Mothers, lock up your daughters! What Is Happening To Our Girls? (Viking, $29.95) is a very important book (one which should be read by anyone who has anything to do with raising, teaching or writing for girls, in particular) but, by golly, has it put me off childbirth. I'm just not sure I could cope with the pressure of producing a 'normal' girl child in the context of the challenging, unsettling world Maggie creates for us via two years of research, interviewing and writing.
The book covers a lot of ground, taking us from the way babies and toddlers are exploited by brands ("some girls are now fashion-conscious as young as 3 or 4"), to how girls are being conditioned to associate their self-worth with looks alone, the way in which imagination and creativity is undermined via subservience to consumerism, technology, ready-made entertainment and premature sexualisation, tween purchasing power and celebrity worship, peer anxiety, body loathing, stress, exhaustion and expectations, the influence of magazines, media and pop culture ("many will bypass magazines for girls their age and head straight for Cosmo and Cleo"), plastic surgery, eating disorders, self-harm (i.e. cutting), bullying/bitching culture, physical violence, sexual activity ('Monday Morning Syndrome' refers to girls arriving at school "totally devastated by a sexual experience"), being sexy, STDs, drinking and drug-taking, shoplifting for thrills, depression, selfishness, suicide, social networking issues, cyber challenges/predators, pornography and a general crisis of identity, purpose and strong, fulfilling relationships. Of course, Maggie tempers all this depressing content with the consistent use of perk-me-up suggestions at the conclusion of most chapters, which serve to remind us that we are all responsible for this mess and, therefore, responsible for helping girls to clean up their act.
I had a chat with Maggie this week about the book, teen girls and the things feminism forgot. Her message: "We have to reclaim the next generation of girls who are slipping away from us."
What prompted you to write the book?
When I finished my book on men and boys [What Men Don't Talk About], everyone said ‘I guess you’re going to be doing girls now’. To be honest, I wasn’t that interested. I thought there was nothing new to say – there are endless editorials. But being naturally curious, I thought I’d see if there was anything that hadn’t been talked about.
I don’t have kids myself, sadly, but I started talking to girlfriends who have teenage girls and younger girls and they were absolutely bug-eyed. So I thought I have to keep going with this. We’re focused on our girls doing better than boys at school and giving them career choices but this whole tsunami of other influences is threatening to swamp them. And we’re completely oblivious to it.
So, then I got into it in earnest and two years later finished my research and wrote the book up. It was a huge project. In some areas there was very little research done. There are over 100 teen girl voices in the book, from all different backgrounds and chosen randomly, but I also spoke to teachers, school counselors, child psychologists, medical staff, law enforcement people, including those working underground on the net. All of these people are dealing with dozens of kids every week, so I felt that by doing that I was getting access to a much larger pool, rather than just speaking to the girls. But what I did try to do was to get inside their skins and then try and translate for parents how they’re experiencing being a teen or a tween or any girl, for that matter, so we can understand it.
What were some of the more startling revelations?
That one in ten girls are cutting themselves across Australia and when you talk to the girls it’s quite normal – they talk about it like crossing the road. When you look at the psychological literature, they talk about the unbearable pain that girls are experiencing. Self-harm is like letting steam out.
The other thing is underage sex. A lot of the teachers, quite young ones, that I spoke to were shocked. One said she couldn’t believe that girls of 14 were having sex and that in the last few years that’s decreased to 12 and some 14-year-olds have had up to 20 partners or multiple partners in a single night. With the oral and anal sex, we're seeing a lot of it in girls 12 and up and they’re getting STDs – particularly chlamydia, because often it’s not detectable and causes infertility. Professor David Bennett has said that we might be facing the most infertile generation of young women in history.
Young girls are seeing their bodies purely from the point of view of how guys are going to see them. I think this goes back to the whole packaging of images of sexy models. I think the sexualisation debate is very narrow and leaves out a lot of elements that allows trendy parents to say, ‘Oh, they’re just old fashioned’. The fact is that these girls have seen sexy models on billboards and in magazines from the time they can register them, not realising one per cent of women are ever going to look like that. And it makes all the wonderful shapes and sized we come in look abnormal. Even in pre-schools the girls are now concerned about how they’re looking and what they’re wearing. By the time they get to their teens, these girls have had a number of years focusing on the way they look – not on the inside person. I think this very much impacts on their anxieties and also coming across sexually, when perhaps they mightn’t really want to.
Did you feel overwhelmed when you were researching?
I did. I bored my girlfriends senseless for two years. I’d find a new piece of research and I’d be so shocked about it that I’d have to talk about it and they patiently listened (I’m sure any mention of the book now makes them want to scream) but I had to download it.
I think what we’re denying girls – and we’ve seen a huge decline in imagination from branding, etc. – is imagination, which is what carries you forward in life, whether it’s navigating a fallout with a girlfriend or what you might do in the future, the dreams you have for yourself and filling in bored moments. Imagination is so rich and we need to keep that alive.
Did the girls have anything positive to say?
The really positive thing for me, in the last two chapters, was that these girls, when they grow up, want to be married and have babies – not because they’re romantics but because they’ve seen the fallout from their parents' and friends’ parents' relationships from the endless partners and blended families. They want to find that one person who can create that warm space for them.
One thing we don’t do is give girls the opportunity to serve in the community. I was talking to the CEO of Girl Guides Australia recently and she’s trying to totally re-image what Girl Guides is about and this is going to be one of the elements. It’s also about giving girls new role models. She’s looking at giving them leaders who are in their early 20s – young women who’ve got it together who can really encourage.
I think we also need to encourage them to have friendships across generations – mum’s best friend or a favourite aunty or grandma and grandpa. A lot of them talk really warmly about grandparents – they felt they lived in a really warm, womb-like space and they wanted to be like them one day.
Is part of the problem that girls are lacking in a solid family structure and spiritual values – are all values based around image?
Yes, and I think the community doesn’t support girls. A girlfriend of mine who worked for ACP Magazines for a few years said to me, ‘You know, Maggie, I grew up in a rural Queensland and when I look back, I had about 30 people looking out for me. And that meant everything from getting a kick in the pants for doing something naughty to gathering me up if I was a bit distressed about something – making me a cup of tea and giving me a biscuit and then sending me off home feeling okay.’
Girls are spending a lot of time alone. They cling to their peers because they want to feel this belonging. Their peers are there 24/7, which has its problems, but at least their peers are there.
We have to encourage our girls to get creative. In terms of fashion, of course they want to be up with the latest fashions, but we’ve got a planet that’s groaning with problems. We should get them into things like vintage; teach them how to knit so they can make a scarf or beanie for themselves or a girlfriend. A lot of those things are very soulful, which we threw out with the women’s movement. We didn’t understand how fabulous it was. We need to give girls the opportunity to serve – to take part in tree planting… things that plant them in the community and give them a sense of value and belonging. I think girls are crying out for this.
What about feminism…
I think the movement had been very important but we have to be honest that not all of it is working and that every social change has unexpected consequences and I think we have consolidated materialism to a whole new level. It was important for women to have their own income, because terrible things happened when they didn’t, but life’s about more than the handbag and new pair of shoes. And I think that’s why we have such a high rate of depression.
What I found very sad was the number of 14-16 year old girls, who hate what’s happening to little girls, who said they wished they could go back to childhood, when everything was easy and innocent, when they didn't worry about what other people thought or what they wore or how they came across. Being accepted by girlfriends and the terrible fear that if they don’t have the right shoes or bag or listen to the wrong music that they’d be cast out of the group is a huge thing. Of course, life is about more than shoes and the new handbag.
Visit Maggie's website or order a copy of the book for more.
Girl With a Satchel