I have been seeing a vertitable deluge of eighth and ninth grade girls lately, all of them struggling to find their self-identity, as well as a social identity to which they feel connected. The girls come to therapy for different reasons: social anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, depression, and, at times, problems with their mothers whom they call controlling and invasive. But whatever the problem that brought these girls to counseling, inevitably the issue of their social identity at school enters into our conversations. Social identity is an important way that girls are defining themselves to themselves and to their peers. Recognizing and being sensitive to a girl's social identity is an important way to make a therapeutic connection with her.
One bright, thirteen-year-old named Eliza explained the to me range of female identities at her school in this way: "There are the gamers (girls who play video games), the tomboys, and the 'girlie girls'." Nerds, she says, tend to be in the same group as gamers. Of course, Eliza continues, some girls like herself fall in between the various groups, sharing some aspects of each.
Eliza considers herself to fall somewhere between the gamers and the tomboys. "It's kind of tough not fitting completely into one group," she told me, but that's where she feels she is. She is not a passionate tomboy and not a passionate gamer. She has a little of each. Eliza tells me that it's more difficult to find friends if one does not fall squarely into one category or another; but at least she feels authentic. She does not need to put on what Alice Miller famously called a "false self"--a self that fits the image of what parents or society expects a her to be. Eliza feels that her self-identity is rooted more from her tight-knit family than in her social group at school.
As for the girlie-girl image, characterized by make up, short skirts, tight blouses, and high heels, Eliza wants nothing to do with it. "It's all about wanting attention from boys," she tells me. "'Girlie girls' are boy crazy and I am so not into that." It's not that Eliza isn't feminine. With blond hair falling softly around her shoulders and dancing blue eyes, Eliza is very pretty. But she does not allow her feminine prettiness to sculpt her identity. Eliza is searching for deeper meaning.
It is almost as if gamers and tomboys construct the girlie girl as "Other"--different from themselves and lower in the social hierarchy. In a sense, this is similar to Simone de Beauvoir's idea in her classic book The Second Sex. De Beauvoir argued that men construct women as "Other," mysterious, and less important than themselves.
This shying away from the "girlie girl" stereotype doesn't mean that Eliza and other gamers and tomboys don't enjoy the company of boys. The benefit of not being a girlie girl, gamers and tomboys tell me, is that they can hang out with boys "without the tension." Having guy friends is a real advantage in an environment where girls can be catty, and where friends are often just "friends for a year."
Gamers and tomboys enjoy associating with their guy friends because they feel that they are are "more loyal friends" and "less mean" than girls in their age group. Girlie girls, they say, seek a different kind of attention from boys. Constantly drawing attention to their physical appearance, they are often cut off from the comfortable comradderie that gamers and tomboys enjoy with the opposite sex. Gamers and tomboys also say that girlie girls tend to be more catty and competitive with other girls for the attentions of boys.
But the girlie girls themselves have a different story to tell, which often diverges from the stereotype into which their peers cast them. From the moment thirteen-year-old Sandra sat down across from me in my office, I had her pegged as a girlie girl. Her luminous black hair fell to her waist, setting off her creamy pale skin. The faintest trace of pink lipstick shimmered on her lips. Her nails were painted stylishly in a variety of soft tones, dusted with tiny sparkles. Although she wore the required uniform of her private school, the subtle feminine touches were striking.
After we talked for awhile and Sandra seemed comfortable, I asked her if she identified herself as a girlie girl. "Oh, yes," she said. "I've always loved pink and sparkly things. My room is completely pink. I loved to play with barbies and dress up in my mother's clothes when I was younger. I hate sports and I don't enjoy hiking." When I asked her if there was a downside to being a girlie girl, she replied "Of course. The worst part is that everyone thinks girlie girls are dumb or ditzy.That is absolutely not true." It certainly wasn't true of Sandra, I reflected, as she was exceptionally intelligent. "It's hard to find friends," Sandra continued." because other girlie girls are so cliquey. And they gossip about girls who are prettier than they are. The tomboys and gamers stay away from us."
"Do you allow the girlie girl image define who you are?" I asked Sandra. She was a bright young woman and I was interested in how much self-insight she had. Sandra reflected for a few moments and then replied candidly, "I used to. I used to think I had to have Coach bags and designer clothes to be happy. But I don't care about those things anymore. They don't define who I am the way they used to." Like Eliza, Sandra says that she feels that her family is more important to who she is than her social identity as a girlie girl.
Many girlie girls tend to define their self-image and the groups they belong to and even by the brands of clothing and shoes that they wear, Sandra tells me. In Sandra's school, some groups of girls wear one brand of clothing, other groups wear other brands. The brand of clothes they wear defines their social group and who their friends are. "Branding" by corporate clothing makers is so powerful that some girls even buy clothes that are identical to their private school uniforms except that they bear a corporate "brand" in the form of a tiny insignia.
The daughter of a surgeon, Sandra tells me that she thinks that every individual brain is unique. "That's why people see the world in such different ways," she continues. "The way I see things is not the same as the way you see them or someone else sees them. This brought us to a conversation about philosophy, which is what Sandra intends to major in when she gets to college.
Not all girlie girls see the world in the same way," she comments, and I understand that she is right. Sandra has given a lot of thought to her future. She hopes to attend a liberal arts college in the east and study philosphy. Sandra had suffered a great deal--more than most girls I have seen in my office. She lost her mother when she was nine. Recently, she had lost her grandparents as well. Suffering seems to have deepened Sandra, and made her more reflective than most girls her age. By the time Sandra's session was over, I realized that there is much more to the modern girlie girl than the cultural stereotype would suggest.
Yet, I worry most about the girlie girls in my practice. Gamers and tomboys have a tad of male energy that provides them with emotional resilience. Gamers and tomboys seem to be tougher in the face of life's challenges. Girlie girls lack this male energy--or perhaps they have not yet found this part of themselves--and somehow this makes them more vulnerable.
Marilyn Wedge's new book, A Disease called Childhood, is forthcoming in March, 2015.