The Girls of Gen X

Article excerpt

All is not well with the women of Generation X.

Consider the evidence: Close to 40 percent of college women are frequent binge drinkers, a behavior related to date rapes and venereal disease. Young women suffer higher levels of depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts than young men from early adolescence on. Between 1980 and '92, the rate of completed suicides more than tripled among white girls and doubled among black girls. For white women between 15 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death ?? And there is evidence that young women are less happy today than 20 years ago. Using data from a survey of high school seniors, sociologist Norval D. Glenn has tracked the trends of reported happiness for young men and women. Since 1977, the "happiness index" has been trending downward for young women. (See chart next page.) Moreover, this decline is specific to girls. Young men's reported happiness has risen slightly over the same time. ?? Gen X women seem to experience the greatest discontent in two areas: Men, and their own bodies. Young women can find sex easily, but they have a hard time finding a caring and sexually faithful partner who will share their lives. Marline Pearson, who teaches at a large community college in Madison, Wisconsin, recently asked her women students to identify the greatest obstacle facing women today. The difficulty of "finding and keeping a loving partner" topped the list, outranking obstacles such as job discrimination, sexual harassment in the workplace, and domestic violence. ?? In addition to being disappointed in their intimate relationships with men, women are discontented with their own bodies. Healthy young women of normal weight describe themselves as fat or "gross." At puberty or even earlier, girls begin restricting what they eat. Two-thirds of ninth-grade girls report attempts to lose weight in the previous month. Of course, dieting is not new, but Gen X women do more than watch calories. Some starve themselves. Others eat but are afraid to keep food in their body. Instead, they chew their food and spit it out, vomit it up, or purge it with laxatives. Even more widespread than eating disorders is disordered eating, the restrictive and obsessive monitoring of food consumption. According to some experts, most college women today suffer from disordered eating. Indeed, it is the rare college or university today that does not have at least one specialist in eating disturbances on its counseling staff. According to one survey, the number-one wish among young women, outranking the desire to end homelessness, poverty, or racism, is to get and stay thin.

These conditions afflict some of the most privileged young women of the generation. This comes as a shock to older, baby-boom women. After all, college-educated Gen X women--the first full beneficiaries of the achievements of the women's movement--have grown up with more freedom, opportunity, and choice than their mothers or grandmothers. More to the point, they have been the beneficiaries of what might be called the girlhood project: the systematic and self-conscious effort to change the culture and prepare girls for lives as liberated, self-determined individuals with successful careers, sexual freedoms, and nearly limitless personal choice.

As a mother raising daughters in the 1970s and '80s, I remember the heady sense of possibility that accompanied the girlhood project. Sons were sons, but daughters were a social experiment. We gave them books like Marlo Thomas's Free To Be You and Me and read them stories in Ms. like "The Princess Who Could Stand on Her Own Two Feet." We dressed them in jeans and sneakers. We fought for their right to play Little League baseball. We pushed for more sex education in the schools. We urged them to please themselves rather than to please men.

Given our optimistic expectations, it is bitterly disappointing to reach the '90s only to discover that young women's happiness index is falling, not rising. …