Adolescence is marked by an internal struggle between one's true self and a false projection of self, contends Mary Pipher, Ph.D., and author of Reviving Ophelia, Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (G.P. Putnam, 1994). "Adolescence is when girls experience social pressure to put aside their authentic selves and to display only a small portion of their gifts," Pipher says.
Unfortunately, the social pressures Pipher says your daughter is hitting her head on work to her detriment. Pipher advocates serious cultural change that would alleviate these undue pressures that disorient and depress your girls. Without such alteration, she sees a continuation of the process whereby young girls bury themselves and submit to the social pressures at hand.
The pressure of self-criticism and negative perceptions that Pipher talks about are apparent in the results of research. Surveys show that 40 percent of girls in one Midwestern community thought about suicide. Another study reported by the American Journal of Family Therapy in 1999 found that adolescents thought the way they looked affected their romantic appeal and happiness.
There are numerous elements that make up the complex, complicated, and ambiguous wall that adolescents are bumping into. Here are some of those elements:
- A culture full of sexism and violence against women.
- Judgments based solely on appearance.
- The expectation for girls to be beautiful and sexy.
- Demands to be honest, but not honest enough to hurt someone's feelings.
- Values to be smart, but not so smart as to make males feel less important.
- Promotion of independence, but not complete independence.
- Pressures to have casual sex and abuse substances.
- A milieu full of teen violence.
- The belief that growing up means growing apart from Mom.
The wall made up of these overwhelming factors puts young women in a defensive rather than an offensive position during critical years of growth and emotional development.
Making a Choice
Girls have two choices, to try to fit in or remain true to who they are. If they choose the former, they could very well betray their own values and identity to fit in. If they choose the latter, they may find themselves on the outside.
A bright young woman, sensitive and alert to the sexual innuendoes of her cultural surroundings, may have even more trouble reconciling with the outside world. Despite her preciousness she isn't equipped to emotionally or cognitively handle what she sees. She may become frustrated trying to make sense out of the world that greets her-a world that Pipher says does not make sense in its mixed messages to women.
Deciding What to Do
A girl can respond to all the changes and pressures by conforming to them, withdrawing, becoming depressed, and becoming angry. Most often the course is for girls to respond in all four ways and opt primarily for social acceptance by allowing themselves to split into two selves—an authentic self and a culturally scripted self. For the average girl that translates into a public persona that is the image of who they are supposed to be, Pipher said.
The concern is that young girls are pressured to deny their authentic self, which contributes to their self-esteem, relationships to men, future achievement, and self-satisfaction.