Teenage Girls in Jeopardy
Winter, Metta, Human Ecology Forum
Teenage girls are at increasing risk of depression, suicide, pregnancy, eating disorders, and substance abuse. One cause, says social historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg, is the interaction between the declining age of menarche and the influences of popular culture. What's needed is a new strategy of girl advocacy.
For more than two years now, Reviving Ophelia, a clinical psychologist's warning of the dangers facing adolescent girls, has been on the New York Times bestseller list. The popularity of this much-talked about book is a sign that Americans are finally waking up to the jeopardy their daughters are in.
As well they should be, says historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg, professor of human development and Stephen J. Weiss Presidential Fellow. The evidence Brumberg points to is clear: adolescence is a dangerous time for girls growing up today. Compared with boys of the same age, adolescent girls are at greater risk of depression and suicide attempts. They are more likely to develop eating disorders, abuse drugs and alcohol, and drop out of school. Each year the educational and economic future of more than a million teenage girls is cut short by pregnancy. Shamefully, the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the developed world.
Psychologists who study adolescence, including Ophelia author Mary Pipher and Harvard's Carol Gilligan, have shown that between the ages of eleven and sixteen, heretofore physically and mentally hardy girls lose their self-confidence, their self-esteem crumbles. Brumberg, who specializes both in the social history of medicine and in the history of American families, women, and adolescent girls, set out to see why.
She read hundreds of middle-class adolescent girls' diaries written from the early nineteenth century to the present to see how they described the experience of growing up. In addition, she combed the copious advice literature of the day: the writings of physicians and other women directing mothers how to raise their daughters.
"When examining the factors that contribute to the crisis of confidence that Gilligan, Pipher, and others describe, the effect of biology is typically overlooked," Brumberg says. "My research strongly suggests that the declining age at menarche is central to understanding why adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable today."
It's startling to realize that when Cornell University first admitted women 100 years ago it was not that unusual for them to have not yet begun menstruating. For those sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, sexual awakening could occur while in college. Today, for the typical girl who experiences menarche at age twelve, this hormonal (and its consequent emotional and social) upheaval begins in middle school.
In her latest book, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (Random House, 1997), Brumberg explains how this new biological timetable contributes to putting teenage girls in jeopardy.
"Although girls are healthier and mature earlier, there has been no parallel acceleration in their emotional and cognitive skills, such as the capacity to think abstractly, make judgments, or move beyond egocentric - that is, self-centered - thinking," Brumberg observes.
"Many young women today may look mature at age twelve or thirteen, but they still think in ways that are essentially childlike.
"In addition, our society makes no special effort to help girls deal with the lag between their biological and their intellectual development. Although early maturation is known to increase vulnerability to all kinds of psychological and social problems, such as depression and association with older age groups (a tendency that leads to early sexual activity as well as to drug and alcohol abuse), young women are less protected and less nurtured than they were a century ago."
In the nineteenth century, Brumberg points out, there were many more years of girlhood than teens experience today. Victorian Americans believed that girls deserved special protection because of female biology. Victorian customs and institutions provided them with a supervised cultural life rich in single-sex activities. Brumberg refers to this as the "protective umbrella."
Although the Girl Scouts and the Young Women's Christian or Hebrew Associations still exist today, between the 1880s and the 1920s there were countless other groups as well devoted to keeping girlhood wholesome and chaste. Tens of thousands of middle-class girls spent time each week at Scouts or the Girls' Friendly Society or the Life Saving Guards of the World, engaged in dramatics, handicrafts, nature study, literature, music, and charitable works.
While there were elements of religious morality and social control in these organizations, girls also found camaraderie and cooperation in the activities, which kept them engaged and busy. And the attention they received from their leaders, adult young women to whom they were typically not related, conveyed the sense that they were valued and cared for.
Brumberg describes the interactions between the girls and their leaders as a powerful opportunity for intergenerational mentoring. Such mentoring was fueled by the belief that adult women were responsible for caring for young women in general, not just their own daughters, and for protecting them from premature sexuality and manipulation by men.
Many of the leaders were in their early twenties and newly independent. They acted as confidants and sounding boards for the girls while teaching them skills such as sewing and flower arranging or helping them organize charitable activities. All the while, teenage girls were in the company of adults who cared about them. The demise of single-sex organizations, with their pool of talented adult mentors, coincided with earlier sexual maturation.
Brumberg says public health records show that an increasingly early onset of menstruation - the result of better diets and the control of infectious diseases - began about 150 years ago and continued until the mid-twentieth century; a lower limit of age nine or ten has held relatively steady since then (although there are some racial differences). Immigrants to this country found that their daughters menstruated earlier than they would have in their homeland. Across ethnic groups - be they Jew or Gentile, African or Japanese-girls raised in the same living conditions in the United States all began to menstruate at the same earlier age.
In and of itself earlier sexual maturation wouldn't be problematic, Brumberg points out, if the appropriate social supports and protections were still in place to guarantee that girls could have a safe childhood until their emotional and intellectual development could catch up with their already fertile bodies. But the Victorian protective umbrella is no more, and Brumberg sees its demise as a failure of adults to care adequately for female children.
Drawing on girls' diaries, as she does in much of The Body Project, Brumberg traces a pattern of decline in adult female involvement with and supervision of girls during the twentieth century. More equality of opportunity, as well as economic necessity, has resulted in two-wage-earner households where women are neither at home for their own daughters nor free to volunteer in organizations that care for girls.
"Too often popular culture and peer groups, rather than parents or other responsible adults, call the cadence in contemporary teenage life," says Brumberg. "Contemporary girls seem to have more autonomy, but their freedom is laced with peril."
One element of this peril begins well before the teenage years in the images girls see in an increasingly sexualized popular culture. Brumberg takes as but one example the cartoon version of Pocahontas marketed aggressively to prepubescent girls.
"I took my six-year-old granddaughter to see this movie in good faith, thinking it was a kids' movie," Brumberg says. "I found that Pocahontas was portrayed as a sexy little dame who tossed her hair and had a shapely figure. I don't think any six- or seven-year-old girl could miss the point that Pocahontas got her power from her appearance!"
Early menarche truncates childhood and places a high degree of stress on girls as their bodies mature at a young age. The withdrawal of adult supervision pushes them out on their own to negotiate their sexuality in a highly sexualized culture. Even institutionalized sex education, Brumberg believes, lets girls down.
"I don't believe girls are getting honest guidance in the way sex education is taught today," she says. "From menarche - when the focus of discussion is on personal hygiene rather than the social and emotional meaning of sexuality - onward, little attention is paid to the psychological and emotional needs of girls. Sex education programs focus on either 'just say no' or how to hold off male advances or practice safe sex. These technical approaches don't help girls decide what is a fair, pleasurable, and responsible use of their bodies."
What's needed, Brumberg suggests, is a new form of "girl advocacy," where adults assume once again a collective responsibility for the well-being of all girls. This is by no means a call to a new conservatism that deprives girls of the opportunities so hard won in the twentieth century, but rather the beginning of honest dialogue about what they need to navigate through adolescence to a safe and creative future.
Included in these conversations, Brumberg says, must be an acknowledgment of "the reality of earlier maturation, the need for sexual expression, and the nature of contemporary culture."
In a culture that has a "deep commercial investment in girls' bodies," she says, it's particularly critical for parents once again to articulate their own values and set limits that safeguard young girls from cultural pressures to please others and from seeing their bodies as their sole currency.
At the same time, adults and teens need to talk with one another about a code of sexual ethics for adolescent girls in a "postvirginal" age. The goal of this code, Brumberg says, should be to help young girls understand both their emotions and the cultural forces at work around them so that their sexual behavior can be safe, reciprocal, and responsible.
"There is an interaction between biology and culture that is shaping the experience of contemporary girls in some critical and troublesome ways," Brumberg writes at the conclusion of her book. "More than any other group in the population, girls and their bodies have borne the brunt of twentieth century social change, and we ignore that fact at our peril."
For more information, contact Joan Jacobs Brumberg Cornell University Department of Human Development and Family Studies G60b MVR Hall Ithaca, NY 14853 607-255-2549 firstname.lastname@example.org
Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, Brumberg's previous book, also illuminates the interactions between culture and adolescent women's health. It has been translated into Japanese and German and was awarded the 1988 Berkshire Book Prize from the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, the 1989 John Hope Franklin Prize from the American Studies Association, the 1989 Watson Davis Prize from the History of Science Society, and the 1989 Basker Memorial Prize from the Society for Medical Anthropology, American Anthropological Association.
RELATED ARTICLE: IMPROVING HUMAN HEALTH
Why Teenage Girls Become Pregnant
It's shocking, but true: the United States has the highest adolescent birth rate in the developed world. In New York State, 9 of every 100 high school girls are either pregnant or the mother of one or more children.
Innovative teen pregnancy prevention programs started a decade ago haven't worked. It's now clear that prevention programs based solely on promoting abstinence don't reduce adolescent sexual activity. Conversely, sex education does not increase sexual activity. Programs focused on sex education or on providing contraceptive services have rarely produced any impact; neither have school-based clinics. Adolescent pregnancy continues to rise in every state.
Most programs haven't worked because they are one-dimensional, says Andrea Parrot, an expert on women's health issues and associate professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management. The programs aren't effective, she explains, because they ignore the reason teenage girls become pregnant in the first place.
"People tend to think that teenage pregnancy is an accident of sex," Parrot explains. "Sometimes that's the case, but many teenage girls who become pregnant do so intentionally because they want to become mothers. And sadly, they want to become mothers because they see no other life goals as realistically within their reach."
Parrot and other researchers in adolescent health have found that deterring teen pregnancy isn't simply a matter of trying to get young women to stop a particular behavior; rather it's a much more complex task of encouraging them to establish goals. Having life goals that require success in school (and a sense that those goals are attainable), they've found, is the best protection a teenage girl can have against becoming pregnant.
"Teenagers who can't see graduating from high school because they have no role models of women who have done so, teens whose teachers give them little encouragement about their own abilities, whose families are chaotic, whose friends are on drugs, these young women see themselves as having nothing to strive for," Parrot explains. "Babies, on the other hand, provide an immediate source of positive feedback, of unconditional love. If parenting looks like the best thing going, it's understandable that a teenage girl would say, 'Why not have a baby?'"
Efforts to stem the tide of teenage pregnancy must start early. Parrot points out that waiting to address the factors that put a teenage girl at risk for pregnancy once she's already reached puberty is too late. Teen pregnancy prevention programs aimed at girls over the age of ten do little more than run fast to try to catch up.
What can be done? The starting place, Parrot says, is to recognize that there are some life experiences and personality traits of preteenage girls that can't be changed very much, so it's better to concentrate on bolstering characteristics known to increase a young girl's overall resilience.
* A sense of connectedness with a parent, grandparent, or other older family member who takes a special interest in her welfare.
* A family structure in which some members stick together. * Closeness with at least one sibling or a close long-term, sibling-like friendship.
* Some form of spirituality that conveys a sense of something in life bigger than herself.
* Positive social skills, especially understanding the importance of the ability to help others.
* Having an internal locus of control. An internal locus of control means that a person feels there are some aspects of life over which she exercises meaningful choices. Helping a young girl distinguish between those areas of her life about which she can do nothing and those where she has choices is critical to developing the ability to strive for a positive future. The more opportunities a young woman has to be with others who respect and promote her decision making, as opposed to those who tell her what she should do, the better.
* A sense of androgyny, that is being able to behave in ways associated with both masculine and feminine sex roles. The more exposure a young woman has to role models who excel in skills traditionally associated with the opposite gender (say, a highly skilled women surgeon, an empathetic male nurse), the broader the possibilities she sees for her own life.
* Caring adults other than parents.
* Involvement in school or in the community.
* A network of friendships.
* More than one caregiver during childhood.
There is no single fix to the problem of teen pregnancy, Parrot says. "It's one of those 'It takes a village to raise a child' issues,'" she says. "We have to come from many different angles to change the social factors that contribute to young women becoming pregnant on purpose. Telling her to 'Just say no' or supplying birth control won't stop a teen from becoming pregnant if she wants to."
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Teenage Girls in Jeopardy. Contributors: Winter, Metta - Author. Journal title: Human Ecology Forum. Volume: 25. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 1997. Page number: 12+. © 1994 Cornell University, Human Ecology. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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