Teenage Girls in Jeopardy

By Winter, Metta | Human Ecology Forum, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

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. …

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