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Supporting Girls in Early Adolescence (page 2)

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

Self-Image and Body Image

Researchers have observed other consequences associated with a general loss of self-esteem in preadolescent girls in addition to a decline in actual academic achievement. They have found, for example, that, "compared to boys, adolescent girls experience greater stress, are twice as likely to be depressed, and attempt suicide four or five times as often (although boys are more likely to be successful)" (Debold, 1995, p. 23). Girls' depression has been found to be linked to negative feelings about their bodies and appearance. Poor body image and disordered eating including obesity is much more prevalent in adolescent girls than boys (Orenstein, 1994). While it is difficult to find specific causes for these difficulties, gender stereotypes in television, movies, books, and the toy and fashion industries pose obvious challenges to girls' healthy psychological development (Smutny, 1995).

Researchers (Brown & Gilligan, 1993; McDonald and Rogers, 1995) attribute self-image problems to the "perfect girl" or "nice girl" syndrome. According to these researchers, around the age of 10, many middle-class girls have internalized the messages and expectations they have received into the ideal of the "perfect girl" who is pretty, kind, and obedient, and never has bad thoughts or feelings. They speculate that in trying to keep up with the impossible demands of this unrealistic view of perfect feminine behavior, girls may suppress some of their ability to express anger or to assert themselves, and they may begin to judge themselves through others' eyes and to question their own worth. In preadolescence, girls are also struggling to reconcile their conflicting knowledge of equality and justice, and the demands for compliance placed on them at home and in school (Debold, 1995).

Support Strategies for Preadolescent Girls

Parents, teachers, and administrators can provide support and encouragement to preadolescent girls in several ways. According to Smutny (1995), parents can:

  • Begin early to nurture freedom from stereotyped expectations. Provide toys that reflect the full range of children's play and allow girls to watch TV programs and movies that provide a balanced mix of stories with men and women characters in positive traditional and nontraditional roles;
  • Encourage boys' development of nurturing and caring attributes;
  • Take daughters into the workplace in their field of interest, and explain how the work contributes to the good of the community; Inquire regularly about their daughters' participation in school and confer with teachers about their strengths;
  • Listen to their daughters' questions, complaints, and comments about peers, siblings, and adults, and make an effort to read between the lines to discover where real problems, if any, may lie;
  • Be aware that girls receive conflicting messages about their worth and place in our culture from schools, television, and the movies. Counter these messages by engaging in critical discussions of these ideas and by reading and viewing age-appropriate stories and biographies with strong female characters.

Debold (1995) and Backes (1994) suggest teachers can:

  • Find ways to develop gender-fair curricula for middle schools. Consider separate inservice time for male and female teachers to consider questions such as: How can I look from a girl's perspective at what and how I teach? What do I show girls through my actions in the classroom?
  • Encourage girls to enroll and participate in all academic courses, especially science and math, and see that their contributions are valued in classroom discourse.
  • Deal directly and age-appropriately with issues of power, gender, race, and politics, taking care to include critical perspectives on these issues in the school curriculum. They also suggest that administrators can:
  • Develop, support, and enforce policies against gender-related harassment toward girls by students and teachers.
  • Take the lead in being sure that teachers and school programs offer equal opportunities to boys and girls in classrooms and extracurricular activities.
  • As part of school improvement efforts, acknowledge the need to include a focus on the improvement of self-concept and achievement of girls.
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