Women's Perceptions of the Adolescent Experience

By Kaplan, Elaine Bell | Adolescence, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview
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Women's Perceptions of the Adolescent Experience

Kaplan, Elaine Bell, Adolescence

What can women's perceptions about their own adolescence tell us about female adolescence? The answer to this question offers insight into the pressures and strategies of the adolescent years which comprise a pivotal transition period. This subject is particularly relevant because, as studies by Fine (1988), Gilbert and Taylor (1991), Gilligan (1990), and Tolson (1994) have shown, adolescence can be a far more difficult stage for many teenage girls than has been supposed. Not only are they beginning to deal with identity issues and peer and family pressures, they are increasingly involved in their body image while losing self-confidence (Brick, 1989; Costello & Stone, 1994; Gilligan, 1990; Selverstone, 1989; Thorne, 1993).

Research on the subject of adolescent girls is significant given the current public and political debate concerning teenage pregnancies, girl gangs, and drug use, underscored by the need for explanatory theories for such behavior and the demand for solutions. Thus, the purpose of this paper is not only to examine women's perceptions of their adolescence, but to gain insight into the issues of adolescence and their consequences. Finally, emerging from the focus group interviews are workable strategies that could serve as support during this significant time of life.

The data were derived from focus group interviews with twenty-four culturally and racially diverse women college students. Four questions were used as the locus of the discussion: (1) What were some of your experiences as an adolescent? (2) What kind of strategies did you use to handle your problems? (3) What was the single most important experience you recall about your adolescent years? (4) How did you handle it?

All of these women were from the middle-class, two-parent households; thus, they had strong support systems, which might lead to the conclusion that their adolescent problems would be less difficult than for those who did not have such support systems. However, each of these women experienced their adolescence as a time of great stress, perceiving early adolescence as the most traumatic period.


The ages ten to sixteen is a challenge for young girls, not only because they are beginning to deal with identity issues and peer pressure, but are confronting their emerging physical and emotional maturity - which gives the appearance of a sexual and emotional readiness that has not actually been achieved. During adolescence girls undergo a process of feminization as their identity becomes tied to feminine expressions while they are learning to conform to the norms and rules governing femininity (Bush, Simmons, Hutchenson & Blyth, 1977; Fox, Colombo, Clevenger, & Ferguson, 1988; Gecas & Serf, 1990; Rich, 1980; Richmond-Abbot, 1992; Thompson, 1990; Thorne, 1993; Tolson, 1994).

Body Image

A consequence of the greater focus on femininity and relations with friends, especially boys, is that adolescent girls face compelling issues related to their body image (Costello & Stone (1994); Horton (1992). Girls are more likely than boys to develop various eating disorders, among them anorexia nervosa and bulimia. For example, a 1991 congressional study indicates that five in every 1,000 adolescent and young adult women are anorexic (Costello & Stone, 1994; Renzetti & Curran, 1989). An estimated 9% of anorexics die prematurely, either from suicide or starvation, and fewer than half of the anorexics are able to recover fully. These studies also note that white girls, more than girls from other cultural groups, tend to suffer from this eating disorder.

While many white teenagers diet more than they should, a large number of poor black teenage girls develop problems with obesity (Costello & Stone 1994). Obesity, defined as excess body weight and referred to as "diet of poverty" (Costello & Stone 1994, p.172) is a problem for all women, but especially for 25% of black women as compared to 10% of white women (Costello & Stone, 1994).

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