Crisis among Teenage Girls
Spring, a time to enjoy the beauty of Mother Earth! This is a season when the feminine is honored, Mother’s Day in May, and in many weddings that showcase the bride.
But as I have been reading in Dr. Stephen Hinshaw’s newly released book, The Triple Bind (2009), our girls are in crisis: growing up female in today’s society is perilous.
Working as an educator in San Francisco Bay Area high schools, I myself have observed teen girls who look lost, vacant and cosmetized, seemingly distant, with little or no emotional connection. I saw their effort to look the same and was often confused by how similar they all looked. Some were stunningly beautiful, an result of artful self-presentation.
I struggled within myself to pinpoint the cause of this phenomenon, and was greatly interested in the interviews with present day teen girls in Hinshaw’s book. The girls themselves could not articulate the pressures they felt. It was a “problem that has no name,” as Betty Friedan had described the malaise of women in the Feminine Mystique. This “problem of no name” has surfaced again today in that teen girls cannot articulate their conflicted thoughts or feelings. The cultural pressures for them are so subliminal, so subtly pervasive, that they cannot be seen or identified.
I know from experience that these are the worst kinds of feelings, the unnamed ones.
Reading Hinshaw’s book, I realized that my personal observations were only the tip of the iceberg in the crisis facing teenage girls in our culture today. The statistics and reports that Hinshaw gives in Triple Bind are alarming in the extreme: 25% of teen girls are at risk in ways that include an increase in eating disorders, depression, and even a spike in suicide. The number of these incidents are often hidden and underreported. We tend to think that opportunities for girls have improved and that their academic achievement is on the rise. Though the facts are certainly true, these advances for girls come at great cost.
The Triple Bind, as described by Hinshaw are created by these conflicting cultural expectations for teenage girls:
-They must be good girls in the traditional feminine sense: empathetic, sensitive, ethical
-They must compete as never before like boys traditionally did: for grades, in sports, in career and college prep
-They must adhere to a narrow physical standard of beauty: thin, pretty, and alluring
These three expectations obviously work against each other, making them impossible to achieve in concert.
Grateful for the naming of this enormous, cultural problem for girls, I was most eager to find some solutions. And Hinshaw does give some direction for possible solutions in the last chapter that include ways to look outside the narrow cultural definitions, through: community service, the arts, and a new feminism.
My own impulse was to write a book for teenage girls, Girl in the Mirror, released just this month on Amazon. Since I am a storyteller as well as an educator, I wanted to share a Greek myth, the feminine quest of a mortal maid, to inspire and direct teen girls. I placed the myth inside a modern plot and retold the myth’s ending, per critiques of the 1970s feminists. That myth is “Psyche and Eros.”
It is significant to me that the first problem facing Psyche is confronting Aphrodite (goddess of beauty and sexual allure) or be destroyed by Aphrodite. My sense is that is still the primal confrontation of all young women today in our culture. The four impossible tasks or challenges given to Psyche by Aphrodite are those required for female “individuation” or self-actualization.
This story is thousands of years old and speaks a universal truth, one that gave me personal guidance in my own development as a single mother in a professional world.
The modern plot in Girl in the Mirror centers on the conflict of dating violence, an issue of current concern. Though I had not read Hinshaw’s book when I began researching and writing my young adult novella, I had seen the problem. My way of describing it was that the girls were “lost in images.” I knew that they were removed from who they were; they simply were not present.
My wish is that teenage girls embark on their own heroic quest to find a unique identity that transcends outside cultural pressures. I am now creating workshops based on the elements of Girl in the Mirror and hope to implement them in service organizations and high schools.
Spring is a time of renewal and transformation. We can hope for new priorities for our young women and a new journey towards self-discovery.