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Healthy Aggression in Girls

Anger and physical aggression in girls and women is typically deemed inappropriate. We are taught to deny, suppress and hide these feelings, but that's not necessarily the healthiest response.
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My third grade teacher, Mrs. Gray, called my mom at home one day to tell her that she was worried about me playing soccer all of the time with the boys at recess. "She's the only girl and I'm afraid it's too rough for her. She might get hurt," she said. Thankfully my mom just reported this call to me, but made no judgment or set any rules that forbade me from continuing my recess behavior. The next day, I was back out on the soccer field.

Last week I went to see Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, "Ellen Page) who has pretty much resigned her 17-year-old life to pleasing her mom through entering beauty pageants. She is suffering from boredom and self-esteem issues because she hasn't found anything that really inspires her in her small Texas town. One day she tries out (in secret) for the roller derby and makes the team. She learns how to skate fast, weave in and out of other derby girls, do some tricks, and occasionally knock down some of her opponents. Ultimately she finds her power through the physical activity (and friendships) of the derby.

I am not advising knocking other girls down as a self-esteem tool, but I am suggesting that it is crucial for girls to have an outlet to express their physical drive and aggression.

Anger and physical aggression in girls and women is typically deemed inappropriate. We are taught to deny, suppress and hide these feelings. When they do show up, we tend to feel shame or guilt and try even harder to rein them in. This doesn't always work out so well.

"Girls' aggression comes out in other forms when it is reined in physically... Girls turn it against themselves: through eating disorders, self-mutilation, hypercriticism about their talents and bodies, and depression." says Sharon Lamb, clinical psychologist and author of The Secret Lives of Girls. In other words, when not permitted to express their aggression outwardly, girls 'aggress' against themselves.

The taboo of physical aggression for girls and women can show up in another form called "relational aggression." You got it -- the Mean Girls stuff.

"This is not about guns. Rarely even about fists... The weapons are subtle and sophisticated -- whispers, lies, the upward rolling of an eyeball, the kind of backstabbing that does not require a knife," says Susan Wellman, national expert in the field of relational aggression and founder of The Ophelia Project.

There is one place where aggression in girls is generally supported: sports. The roller derby is a fine example. The problem is that many schools across the country, in order to save money, have either eliminated their physical education programs or drastically cut them. Not only is this a physical health issue for girls (and boys), but a psychological one.

"When we deny women aggressive possibilities, we potentially diminish their being," says University of California anthropologist Victoria Burbank.

"Being a full human being means having the capacity for both compassion and anger and frustration. Along with the former comes the ability to care; with the latter the ability to act aggressively and be angry," says Sharon Lamb.

What if girls could own their aggression and even felt entitled to it? What would that look like beyond the playing field? What would that feel like?

I don't think I'll be joining up with the roller derby anytime soon, but I am sure glad I played some soccer in my school days.