dilemma," which reveals that girls' obsession with thinness has gotten significantly worse in the past six years. Despite the efforts of the Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty – well-intentioned, though undeniably market-driven – and Love Your Body Day events sweeping every school from San Francisco to Syracuse, 90 percent of teenage girls think they are overweight today, compared with 24 percent in 1995, according to a recent ELLEgirl survey.

So what gives? Is it our celebrity-obsessed, extreme makeover culture? Is it the newest version of the age-old story of dysfunctional family relationships? Is it peer pressure – mean girls critiquing one another's every lunchtime indiscretion? Is it the $30 billion a year diet industry?

It is, in truth, all of the above. But there is also another profoundly important – yet little noticed – dynamic at work in the anxious, achievement-oriented lives of America's perfect girls: They have a sometimes deadly, often destructive, lack of faith.

So many perfect girls were raised entirely without organized religion, and the majority of the rest of us – I reluctantly admit to my own membership in the perfect girl club – experienced "spirituality" only in the form of mandatory holiday services with a big-haired grandmother or unconscionably elaborate and expensive bat mitvah parties, where everything but the Torah is emphasized.

Overlay our dearth of spiritual exploration with our excess of training in ambition – never mind SAT prep courses; today, even community service is linked to college application brownie points – and you have a generation of godless girls. We were raised largely without a fundamental sense of divinity. In fact, our worth in the world has always been tied to our looks, grades, and gifts – not the amazing miracle of mere existence.

In this climate, we feel perpetually called to perfect our own "body projects" – the term used by historian Joan Jacob Brumberg. Thinness and achievement stand in for the qualities of kindness and humility. We think that our perfect bodies – not God's grace or good works – will get us into heaven. We have no deeply held sense of our own divinity, so we chase after some unattainable ideal. Perfect girls, as a result, feel they are never enough. Never disciplined enough. Never accomplished enough. Never thin enough.

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