Saving young girls from mounting pressure and expectations

Girls have more opportunities today than ever before.

The proof is in the numbers: they earn 57% of college degrees and are awarded more than half of all academic scholarships for law and med school admissions.

Yet, many young girls are feeling the pressure to be perfect, and experts warn if we don't do something about it, the consequences will be devastating.

The pressures young girls face are mounting.

“It’s the best time in history to be a girl, but the flip side is the pressures are relentless," says Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, psychologist and professor at UC Berkeley.

Dr. Hinshaw says young girls are facing a triple bind - a set of expectations almost impossible to meet.

Not only do girls have to be brainy and athletic, they also have to be thin and beautiful.

It's leading to a mental health crisis.

"One girl in four by the age of 19 will have developed a major depression, made a suicide attempt, been involved in cutting or self mutilation, or been involved in binge eating or other eating disorders," says Dr. Hinshaw.

Even really young girls are feeling the pressure. For some, competition starts when they're toddlers.

"National surveys of 3rd grade girls - 8-year-old girls - in the United States, 60% are worried about their weight, and over a third are dieting," says Dr. Hinshaw

He also advises parents to teach girls to be critical of the media.

Eating dinner together has also been shown to reduce the risk of eating disorders, depression and drug and alcohol use.

Also, encouraging girls to get involved in the community gives them a greater sense of purpose.

"Getting that sense of commitment in the community may be the ultimate solution to the triple bind,” says Dr. Hinshaw.

Body image is one of th biggest pressures on the minds of teenage girls. Plastic surgery among teens has more than tripled between 1997 and 2007. The number of procedures performed on girls 18 and younger rose from about 60,000 to more than 200,000.

According to Stephen Hinshaw, Ph.D., teenage girls are experiencing a triple bind. Not only do they feel like they need to be good at all the traditional "girl" stuff, like being nice, nurturing and sexually subdued, they also need to excel at the traditional "guy" stuff, like being competitive, getting into a top college and playing sports. In addition, girls are feeling the pressure to conform to a set of unwavering standards of their image. They're bombarded by the media with over-sexualized and feminized women. Dr. Hinshaw points out female sports superstars like tennis players Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams and racecar driver Danica Patrick, who are touted for their good looks and fashion sense.
MENTAL CRISIS: Dr. Hinshaw says teenage girls today are in a mental health crisis as a result of the pressure they're under. Many young girls, he says, are unable to express the deep feelings they have inside and therefore turn to destructive behaviors. "If you're feeling stressed, if you're feeling over-pressured, but you can't really express it, you may take it out on your body through making deep cuts, making yourself bleed, making a suicide attempt, or feeling worthless that you can't please everybody," Dr. Hinshaw told Ivanhoe. The proof of a mental health crisis is in the stats. Girls are suffering from depression at younger ages. The average age for a person's first depressive episode is now in the 20s, and it appears to be dropping. Fifteen to 20 percent of 10- to 19-year-old girls in the U.S. meet the major depression criteria, and 10 percent or more will suffer from mild to moderate depression by the time they're adults. Suicide rates have also spiked among adolescent girls -- 76 percent among 10- to 14-year-olds between 2003 and 2004. One-quarter of girls in the United States have committed a serious violent offense. Body image issues are also threatening teen girls. More than half of teenage girls are on a diet and between 3 percent and 4 percent of U.S. girls suffer from eating disorders. Ten percent of teen girls are obsessive dieters, have distorted body image or hate their bodies.
HOW CAN WE SAVE OUR TEEN GIRLS? Dr. Hinshaw says in order to save young girls, it's critical to help them build a sense of purpose and motivation despite the pressures of the triple bind. He says encouraging them to become involved in the community helps them feel committed to something greater than themselves. Parents, he says, also need to focus on self-discovery more than achievement. "When a child feels that her parents value not her self but her achievements, she may strive even harder to perform," Dr. Hinshaw writes in his book, The Triple Bind.

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