Suffer the Children

The case against labeling and medicating children, and effective alternatives for treating them

What's the Matter With Our Daughters?

The brightest girls are in the most trouble of all.

When Mary Piper's Reviving Ophelia appeared on the scene almost 20 years ago, it sounded a wake-up call about the plight of teen-aged girls in America. Pipher's interviews with hundreds of adolescent girls indicated that no matter how bright, motivated, and confident girls were in their early years, when they hit adolescense their spirits seemed to break apart. They drown like Opelia in Shakespeare's play, Hamlet. Losing their earlier resiliency and optimism, our girls crash and burn. Self doubt and anxiety gnaw at their souls and spirits.

One aspect of this fracturing of the spirits and souls of adolescent girls, according to Pipher, is that they experience a conflict between their authentic selves, on the one hand, and their desire to be feminine—that is sexy and attractive to males—on the other. Authentic motivation and the will to achieve become lost to the desire to please others. The golden kernal of a girl's authentic self stops unfolding and seeking the light. Girls become "stuck" at the pre-teen stage of development. Piper reminds us ominously of a quote by the French novelist Stendhal: "All geniuses born women are lost to the public good."

Pipher's book sounded the alarm that American culture's promoting of skinny, sexy, make-up drenched images of femininity is poisonous to female development. Our adolescent girls are in trouble, she wrote, and we must do something to save them. Yet, it seems that very little has changed in this direction. If anything, the crashing and burning of adolescent girls that Pipher observed 20 years ago seems even to have spread wider and youthward, striking ever younger girls in today's society.

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Recently, Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. wrote a popular blog in Psychology Today called "The Trouble with Bright Girls." Halvorson's conclusion, based on a series of research studies, was that fifth grade girlls are in trouble—and the brightest girls are in the most trouble of all. "More often than not, says Halvorson, "bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice." These differing beliefs come from the fact that boys are told to try harder early on, and believe that they will succeed if they work hard enough. Girls, on the other hand, come to believe that qualities like intelligence and goodness "are qualities you either have or you don't." According to Halvorson, these differing beliefs lead boys, later on, to try harder, whereas girls give up more easily if they don't succeed the first time because they fear that they don't have the native ability to succeed.

Author Peggy Orenstein looks at the problem of American girlhood from another angle, in her alarming book Cinderella ate my Daughter. Orenstein believes that our culture's emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness at ever younger ages is increasing girls’ vulnerability to their souls and spirits being destroyed with eating disorders, depression, and risky sexual behavior. One cannot help thinking of little Charlize Theron, whose sexualized images in the French edition of Vogue caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic.

Much of the emphasis on precocious sexiness, Orenstein notes, comes from the marketing departments of large corporations that profit mightily from selling cosmetics and sexy clothes to ever younger populations of females. "Pink, pretty, and 'sassy' has become a gigantic business" says Orenstein.

All of these observations are backed up by my own experience in the therapy room. I have been seeing more and more girls in my practice who have stopped growing and, even worse, have stopped believing in themselves—despite having the kindest and most well-intentioned parents who would do anything to save them. "I just want my daughter back," a frightened mother told me yesterday, despairing that her talanted, intelligent 18-year-old daughter seemed to be stalled irreversibly, just as she should be soaring toward the brightest of futures. "What's wrong with our daughters," she asked me, her voice full of pain. "When I was her age, I believed I could achieve anything I wanted to achieve," she continued. We talked about Reviving Ophelia. "Of course I read it," she said, "but I never thought it would happen to my daughter. We've been so careful with her."

All I could do was to validate this mother's feelings. I told her that I was seeing the same thing evey day with the middle school and high school girls in my practice. These girls had so much self doubt and self-consciousness that they were afraid to go to school. They were obsessed with media, with having friends, with low self-esteem and poor self-image, with how many friends "liked" them on Facebook. They had lost the self-confidence of their girlhoods when they loved school, got straight A's, and excelled at sports. These girls were drowning in depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and despair. Their parents were shocked, disbelieving, dismayed. "What has happened to my daughter?" parents ask me day after day. And I can only tell them that it is a trend that I don't fully understand as yet.

The girls themselves tell me that it isn't "cool" to be smart, because other kids turn on them and accuse them of being teachers' "pets." "Boys don't like smart girls," eighteen-year-old Bridget told me the other day. Bridget had been a straight A student in high school, but now she was barely passing her classes at college. She now even questioned her long-cherished ideal of going to nursing school.

"I couldn't stand the pressure," 15-year-old Angela confided to me the other day. Angela had convinced her mother to home-school her, but even without the social and academic pressures that were crushing her at the elite public school she had attended, she was still struggling with bulemia and crippling anxiety.

I stand in the middle of this crisis as perplexed and dismayed as any of the mothers who consult me. I help their daughters, one at a time, taking it day by day, challenge by challenge. But I feel like my efforts are small, compared to the cultural currents that are drowning our daughters.

Of course there are exceptions to the trend identified by Pipher, Halvorson, Orenstein, and my own experience. Many girls are successful at achieving their goals, graduating medical school, law school, dentistry school and having the careers they dreamed of. As a therapist, my sample is limited to the girls who are stalled on the threshold, stuck and floundering, whose parents have encouraged them to try therapy when all else has failed. And yet I know the crisis of young womanhood extends far beyond the confines of my office.

I have no doubt that the crisis is, at least in part, the result of what Pipher and Orenstein indicate in their books—a culture that markets unwholesome and dangerous images and belief systems that, despite the optimistic tide of feminisim in the '60s and '70s, are now pulverizing the souls of our girls and young women. Despite the advances in ecomonic and educational opportunities for women in recent decades, Ophelia is still drowning.  

© Copyright Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.

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Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D., is a family therapist and the author of Suffer the Children: The Case Against Labeling and Medicating and an Effective Alternative.

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