Society and its Role in Building a Girl's Self Image

It seems as if interest toward adolescent issues is becoming popular among writers. Why so much focus on adolescent female issues? The reasons are numerous but even more amazing are the results these authors are finding. Adolescent girls today are faced with so many struggles. It has been found that families and schools play a significant role in shaping girls’ private and public images. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, is one author who believes adolescence is an especially precarious time for a girl, a time when the fearless, outgoing child is replaced by the unhappy and insecure girlwoman.

Things have changed a lot over the years and now it is becoming increasingly important to deal with the very real issues that are facing adolescent girls.

A girl’s self image and self-esteem determines how she will hold up against society and its cruel realities.Author Mary Pipher says cultural changes in the last decade have made America a traumatic place for teen-age girls.

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We live in a more “sexualized and media-saturated culture” where a girl’s appearance is the only thing that seems to matter. She argues that girls in junior high are doing drugs and having sex because they are pressured to “be beautiful and sophisticated.” The protected space we call childhood has grown shorter. We live in a look-obsessed, media-saturated, “girl poisoning” culture.

Despite the advances of feminism, escalating levels of sexism and violence cause girls to stifle their creative spirit, and natural impulses, which ultimately destroys their self-esteem.

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Pipher also notes that depression, eating disorders, addictions, and suicide attempts are more widespread than ever before among teens. Girls today are overwhelmed by the complexity of choices facing them as well as contradictory messages about women in mainstream media. There is a lot of adjustment and self exploration involved in being an adolescent female. The question is no longer who can scream the loudest or run the fastest, but “how can I provide for my family? Where do I go in my career?” We skipped the good stuff along the way to adulthood.

How can we be Superwomen without having been girls? Considerable research and media attention is now being focused on adolescent girls. According to Angela Hubler’s research (see McConkey, 1996), an adolescent’s self image is largely affected by the media. A big area gaining considerable research is sexual harassment and how it affects self-esteem. It seems as if there is a huge discrepancy between the appearances of healthy women and models. Moreover, the images of models have a tremendous impact on adolescent girls. Hubler interviewed 39 girls ranging from grade 6 to grade 12 and found that 50 percent of the girls reported that they were on some sort of diet while one in five girls was diagnosed with an eating disorder.

Girls need to have exposure to successful and independent women in their communities. In order for adolescents to have proper self-esteem they must take an honest look at themselves and where they want to go in life. Well, for an adolescent girl this is difficult in the society in which we live. The most basic need all of us have is to have a sense of personal worth. This sense of personal worth has two elements: security and significance. Security means being loved and accepted for who one is regardless of what one does. This is what Gloria Steinem, an accredited writer, refers to as “core” self-esteem, and psychologists refer to as “global” self-esteem. Significance is having meaning or purpose in one’s life, and feeling adequate enough to obtain one’s goals. The problem is that girls develop a series of false assumptions of what will meet their needs for security and significance.

Girls expend considerable energy toward purchasing cosmetics, dieting, and worrying about their physical appearance. Girl’s self image is greatly affected by all of these factors. When girls pour their energy into meeting their needs through pursuing false assumptions of what will meet those needs, they can be devastated when those assumptions don’t lead to lasting security. In Pipher’s book, the character Ophelia illustrates the destructive forces that affect young women. As a girl, Ophelia is happy and free, but during adolescence she loses herself. Ophelia is torn apart by her efforts to please her father, and she carries with her an enormous amount of grief. It discusses both the internal and external conflicts a girl’s experiences.

According to Pipher, we must abandon our own memories and open our eyes afresh, taking what girls say as our guide to understanding them.Pipher offers some guidance for parents and for adolescent girls when facing these challenges in life. One way parents can make coming of age less traumatic for teen-age girls is to encourage them to base their identity on their interests and talents. Teen-age girls should not simply accept our culture’s notion of femininity and base their identity on their sex appeal, the label in their jeans, or on whether they’re popular enough to win a crown.

Girls should be raised with more sense of entitlement, to be self-centered as well as other-centered, to be comfortable with their own authority and power, to expect to be economically independent, and to expect respect. Pipher also suggests that parents keep the lines of communication open, no matter how distant or detached a teen-ager may seem. Self-esteem is not an accident; it is the result of early feedback from our parents and peers in the forms of verbal and nonverbal messages that reinforce the idea that we are OK or not portrayed in the media die every year from suicide, eating disorders, and depression. We must work on building girls’ self-esteem and helping them find pride in the individual qualities they have to offer society.

Effective Strategies for Coping With Peer Pressure

lf the negative effect of peer pressure is to be minimized, youth, parents, school and community leaders must come together to establish workable and effective strategies to guide teen behavior and to support their transition from children to mature, responsible adults. Here are several strategies to consider (Brown, 1990):1. Relinquish the stereotype of peers as a uniformly negative influence on youth. Although some teenage peer groups encourage drug use, delinquent activities and poor school performance, others discourage deviant activity in favor of school achievement and involvement in sports or other extra-curricular activities (e.g., 4-H, music, religious activities). Nurture teenagers’ abilities and self-esteem so they can forge positive peer relationships. The parent, schools and other agencies can be taught how to help develop the adolescent’s self-concept and self-worth so he or she is a valued person. Empower parents and educators to help teenagers pursue and maintain positive peer relationships. They can provide adolescents with the opportunity to succeed in constructive ways which are valued by the teen, the parent and the community alike.

Encourage cross-ethnic and “cross-class” peer interactions and guide teenagers in dealing positively with cultural diversity and individual differences. Parents, teachers, community leaders, and clergy can model appreciation for ethnic differences and support cross-class and cross-ethnic friendships. Schools and youth organizations can assist by encouraging youth from diverse backgrounds to work and play together. Place sensible restraints on part-time teen employment. This could ease adolescents’ compliance with peer pressures to “buy” acceptance into a peer group (i.e., to have enough money for the “right” clothes, the “right” shoes, the “right CDs, etc.). Increases in part-time employment among youth have had little impact on the time they spend with peers.

Support parent education programs for families with teenagers. Parents need to be better informed about the dynamics of adolescent peer groups and the demands and expectations teenagers face in peer relationships. Establish intervention programs for preadolescents with low social skills or aggressive tendencies. Addressing these problems before adolescence will decrease the chances of these youth joining anti-social peer groups that will reinforce their problem behaviors. SummaryDuring adolescence, peers play a large part in a young person’s life and typically replace family as the center of a teen’s social and leisure activities. But teenagers have various peer relationships, and they interact with many peer groups.

Often “peer cultures” have very different values and norms. Thus, the adult perception of peers as a “united front of dangerous influence” is inaccurate. More often than not, peers reinforce family values, but they have the potential to encourage problem behaviors as well. Although the negative influence of peers is over-emphasized, more can be done to help teenagers experience the family and the peer group as mutually constructive environments. To accomplish this, families, communities, churches, schools, 4-H and other youth groups must work together because it “takes a whole village to raise a child.”

When a child doesn’t want to go to school, it is often assumed by school professionals the reason lies at home. Perhaps the child is afraid to leave home out of an unrealistic belief he or she must stay behind to mind the store, or to guard against some danger. The hypothesis is the child feels unbearably anxious unless he or she stays home, where the parents’ well-being may be confirmed. The child’s parents, on the other hand, may search for something in school that has intimidated their child. A school psychologist understands that school avoidance is probably the result of many factors, and the child may be reacting to both home and school stressors. Current thinking about school phobia suggests there are some children who refuse to attend school because of separation anxiety.

These are mostly younger children who are less accustomed to being away from home. The majority of children who refuse school, however, are between eight and thirteen years old. Some are trying to avoid uncomfortable feelings associated with school. They tend to be sensitive, overactive boys and girls who don’t know how to deal with their emotions. They may fear being criticized or evaluated. A few are truly frightened by a particular activity, such as riding the school bus or attending an assembly. Many of these children do attend school but with great discomfort. They tend to be highly anxious and lack the skills needed to handle social interactions. Perhaps they have had negative experiences in the past and are afraid something else will happen.

Research indicates many children experience school events as stressful enough to produce such symptoms as withdrawal, aggression, moodiness or anxiety. Studies conducted at the National Center for the Study of Corporal punishment (reported in the Monitor, the newspaper of the American Psychological Association) indicates many of these events involve disciplinary methods which are punitive in nature and attack the child’s self esteem. A child’s behavior may even resemble symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  It is apparent that teen-age girls face unbelievable pressures, and without high self-esteem many of these girls will turn to sex, drugs, or unhealthy eating patterns in order to fill the void. Young girls trying to achieve unhealthy images condition, memories of a traumatic event continue to interfere with daily functioning, long after the actual event took place. While severe stress responses may be unusual, any child who does not want to go to school is experiencing stress, and an important part of solving the problem is for the adults involved to assess what may have gone wrong.

When a child seeks to avoid school, the parents are advised to quickly request consultation with both the classroom teacher and the school psychologist. If this is done, parents, teacher and psychologist may explore clues from both home and school to determine how the child’s needs are not being met. While most children are adaptive and resourceful and able to adjust to a certain amount of challenge, there are limits to adaptation. Children whose skills are weak in areas needed for school success may encounter demands beyond their abilities. Sensitive children who are highly in tune with others may encounter an experience which overloads their finely-tuned empathies.

Whatever the cause, the parents need to see themselves as part of a professional team working to solve the problem. But first of all, parents must bring the child to school. They will probably be strongly ambivalent about subjecting the child to what seems like a piece of unbearable stress. However, by working with the school psychologist to find ways to modify school and home environments for the child’s benefit, some of the discomfort will be resolved. Sometimes simple interventions, such as a planned focus on the child’s positive behaviors, or special time with an important person in the child’s life, may help the child comfortably resume going to school. At school, short-term counseling, opportunities to engage in favorite activities, or a chance to earn a privilege could be options.

If necessary, the psychologist will also help find a therapist to work with both the child and the family. The experience of joining with school personnel to successfully reintegrate a phobic child into the school will allow parents to learn what works and what doesn’t for their boy or girl. They will have an ally in the school psychologist, who will act as a liaison among the various people involved. If the child has other difficulties beyond school refusal, they will be addressed. Intervention will give the child a chance to benefit from the educational environment and to master academic tasks in a supportive and encouraging setting where the child may thrive.

References and Recommended Reading

  1. Adams, G.R., & Gullotta, T. (1989) Adolescent Life experiences. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  2. Marganett, R.S. (1990) Skills for Living: Group Counseling Activities for Young Adolescents. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
  3. Vernon, A. (1989) Thinking, Feeling, Behaving: An emotional Education Curriculum for Adolescents (Grades 7-12). Champaign, IL: Research Press.
  4. Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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Society and its Role in Building a Girl's Self Image. (2021, Dec 15). Retrieved from

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