Growing up has always been tough, but for girls today, it’s getting even harder, says author and counselor Laura Choate.
The pressure to be sexy, smart and popular is hurting modern girls, says the LSU professor in her new book, “Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture.”
“There really are a lot of different pressures today that didn’t exist when I was a kid or even just a few years ago, and we need to pay attention to this,” she says.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and the photo-sharing application Instagram have only increased the stresses young women feel about fitting an unrealistic ideal, Choate says.
Early on, girls receive messages that in order to be successful in life, they need to be “as hot and sexy as possible,” Choate says, noting that even toys and Halloween costumes aimed at 4- and 5-year-old girls promote this look.
“Before, it was to be thin and beautiful,” she says. “Now it’s hot and sexy and thin and beautiful. This is taught to them at a very young age. Even in preschool, they’re hearing this message.”
Some girls equate their self-worth with the amount of attention they receive — whether it’s negative or positive. Posting risqué photos on Facebook or Instagram and projecting an image of an attractive, worldly young woman can seem important to someone who spends up to nine hours a day interacting with some form of media.
“I don’t see that changing,” Choate says. “I see that getting worse. So many girls get negative attention, but they say that even negative attention is better than no attention.”
Aside from superficial pressures, girls also face more demands to be accomplished in school, sports and extracurricular activities.
“They have to be perfect in every area, make great grades and be good at sports, be great in all activities as well as be popular and look perfect,” Choate says.
As a counselor to college-aged women and a parent to a daughter, Choate sees the effects of these demands society makes. She connects these cultural pressures with the rise in young women’s mental health issues.
Before the age of 12, boys and girls suffer depression at similar rates, she says, but girls’ depression rates surge after that. At 12, about 5 percent of girls deal with bouts of depression. By age 15, 15 percent of them do, and the numbers rise to 20 percent at age 18.
“We are also seeing spikes in anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse and self injury,” Choate says. “The other thing I write about a lot is dating violence and sexual trauma that can occur as girls start dating. Girls are much more likely to be involved in romantic relationships where there is some kind of physical violence or emotional abuse.”
Parents can work to combat the cultural pressures by helping their daughters become what Choate calls “resilient girls.” Her book, published by Oxford University Press, details strategies parents can use, and her blog at Psychology Today’s website focuses on the topic.
“A resilient girl is a girl who is authentic, that she knows who she is and she’s confident in what she likes and what she values,” Choate says. “She’s not just trying to please other people and what they expect of her.”
This type of young woman is strong and confident, but not self-centered, she adds.
“She also is concerned about and cares about other people, shows empathy for others, cares about others and has close relationships with other people,” she says. “I don’t think we need to be raising people to be selfish.”
While parents cannot completely shield their children from the negative aspects of our world, Choate says they need to monitor the messages their kids receive.
“Parents can choose to actively be counter-cultural if they need to be to make decisions that are going against what everybody else is doing in order to make good decisions for their families and their daughters,” Choate says.