Repeatedly, I encounter girls who fall at one of two ends of a spectrum. There are those who appear ‘tough’ and tell me they are more emotionally similar to guys than girls. These girls say they don’t really like their female peers—“we just don’t get along,” “girls bring too much drama,” or “I prefer hanging out with guys.” And this point of view does not necessarily apply to sexual attraction. It means they prefer friendships with guys. At the other end of the spectrum are those girls who focus their attention on attracting male attention and desire through their appearance, sexual availability and easy, even ditzy, demeanor.
Too often our culture seems to present only these two narrow options to girls, join the guys or look hot enough for the guys to notice. If a girl wants to appear “strong” and emotionally controlled, she may believe she must become like a guy and take on a masculine attitude. These girls often feel a vicarious sense of power by being let in on and by being a part of male conversations and by being seen as more robust than their softer feminine cohorts.
If, on the other hand, a girl is consumed with wanting to appear attractive enough for male attention then she may find herself constantly working on her appearance and relentlessly pursuing the latest hot beauty products. She will suppress her personality so all the guy sees is a blank slate on which he can create the personality that suits him. These girls uncritically believe the media hype that tells them the hotter they appear the more likely they will win male attention-- and that brings a passive sort of power to some teenage girls.
One disturbing aspect of this dichotomy is that the pursuit of either persona usually means a girl will also judge and put down those girls who do not fit in the same box. While those who seek male friendship over female friendship may carry self-hatred for their own femininity, one-dimensional, girlie girls may project themselves as overly emotional and weak to the point of self-parody.
There is no common ground. And as rigid as these two poles may be, for a surprising number of girls the choice may appear to be an easy way to remove the anxiety and pressure of finding a way to fit in.
Of course, constricting her options to two choices puts limits on a girl’s personality development. As they adhere to being a “girlie girl” or “one of the guys,” they miss a wealth of time and opportunity to realize and fully actualize their own distinctive personalities.
Most poignantly, girls who manage the real and scary anxieties present in adolescence by becoming overly reliant on male attention or by denying their own femininity tend to have fewer emotionally safe relationships with other girls. Girls who develop an internalized fear of their own gender often carry a kind of disdain for themselves and for other girls and women. Yet, research shows that healthy/safe/intimate female friendship is an enormous cushion for girls and women, because it helps depression and anxiety and helps their pursuit of self-promoting goals.
If you are a parent or work with girls on a regular basis, take the time to understand the world from their perspective. When you hear quick, all or nothing, statements, “girls can’t be trusted,” or “I don’t really like girls, too much drama,” or “girls are manipulative,” or “girls will stab you in the back,” your radar should go up. Ask her why she feels this way, listen to her stories, empathize, validate, and show her that a woman can listen to her wholeheartedly without control or criticism. Allow her to think things through out loud with you, while you offer a supportive sounding board. When you disagree, model for her how to do so directly and respectively with warmth and attentiveness to the relationship you share. In this way, she will begin to experience the intimacy and safety that female relationships can provide.
Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Click here to follow Jill on Facebook or here to follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber