The pressures on girls in society and in school.

“It’s pretty hard being a girl nowadays. You can’t be too smart, too dumb, too ugly, too friendly, too coy, too aggressive, too defenseless, too individual, or too programmed. If you are too much of anything, then others envy you, or despise you because you intimidate them, or make them jealous. It’s like you have to be everything and nothing all at once, without knowing which you need more of.” − From a 12th Grader in the book Girls will be Girls.

Girls are, in general, out-performing boys in school at all levels around the world. With increased gender equity, girls today have more choices and opportunities than their mothers – while at the same time facing an array of sophisticated gender-specific issues, leading to high levels of anxiety and depression. Girls are more likely to turn inwards to solve their problems.

Technology has encouraged girls to become hyper-connected, giving great importance to large social networks while being disconnected from their real selves. Being constantly connected via Facebook, Myspace or other social network sites has created a world in which young girls live like celebrities. They feel the necessity to constantly update their profile, take photos of themselves, and report their whereabouts to their friends and followers. They are, in reality, living in front of a crowd. Through this activity they unwittingly create themselves as a brand – just like popular celebrities but without the guidance of agents and managers. They start to live in a cyber-bubble world, one that does not represent who they really are but, unfortunately, gradually dictates who they appear to be.

It’s important for parents to realize that just because their daughter has 250 friends on Facebook, it doesn’t mean she really has any friends. One of the key areas that researchers have pointed out is that having a few close female friends is better than having the hundreds that the cyber bubble encourages. The core of a girl’s emotional life should preferably be founded on good friendships with two, three or four other girls.

Cyberbullying
Girls are far greater users of social networks and media than boys, and this exposes them to the insidious growth of cyberbullying. Girls aged 14-17 exchange on average over 100 messages a day. The extent of social networking makes it very difficult for anyone to escape. it is a constant barrage that can spread to thousands in seconds, with an effect that cannot be erased. With media either directly or indirectly portraying models or images where denigration of others is normal, it’s hardly surprising that adolescents adopt similar behaviors.

The kind of community in which girls engage will shape the person that they will become. This unfortunately includes their social networking community as well, which is generally mostly ‘girl talk’, and this can be imbalanced and become toxic – because many of the conversations center on their own personal problems. This type of co-rumination leads to increased anxiety and can make problems feel worse. The one community that helps this, however, bridges generations – girls need the opportunity to talk to adult women about the issues they are facing. This isn’t always going to be mother to daughter. However, parents can ensure that their daughters enter informal situations where they can interact with older female relatives or other potential female role models who can provide a perspective that is seen as wise and appropriate.

Self-Esteem
At the center of much of the pressure that is on girls today is the concept of self- esteem. JoAnn Deak, author of Girls will be Girls, identifies three key ingredients for self-esteem: competence, confidence and connectedness. She argues that these ingredients can’t be taught but need to be experienced. They’re about emotions based on doing, not reflecting about oneself or having society or social networking and the media dictate who one should be and how one should behave. This is where many girls’ self-esteem collapses, because they become egocentric and anxious, losing contact with the three ingredients they need to balance and maintain their confidence in themselves.

This links to other areas of anxiety and pressure on girls that exist in school, and that is Mathematics and Science. One recent study showed a correlation between the perception of mathematical ability and self-esteem in girls. Many universities are positively influenced by a student’s ability in math and scores, regardless of the main subject of the application. Employment opportunities are growing fastest in subjects related to math, and this places pressures on girls to achieve in an area where stereotyping of gender is still prevalent. For most girls studying in co-ed schools, their role models for math and science are male, the scientists they learn about are predominantly male, and in higher-level classes the majority of their classmates are male. Although this is changing and there are more girls studying math and science at universities and colleges today, the stereotyping still exists.

Programs that have been seen to develop self-esteem for girls in schools are mentoring, outward bound experiences, co-operative learning, and single gender classes or groupings for certain subjects and activities. Parents can certainly build on these school-based initiatives by encouraging their daughters to pursue interests that get them outside the home and interacting with nature. Parents need to be careful, because it’s clear that you cannot just give your daughter self-esteem – that has to be built – but it’s equally clear that you can take it away by being too demanding and critical. Another observation from research has been that girls do better with teachers that truly care about them and their progress. Gender is irrelevant in this regard, as girls care about the connection and will work hard so that they do not disappoint the teacher.

Early Puberty
Many girls’ lives are simply out of sync. They’re being encouraged to grow up too quickly, and as a result are missing out on their childhood – and chemicals such as BPA, PETE and phthalates found in our food and drink are all playing a part in this. Research clearly shows that girls are reaching puberty earlier. In the US, a girl who develops breasts at the age of seven is now considered normal, and half of all girls will develop breasts by their tenth birthday. This is a very important change, because completing puberty has been shown to affect the mental agility of children and slow down their potential to learn new things. It also has a detrimental effect upon how girls see their bodies, leading to sleeplessness and depression arising from low self-esteem.

Firstly, avoid exposing young girls to plastic containers and be vigilant about the sort of creams and lotions that they’re putting on their skin. Secondly, engaging in regular exercise like swimming can protect against the early onset of puberty. Thirdly, the relationship between father and daughter has been shown to play an important role in puberty. Researchers don’t really know why this is the case – although there’s a growing belief it’s related to pheromones – but being a loving, caring dad who is affectionate and gives hugs to his daughter will on average delay the onset of puberty. Fourthly, to help avoid obsessive behavior, parents can themselves model a life that balances physical activity, work, creativity, and connectedness. Modeling is very important, and if parents make a tradition of volunteering or giving as a family at least once a year, this will have a positive impact upon a girl’s image of herself. Finally, when the onset of puberty comes, it’s important that parents don’t back off – because it still remains the goal of parents to help daughters find their true selves.

I would like to conclude with this quote from the book Girls on the Edge by Dr. Leonard Sax, because I feel it encapsulates the relationship that needs to exist between parents and daughters if it is to be successful: “Ultimately only your daughter can be the captain of her own ship. But you [parents] can be the lighthouse, warning of unseen dangers. You can be the shipwright, helping to patch holes and make the ship stronger and better. And you can be the safe harbor, welcoming the sailor home before she sets out on her next voyage.”

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Oi.

Adrian Watts is the Deputy Headmaster and Director of Academic Studies at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC).