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Girlhood — Girls, Puberty and “Self”

The Oscar-nominated film “Boyhood” offers a rambunctious tour inside the life and times of Mason Evans, Jr., actually tracking the real-time coming of age of actor Ellar Coltrane (IMBD, 2014). While rife with the familiar conflicts and conquests of growing up as a boy, the film also tracks the identity search of Mason’s sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), if a bit more subtly.

It may be this very subtlety that best underscores the developmental divide between girlhood and adolescence, a dramatic change occurring earlier than ever before. Generally instigated by breast development, puberty now begins at a median age of 9.7 for white, non-Hispanic girls, at 8.8 years for black girls, at 9.3 years for Hispanic girls and at 9.7 years for Asian girls (Biro et al, 2013).

All of this earliness has significant consequences.

While fluctuating moods and dips in self-esteem have long been byproducts of female puberty, there is evidence of surreptitious social change as well. In our society, girls – more so than boys – are expected and encouraged to dwell in the world of feelings. Too often, this comes at the expense of recognizing their non-emotional intellectual capabilities, traits celebrated in boys.

Quixotically, while girls are encouraged to learn the language of emotion they are often, at the same time, discouraged from applying it to themselves. This sublimation leaves girls carrying the burden of understanding their own emotionality without the support to express it (Wallace, 2008).

In her New York Times best-selling book Reviving Ophelia, author Mary Pipher, Ph.D., states that the message many girls receive is, “Take care of others, not you.” She explains, “Girls are uncomfortable identifying and stating their needs, especially with boys and adults. They worry about not being nice or appearing selfish” (Pipher, 1994).

Pipher maintains that this dynamic creates pressure for girls to abandon their “true self” in favor of a “false self” more consistent with the expectations of others than of themselves.

That’s sad, and sometimes even dangerous.

Also emerging during this time are themes related to a perverse pursuit of perfection – whatever that may be.

Citing a Kaiser Family Foundation study (2010) showing that young people may be online for more than 50 hours a week, Ana Homayoun, author of The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life, warns of a perfectionistic online culture that results in procrastination, exhaustion and insecurity among girls (Homayoun, 2012).

Growing up in a social atmosphere that highly values physical appearance, chances are good that any adolescent’s view of herself (and likely others) is consistent with what the media deem “attractive.”

Advertising, film and social media make it possible for adolescent girls to see almost constant images of women who sit atop the social hierarchy, often perched there for their beauty rather than their brains. It’s no wonder we see young girls relinquish their genuine selves in order to become more like someone everyone else admires.

Homayoun believes this loss of authenticity breeds a pervasive fear of failure and suggests we praise progress over perfection. Yet, in a world that is constantly pushing ways to better themselves, girls’ ability to enjoy life is compromised.

The only way to beat this detrimental cycle is to devalue physical appearance and teach all adolescents that every part of them is worthy of appreciation and need not change to fit into the “norms” of society.

No small task – given the entrenched nature and power of influence.

To that point, Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg, author of Age of Opportunity – Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence (Steinberg, 2014) warns that girls are more socially susceptible than boys. He says, “From an early age, girls are more sensitive to interpersonal events. Being female confers an advantage when it comes to empathy, but it raises the risk of depression in the face of social rejection.”

That rejection, or fear of it, may come with psychological and physical baggage when internalized issues of anxiety and depression manifest themselves externally in destructive behaviors, including substance abuse (Wallace, 2008).

Recent data from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) revealed that – when it comes to engaging in risk behaviors – girls and young women have caught up to, and in some cases surpassed, their male peers. For example, among 16-year-olds, girls outpaced boys in reporting alcohol use (26 percent vs. 20 percent). By age 17, girls also pulled ahead of boys on other drug use (13 percent vs. 7 percent) and by age 19 they led in each of the areas studied: drinking (52 percent vs. 40 percent); using other drugs (19 percent vs. 15 percent); and driving under the influence (10 percent vs. 7 percent). Similar disparities exist for intimate sexual behavior and intercourse (Wallace, 2013).

Perhaps above all, parents simply want their girls to be happy in a healthier way.

Deborah Gilboa, M.D., a family physician and author, suggests we need to focus on the “software” part of their brains, which is content-rich, culturally based and experience dependent. In this way we can help young people develop three characteristics correlated to happiness: respect (including confidence), responsibility (including competence and self-control) and resilience (including in relationships) [Gilboa, 2014].

The Three R’s: maybe that’s what girlhood should be about.

Co-Authored by Madeleine B. McArdle, a first-year student at Dartmouth College and a student member of the National Advisory Board at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) and Stephen Gray Wallace, Director at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE).  Originally posted on Stephen’s monthly column for kidsinthehouse.com, February 2015.

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REFERENCES

Biro, F., Greenspan, L., Galvez, M., Pinney, S., Teitelbaum, S., Windham, G., Deardorff, J., Herrick, R., Succop, P., Hiatt, R., Kushi, L. and M. Wolff. (2013). Onset of breast development in a longitudinal cohort. Pediatrics. November 4, 2013. American Academy of Pediatrics. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/132/6/1019.full.pdf+html?sid=4a4b5b53-d9ac-4d6f-be21-bd997f1dac43 (17 Feb. 2015).

Gilboa, D. (2014). Ask Doctor G: when grown-ups are effective, kids get healthier!. 2014. http://askdoctorg.com/ (17 Feb. 2015).

Homayoun, A. (2012). The myth of the perfect girl: helping our daughters find authentic success and happiness in school and life. New York: Perigee/Penguin Group. 2012.

IMBD. (2014). Boyhood: trivia. 2014. IMBD. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1065073/trivia (17 Feb. 2015).

Kaiser Family Foundation. (2010). Generation M2: media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. January 20, 2010. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. http://kff.org/other/event/generation-m2-media-in-the-lives-of/ (17 Feb. 2015).

Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia: saving the selves of adolescent girls. New York: Putnam. 1994.

Steinberg, L. (2014). Age of opportunity – lessons from the new science of adolescence. New York: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014.

Wallace, S. (2013). Flip: changing gender roles in youth risk behavior. May 3, 2013. Psychology Today. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/decisions-teens-make/201305/flip (17 Feb. 2015).

Wallace, S. (2008). Reality gap: alcohol, drugs and sex – what parents don’t know and teens aren’t telling. New York: Union Square Press/Sterling Publishing. 2008.

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