Large numbers of American girls face a crisis during adolescence. Numerous studies document the disturbing trends that affect girls during this vulnerable time. Girls' IQ scores drop. Their grades in math and science decline dramatically. The confidence, curiosity, and willingness to take risks that mark their childhood years are replaced by unassertiveness, boredom, and a cleaving to the status quo. Girls at this age become prone to eating disorders, self-mutilation, and depression. Even girls without obvious signs of distress undergo a curious diminishing, as if all the interests and energies of their childhood must now be channelled into maintaining a narrow and alien definition of self.
What happens to girls as they grow up? What causes this diminishment of self? What transforms them from the happy, confident people they are in childhood to the self-critical, sullen, and frightened adolescents they become?
Psychologist Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls talks about the "isms" that meet girls at the threshhold of adolescence--sexism, capitalism, and lookism. Who girls can be is no longer a wide-open playing field. They find themselves judged by how well they conform to a specific gender role.
An enormous source of information about what it means to be female is the popular media. Music and music videos, movies, television, magazines, and commercials, many of them aimed at teenagers, all carry a loaded message--to be successful as a woman means adhering to a highly stylized script that defines for girls what womanhood is.
Modern girls encounter an incredible contradiction in the messages they receive at this vulnerable time in their lives. On the one hand they are told that they can do anything, have it all, be whoever they want to be. At the same time they are bombarded with images that dictate to them a very particular definition of who and what they should be. The overwhelming sense of these messages is that a girl's value is measured in direct proportion to her ability to be attractive to men.
"A girl might be bright, friendly, competent, and attractive, but without a boyfriend she lacks social validation of these positive attributes. It is as though being selected by a boy tells others that a girl is worthwhile." This is the conclusion sociologists Lott and Bush drew from their research with high school girls.
Out of a dozen-plus teen magazines at my local newsstand, all but one revolve around girls' relationships with boys. The lone exception is geared for a younger, prepubescent audience. A sampling of these magazines reveals articles like these: "41 Ways To Make Him Swoon," "Kissing Tips," "Must-Have Fashion," "The Coolest Prom Ever," "High School Sex Scandal." The "Total Turn- Him-On Guide" in April's Young and Modern tells girls to stand tall, show their intelligence, and maintain their own interests-- but to do all these things within the context of...