Maiden USA: Representing Teenage Girls in the '90S

By Sweeney, Kathleen | Afterimage, January-February 1999 | Go to article overview

Maiden USA: Representing Teenage Girls in the '90S


Sweeney, Kathleen, Afterimage


Made-in USA

Myriad choices exist for American girls within the image systems of this post-feminist era. Women's sports have hit the popular airwaves with professional basketball teams, an Olympic hockey team and stellar media focus on teenage figure skating, gymnastics and tennis stars. Women run companies, have careers in medicine, law and politics - domains previously off-limits. Women "making it" in the corporate world abound as role models for girls. Yet alongside the career triumphs of American women, and the frequent use of the hype-term "Girl Power" in current advertising and journalism, reports of a chronic loss of self-esteem, eating disorders, bodily mutilation, teenage pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases and suicide among American adolescents proliferate. In fact, the decline in girls' self-esteem has become a given in mainstream news reportage.

The visual landscape of teenage girlhood in the United States is contradictory, with wealthy models, actresses and sports stars defining the terms of youth success and "regular girls" often presented by the news media as troubled or in trouble. The ultra-thin body of the teenage girl-woman continues to serve as the commodified Maiden, Made-in the USA, a "model citizen" against which our culture measures its standards of beauty. For young girls, Barbie is the ideal teenager with the sparkly, dreamy clothes, the tiny, Cinderella shoes, and that impossibly sexy body. For feminists, she's the bimbo we love to hate. The teenage girl's own body falls under the scrutiny of her own often cruel comparative gaze, a gaze that alternately identifies with the Maidens of popular culture and rejects them wholesale as objects of a consumerist culture. And yet this supermodel aspect of the Maiden continues to wield clout as a substantial on-the-arm consort of the male power structure. Cultural taboos surrounding menstruation and the expression of girls' sexual desire continue to mute the language of the female body, while beauty panic causes girls to scrutinize every inch of their skin, muscle, bone and fat cells in a hobbled language of fashion-based imitation - the performance of the feminine.

Although teenage models and actresses are continually glorified by the mass media in their nymph-beauty state, real-life teenage girls are being scrutinized as an "at risk" population by many scholars and journalists. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1996) by psychologist Mary Pipher was designed as a clarion call, an "eye-opening look at the everyday dangers of being young and female," and was on The New York Times bestseller list for over two years, 1996-98. This book has become a popular Bible for the documentation of this "national phenomenon" of girls' diminishing self-esteem, as well as their eating disorders and self-mutilation - a guidebook that raises many fear-based questions and concerns. "America is a girl-destroying place," says Pipher.(1) The statistics of self-esteem loss are grim - less than a third of girls polled in the American Association of University Women's (AAUW) 1990 study of adolescents aged 11-15 entitled "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America," responded positively to the statement "I am happy the way I am" compared with nearly half of the boys.(2) Yet little focus has been given to the girls who do succeed - not as models, rock stars, actresses or Olympic athletes - but as happy, productive, outspoken, creative individuals.

Peggy Orenstein's SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap (1994) documented the effects of the drop in self-esteem among adolescent girls indicated by the AAUW's startlingly high statistics. Exploring the "real life" applications of these findings, Orenstein profiled female students in two middle schools, one largely middle-class and predominantly white, the other a multicultural, inner-city school. What she revealed in her investigative journalism is a system ill-equipped to foster self-confidence in girls.

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