When I was in kindergarten, my mom scheduled playdates to force me to socialize with other girls. My female playmates demanded compliments, played dolls with squeaky-high voices, and staged beauty pageants and dress-up games. Before the age of seven, they were checking themselves out in mirrors and fluffing their hair, just like their mothers.
Within five minutes, I was bored.
Nearly 30 years later, the terrain of girlhood looks very much the same.
Last night at my public library, a troupe of seven girls stormed the children’s area. They ranged in age between perhaps seven and ten years old. Two women monitored them while discussing the life choices of a mutual acquaintance. The women toted cameras and kept setting up snapshots. At every point of the camera, the girls lined up and posed with admirable expertise and synchrony. Clearly, they had done all this before.
In between the snapshots, the women gossiped, and the girls played. I was overcome with déjà vu.
“You go down the runway,” one of the girls pointed down the bookshelves. “The rest of us will judge you.”
How wrong is that?
Let me count the ways.
- Girls teach each other to shift their locus of control from internal to external. An external locus of control means we believe that what we do matters less than what happens to us, and it correlates with lower self-esteem and less success (Dilmac et al., 2009). Games played by girls involve judging, evaluating, and “voting off” their female peers, which can be incredibly destructive to relational-focused girls. Socialization is peer-driven at least as much as adult-driven, and one thing girls learn from each other is that what matters most is what other people think of you. Even among med school students, women have been found to have a significantly more external locus of control than men.
- When we rely on outside approval, we become more susceptible to emotional aggression—the weapon of choice for females. In fact, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that women exhibit higher rates of psychiatric disorders than men and are “twice as likely” as men to suffer from anxiety disorders. And no wonder. The bullying, slut-shaming, and social ostracism that girls act out on each other leads to depression, which contributes to a downward spiral of passivity and despair.
- When good looks and approval are what matter, low self-efficacy is the result. Self-efficacy is the belief that one has the ability necessary to perform a task. It is the single best predictor of career choices and ambition, and—not surprisingly—women tend to rank low on self-efficacy (Urban, 2010). What this means? Women don’t even try. Low self-efficacy is just a hop, skip, and a jump from learned helplessness. Add a little aggression, a little ostracism, a dollop of depression, and top it all with an external locus of control—and you’re good to go. Nowhere.
What does all this mean? It means don’t even blame the media. Girls have been judging and ostracizing each other since long before American Idol and America’s Next Top Model. This is just what girls do.
Because it’s what women do.
If we want our girls to be more successful, more confident, more productive, and less mentally ill, we need to hand them a world where they are valued for effort, ability, and creativity. Not the sex appeal of their selfies. We need to pay attention to girls when they are not posing for cameras. We need to talk work, ethics, education, and books in front of children—rather than slut-shaming next-door Betty for that man she had over last night. If a girl truly loves fashion, put her on-track for high self-efficacy and an internal locus of control: find a way for her to design outfits and stage fashion shoots—with herself as producer. Teach girls how to take control of their own lives, and we will have a better—and less hostile—world.