August 6, 2012 / Sexism, Unity

Teenage Girls: Off-Limits or Open Season?


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

When did it become acceptable to publicly bully teenage girls? We live in a combative culture where girls are being bombarded with messages of not being good enough. What does it tell girls who are watching, looking for signs of their own normalcy?

With the Olympics in full swing, there’s no shortage of this type of behavior. By now we’re all familiar with Gabby Douglas and her extraordinary achievements in gymnastics. Last week she became the first African-American to win the all-around individual gold medal, just 48 hours after helping her team take the gold in the team competition. What are people talking about? Her hair.  As one article  pointed out, she was following regulations like everyone was expected to do:

For the record, Gabby wore her hair in the same style as her teammates. It’s regulation to have their hair in a ponytail, out of their face and tucked away. It’s interesting that no one talked about Ali Reisman’s stray ends, or Jordyn Wieber’s dullness.

It’s not just the overt messages flying around social media that are damaging to girls, and it isn’t always so overt. If you reread the above quote, you’ll notice that in her effort to defend Miss Douglas, the writer points out “flaws” of two other young gymnasts.  A New York Times article praising the 16-year-old uses the word puny to describe her stature. At 4′ 11″ is she small? Yes. Puny? Hardly.

Olympic Weightlifters are being targeted for being “too masculine” or having “something wrong with them.” Zoe Smith, an 18-year-old young woman who can lift 267 pounds, fought back, saying, “We, as any women with an ounce of self-confidence would, prefer our men to be confident enough in themselves to not feel emasculated by the fact that we aren’t weak and feeble.” Good for her!

Olympics aside, there have been other teenagers targeted. We know, for example, that Kathy Griffin called 17-year-old Willow Palin a “dirty whore” and a “future porn star.” Remember when Demi Lovato went into rehab at age 18 to work through eating disorders and cutting? Those are signs of very serious underlying issues. Remember the public’s response when she finished? She was healthier and had gained some weight during treatment, and all anyone wanted to talk about was how “chunky” she had gotten. Of Lovato’s original response to the criticism, one gossip columnist wrote she “fired back with a flipped bitch switch.”

The media practically rejoices in mistakes these girls make. Remember then 15-year-old Miley Cyrus’s Vanity Fair photos and Jamie Lynn Spears becoming pregnant at 16? Mainstream media was brutal. Consider, then, that research is showing the human brain isn’t fully developed until we are in our 20s, possibly even our 30s. According to a study at Children’s Hospital Boston, teens’ brains are usually about 80% there, and the last part to fully “connect” is the frontal lobe. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for “judgment, insight, dampening of emotions and impulse control.” They can be academically gifted, yet still have difficulty seeing the consequences of ideas they come up with.

“This begins to explain why these smart little whippersnappers are so incredibly risk-taking and irrational,” says Jensen. “These are people with very sharp brains, but they’re not quite sure what to do with them.”

Does this excuse bad behavior? No. But it means teens need far more understanding and support than they’re being given. That support needs to go beyond name-calling and shaming in the name of entertainment.

The 2008 – 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed depression in adolescent girls is three times that of boys, and the percentage of girls experiencing depression triples between ages 12 and 15. Tami Benton is the executive director of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry and behavioral science at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. In a recent Huffington Post article about the findings, she explained that changing hormones combined with social pressures are major contributing factors.

Though she acknowledged that those stressors also affect boys, Benton said that social pressures can be much higher on girls. The physical and hormonal changes taking place at the same time those pressures kick in could make females more vulnerable.

Girls are learning it is okay to tear apart teens who are struggling with eating disorders, weight, self-harm, addiction, or any other issues they may be experiencing. If you have any of those problems, there is something terribly wrong with you. Don’t get fat, but don’t be too healthy, either. Your body may be “perfect”, but it doesn’t count if your hair isn’t just right. Be strong, but not too strong. Fighting back when bullied makes you bitch. Being a typically moody teenager makes you a whore. These are the kinds of pressures girls may internalize, which can lead to depression.

We’re so busy freaking out over a 14-year-old who had plastic surgery out of desperation to stop the torment of being bullied, we aren’t talking about the fact that over 200,000 children, 13 – 19 years old did the same in 2009. We’re so engrossed in toddler beauty pageants with spray-tanned 6-year-olds wearing false teeth, or flippers, covering missing teeth or teeth deemed too small or crooked, we’re neglecting to have discussions teaching little girls they’re beautiful exactly as they are, and that beauty isn’t all there is in life.

Granted, Demi Lovato was 18 when she went into rehab, and Zoe Smith is 18, which means technically they are no longer underage, but they are still very young, nonetheless. By picking over girls who are minors, we have lost our sense of common decency. Children should automatically be excluded from being on the receiving end of this kind of bully behavior, regardless of whether or not they are high profile. The pressure to be perfect is relentless, it starts far too young, and with no two models of perfection the same, the confusion must be absolutely dizzying.