In our culture, women receive many messages that can eat away at their self-esteem. For example, self-worth equals youth and beauty. Perfection in all areas of life — professional and personal — is not only achievable, but expected. Women begin to learn these “lessons” as girls, say counseling experts.
American Counseling Association member Laura Hensley Choate says girls are taught that their value is connected solely to what she calls the “three A’s” — appearance, attention and accomplishments. The expectation they take away is that not only must they look their best, but they must also be noticed and popular, all while achieving high grades and earning recognition and awards in sports or other extracurricular activities, Choate explains. In addition, these messages are trickling down to girls at younger and younger ages, so that now even the youngest girls feel the pressure to be, as Choate puts it, “sexy, famous and perfect.”
This pressure has harmful effects on girls’ social and academic development, says Michelle Bruno, a counseling professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania whose research interests include trauma and resiliency in adolescent girls. Bruno had the opportunity to work with girls on these issues through her involvement in an empowerment program designed by the nonprofit organization Ruling Our eXperiences (ROX), which began as a research study by counselor educator Lisa Hinkelman at Ohio State University.
ROX programs are designed for elementary, middle and high school girls. The programs target areas such as confidence, self-esteem and body image, healthy relationships, effective communication, social media, cyberbullying, sexual violence prevention, stress and coping, academic and career development, and leadership. Bruno, an ACA member, helped bring ROX to several schools in western Pennsylvania, coordinating with school counselors and serving as one of the onsite supervisors.
“Girls [as young as 9] are navigating peer relationships and beginning to be able to choose more independently their participation in classes and activities in school,” she says. “How they perceive and feel about themselves plays an important role in such tasks. Younger children often display higher levels of confidence than what we see in adolescents. We see younger children believing they can do anything, believing that they are the best at whatever fun activity they are trying out. During the preteen and teen years, many girls experience comprised levels of optimism and decreased healthy risk taking. They value acceptance by others and work hard to achieve it among their peer groups. Girls may not want to try new things for fear of failure or standing out.”
Bruno, like Choate, decries the tremendous pressure placed on girls regarding appearance. “The prominent messages about female beauty depict unrealistic and even unhealthy images,” Bruno explains. “Body image struggles are exacerbated by the sexualization of girls in the media, which teaches girls that their value stems from sexual appeal, to the exclusion of other traits. Young girls may end up engaging in self-objectification to achieve attention from others. How one looks becomes a significant focus for young girls, who of course are also in the midst of physical changes.”
Girls are also constrained by what they learn about “acceptable” female behavior, Bruno continues.
“Girls may be oversocialized with regard to expectations around relationships, with a need to please others being paramount over other behaviors,” she says. “This may lead to a perceived need to regulate emotions such as anger, which can result in relational aggression. This is often a result of when girls experience anger or other difficult emotions but mask it because of negative consequences seen as ‘unladylike.’ This creates incongruence and the message that being authentic is not always OK. Taken together, girls in their preteen years are forming all of these ideas around self-worth, how to define it and how to be worthy.”
ROX is a 20-week program that aims to help girls “unlearn” — or not learn in the first place — these “lessons,” Bruno notes. During the course, school counselors or other facilitators work with small groups of girls in what Bruno describes as “interactive psychoeducation” that focuses on building skills such as communication through practice and role-play. The girls also receive homework to work on in between sessions.
Bruno’s involvement with ROX was brief — her role was simply to help introduce the program into Pennsylvania schools — but she remains a big proponent.
“I saw the ROX program as unique and empowering because it is built upon a framework that examines the interrelatedness of all of these factors [appearance, appropriate behavior, etc.] and creates a safe space for girls to examine these topics while building concrete skills,” she says. “The program is highly successful because it addresses the very issues that many women can continue to struggle with throughout their adult lives. Learning these skills at 11 or 12 years old provides opportunities to support girls in defining themselves by internal standards, to help them exercise the ability to communicate feelings in an appropriate manner and to recognize the impact that outside factors can have on them.”
One of the predominant outside factors influencing today’s girls is social media, and Choate is very concerned about its effect. Although she does not view social media as the root of all negative messaging, she is concerned about certain aspects of it.
“Social media is … a new and constant pressure for girls as they feel they must be ‘on’ and perform at all times in order to get noticed and not to miss out on anything,” says Choate, whose book on cultural influences and young girls, Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture, was recently published by Oxford University Press. “They tend to measure their worth on their numbers — their number of friends, followers and likes for each picture. This leads to the development of an inauthentic self that is focused on pleasing others instead of what is authentic to her.”
“We have not yet seen the long-term effects of these pressures on girls because they are so new,” she continues. “It will be interesting to see today’s young girls, who have grown up on social media and who experience a lack of face-to-face communication, in terms of their mental health. What we do know is that rates of depression, anxiety, substance use problems, eating disorders and self-injury are all on the rise for adolescent girls and young women. So I am concerned about these trends and how they will affect girls’ future development and mental health.”
Because of these concerns, Choate, a professor of counselor education at Louisiana State University, also wrote a book for mental health professionals, Adolescent Girls in Distress: A Guide for Mental Health Treatment and Prevention, in 2013. In it, she recommends that counselors focus on the following areas when helping adolescent girls navigate cultural pressures:
- Parenting: Working with parents to improve communication and family support.
- Authenticity and self-awareness: Encouraging girls to take time for self-reflection to gain a strong understanding of who they are and what they value. Possessing this level of self-awareness can encourage adolescent girls to stand up for who they are and what they believe in rather than giving in to the pressure of meeting cultural expectations.
- Wellness, spirituality and gratitude: Encouraging girls to maintain balance in all life dimensions, not just the ones valued by culture (such as the physical). In addition, recognizing meaning and purpose in their lives and being grateful for what they have rather than focusing on what they do not have.
- Problem-solving and decision-making skills: Promoting problem solving versus ruminating about problems and learning to have the confidence that they can take action to solve their own problems.
- Coping skills for emotional resolution: Teaching girls how to manage intense emotions without harming themselves or others.
- Social skills for communication, assertiveness and conflict resolution: Teaching girls how to develop healthy relationships first with peers and then with romantic partners.
- Cognitive skills for cognitive restructuring and self-regulation: Helping adolescent girls learn to delay gratification and think through the consequences of actions.
- Body acceptance and positive physical self-concept: Teaching girls to love the changes in their developing bodies and to appreciate their bodies for what they can do, not just for how they look.
- Media literacy skills: Teaching girls how to critique the cultural messages they receive through the media and to recognize and resist the intent of the messages.
- Goal-setting skills and perseverance: Encouraging girls to develop goals and a positive outlook for the future.
Related reading: For more on women, body issues and societal pressure, see “Falling short of perfect” in the April issue of Counseling Today
Laurie Meyers is senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at LMeyers@counseling.org