Relentless Cultural Pressures for Today's Girls

Two things you can do today to protect and empower your daughter

Posted Jul 17, 2015

Julien Haler/Flickr
Source: Julien Haler/Flickr

Girls and women seem to be doing exceptionally well these days—many are excelling in school, in sports, and in their pursuit of advanced careers. The statistics are inspiring:

  • There are now more women than men graduating from colleges and universities
  • There are more women than men attending medical school and law school
  • There are more girls playing sports than any time in recorded history 

But the question remains: Are girls and women truly thriving as never before? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, girls certainly have unprecedented opportunities available to them. Yes, many are walking through open doors that were closed to previous generations. Yet an insidious pressure has crept in alongside these opportunities: To be a success, girls, you have to do it all.

Specifically, if a girl is tuned in at all to popular culture, this is what she is learning about what it takes to be a success: that her worth is based on her appearance, her ability to gain attention and approval, and her ability to produce a long list of accomplishments. Let’s briefly examine each of these messages:

  • Your worth is based on your appearance. Girls are bombarded with the pressure of a perfect appearance everywhere they turn—from advertisements, television, movies, Internet, fashion magazines, books, music, and videos—the ideal is held out as the standard that girls should attain. Sadly, this hot-sexy-thin-beautiful ideal is imposed upon girls when they are too young to know what this even means. Think of Bratz and Monster High dolls in fishnet stockings and stiletto heels that are marketed to toddlers.  This pressure intensifies into the preteen and early adolescent years, as girls observe how they should be as “hot and sexy” as possible, and to look much older than they actually are.
  • Your worth is based on gaining attention and approval from others.  The message of popular culture is clear: Gaining attention and fame is important, regardless of how it might be obtained. One recent study of 10-12 year olds cited that “being famous” was their #1 most important value for the future.[1] Girls learn to gain attention from behaving in edgy, outrageous, competitive, and often sexually provocative ways. They see this with YouTube videos that go viral, reality television programs with girls backstabbing and fighting one another, and with shows like Pretty Little Liars (the #1 show among teens for several years running). In addition, girls learn that they are expected to create a carefully crafted on‐line image in order to gain attention‐‐one that emphasizes the appearance of popularity rather than the cultivation of actual relationships. Think of the pressure that results from the current “100 Likes Club”—if your picture does not get at least 100 Likes on Facebook, then it is considered an embarrassment. If girls are not “Living for Likes” from others, they fear they will be left behind[2].
  • Your worth is based on your accomplishments. In addition to looking attractive and gaining attention, many girls feel pressure to compete and achieve in all arenas‐- academics, athletics, and extracurricular activities. They believe that they have to be perfect, that if they just work harder, they will be finally become acceptable. In a recent survey reported by Girls’ Life magazine, more than half of girls surveyed said they feel as though they have to succeed at everything, “from school to sports to fitting in the right-size jeans to having a BF (boyfriend)”.[3] According to one girl interviewed for the survey: “All of this pressure makes me feel like I can’t have a life,” she says. “Everything needs to be perfect”.

The accumulation of pressures and expectations can become too much for some girls. Some push themselves too hard to achieve and meet these expectations, while others give up and stop trying altogether. It is no wonder that some girls begin to struggle in early adolescence.  Such pressure and change can create a ripe environment for serious mental disorders like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-injury, and substance abuse, all of which are on the rise in today’s girls.

So what can you do to protect and empower your daughter? While there are many longer-term solutions you can try, I suggest two strategies that you can implement today:

  • Plan for some unplugged time. Research shows that the more a girl immerses herself in popular culture through media use, the more likely she is to adopt cultural standards as her own personal standard. So the more you can protect her by placing limits on her media use and monitoring her media use, the better. To start, plan for some scheduled technology breaks each day. Require that she keep all electronics out of her bedroom at night. When she watches TV, watch a show with her and ask her questions about what she is viewing. Even better, turn off all of your devices and spend time just enjoying her company!  
  • Tell her you love her just as she is. You can make a difference just by helping her discover who she truly is and then accepting her just as she is. You can play an instrumental role in helping her see that her worth does not have to be based only on her attractiveness, gaining attention, or accruing accomplishments. Instead, she can develop a sense of self apart from these expectations. She will thrive when she feels accepted and loved just for who she is, not whether or not she can measure up to an unrealistic cultural ideal.

After reading about these media messages, I know it is easy to become discouraged. But you don’t have to stand by and do nothing—remember, you can make a significant difference in how much your daughter will be affected by these pressures. So power off the devices and tell her today that you love her, accept her, and approve of her as she is right now, not for who the culture tells her she ought to be.

Notes. 

[1] USA Today. Retrieved from: http://www.cdmc.ucla.edu/Published_Research_files/CDMCpressreleaseUhls%2...

[2]  Robyn Silverman (2014). Am I Like-able? Teens, self esteem and the number of likes they get on social media. Retrieved from: drrobynsilverman.com.

[3] Girls Life Magazine, October/November issue, 2014.