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The Challenges Faced by Young Adolescent Girls

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

02/06/2019

“Girlhood” by Lory Hough in Ed. Magazine, Winter 2019 (#162),
https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/19/01/girlhood; Hough is at lory_hough@harvard.edu.


“After years of social gains and with bright futures within reach, why are things still so difficult for middle-school girls?” asks editor Lory Hough in this article in Ed. Magazine. Despite significant progress in K-12 achievement, college and graduate school enrollment, and science, sports, and leadership, there’s a troubling rise in depression and anxiety and decline in confidence among girls, especially as they leave elementary school. Some of this was captured in the movie Eighth Grade, which follows 13-year-old Kayla through her last week in middle school.

Bo Burnham, the film’s director, says, “There’s been a lot of progress made, but the cultural pressures are still insane. And culture is what leads you at that age, I think.” As he prepared to make the film, Burnham viewed hundreds of teen vlogs and was struck that boys’ videos tended to be about video games while girls’ were about their souls. “I think our culture forces girls to ask deeper questions of themselves earlier than boys,” he says. With boys, it’s What do you like to do?, with girls, it’s Who are you?

This forces a transition from being confident, spunky, perhaps bossy at age 8, 9, and 10, to something less sure in the early teens. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1949, “Girls who were the subjects of their own lives become the objects of others’ lives. Girls stop being and start seeming.” A recent study showed that 67 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls said they were happy with the way they were in elementary school, but that fell to 56 percent of boys and 37 percent of girls in middle school.

Interestingly, African-American and Latinx girls fared better in this study, with 59 and 54 percent, respectively, saying they were happy with their middle-school selves. Girls of color seem less prone to anxiety, self-doubt, depression, and self-harm, having built up a strong support group for one another.

Author Rachel Simmons believes white girls’ middle-school troubles may stem, paradoxically, from the progress that’s been made. “We hope for girls to be smart and brave and interested in STEM fields,” she says, “but we still expect them to be sexually attractive and have a witty and appealing online presence. No matter how many achievements they accrue, they feel that they are not enough as they are… Girls are still raised with a psychology that is trained to think about other people before themselves. This all is a real recipe for unhappiness.”

There’s another dimension to this uncertainty and self-doubt. An international study of 1,000 girls age 14-19 found that three-quarters said they felt judged as a sexual object or felt unsafe as a young woman. Half said they’d heard daily sexual comments and jokes from boys, and one-third said similar comments came from men in their families. These messages also bombard girls from the media. School counselor Joey Waddy says girls struggle “to match the person they felt they were or wanted to be with the examples of celebrities and social media
influencers.”

Starting in the early teens, says Lyn Mikel Brown (Colby College) “girls’ bodies
become associated with risk and constraint and warnings. Don’t walk home alone at night. Don’t be alone with boys or drink with boys; be sure you know what’s in that cup; be the sexual gatekeeper; don’t dress like a slut.” The messages boys receive are quite different.
The other new factor in recent years is social media, which amplify uncertainty and peer issues. This is especially true for girls, who spend more than 90 minutes a day on their phones communicating with peers (compared with boys’ 52 minutes, mostly chatting about playing Fortnite, not group dynamics). “Feeling excluded certainly isn’t new,” says Hough, “but back when I was that age, if you weren’t invited to the mall, you rarely found out, or you found out days after. And perhaps most crucial: No one else shared your humiliation because only the people involved knew about the slight (or perceived slight). Nowadays, seeing photos online of your friends at Starbucks without you is immediate and very public. All of your other friends see it, too.”

With Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms, says Eighth Grade director Burnham, kids are posting photos and material revolving around What do I look like? and What am I thinking? “Those are really baser, deeper, stranger questions,” he says. “And the way kids interface with it, I think, changes the way they feel about the world and themselves.” With idealized, carefully curated photos and content, social media create “better” personas that cause problems in real-life interactions.

“Most boys would never ask girls to lift up their shirts in real life,” says school counselor Chessie Shaw. “However, plenty do online. Most girls would never say such mean things about a classmate to their face, but they do online… Because the poster has a much larger audience on social media, any little mean joke can balloon into a much bigger event and can quickly go from involving five or six girls to almost the whole grade… The chat is too much a part of their social life. If they left it, they feel like they wouldn’t have any friends, so they endure the comments and constant fights.” They’re driven by FOMO – Fear of Missing Out.

The good news is that things get better for many girls in high school, as they learn to handle social media and gain in confidence and maturity. Social media can also be a platform for shy and socially awkward girls to develop their voice, as Eighth Grade protagonist Kayla did with her YouTube self-help videos. There’s also a surge of social activism exemplified by Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez and by many in the #MeToo movement. “The one encouraging thing I’ve seen,” says Brown, “is more and more of my students becoming passionate about these types of social justice issues… [M]ore than ever, we see women having one another’s backs, and that’s a huge shift. Girls are watching and trying to make sense of it all. The important thing is that they see there are different perspectives and points of view and the power is shifting. That’s freeing.”




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