A new book reviews some of the pressures girls face in today’s culture and what we can do to help them.
In recent years, there have been alarming reports of increased anxiety among young people. Trends like the growing influence of social media, increased competition to get into college, and changing sexual norms put tremendous pressures on our kids.
But many of these pressures are exacerbated for girls—especially girls of color, argues psychologist Lisa Damour, author of the new book Under Pressure. Girls face headwinds that boys don’t, including a narrow standard of beauty, prejudice around their abilities, and pressures to be sexual before they are ready. Her book is a call to parents and mentors to both understand these forces and help equip girls to handle them, for the sake of their mental health.
Damour’s book is full of case studies that help illuminate the problems. For example, in one chapter she tells the story of Nicki, a ninth-grade girl suffering from extreme anxiety and sleeplessness. When Damour asks Nicki why she can’t sleep, she learns that Nicki stays up late worrying about everything—unfinished homework, “stupid posts” she’s written on social media, strained relationships with friends, a gymnastics team she doesn’t enjoy. But one day Nicki shows up in Damour’s office happy to have a broken foot: It gives Nicki a “real” excuse to quit the gymnastics team without letting anyone down, as if her deteriorating mental health weren’t reason enough.
Therein lies one of the key points of Damour’s book: Girls are often influenced by subtle and not-so-subtle messages to believe that their role in life is to please others and to be “perfect” rather than take care of themselves and follow their own dreams. This not only leads to anxiety and other mental health problems, writes Damour, but plays a role in disempowering girls and women, leaving them vulnerable to mental health challenges and predatory behavior from boys and men.
What happens when girls stand up for themselves and say no? They are called inconsiderate at best or a diva or bitch at worse, writes Damour. Rather than face difficult social consequences, girls often just acquiesce.
“Put simply, our daughters have gotten the powerful message that they are expected to accommodate others’ requests,” writes Damour. “This leaves many girls feeling as Nicki does: spread thin, strung out, and sorely out of step with their own wishes or interests.”
Of course, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to teach our girls to navigate a culture of sexism. And it’s important that we fight the long-term battle to change the messages that young girls and women are receiving. But in the environment we live in today, we can also serve the next generation of girls by arming them with information and guidance about the pressures they face. Here are some of the tips Damour suggests in her book.
Pay attention to how you pressure girls to say yes
As products of our culture, we all feel pressure to make girls “behave.” We fear that if our daughters act rudely or inconsiderately, it will reflect badly on them as well as us.
While girls may have to do certain things they don’t want to do—such as visit a dull relative and be polite—we often pressure them to do things that should be optional, like joining a team or inviting someone they hardly know to a party or taking an additional AP class. “Our daughters shouldn’t agree to do many of the optional things that make them unhappy, and we shouldn’t miss out on opportunities to help them become skilled at saying no,” writes Damour.
Illuminate the pressures they face in asserting their needs
“Whether it’s learning how to say no with confidence or finding other ways to hold their own, our daughters need to know how to stand up for themselves,” writes Damour. But that may mean more than just being direct, outspoken, and unapologetic.
We need only look to the recent 2016 presidential race to see how strong, outspoken women are held to different standards than men. “A style that is viewed as assertive in men is frequently called pushy in women,” writes Damour, and girls and women who act more “masculine” are often criticized or punished for doing so. In fact, one study found that women who were seen acting just as assertive or “pushy” as men in the workplace were considered less competent and valued significantly less than their male counterparts.
If we help girls understand the discrimination they face, it becomes easier for them to decide when to be more direct and when it makes sense to take an indirect approach to challenging authority or getting their needs met.
Challenge the language police
“It’s not unusual to come across articles in the popular press maintaining that females apologize too much…and undermine their authority by sprinkling sentences with ‘just,’” writes Damour. “Not surprisingly, well-meaning advocates for girls and women urge them to drop these verbal habits in order to sound more assertive.”
But asking women and girls to change the way they speak adds to the cultural assumption that the way men speak is “right” and the way women speak is “wrong.” Instead, says Damour, we should honor the way girls use language to show empathy and concern for others’ feelings, and to show humility and grace when they are wrong. “Rather than critiquing how girls speak, we might recognize that they intuitively deploy a sophisticated set of linguistic strategies to turn people down without hurting their feelings or damaging a valued relationship,” writes Damour.
Instead of urging girls to mimic boys in the way they speak, we can help them reflect on the ways they express themselves in different situations and what their goals are in communicating. That way, they can be empowered to choose their words carefully (or not), as needed.
Help girls embrace their negative feelings
Girls get angry and sad and frustrated just like everyone else—but, for them, these feelings can often trigger anxiety. That’s because many believe they shouldn’t feel the way they feel and worry they’ll be judged.
Parents can inadvertently add to the problem by trying to divert those feelings rather than understand them. Even Damour does this sometimes: “Often, we’re sitting at dinner on a weeknight when one of my girls gripes about a classmate or a teacher. At these times, I can be quick to minimize or dismiss her complaint with, ‘Well, that kid probably has something hard going on. Your job is to be kind.’ Or ‘I’m sure your teacher is very busy.’” This kind of redirection discounts a girl’s feelings.
While there’s nothing wrong with encouraging kindness, if we give girls the message that they shouldn’t have negative feelings, it undermines their ability to read their own emotions correctly. Instead, we can show curiosity about how they’re feeling, allowing them to express what’s bothering them and figure out what their emotions mean.
Don’t emphasize looks too much
Girls and women face enormous pressures to look a certain way, and our media make it crystal-clear that society largely values them for how they look and not who they are.
This preoccupation with looks can undermine girls’ confidence. For example, one study showed that commenting on a young woman’s appearance hurt her cognitive performance. A parent’s job is to showcase what is great about their daughter’s intelligence, sense of humor, creativity, leadership, or other inner qualities, writes Damour—qualities she can deliberately nurture.
It can also be helpful to point out the problems with cultural messages they’re hearing, especially to older girls—for example, how the news focuses on a woman politician’s wardrobe or a pop singer’s looks instead of her talent. This can help girls see the discrimination they face, arming them to withstand it.
Parents can also help girls feel good about their bodies by encouraging them to participate in team sports—particularly those that don’t require a particular body aesthetic—and enjoy sensory pleasures, like cuddling under a blanket at night, using a fragrant body lotion, or savoring a delicious dessert.
Be aware of the extra pressures on girls of color
The headwinds girls face are often worse for girls of color because of racial discrimination. For example, one report showed that African-American girls were nearly six times more likely to be suspended from class for “unfeminine” behavior—like being candid or assertive or speaking out against injustice—than white girls, says Damour.
Even subtle forms of discrimination can take a toll, wearing at a girl’s self-esteem and making her on edge in everyday interactions. Not knowing when a teacher or a friend might deny her experience of racism makes girls of color wonder if they truly belong.
It’s important to listen to girls when they complain of bias or are confused about how to respond. A supportive family can help buffer against the harms of bigotry and sexism, says Damour. Nevertheless, we all must recognize that racism and bias exert enormous pressures on girls of color and do what we can to fight these pernicious forces wherever possible.
Damour’s book is a call to recognize the ways we inadvertently shape girls to be people-pleasers and help them combat those tendencies to acquiesce. As the fight against sexism continues, we can arm girls to face discrimination wisely and help them grow into the happy, strong, and independent women we hope they will become.
“As parents, we’re at our best when we help our girls advance, not retreat, in the face of the challenges and opportunities they will inevitably encounter,” writes Damour. “Because girls who learn to face their fears find out just how brave they can be.”
BY JILL SUTTIE