This just in: Adolescence sucks

A new study shows that adolescent girls are stressed, insecure and anxious. What else is new?

Published July 14, 2008 6:09PM (EDT)

There's a lot of buzz today about a new study out from Girlguiding UK, which found that 10- to 14-year-old girls are under a great deal of stress. Among the 350 girls surveyed, The Guardian reports: "two in five felt worse about themselves after looking at pictures of models, pop stars and actresses in magazines. Some teens also felt under pressure from such publications to be thin, take drugs and even have plastic surgery. Many were self-conscious about their appearance and weight, with a number citing the pressure of the 'size zero' culture. The girls questioned described being put under sexual pressure from boys at school or feeling obliged to wear clothes that made them look older."

All of that is indeed terrible and stressful, but I'm a little baffled as to why all the articles are casting these as "new" anxieties, peculiar to the current generation. It's been 20 years since I graduated from junior high, and every bit of the above sounds awfully familiar to me. (Well, except for size zero, only because it didn't exist. I went to school when the Wakefield twins were still "a perfect size six".) Apparently, today's girls also feel pressure to own expensive gadgets like iPods and cellphones, which weren't around back then, but the pressure to demonstrate that your parents had money sure was. In seventh grade, I caught hell because my dad drove the wrong kind of car, because the back pockets of my jeans bore no complicated gold embroidery to indicate my mom had overpaid for them, and because my family held on to our old workhorse Apple IIe even after Macs came out. (We couldn't carry cars and home computers to school in our pockets, but that didn't stop anyone from talking about who had what.) Ridiculous youthful materialism is hardly a recent invention.

The girls surveyed also mentioned some much more disturbing elements of their lives, though: "42% of the 10- to 14-year-olds surveyed knew someone who had harmed themselves; 32% had a friend who had suffered from an eating disorder, and half knew someone who had suffered from depression." The connection between cutting and the "emo" scene is especially played up, suggesting that a type of music and its fan base have created an epidemic of self-mutilation out of thin air, or at least substantially exacerbated an existing problem. But there were "emo kids" long before there was emo music. The difference is that 20 years ago (and certainly prior to that), we didn't name or discuss these things. Undiagnosed depression ran rampant among my circle of friends (who, in the absence of emo, had to settle for punk rock), which none of us figured out until we were in therapy years later, after people had started talking about it. Eating disorders were only beginning to be acknowledged as a widespread problem, and cutting certainly existed back then -- it just hadn't gotten its own TV movie yet. There is nothing new under the sun, especially when it comes to being an adolescent in pain.

That's not to say we shouldn't take these things seriously, mind you. In fact, part of the reason I find it so irritating to read that young girls are under all new, 21st-century stress is because it seems like a distancing measure to me; If kids are stressed out by stuff we never had to face, then we can't possibly understand what it's like and therefore can't be expected to have a clue how to help. But I can vividly remember what it was like to be 12 years old and want to be thinner, want to be prettier, want to own more flashy material goods, and sometimes even truly want to die. I remember how it felt to believe deep down that I would never be loved if I couldn't measure up to impossible standards. I still don't know how you fix all that, although anti-bullying initiatives, programs like Girl Guides and increased awareness about the symptoms of depression, eating disorders and self-harm are all steps in the right direction. But I do know that even if the specific labels and gadgets have changed, tweenage misery is nothing new.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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