A survey recently found that the average teenage girl is far less confident than the average teenage boy. (If you want to put a number on it, they’re about 30% less confident.) But it’s not that way from birth. That drop in confidence begins around the age of 12, when they officially cross the threshold from girl to the dreaded tween. As for why self-doubt suddenly arrives along with the hormones, maybe it’s because …
Our school system is designed to reward children who obey, because when a teacher tells a child to get in line, we need them to say “OK,” and not “It’s all love, but I’m going to follow my own truth and try to crawl out this window instead.” But it seems like there’s less tolerance for girls who rebel than boys as if the latter are expected to be back-talking scamps every now and then. Girls, meanwhile, are all supposed to be sensible Hermiones.
That’s at least partly because we’re trained to be caregivers. Sure, you might find a pink dirtbike in the girls toy section, but there are still going to be a lot more kitchen sets and toy sewing machines. I once had a beloved toy vacuum. All the fun of real vacuuming — which is to say, none!
Socializing girls to be caregivers, to cook and clean and raise plastic baby dolls to grow into plastic disappointing adults, means teaching them to care what other people think. There’s less room to mess up because, it’s implied, the stakes are higher. Everyone is depending on you!
So once a girl hits puberty, society suddenly has a bunch of opinions about what we should wear, who we should socialize with, what our aspirations should be. And above all else, we’re taught to worry constantly about what other people think, even if that’s going to have our head spinning in every direction trying to decide what version of a teenage girl we should be to make the least amount of people hate us. As we’re about to find out, it’s impossible to win that game.
I saw a recent headline in Psychology Today that read “Teenage Girls Are Exposed To More Stressors That Increase Depression,” and thought that the most stressful thing teenage girls encounter is probably other teenage girls, which it turns out was the crux of the article. It said that research found that teenage girls are more likely to encounter “stressful interpersonal events” (aka fights).
When I was in high school, there was a ponytail cold war. One girl, we’ll call her Madison, added a french braid into the top of her ponytail. Not to be outdone, her friend Kendra adds two french braids. Madison did a third french braid at the back of her head. Kendra curled her ponytail. Madison added glitter spray. Kendra did glitter spray and butterfly clips. Soon, all the girls in my class were getting up an hour earlier every day to wrench their hair into french braid supremacy. You know how in The Good Place, Michael’s big innovation in torture is to get the humans to torture each other? That’s essentially what this was.
Why were we mentally and physically exhausting each other with complicated and frankly hideous hair requirements? Because we want to be the best — not the strongest or the toughest, but the prettiest and coolest. Everything, even fashion, became a competition. We were going to hair the fuck out of each other. We knew we weren’t supposed to outwardly show aggression (everyone instead talks about how girls are “catty” to each other), so this was our method of punching one another in the gut.
I know what you’re probably thinking. “No, we tell teenage girls to stay far away from teenage boys, with their boy smells and boy boners. They are gross. Our sweet daughters must avoid them at all costs.” Except every young girl wants to be Eleven in Stranger Things, Hermione in Harry Potter, Sandy in SpongeBob SquarePants, or Wonder Woman. When I was growing up, if the story I was watching wasn’t exclusively about female friendship, it was probably going to have exactly one female character in it. Her role in the group was “girl,” and her personality would be “plucky.”
In a world that is changing in a very scary and chaotic way that is hard to explain if you’re on the outside, it sure would be nice to have someone your own age going through the same changes you are. Instead, girls often isolate themselves from other girls. There’s a couple of good reasons for that (like avoiding the ruthless competition mentioned before), but one is that they’re busy trying to prove that they’re worthy of attention and friendship from literally anyone but another teenage girl.
They want to be better than the average teenage girl, which society has decided is the most annoying demographic in the species. The average teenage girl, we’re told, is a squealing, shallow, selfish dork who likes frivolous nonsense. You, then, want be the cool girl who isn’t like the others … while also continuing to excel at all of the things demanded of the girls you’re trying not to be like.
Have you ever seen a girl get a B+ on a test and burst into tears? You could dismiss this as hormones or say that boys don’t express disappointment that way for manly reasons, but it definitely feels like girls just have less room for error. There’s a thing called stereotype threat, whereby a person from a certain group doesn’t want to confirm a negative stereotype about that group. Less than a hundred years ago, women were still being told that our brains were too tiny and pink and cute for college. Hell, we’re still being told that today — just type “women are naturally dumber than men” into YouTube. (I’m kidding, please don’t.)
If you beat yourself up enough about your shortcomings, you can become so terrified of failure that you become risk-averse. That’s a problem, because the thing about being afraid to fail is that you have to fail a lot before you can succeed. This fear of risk/failure as a teenager carries over into adulthood, and I think it’s a big contributing factor to why we don’t see more women in typically male-dominated fields.
I see other female writers do this to themselves all the time. Hell, I did this to myself for 28 years. That’s why I only recently started writing professionally. I took every little criticism as a sign I just wasn’t talented enough, and quit trying for long periods of time. It’s much easier to do that than accept that you need to work more on something, and that for at least a while, you will be bad at it.
But that means giving yourself permission to fail and even disappoint other people, which means believing that you have worth regardless of how others judge your performance. And that, of course, goes against everything you’ve been taught about the importance of pleasing others. It also doesn’t help that …
There are all these books now for young girls that are called things like Rebel Girls Kicking Society In The Dick Since 1300 BC. They’re supposed to be full of inspirational stories of real women who changed the world, but it turns out that stories of women who changed the world end very differently from similar stories about men.
Every famous woman from history you read about has a story like “She started painting at age six and made 800 paintings before she died at 21, because after having nine babies, the doctor told her she was fine, but then one day her whole uterus just fell out.” Or “She was brilliant, but her husband found her snoring mildly annoying, so he had her institutionalized and they cut out part of her brain, and then she didn’t write much anymore.” Meanwhile, famous men from history wrote three poems and died peacefully at the age of 80 from a really cool sex disease.
So at an age when society is trying to feed girls examples of what they can accomplish, they learn that Joan of Arc was inspiring, but also burned at the stake, and then burned a second and third time just to make sure no parts of her survived. “And if you’re brave and smart and good, that can be you!”
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