The YA “Perfection” Trope & Today’s Pressures on Teens: Let’s Discuss.

Posted July 7, 2017 by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction in Let's Discuss / 32 Comments

So, I was driving to pick my kids up from swimming recently at the high school and I drove past some boys’ high school team or other working out—shirtless. And I noticed something. These boys had abs and like seriously muscular physiques.

Now before you start to think I was being weirdly creepy or something, I just drove by (with a slight stop at a stop sign—it’s not like I stopped to goggle at them), but it was sort of hard to miss when a whole mob of shirtless boys was standing right next to my car.

But it got me thinking: How many times have I sort of chuckled at the YA trope of the high school boy with the perfect body? I mean, these aren’t the boys I remember from when I was in high school. Now, I wasn’t really hanging out with any of the athletes when I was a teenager. And, obviously, these kids I saw aren’t representative of today’s teen boys in general—I still see plenty of awkward, gangly kids out there (thank goodness!)—but the trope that I’ve rolled my eyes at really does exist out in the wild, and maybe it’s not even as uncommon as I imagined.

Maybe that trope of the “perfect” YA hero isn’t as crazy nowadays as it once was? But why is that? And what does it tell us about the pressures our teens are under today? Pressures that just seem to be mounting each year.

Sports is one great example: I feel like today’s sports are so much more intensive than when I was a kid. And they start out so much younger. We’ve known several families whose kids are really into sports, and they start doing travel teams when they’re still in grade school sometimes. Definitely by the time they’re in middle school. They spend hours and hours and days and days on their sport at a time where I was still playing backyard imagination games. It seems a little crazy to me. It’s like you can’t just play a sport anymore—you have to live and breathe it, and go to camps and be on travel teams and work out constantly, whether your sport is in season or not. Now I’m sure that was true for some people back when I was younger, but nowadays it seems to be the norm, at least where I live. There’s pretty much no chance of making it on a high school team if you haven’t been playing for years.

And then there’s academics: It’s crazy to me how many kids are taking AP classes starting in their freshman year of high school. And instead of electives like art and drama, many (most?) kids are taking classes like Advanced Accounting, Engineering Design CAD and Interactive Media (all of these and lots more are offered at our local high school). A friend of mine’s daughter’s high school has medical and engineering academies that you start in freshman year!

These opportunities are fantastic, but in some ways I wonder what we’re doing to our kids with these expectations. Are we preparing them for excellence or setting them up to implode from all the pressures? How can a kid look around them in today’s world and feel like they can possibly measure up? Do they need to?

Kids today feel like they have to look perfect, be the best at everything they do, take the next big challenge, even if that last one practically did them in…

I homeschool my kids and I’ll admit that it’s hard sometimes not to stress about how they’ll measure up to their peers (and my kids have LOTS of opportunities that I know a lot of other homeschooling families can’t afford). Still, I don’t want to make them crazy. I don’t want to be crazy. I’d like for us to enjoy life a little along the way.

Maybe I’ll think a little more critically before I dismiss one of those YA tropes next time: The kid with the perfect body (they’ve probably been training since they were five!). The genius kid who solves crimes (heck, maybe forensics was one of his electives freshman year). I’m still not so sure these are messages I want reinforced in my YA books, necessarily (depending on how they’re depicted), but they might be more of a realistic reflection of the world our kids live in than I thought.

Do you think teens today feel more pressures toward perfection? How accurately do you think YA depicts today’s teens? I want to know!


This post has been linked up to the 2017 Book Blog Discussion Challenge.


32 responses to “The YA “Perfection” Trope & Today’s Pressures on Teens: Let’s Discuss.

  1. I tend to lean toward the side that you’re going to implode one day from the pressures you (the general “you” that applies to high schoolers) have put up with in academics since elementary school. I say this as someone who graduated from high school three years ago and was in almost all of the AP classes my school offered. To some degree, AP classes and these other classes that try to make kids college-ready do not actually prepare them for college, which has been in the news recently. Kids and teens are under a lot of stress to succeed and achieve, whether it be for the grade or for the spots on sports teams.

    As far as body image goes, I am seeing that boys are affected too, but I’m not sure the extent since my experience is with girls. The only boys who might, MIGHT, fit the description of the perfect YA hero in my high school was probably the athletes, but I don’t remember them truly fitting the physique. I think a lot of what goes on with pressures about the body comes from the media. That was an interesting observation to find boys who fit the perfect YA hero description.

    • Yeah, I kind of wonder if all of those AP classes really make you any more prepared or not. I took AP classes in high school, but I think I took them all my senior year—definitely no earlier than junior year. It seems crazy that they’re starting out freshman year nowadays. And this pressure to just do more, more, more… it feels a little crazy.

  2. Ah, this is tough! Because I think that the pressures on kids ARE ridiculous, and maybe always have been- at least, as long as I can remember? I remember kids in my school taking tons of AP classes, and going to some strange college calculus at 8am 3 times a week at a local university. I was blissfully unconcerned, personally. But that is because I was one of those “training since they were 5” kids 😉 (Fine, I was 7, but still.) I also was smart enough to know that unless I was trying to get into some Ivy League school (I was assuredly NOT) that taking all those ridiculously hard classes would do nothing but stress me out. I had an awesome time in “Survey of Dramatic Literature” (this was watching movies based on books, I kid you not!) and “environmental science” which today is probably something that needs to be taught in the actual White House, but I digress.

    It’s so interesting to me, because you and I aren’t *that* far apart in age- but it seems like enough that we had VERY different experiences? (Hey, maybe this is how I still get to be a millennial who ruins things with avocados, yay!) Because yeah, the sports thing was exactly as you are now describing. I went to a Catholic high school (as a not even almost Catholic person) because of swimming- and it was a big commitment- and my parents were worried that I wouldn’t even swim much. I mean, I proved them wrong, but it was SO. MUCH. WORK. (And for them, money- $4.5K 20 years ago was no small sum- hell, it still isn’t!) Not just during the season, there was the off-season training which was often even more intense. And yes, most of the guys on my team (with the exception of the freshmen basically) looked like something out of a YA book, tbh.

    The physical look pressure… yeah, that is real of course. But I think that comes straight from the media and the patriarchy. Because while it DOES impact boys, the level is nowhere near how it impacts girls. I think I told you this on your review of Upside, but I thought I was SO. FAT. in high school and college. Only… I wasn’t at all! Like, not by literally ANY standard. But i didn’t look like the waifish girls. I didn’t have boobs. I had muscles instead. I had goggle marks instead. But I’ll be honest, I never cared enough (still don’t!) to bother with makeup, or anything that requires an unreasonable amount of time. But that is NOT the norm, at least from what I have seen.

    So I think to sum all this up (ha!) I think that the perfection thing IS probably accurate, unfortunately. I wish there was a solution, because I agree with you that kids probably don’t need to feel ALL the pressure. But I have no idea how to stop it. This is such a great post!

    • Yeah, I think that the changes started in my generation, but then they just sort of snowballed. I took AP classes in high school (I think four of them—English, world history, biology and psychology—the only one I didn’t take was AP Calc, because math made me want to cry. I never took another math class after Precalc my junior year of high school). So, obviously AP classes were already a thing by then. But I was pretty much in the highest tier of academics at my school, and we didn’t take AP until senior year (maybe there was one junior year?). And I knew that the number of AP offerings was growing over the years, but it still shocked me to learn that kids routinely take AP classes starting freshman year nowadays. My son is advanced in math (I have no idea where those genes came from) and he’ll be taking precalculus at our local community college in the fall as a sophomore. Then he’ll probably move on to calc. But that’s just because he actually really likes math and going through things at a slow pace makes him stabby. And honestly, I’ve been worried about the workload and I’m trying to make everything else as light as possible for him. Talking to other parents and kids, I’ve found that it’s not that odd for him to be at the level he’s at in math AND a lot of those kids are also taking three other AP level classes to go along with it. The poor kid would be driven insane. I’m not doing it. It’s just not worth it. I am signing him up for a history class at the community college just because it’s the easiest way for us to get our history in this year, but I’m choosing the easiest one I can find that will meet our requirements. He already feels way pressured with homework and such and he’s the type of kid who will just shut down when he’s overwhelmed (that he does get from me).

      Anyway, on to the sports thing—I knew that you were a serious swimmer, but I didn’t realize HOW serious—the fact that you went to a school specifically for that sport is pretty impressive. I do know that when I was younger there were kids who were very serious athletes, and of course there have always been kids who were trying to be Olympic level or whatever, but I just feel like nowadays it’s more expected that every kid on every team will have that level of commitment and that they will have been training since they were in grade school. I just know SO many families who are doing the traveling teams thing—and usually for multiple sports. Their lives are pretty much consumed. I’ll admit that I’ve never been particularly athletic myself, so I probably just don’t get it. My kids spend a lot of hours at swimming, but it hasn’t felt overwhelming or ridiculous, probably because they’re not high-level athletes. They’re doing it for fun and for exercise and to try to and improve on their own times, not to win meets (because… well, that’s just not going to happen). I’m happy that our swim team allows for that, even though they do have some truly elite athletes on the team (the main coach is an Olympic gold-medalist). It honestly feels sort of a rare opportunity since so many sports are “top level only.”

      I don’t know, as a mom, I stress about these things. I feel like we expect so much out of our kids and I hate setting them up to fail. One benefit of homeschooling is that I can control all of that a little more, but then of course I worry about setting them up well enough for college. 🙂

  3. I have been wondering about these things myself. For my older kids, they tried sports but weren’t really into them. Maybe I should have pushed a bit more for my son, but my daughter gravitated towards the arts as she got older and the pressure for AP classes fell by the wayside. She started in gifted when she was in 1st grade, so there was always an assumption, as least for me, that she would go that route.
    I have been thinking about putting my younger kids into swimming and/or martial arts. They aren’t really into ball themed sports. I imagined myself going to swim meets and things like that and remembered why I didn’t push too hard with my older kids. Ain’t no one got time for that! If they choose to do those things, I will support them but no way I am pushing for that. Life is too short.
    As for YA books, I read more fantasy then anything else and I think that helps cut down on unrealistic kids in high school in my reading.
    Great topic!

    • I don’t mind swimming so much—might just be because it’s preferable to gymnastics for me, which just felt like a stressful pain in the butt. It helps that the practices are all nearby and that my two older kids go together (though they’re being split up in the fall, so that will be a pain).

  4. “really does exist out in the wild” idk why that really cracked me up, but it did lol.

    Anyway, I mean, I’m maybe not the best to weigh in on the sports thing since I started gymnastics at 7 years old and by the time I was 10 I was traveling around the state for meets, working out 12 hours a week during the school year and more during summer, etc. (Doesn’t one of your kids do gymnastics? Is that you? Lol. Sorry, I can be forgetful sometimes.) I feel like sports are the type of thing people do take seriously though, for a lot of sports, and that’s probably not a recent thing. But I do think there’s way too much pressure about school anymore. I read somewhere (I didn’t fact check, so it could be BS, idk) that the stress level high school kids have nowadays is the same as the stress level of patients in mental hospitals in the past. The problem is that it seems to be getting harder and harder for kids to get into colleges, for people to get jobs, etc.

    I was similar to Shannon though. I took four AP classes in my whole of high school, and only one of them was even an elective. The others were classes I had to take anyway (like English). And in my senior year, for one of my electives I was a teacher’s aid to the English department. One of my other electives was film where we mostly watched movies. I never planned on going to an ivy league or anything either, so I still got good grades, but I didn’t worry about taking all the super hard classes. But all like Shannon said, I have no idea how to stop all the pressure. It seems like a lot of things are just snowballing out of control. I guess the best people can do is try to make sure their own kids or kids/teens in their lives know that they don’t have to be perfect.

    • Yeah, I feel like it is just snowballing. Like lately it’s more and more just expected that kids will start taking AP classes as early as freshman year. It seems a little crazy to me. And, yes, you were right in remembering that my daughter was a gymnast, but she ended up quitting last year. She just wasn’t enjoying it enough to make it worth the work and the hours she put in. We switched to swimming, which, ironically, is just about the same number of hours but somehow feels more relaxed.

      I agree that there were always elite athletes that put many many hours into their sport—I just feel like it’s become more prevalent and expected now than it used to be. But it’s been a gradual process—you’re a lot younger than me, so it was probably already well on its way to becoming what it is now. 🙂

  5. Things were different when I was at school. Very few people had a home computer, no Internet, no games consoles or ipads or ipods and smart phones, no social media and reality tv…not the same pressures to look perfect and be popular that I had growing up. I’m pretty glad all this tech wasn’t around when I was at school. How any kid has time now to study with all these distractions is beyond me. For us sport was fun, not to be Olympic champions. We played outside all summer or went to the library. I think things were simpler then.

    I don’t really read YA books now. I got tired of reading tropes about mean kids, instaluv soulmates and love triangles! None of the boys at my school were like these Greek Gods of Malehood I see in these books, I can tell you that! Most were spotty and immature! That’s why we fancied teachers!

    • I agree that things were a lot simpler when we were kids. And you’re right about the distractions—if my sons had their way, they would both be playing video games 24 hours a day, and my oldest insists that it’s the ONLY way he can unwind. It’s been a frustrating battle in our household.

  6. I don’t know about teens now, but high school was the most stressful time of my life. I didn’t play sports or take AP classes. The pressure to be perfect was still intense. I got bullied for being fat, for being stupid, for not caring about my clothes, for not wanting a boyfriend. I don’t know if things are still like that. I hope not.

  7. I definitely think there’s so much pressure on teens these days, largely because there’s so much pressure on people in general these days, and teens are at the awkward stage of their life where they are most susceptible. Like I think we can all feel inadequate when we see celebrities on magazines, or read books where everyone just magically has amazing abs, but I think as a teen when you’re more unsure of yourself and how you fit into the world then that probably hits you harder.
    And I do definitely think schools take things so much more seriously these days, and have such high expectations. You could start to see it when I was in school, which was quite a few years back now – all the sports teams took things really, really seriously and there was all sorts of random extra classes and things you could take – but I think it’s even worse now from what I’ve heard. I mean, my 5 year old nephew is already being taught Spanish at his school! Back when I was at school we didn’t start learning other languages until high school, and whilst it’s probably a good thing to start early, and probably fun for them, you’re still only just learning how to read and write in your first language at that age, so learning a second seems to be really pushing them.
    Great post! 🙂

    • Our school district has a dual language program that starts at kindergarten, so the kids are taught in both Spanish and English. It’s kind of cool, but I didn’t think it was right for my kids. My son could barely sit still when he understood what was going on, much less when he was at a loss!

  8. I taught high school for 12 years, and I have to say, the demands on teens now verses when I was a teen, are much greater. There is the scholastic demands. They take higher level classes much earlier and they take more of them. My own child graduated with 32 AP credits, which I thought was insane. In addition to that, they are expected to have a slew of activities, and they must hold leadership positions as well. Add that to a social pressure that is so much more intense before smartphones and the internet. When I was a teen, I used to hang out after school and watch the boys play basketball or do quizzes from Seventeen magazine. I did a sport each season and maybe one or two clubs, but I did nothing close to what my daughter did or many of the high achieving teens I taught.

  9. Such good questions, Nicole. While there have always been a few kids who were intensely into athletics (or music, or drama, or whatever), I do think there is more specialized focus expected these days. I was so NOT an athlete, but swam on the high school team for a couple of years. Our very best swimmers did more year round training and club teams, but I’m talking like 2 or 3 kids out of 50. The rest of us just showed up and swam to the best of our abilities. I got into a one-step-below-Ivy private college in New England with a 3.5 GPA, two AP tests (we didn’t even have specifically AP classes), 2 years of swim team, and four years of city-wide orchestra (11th chair viola, twice a week rehearsals–NOTHING compared to the intensity of, say, my 10 year old niece’s gymnastics life). When I did alumni interviews for the same school, I was talking to kids with 4.0 GPA, multiple sports, leadership roles in activities, volunteering experiences–and they were REJECTED by my college. We choose to not get our kids that actively involved in anything for our family sanity, but I hope they don’t resent us later for it.

    • YES! This is exactly what I mean! I feel like of course there were kids who were elite when we were in high school and put in that amount of work in their sport, but it seems like now it’s just expected that everyone does that. There’s no such thing as casual participation in sports anymore. And I took four AP classes myself and had a high GPA, but your experience with college admissions just proves to me how much higher the pressures are now. It’s sort of sad, really.

  10. It’s different now. I’ve been to the high school when the teams are working out and some of the guys look like college aged guys. When I was in high school there were a few guys who were really built and worked out, but not like now… at least what I see. Sounds like you’re seeing the same. And I think sometimes it is too much. I mean kids in middle school who want to play volleyball have to go to this camp in the summer, and there’s a separate thing where they gotta show up once a week and run a mile (or more) and do all these workouts. They have 7th grade girls in the weight room. So yeah… a little intense lol.

    All the AP stuff, too.

    You might be right about the tropes- they may not be as far fetched after all? Except for the high cheekbones which I always joke about, because seriously… does anyone in YA not have fabulous high cheekbones? Are there low cheekbones? 🙂

    Seriously though great topic.

  11. shooting

    Great topic. I do think these type of tropes are true for certain kids. I don’t know if it’s the majority of teens in the world, but a lot of them. I went to a private school so we didn’t get offered all that many cool electives. That’s probably one of my big complaints about the school I went too, but that’s mostly because I wanted to take fun electives, not because I wanted to take extremely hard classes that may or may not even help me in college. To be honest, I did well in school but I never took an AP class in high school. I didn’t see the need too – it’s just to try and test out of it so you don’t take the class in college, but honestly? Most of the AP classes were things I wouldn’t really take anyway, based on my major.

    But yes, I think there is a lot of pressure out there to be “perfect” and it’s too much.


    • I’m surprised that a private school had less interesting classes offered—I usually think of private schools as being more “outside the box.” Of course, if they’re smaller I suppose that would make it harder for them to have a vast array of classes since there wouldn’t be enough students to take them all.

  12. Gosh, this is a great post! For me, I’d rather the big brains than big muscles, but I realize that everyone has their thing. My kids purposely do not do the crazy sports teams or the advanced learning. First, they hate sports except for swimming (and they don’t want to do that competitively) and they just want to chill. I get that. Totally. But I do feel that once they reach high school or late middle school, they have to step it up. Have you seen what Korea and Japan put their kids through? They are literally at school from 7AM to 10PM or later every day. They go from their regular school to cram school. They don’t stop. And while I think that’s crazy, these are the people my kids are going to have to compete against to get jobs. Sigh. It’s a rock and hard place, for sure.

    • Wow! I had no idea that school in Japan was so intense. I guess it’s not that surprising considering the work hours that people put in there. And I agree that it can be so hard to balance pressuring your kids crazily with giving them the opportunities they need to succeed.

  13. Jen

    Maybe my experiences are different, but growing up in Cali, everything was always competitive whether you wanted it to be or not. And this was in the 80s to early 90s. Travel sports in grade school was huge. I remember my brother’s best friend and little brother started travel ball in grade school, and I missed them on the weekends. When we were supposed to go camping and boating or playing in the pool together, they were in another city hours away. And course prepping for college was SO intense in the late 90s (I’m dating myself ha). I remember I was told that the Business Department at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo was accepting less than 15% of applicants, so I pushed myself like I still can’t believe to this day and got in. So for me, it feels the same, but maybe it’s because of where I grew up and the experiences I faced?

    Although I know Andy, my husband was in a similar situation in Southern California. He did travel ball in grade school into Junior High and his sister was the level below the Olympics for gymnastics and traveled to other countries for competitions. I’m still shocked she had to travel out of the US!! Plus they both had a similar experience for prepping and trying to get into tough programs with low acceptance rates for college in California. So maybe it was a west coast thing back then and now it’s like that everywhere? Oh, I have no clue.?

    Also, YES to some teenage boys actually being like that lol. My boyfriend through High School definitely had a 6 pack….why does that sound weird coming out haha?! We started dating when we were 15, but then again he surfed and exercised all the time. And a lot of my guy friends had them also (we’d spend our free time at our pools and the Russian River throughout the spring and summer, so they were shirtless all the time) but they also either surfed intensely or ran track. So I never once struggled picturing YA characters like that since that’s what I was around when I was in the YA age.?

    • How interesting! So your life was a YA novel. LOL! I do think that maybe the culture in California is a bit different back then than it was here in Chicago—especially for the body image thing, but maybe now we’re just catching up to you. 🙂 I do think the change with academics was starting even when I was in high school (I took four AP classes, but only in my senior year) and maybe it accelerated a bit right after that from what people are saying here. (I graduated high school in ’92). I find it all sort of fascinating to hear about everyone’s experiences!

  14. I’d not really thought about it because I don’t exactly hang out with a lot of teens but you may be right. It definitely seems like there is a whole heap of pressure on for teens in the world and it is crazy! I mean, I certainly notice teens seem way better dressed and styled than me and my friends ever were. I notice them and think ‘damn what time did you get up to get ready?’ and I know I am pretty lazy so not reflective of the population as a whole but it does seem they out more effort in.

    I suppose some of the tropes I find a little crazy in books may have some basis in reality. Who knew?

  15. Jo

    I just think young people – children and teens – need to be allowed to be young people. I think part of it is down to pushy parents. Sure, if the child is interested in a particular sport, then allow them to play it, but I don’t think they should have to, as you said, train and practice several days a week, for several hours each day. In the UK, we’re not quite as sports-centric in our schools. We may have teams and stuff, but they’re not as big. And most sport kids do tend to be at clubs that are separate from school. It’s if they’re interested. There’s no pressure to be interested, simply because it’s not a huge focus in our schools.

    As for academics, I’m just… ugh. I hate how much pressure kids are under these days. There are reports over here of children getting mental illnesses because of the pressure they’re under for exams. And that’s without fancy classes. And I’ve known parents who thought it was unacceptable for their child to get a B in something, it should be all As or A*s. I wasn’t brought up that way. I wasn’t allowed to slack off, I had to work hard, but the grades didn’t matter as long as I did my best. If I did my best, then my parents were proud of me, no matter what I got. Which took the pressure off. I still worked hard, but I didn’t feel like I was under any stress to do brilliantly. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to do well, and I did pretty well, but I wasn’t made to feel like I *had* to be top of the class or whatever.

    And I think universities are kind of problematic, too. I don’t know how it works in the US with colleges, but with us, unis won’t accept you unless you get very specific grades. And yet, getting a degree doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a job in that field right away, because everyone has degrees now, they don’t necessarily mean as much. Jobs may require you be educated to degree level, but you don’t necessarily need a specific degree. So you must work super super hard at secondary school to get high GCSEs, and then super, super hard at sixth form/college to get high AS- and A-Levels, so you can get into uni to get a degree that won’t gaurantee you get the job anyway. It’s just too bloody stressful, and I don’t like it. So when I read American books where the characters are stressing about their GPA (though I don’t really know how that works) it really upsets me. Because education isn’t everything for one thing, but also what if you’re not so great academically? We have apprenticeships over here and other courses that are more skills based rather than academics based, to help you get into work, and things are doing better, but there is still some stigma around them. “You’re doing an apprenticeship because you’re too stupid to get into uni.” It’s just not ok.

    Sorry, super long comment. I just really hate the pressure kids are under. And I also hate that that certain kids have advantages over others because their parents can pay for specific after school activities and clubs that other kids’ parents can’t pay for. Aah, it just upsets me. I’ll shut up now.

    • All this is so true! I specifically really agree with you about your last point. My husband and I do well for ourselves, so we can afford to send our kids to all sorts of specialized camps, etc. But what about people who can’t? It seems crazy that these sorts of things are pretty much expected.

  16. Kel

    I’m not quite sure where I come down on these topics. On the one hand, I don’t want kids living in pressure cookers, but on the other hand, I’ve been in schools where the majority of the student body needed, maybe not more pressure, but to value education more and make it more of a priority–less of a government-mandated chore to wade through doing as little as possible. It’s really interesting to hear that about some schools, though.

    In some ways, it feels like we’re slowly coming full circle. Back in the 1700’s/1800’s, “kids” were expected to be responsible, functioning adults by age 12 or 13. Or maybe some schools/community are trying to avoid the other extreme of far-too-prolonged adolescence like “los jovenes” in Spain. Great thoughts, Nicole!

Leave a Reply

(Enter your URL then click here to include a link to one of your blog posts.)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.