My eldest niece turns seven next month. She has a contagious giggle and a borderline encyclopedic memory of every promise I have ever made to her; for her birthday, she wants a rock climbing party. Most of the time, when I’m reading the slew of articles about unhappy young girls are, I force myself not to think about what it means for her – I can’t bear the idea that the realities of what it means to be a girl might weigh down on her so soon.
This week, the truth about what it’s like to be a young girl in 2017 became more impossible to ignore.
According to a new GirlGuiding Poll, girls as young as seven feel they can’t say or do whatever they want because of gender stereotyping. In a poll of nearly 2,000 young people, 55 per cent of girls aged seven to 21 said they didn’t feel they could speak freely because of their gender. The study also showed that girls felt sports, video games, maths, science and “being strong” were all more suitable for boys.
The research found that gender stereotypes were reinforced by a familiar variety of sources from teachers, parents, social media, TV and other media.
Equally as depressing is that 57 per cent of girls surveyed said this affected what they wore, and almost half reported that it made an impact on how much they participated in school. It was a startlingly clear indication that the way young girls perceive themselves and their gender doesn’t just affect their mental health, it infiltrates every part of their life; from how they dress to how they talk and how comfortable they feel raising their hand in class. Sophie Wallace, a member of the Girlguiding’s advocate panel said: “Society needs to understand that gender stereotypes aren’t just harmful but a barrier to progress.”
This news comes off the back of a government funded study released earlier this week that showed one in four girls is clinically depressed by the time they turn 14. Their symptoms include feeling miserable, tired, lonely and hating themselves.
Equally as depressing is that 57 per cent of girls surveyed said that gender stereotypes affected what they wore, and almost half reported that it made an impact on how much they participated in school.
It’s the hating themselves part of that sentence that haunts me; the knowledge that there are young girls all over the country who are sitting in their bedrooms, standing in front of their mirrors, scrolling through their Instagram feeds and learning the soul-crushing reality of how it feels to hate youself. To loathe not just the way you look or speak or act, but to hate the very essence of what makes you who you are.
Ask anyone who was once a 14-year-old girl and they’ll tell you, it’s a strange time of your life: your body is morphing into one you don’t recognise, men are suddenly aware of you in a way they never have been before, hormones are ripping through your body, bringing with them waves of emotions that you aren’t sure you have the words for or the capacity to express.
But now, there are so many avenues for young girls to express their self-hatred – the internet is filled with self-deprecating words and pictures – and we have to ask ourselves: what we are doing to build up these girls who feel trapped by their gender or the expectations people have of them? The answer is, not enough.
At home, girls’ problems with mental health are often missed by parents. The study suggests that parents underestimated the extent of, or overlooked the symptoms of depression in girls, but overestimate how prevalent the condition is among boys.
While at school, it can be incredibly difficult for these young girls to access the support they need. Budget pressures are forcing schools to cut their pastoral and mental health support services and the ensuing fall in the number of school nurses makes it harder for schools to identify vulnerable young people. Janet Davies, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, explained to the Guardian, “Demand for adolescent mental health services is reaching new heights but the NHS is failing young people.”
With budget restrictions eliminating the necessary pastoral care and nursing staff, the burden of care is often falling to teachers, many of whom don’t feel equipped to support students with mental health problems. According to a YouGov poll, more than half of primary school teachers say they don’t feel adequately trained in supporting pupils with mental health problem and around four in 10 said they weren’t confident they’d know what organisations to approach to help a student with a mental health issue.
“It can be extremely difficult for teenagers to get the right support if they’re struggling to cope,” explained Marc Bush of Young Minds. “[And] we need to rebalance our education system, so that schools are able to prioritise wellbeing and not just exam results.”