Earlier this year, the New York Times published an article by Jonah Bromwich titled “Study of Teenagers Asks: Who’s Happier, Boys or Girls?, relating to a report published by the World Health Organization. It is one of a number of articles in 2016 that points to a trend in poorer mental health in girls. Other reports included the BBC article “Teenage girls: Mental well-being ‘worsening’” and “UK girls becoming more unhappy — study” a couple of weeks later, linked to the Children’s Society’s annual report.
In this day and age, in developed countries, in western culture, is is not tragic, that the mental health of young girls continues to decline over time? In an age when young women should have more opportunity than ever before, something is going horribly wrong. In her TED talk “ Teach Girls Bravery Not perfection” Reshma Saujani states:
“Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. We’re taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off headfirst. And by the time they’re adults, whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, they’re habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it.”
This doesn’t just impact the education and career choices girls make in life, it also sets them up for failure. We raise girls with high expectations, but coupled with the pressure to look and behave perfectly — places an unreasonable burden on them. Taking risks in life is a lot more fun that chasing perfection.
Such pressure is also compounded by social media. As an old millennial I passed through my own adolescence without the online surveillance of insecure peers. Thank God. Friends and I joke how lucky we are to be sufficiently old that our childhoods and awkward years are not eternally captured in the echo chamber. How can we expect girls to have headspace for changing the world if they are also constantly worrying about documenting their ascent? And if they achieve the climb, do they still have sufficient energy to enjoy the view? It might be commendable for women to “lean in”, but it’s also very human to just say ‘fuck it’.
“Soaring numbers of young women are suffering mental health problems and self-harm as a “selfie culture” heaps pressures on girls, new research suggests.
The statistics from NHS Digital show that 26 per cent of women aged between 16 and 24 reported symptoms of common mental health conditions — a rise from 21 per cent when the study was last done, in 2007.
This makes them the group with the highest risk for mental health problems.”
I lost my virginity at 19, which at the time, seemed long overdue. One of the things that really put me off sleeping with anyone was hearing the bragging from guys in our peer group. “She was like a dead fish”, “he fell asleep during the hand job” and “she puked mid blow-job”. I never wanted to be one of those conversations and hated being witness to those conversations. Almost two decades later, I wonder whether I should have spoken up about such details being shared, but what teenager wants to challenge the status quo of their peer group? Even now, I am so allergic to the prospect of encountering guys I’ve slept with that if I had the option of sleeping with android men and resetting their memory the morning after — I’d take it. It makes me feel old to be almost 20 years away from that line, but honestly, what has really changed in that time? The only difference that looms is the fact that those shitty comments, that me-cocking, can no longer evaporate in time and are instead captured in binary form, wth the threat of infinite reincarnation online.
“Some see sex only in terms of performance, where what counts most is the boy enjoying it. I asked a 15-year-old about her first sexual experience. She replied: “I think my body looked OK. He seemed to enjoy it.” Many girls seem cut off from their own sense of pleasure or intimacy. The main marker of a “good” sexual encounter is only if he enjoyed it. Girls and young women are under a lot of pressure to give boys and men what they want, to become a real life embodiment of what the boys have watched in porn, adopting exaggerated roles and behaviors and providing their bodies as mere sex aids. Growing up in today’s porn culture, girls quickly learn that they are service stations for male gratification and pleasure.”
When asked, “How do you know a guy likes you?,” an 8th grade girl replied: “He still wants to talk to you after you [give him oral sex].” A male high school student said to a girl: “If you [give me oral sex] I’ll give you a kiss.” Girls are expected to provide sex acts for tokens of affection, and are coached through it by porn-taught boys. A 15-year-old girl said she didn’t enjoy sex at all, but that getting it out of the way quickly was the only way her boyfriend would stop pressuring her and watch a movie.
7th grade girls are increasingly seeking help on what to do about requests for naked images. Receiving texts like “send me a picture of your tits” is an almost daily occurrence for many young girls. The girl asks: “How do I say no without hurting his feelings?”
As the Plan Australia/Our Watch report found, girls are tired of being pressured for images they don’t want to send, but they seem resigned to send them anyways because of how normal the practice has become. Boys then typically use the images as a form of currency, to swap and share with their friends. Often times boys will use the revealing pics to humiliate girls publicly if there is a bad break up.”
As Peggy Orenstein points out in her book “Girls and Sex”, it’s a fine line that women and girls have to walk when it comes to sex and body image. We need to be sufficiently attractive without being distracting and open to sex, but not slutty.” In an extract taken from that book, she states:
“ Female artists, they insist, are taking control (or at least are being marketed as taking control) of a hypersexualized industry that too often exploits women. Yes, these women may be products, but they are also *producers*. The decision to twerk on-stage, or twirl on a poll, or dance in one’s drawers around a fully clothed man, or to pose nude on the cover of a magazine is now a woman’s alone: rather than capitulating, they are actually reclaiming their sexuality. Yet those performers still work within a system that, for the most part, demands women look and present their bodies in a particular way in order to be heard, in order to be seen, in order to work. Successfully manipulating that system to their advantage by, say, nominally reimagining the same old strip club clichés may get them rich, it may get them famous, but it shouldn’t be confused with creating actual change. Artists such as Gaga or Rihanna or Beyoncé or Miley or Nicki or Iggy or Kesha or Katy or Selena may not be puppets, but they aren’t necessarily sheroes either. They’re shrewd strategists, spinning commodified sexuality as a choice, one that may be profitable but is no less constraining, ultimately, either to female artists or to regular girls. So the question is not whether pop divas are expressing or exploiting their sexuality as much as why the choices for women remain so narrow, why the fastest route to the top as a woman in a sexist entertainment world (just as for ordinary girls on social media) is to package your sexuality, preferably in the most extreme, attention-getting way possible.”