I Am Girl, Hear Me Roar!

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Mary Pipher was writing "Reviving Ophelia," her book about adolescent girls and their heartbreaking struggles to maintain their self-esteem, she hardly felt upbeat about the world young girls were facing.

"My point of view was from the trenches," says Ms. Pipher, a Nebraska-based clinical psychologist, who has treated girls for more than 20 years. "So naturally, it was very pessimistic."

Today, some four years after the book's publication (nearly three of those years spent on The New York Times bestseller list), Pipher's view is more optimistic. "There's been a new enthusiasm developing for helping girls," she says."I meet with group after group of smart movers and shakers who care about girls."

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Pipher and other researchers like her warn that American girls still face many challenges, including insecurities about self-image - aggravated by the media's glorification of thin and perfect as the norm for feminine beauty. And they say girls still must face a world that includes many gender inequities - including wages. But they also agree that girls have begun to come into their own in American culture as a distinct group - with special needs that deserve attention and unique voices that deserve to be heard.

"Being a girl is more celebrated than it has ever been before," says Pamela Ezell, a professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., who studies women's issues and the media.

The carving out of a niche for girls - and the defining of an agenda for them - is a relatively recent trend, driven by a variety of factors, including feminist-inspired academic research on the social development of girls and the federal Title IX statute, which requires school sports programs to include teams for girls.

The culture of 'go girl'

At the same time that shifts in academia have been taking place, a kind of cultural boom has been pushing girls and their strengths to the forefront. Hollywood has weighed in with a long list of movies, including "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Clueless." The "riot grrl" trend in rock music - featuring young, strong, angry women - lent a new cachet and a new spelling to the word "girl," suggesting strength and independence. In fact, American women have increasingly shown a tendency to reclaim a word once shunned by feminists, with phrases such as "You go, girl" virtually obliterating the memory of politically correct birth announcements that once proclaimed, "It's a baby woman."

"For so long, the subculture of girls was confined to the bedroom. Girls were very private, they had a best friend who they shared their secrets with," says Donna Gaines, a sociology professor at Barnard College in New York. "They were only studied in relation to the male culture."

As recently as 1980, in fact, little research was available on the development of girls. According to an anecdote that Carol Gilligan, a pioneer in the field, has shared with her students at Harvard University, when the editor of the Handbook of Adolescent Psychology asked an expert to submit a chapter on adolescent girls, the expert drew a blank: There wasn't enough research to fill a chapter.

Although research by Ms. Gilligan and her colleagues soon began to fill the void, it wasn't until a decade later, with the huge and unexpected success of "Reviving Ophelia" (rejected by 13 publishers), that girls began to move into the national spotlight.

"People started to take girls seriously," says Lyn Mikel Brown, author of the upcoming book, "Raising Their Voices: The Politics of Girls' Anger." Publishers "all want the next 'Reviving Ophelia.' People are realizing that books on girls and the issues around girls are really selling," she says.

(Publishers have also discovered there's a market for books on boys as well; over the next several months, a slew of books on boys are due out. This newly emerging field is welcomed by many female researchers as long overdue - although they caution that girls' needs are only beginning to be explored and warn against a possible backlash against such work.)

The world of girls that Ms. Brown and others like her are writing about is one that is dramatically different than the one she - and her mother before her - grew up in. Researchers say - thanks in large part to the battles fought by feminists - girls today have more opportunities and a greater ease with girlish things than ever before.

Many girls, they say, are better able to synthesize once-disparate worlds - finding no contradiction between using a curling iron on their hair every morning while ripping it up on the basketball court in the afternoon.

Fifteen-year-old Ryanne Amodei, a 10th-grader in Carson City, Nev., is a basketball player who also gets As, who says her role models are her mother and Olympic gold medal skier Picabo Street. When she and her friends get together, she says, "We talk about grades. That's important because we have to think about college. And we always, always talk about sports. We support each other." Almost as an afterthought, she adds, "And of course we talk about guys." But supermodels don't impress her much. When asked what makes a beautiful woman, she answers, without hesitation, "Personality and how she carries herself."

"This seems like a new generation of girls," says Brown. "They've been brought up to expect more. I have a lot of faith in girls. I think they're amazing these days."

But if the possibilities are greater, in many ways the challenges of being a girl remain unchanged. Researchers like Brown and Pipher note that adolescent girls in particular still face tremendous societal pressures in their teenage years. They must still navigate a social landscape that urges women to define themselves in terms of their relationships to men - in which being smart and assertive can be seen as liabilities to being popular.

Eighth-grader Terry Moore, a softball player who lives in Paradise, Calif., says girls face "a lot of pressure in school to be the best-looking girl ... or the most popular. They face a lot more pressure than guys, that's for sure."

She says she doesn't worry too much about her looks. ("If boys don't like me for who I am," she says, "they're not worth it.") But girls are "struggling" to find their own identity. "They want to stick out in the crowd, to be wild or outgoing, to be unique.... I want to be seen as an original," she says. "So that when you meet me, you're not going to ... forget about me. And I want to be seen as athletic."

Experts say girls also face increased media pressures as marketers have discovered the buying power of girls (who have driven the commercial success of movies like "Titanic" and musical groups like the Spice Girls).

"In a lot of cases, the marketing is cleverly done under the guise of empowerment," says Pipher. "It's created a sort of countertrend towards sexualizing children at a younger age. They're marketing older-style clothing to girls. That's offensive to me. Twelve-year-olds don't need to look like Julia Roberts in 'Pretty Woman.' "

And as mainstream interest grows, researchers warn against lumping girls into one monolithic category, against thinking that the voices of white middle-class girls define the needs of all girls.

No size fits all

"One size does not fit all," says Sumru Erkut at Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women. The co-author of a recent study, "Raising Confident and Competent Girls: Dimensions of Self Esteem," says: "There's just no one way to be a girl. It depends on where you live, what your ethnic background is, whether you're a first-generation immigrant. These different ways of being have always existed, it's just that now we're paying attention to them. "We're starting to move into the plural 'girls,' " she says, "rather than just looking at the idea of the 'girl.' "

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