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Facebook, Nice Girls and Self-Worth

What girls say to each other on Facebook matters more than the possible threat of cyberbullying. It reflects what we teach kids about what's important and has real consequences.
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What girls say to each other on Facebook matters more than the possible threat of cyberbullying. It reflects what we teach kids about what's important and has real consequences.

Have you ever seen what happens when a teenage girl posts a new picture on Facebook? If she's popular, friends, boys but mainly other girls, reply with some variation of: "You look beautiful!" "Sexy girl!" "GORGEOUS!!"

They even get specific: "Nice butt!" "I wish my waist was THAT small!!!" "Bitch, (in the good way girls say it these days, of course) you look hot!"

In some alternate universe (and according to several competing superstring theories there are an infinite number) girls are doing this instead:

Posting a photo with a bio test: "I got an A on my advanced bio final today!!!" "No way!" "OMG! SO hot!" or Photo-hugging a book with accompanying post: "Just reading Tristam Shandy. LMFAO!" "Me, too! LMFAO2!" "I am SO SO SO SO SO SO jealous!"

Or talking about her athletic prowess, with accompanying video: "Scored the most awesome goal today! Look at this shot!" "You R AMAZING!" "O.M.G. That was the prettiest goal I've EVER seen." "Marry me!" (That last one always makes me burst out laughing.)

OK, I'll stop now. It's just so much fun over there.

Apparently, it's OK for girls to tout how they look, it's still not OK for girls to share what they accomplish or might be interested in. I am fortunate that most of the teenage girls I know are good, nice people. They are kind to one another. Supportive of their friends. Laugh readily and understand, for the most part, how lucky they are. And, I know that horrible, sometimes tragic, cyberbullying goes on. But, on any given day, it seems that for every genuinely mean girl, there are thousands of nice girls saying flattering things to one another online.

A girl's introduction to Facebook, and other social media sites often starts during early adolescence, when peer acceptance and relationships are most important to social and emotional development, particularly self-esteem.

By interacting in these ways, girls are being nice to one another. They're complimenting each other. They are telling each other something important about the world and their place in it. By the time girls are on Facebook they'd have to be living in the outer reaches of upper Mongolia not to know how important it is to be beautiful in our culture. They want their friends to be happy and succeed in that endeavor. What are the roots of self esteem in this equation? Primarily the way they look. And that's because it's what our culture tells them.

In addition to peer acceptance being important, adolescent girls develop a preoccupation with image. According to multiple research studies conducted by the American Psychological Association, girls are more likely than boys to emulate what they see in magazines, music videos, movies. Just as they are dealing with physical and emotional changes due to puberty (which always means healthy weight gain), they also have to deal with the unrealistic and unattainable cultural demands for female thinness, beauty and sexiness. Of course, ethnicity, culture, class and sexual orientation are important factors. But for girls of color and ethnic minorities, the implications are even less understood and perhaps even greater in terms of self-image.

Why does it matter why girls post these photos? Or, how they feel their friends' responses? Why is the timing, in terms of their socialization and development, crucial?

Here's what the American Psychological Association has to say:

Between the ages of 8 and 11 years, girls tend to be androgynous. They view themselves as strong and confident and are not afraid to say what they think. However, as they cross over into adolescence, girls begin to experience pressure toward more rigid conceptions of gender roles; they become more concerned with how women are "supposed to behave'' and with their physical and sexual attractiveness.

Early adolescence is particularly stressful on adolescent girls' friendships and peer relations, and often means a marked increase in indirect relational aggression. (Mean girls... ) Relational aggression is both more common in girls and more distressful to them. It includes behaviors such as spreading rumors or threatening withdrawal of friendship. It starts happening as girls negotiate power relations and, this is really important, affirm or resist conventional constructions of femininity. That when photographs and their comments come in to play and have more weight than might otherwise be ascribed to them. The photos and comments have power to define girls. Even girls who do not fit the mold of "traditionally" popular, beautiful and thin girl, if they are well-liked, are supported in this way - through compliments that focus almost entirely on looks, with smatterings of "You're so sweet!" and "You're so nice!" The opposite is also true. That's why cyberbullying can so quickly escalate to cause real harm.

There are several consequences and trends related to dynamic interplay of self image, body image, peer assessment, confidence:

In immediate terms, according to the NYU Child Study Center the emphasis on beauty, particularly an idealized, often sexualized and thin body, has implications for health:

  • Eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression are the most common mental health problems in girls.
  • 59 percent of 5-12th grade girls in one survey were dissatisfied with their body shape.
  • 20-40 percent of girls begin dieting at age 10.
  • By 15, girls are twice as likely to become depressed than boys.
  • Among 5-12th graders, 47 percent said they wanted to lose weight because of magazine pictures.
  • Health risks accompany girls' drop in self-esteem due to risky eating habits, depression,and unwanted pregnancy.
  • Girls aged 10 and 12 (tweens) are confronted with "teen" issues such as dating and sex, at increasingly earlier ages. 73 percent of 8-12 year-olds dress like teens and talk like teens.

Dr. Anita Gurian, a clinical assistant professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, describes it this way:

Starting in the pre-teen years, there is a shift in focus; the body becomes an all consuming passion and barometer of worth. Self-esteem becomes too closely tied to physical attributes; girls feel they can't measure up to society standards. Between 5th and 9th grade, gifted girls, perceiving that smarts aren't sexy, hide their accomplishments.

According to Beauty Redefined, based on studies done in the last five years, 66 percent of adolescent girls wish they were thinner, though only 16 percent are actually overweight.

And it is happening at younger and younger ages: A girl is 10 years-old when she starts emulating models she sees in ads and feeling deficient. Between 20 and 40 percent of 10 year-olds start dieting. Girls start pretending they are not that smart, because "smart" and "sexy" are more often than not portrayed as mutually exclusive binaries.

On a broad cultural scale, the impact of lower self esteem, a loss of a sense of agency and a perception that your worth is bound up in your attractiveness to men has serious consequences for equity. It's why I keep mentioning the movie Miss Representation, which traces the effects of mass media on girls and culture and illustrated the degree to which television, movies, videos, lyrics, magazine, the Internet and advertisements portray images of girls and women in a sexual manner, as the primary model of femininity for girls to emulate to the exclusion of almost everything else.

So, media messages both establish unhealthy, unrealistic ideals of thinness, sexiness and beauty while causing low self-esteem generated by a failure to meet those ideals.

Girls are working this out every day on Facebook. When they collectively post and comment, I think they are grappling with these issues in the way they can best. They acknowledge the reality of the situation that thin and pretty are important (sexy is really good, too), while trying to be supportive and complimentary, to offset the negative consequences of being held to this ridiculous and fetishized ideal of contemporary female beauty.

For me, it's simple, as long as we have gender equity imbalances -- in pay equity, political representation, story-telling (media), resource allocation -- then the currency of a female's worth will remain the way she looks because the primary traditional way of achieving agency in a woman's life has been to align herself with a man with the best access to resources. Resources to which women have had a vicarious relationship: money, property, political power, safety. Undoubtedly women's and girls' position in the world have improved enormously due to the fight for equal rights, but mainstream messages clearly continue to portray the world through the lens of girls and women as fetishized, feminine helpmeets.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the question "Why did she do that?" because it is often wielded as a weapon to blame girls and women for the ways in which they adapt to living in a sexist culture. My daughters, my nieces, their friends and teammates aren't, for the most part, obsessing in a single-minded way on their looks. They're just having fun, messing around with friends online. Yes, there is the usual focus on clothes, appearance, hair -- but they are working hard at being good students, healthy athletes and kind people. And, indeed, my daughters will mock me relentlessly when this posts for my concern since they are "Just fine, Mom!" And, yes, I know that athletics, particularly team sports, are a great way to build a great, healthy body-image for girls. It take more than that, however, to offset the relentless beauty pressure that girls are subjected to (as illustrated in this Dove campaign video that made the rounds last year).

However, it is still unsettling to me that what all of these girls, being educated in one of the fairest, most equitable societies on the planet, still chose to share in public: how they look instead, with the exception of "liking" things, what they do and what their opinions are. It's a tall order for any teen to go out on a limb to do these things -- but for girls in this context, where beauty and smarts are still in conflict and where looks are so important -- it's even harder.

There are many great resources, books and organizations working to change mass media's representation of a girls' value being rooted in her appearance and sex appeal. Check out the following if you are interested:

There is a short list, others can also be found here. In addition to addressing the first world issues of (compared to the rest of the world) affluent and educated girls who can afford to be on FaceBook, there are many organizations with similar goals internationally that you can find here at Amazing Women Rock -- an award winning web site and resource center which was started after its founder, Susan Macaulay, found that "women tend not to "blow their own horns," and as a result miss out on a lot of opportunities that life has to offer" -- that includes telling girls and boys that girls can aspire, with reasonable hope and ambition, to contribute to the greater good by more than just looking good.

Thanks, Likers!