What is happening to our daughters when they hit puberty? In a recent report from the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF), self-esteem and mental health in girls almost universally plummets between the ages of nine and 13.
Check out just a few of their recent stats:
• 36 per cent of grade six girls say they are self-confident, but only 14 per cent of grade 10 girls do.
• 25 per cent of both grade six boys and girls reported feeling depressed some time, but by grade 10, girls are three times more likely than boys to be depressed.
• In one study, 50 per cent of girls reported wishing they were someone else.
The big question is why is this happening to our girls? And just as importantly, what can we do about it?
From a developmental perspective, adolescence is the time of discovering one’s identity. Youth are also transitioning into the role of adult and hate anything childlike or associated with immaturity.
They imitate and pine for anything grown up to prove their progress forward into adulthood, which can create stress and pressure. Compounding that stress are feelings of grief and loss as they see their easy-going childhood days slipping away.
So imagine now, that you are young budding tween girl in North America in 2016. How does one “do” being a women successfully?
While your own mother serves as a role model, so too does the greater culture of TV, movies, magazines, advertising, music videos, games, apps, billboards, YouTube and clothing retailers. They all paint a picture of what it means to be a women and sadly, the research from the Canadian Women’s Foundation reveals that the pervasive message is this: Be sexual, be beautiful, and by beautiful we mean thin. Be voiceless and passive.
"36 per cent of grade six girls say they are self-confident, but only 14 per cent of grade 10 girls do."
The American Psychological Association (APA) states that the sexualization of girls is the main reason for the decline in their mental health. The organization defines sexualization as “when a person’s main value is believed to come from their sexual appearance -- rather than their intelligence or other qualities -- and when they are held to unrealistic standards of physical attractiveness.”
Now, imagine you are 14 and you don’t want to be sexual yet. Imagine your body is rounding out from the pubescent surge of hormones. If society has taught our girls their singular value comes from looking thin and finding a boy to assure their worth, these girls will have a huge surge in feelings of inferiority and inadequacy.
And so the cycle starts: a girl will think she doesn’t have what is needed to be worthy within this society, low self-esteem ensues, depression follows and self harm begins.
Here are some more shocking numbers from the CWF’s report:
• Almost half a million girls posted YouTube videos of themselves asking “am I pretty or ugly?”
• 90 per cent of girls say the fashion industry puts a lot of pressure on them to be thin.
• In B.C., 60 per cent of girls who were actually too thin, said they were too fat.
• The number of girls aged 18 and younger who had breast implants has tripled in one year.
• 50 per cent of grade six girls are dieting, this increases to 60 per cent by grade 10.
What can we do about the sexualization of our daughters?
Well, my own daughter Lucy, now 21 and a third-year university student, struggled in adolescence to accept her strong athletic body which did not conform to the skinny beauty ideal her peers were striving for. Now she enjoys being strong and muscular over willowy and is using her own experience to empower other girls.
"50 per cent of grade six girls are dieting, this increases to 60 per cent by grade 10."
She and a co-facilitator lead a program called “Go Girls” established by Big Sisters and Big Brothers.
The program was established to help young girls identified as high risk, who need extra support in the area of body image and self esteem. Her decision to volunteer with Go Girls was because of her desire to help others and to cement her own convictions while pushing back against the cultural standards that crush girls’ esteem.
What can you do?
1. Ask your school counsellors if such a program is available in your school or take the initiative to start a similar group.
2. Begin discussing the cultural phenomena of sexualization with your daughter and listen to her opinion while helping her shape a healthier perspective.
4. Provide alternative messages through alternate media sources. Buy magazines like New Moon instead Seventeen.
5. Watch and read stories with strong female heroines from The Paper Bag Princess and Harriet the Spy through to Katniss Everdeen.
6. Bookmark Common Sense Media and use the resources there to help make select media consumption.
7. Model healthy attitudes and think before you speak. For example: never ask your daughter “does this make me look fat?” And don't comment: “Wow, you look great! Have you lost weight?”
8. Speak up and cast your vote when something offends your sensibility. Marketers will listen. In 2014, Apple and Google removed a Barbie “plastic surgery” app that was designed for children to perform cosmetic surgery on a virtual girl, allowing them to make her “slim and beautiful.”
9. Discuss gender issues when they make the news. Trudeau’s recent cabinet assignments come to mind.
10. Forward or post this article so other parent become aware.
Please add your favourite resources for girls' self-esteem in the comment section below!
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