by Laura Choate Ed.D., LPC-S
If you are the parent of a daughter, you know that the cultural climate is extremely confusing for girls. On the one hand, statistics show that girls are doing well these days—many are excelling in school, in sports, and in their pursuit of advanced degrees and careers. On the other hand, many girls are struggling. We are seeing increases in serious mental disorders like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-injury, and substance abuse in girls. So yes, girls are doing well in reaching external goals, but at what cost to their development and mental health?
Part of the problem is that if a girl is tuned in at all to popular culture, she is learning a toxic definition for success: that her worth should be based on her appearance, her ability to gain attention and approval, and her ability to produce a long list of accomplishments. Specifically, she is learning:
- Your worth is based on your appearance. Girls are bombarded with the pressure of a perfect appearance everywhere they turn — from advertisements, television, movies, the Internet, fashion magazines, books, music, and videos — the ideal is held out as the standard that girls should attain. Sadly, this hot-sexy-thin-beautiful ideal is imposed upon girls when they are too young to know what this even means. This pressure intensifies into the preteen and early adolescent years, as girls observe how they should be as “hot and sexy” as possible, and look much older than they actually are.
- Your worth is based on gaining attention from others. The message of popular culture is clear: Gaining attention and fame is important, regardless of how it might be obtained. Girls learn that they are expected to create a carefully crafted online image in order to gain attention — one that emphasizes the appearance of social media popularity rather than actual relat If they are not “living for likes” online, they fear they will be left behind[i].
- Your worth is based on your accomplishments. In addition to looking attractive and gaining attention, many girls feel pressure to compete and achieve in all arenas — academics, athletics and extracurricular activ They believe that they have to be perfect, that if they just work harder, they will be finally become acceptable. In a recent survey reported by Girls’ Life magazine, more than half of girls surveyed said they feel as though they have to succeed at everything, “from school to sports to fitting in the right-size jeans to having a BF (boyfriend)”.[ii] The bottom line? To be a success, girls, you have to do it all.
These pervasive pressures seem overwhelming, but parents don’t have to stand by and just accept this as the status quo. You can make a significant difference in how strongly your daughter will be impacted by these pressures. I describe many parenting strategies to help girls stay resilient in my book: “Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture.” For now, here are a few ideas:
- Love her unconditionally, just as she is. Help your daughter take the time to discover who she truly is, not who the culture is telling her she ought to be. You can play an important role in helping her see that her worth does not have to be based only on her attractiveness to others, gaining attention online, or accruing accomplishments and perfection. She will thrive when she feels accepted and loved just for who she is, not whether or not she can measure up to an unrealistic cultural ideal.
- Nurture her spirituality. When she knows she is fully loved and accepted by God, she will be less likely to seek out attention and validation from others who may not have her best interests at heart. When she is not thirsting for attention and acceptance, she will no longer be drawn towards earning success as it is defined by the popular culture.
- Require unplugged time. Research shows that the more a girl immerses herself in popular culture through media use, the more likely she is to adopt cultural standards as her own personal standard. Protect her by monitoring her media use. Don’t be afraid to place limits on how often she is plugged in to device. Require that she take scheduled technology breaks each day. Enforce rules to keep all electronics out of her bedroom at night. When she watches TV, watch a show with her and ask her questions about what she is viewing. Even better, turn off all of your devices and spend time just enjoying her company!
I recognize that these are not easy tasks. To help your daughter stay resilient in spite of cultural pressures, you will have to be willing to do things differently from what others families might be doing — which will often make you an unpopular parent! That’s okay; stick to your convictions anyway. Decide to stand strong and to do what is necessary to help your daughter swim upstream in the ocean of today’s toxic culture.
About Laura: Laura H. Choate, EdD, LPC, is Professor of Counselor Education at Louisiana State University. Choate was awarded the 2013 Best Practices Award by the American Counseling Association and is a former editor of the Journal of College Counseling. She is the author of three books: Girls and Women’s Wellness: Contemporary Counseling Issues and Interventions (2008), Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Counselor’s Guide to Prevention and Treatment (2013), and Adolescent Girls in Distress: A Guide to Mental Health Treatment and Prevention (2013). She has 40 publications in journals and books, most of which have been related to mental health for girls and women. Choate lives in Baton Rouge with her husband and preteen son and daughter.
[i] Robyn Silverman (2014). Am I Like-able? Teens, self esteem and the number of likes they get on social media. Retrieved from: drrobynsilverman.com.
[ii] Girls Life Magazine, October/November issue, 2014.