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Girls in Trouble in a Post-Feminist World

Parents, teachers and all of us at Enlighten Education know in our hearts that girls and young women are in trouble and need our support. And the evidence is mounting to prove that we are right to be concerned.

A 19-year-long Scottish study published recently in the journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology showed that teenage girls are now the most depressed section of the population. The study, by Helen Sweeting, showed that girls were reporting mental disorders at a rate of 44%. More than a third felt “constantly under strain”. More than a quarter “felt they could not overcome their difficulties”. Between 1987 and 2006, the number of girls who “thought of themselves as worthless” trebled to 16%. Those who were so distressed they might need to be hospitalised rose threefold, to 18%.

And recent UK government research into 42,073 children between the ages of 10 and 15 concluded that:

The choices being made by teenage girls regarding diet, lifestyle and other health-related issues were so consistently damaging that they had become ‘a standalone group of the population’ requiring immediate intervention.

Amelia Hill, of London newspaper The Observer, reported on the research in her superb article After feminism: what are girls supposed to do? which I urge everyone to read.

Helen Sweeting, the author of the Scottish research, found it significant that her disturbing results came at a time of major upheavals in society — in Hill’s words, “the period in which girls began to outperform boys academically, and the obsession with celebrity culture and the pressure on younger and younger girls to become sexualised”.

Girls’ problems are caused by a combination of very modern problems, including the breakdown of the family, and the pressures of rampant consumerism and of educational expectations – the need, in short, to have things, look good and succeed all at the same time. Add to that the spread across society of increasingly cynical, individualistic values and beliefs, and you have a pretty toxic mix. — Helen Sweeting

For explanations, Hill turned to a number of experts, including Natasha Walter, author of the new book Living Dolls, The Return of Sexism:

Feminism’s own language of empowerment has been turned against it. The language of empowerment has been harnessed to confuse sexual liberation with sexual objectification. — Natasha Walter

I agree with Hill that girls are “growing up in an atmosphere of unapologetic crudity”. Stripping, she noted, “is widely cited as a method of empowerment”.

Girls feel pressured now in a way they never have been before to be thin, hyper-sexy, smart, glamorous, rich. And these expectations have created a “narcissism epidemic”. Respected American psychologist Jean Twenge studied almost 60 years’ worth of data on 37,000 American teenagers and found a staggering rise in the number of teens who score high on the narcissism personality index. And it is females who suffer the most from the depression and anxiety linked to narcissism, Hill noted.

The narcissist has huge expectations of themselves and their lives. Typically, they make predictions about what they can achieve that are unrealistic, for example in terms of academic grades and employment. They seek fame and status, and the achievement of the latter leads to materialism – money enables the brand labels and lavish lifestyle that are status symbols. — Jean Twenge

Other UK findings uncovered by Hill that make it impossible to deny that girls are in trouble include:

  • Hospital admissions for anorexia nervosa among teen girls have risen 80% in the last decade.
  • In the past year alone there has been a 50% rise in violent crime committed by young women.
  • One in three girls, and one in two boys, believe there are times when it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex.

It is clear that the pressure girls feel to be more and to have more has grown to the point that they are struggling to cope. They need our support and understanding right now. 

Thank you to Sarah Casey for bringing Amelia Hill’s article to my attention.

Seeking positive alternatives for girls  

Enlighten Education is proud to be working with schools and communities who are seeking answers for girls. I have recently returned from working with a number of schools in Christchurch, NZ, and spoke about this positive initiative on New Zealand’s Breakfast program:

To watch this interview, click on this image. You will be directed to the URL.
To watch this interview, click on the link above. You will be directed to the URL.

Wilderness College Adelaide is to be applauded for launching their “Raising Amazing Girls” program:

As part of the growing momentum around Australia to address the problems caused by unrealistic media and marketing images of women and the pressure for girls to grow up early, an extensive program will be launched today by Wilderness School to equip girls, and their parents, with the tools to help them navigate the ‘tweenie’ years.

This will include a series of practical seminars, open to all parents, as well as an intensive program working directly with the students at the school on issues such as the sexualisation of girls, digital citizenship and cyber-bullying. I am thrilled to be leading this for Wilderness and will be presenting to all the girls in the school, and to their parent community, later this month.

In Sydney, I will be offering parents practical strategies on raising happy, confident teen girls at a workshop on 16 March at Castle Hill Library. Tickets can be purchased online.  

I’d love to hear how you are providing the girls you care for with the urgent help they need. Let’s share our ideas and turn things around for girls in Australia and New Zealand . . . and set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

Published inBody ImageCyber world / BullyingEating DisordersEnlighten EducationFeminismMediaParentsResourcesSchoolsSexualisation of children

5 Comments

  1. Francesca

    Teenage girls are so amazing. I have had a chance to work with many insightful, creative and energetic girls who have shared with me their opinions on the many issues they are facing in ‘girl world’. Although I feel so saddened by the statistics above (many girls are suffering), I am so pleased to hear that there are seminars such as the ones you have mentioned Danni. It always gives me great hope when I see more people out there taking a keen and genuine interest in the welfare of teen girls. Girls need to be heard, nurtured and affirmed.

  2. Selena

    Thanks for the heads up on this research Danni, it is fascinating.

    In particular I am extremely interested in the contrast between Jean Twenge’s description of narcissism as measured by the percentage of girls who affirm that “I am an important person.” How does this correspond to today’s strategies for improving girls’ self-esteem and sense of worth, and individuality? I would love your comments on this Danni!

  3. That was interesting wasn’t it? I assume the findings were either somehow triangulated and / or that girls had to respond in the affirmative to a number of related questions to be deemed narcissistic. Surely one would not assume a girl was a narcissist just because she viewed herself as important?
    In our work we tell girls they are important and encourage them to develop a strong sense of self-worth. However, they are not more important or worthy of respect than others. This is not about creating Generation Entitlement ( which is the phenomena being discussed here). Like the researcher, I have also noted unrealistic expectations in young women, particuarly around career goals etc. I discuss this in my book on my chapters on Careers: “There is good self-esteem – and then there is this unfounded preciousness that seems more like narcissism. We need to support our girls’ sense of self-worth, but not at the expense of giving them a true grounding in reality.”

  4. Jane Higgins

    The increase in girls feeling “less than” is just unacceptable! We all want to be “seen” for who we truly are and not for what society tells us we should be. Feminism is vital to us as women but we must also “firstly do no harm” with how we enact it.
    I am so honored to be part of the solution and not the problem – lets band together to nurture our girls to believe they are precious and special to us. x

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