Pressure to be a supergirl is causing teen mental health crisis

February 10, 2009 By Yasmin Anwar

( -- Expectations for teenage girls to be brainy, athletic, nurturing, and look like supermodels - while juggling homework, social networking and resumé-padding activities - are fueling a generational mental health crisis, according to a new book by University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Stephen Hinshaw.

At the same time that opportunities abound for teenage girls to compete in both traditional male and female bastions, conflicting messages to be ambitious, caring and effortlessly thin and glamorous have led to a surge in adolescent depression, eating disorders, self-mutilation, suicide, and aggression, according to "The Triple Bind: Saving our Teenage Girls from Today's Pressures" (Ballantine Books, 2009).

In the book, Hinshaw and coauthor Rachel Kranz make a compelling case that, compared to previous generations of young women who juggled fewer roles, today's teenage girls are literally collapsing under the weight of adult expectations, consumerism and a highly sexualized pop/cyberculture that celebrates physical perfection and stratospheric success.

"Given the unprecedented advances for women, it is the best of times to be a teenage girl. But it is also the worst of times, because many in this generation are experiencing depression earlier and are more vulnerable to serious mental health problems," said Hinshaw, chair of the UC Berkeley psychology department and an expert on child and adolescent psychopathology.

The phrase "triple bind' in the book's title is a play on "double bind," a term coined by 1950s social scientists who studied the effects of the conflicting messages conveyed to children by grownups. What's different about the "triple bind," said Hinshaw, is that teenage girls are receiving even more contradictory messages about what they should aspire to, and are often devastated if they don't meet these impossible standards. This largely explains why one in four teenage girls will experience major depression, self-mutilation, binge eating, a serious suicide attempt or notable aggression before age 20, he said.

"The Triple Bind is why girls who might have accepted or even celebrated their size 10 bodies a generation or two ago now feel disgustingly fat if they're not a size 2 or 4," he writes in the book. "It's why girls who might not have been all that interested in boys at ages fourteen and fifteen now insist on having steady boyfriends by ages eleven and twelve."

"It's why girls who once had a bit of breathing room to figure out their futures now feel under the gun before they finish sixth grade, already anxious about getting perfect SATs and a roster of impressive extracurriculars," the book goes on to say. "And it's why girls who once might have identified with alternative female figures - a rock star, an athlete, a female author - now have trouble finding any role models other than those who are beautiful, hot, thin, and thoroughly focused on conventional notions of success."

Hinshaw came up with the idea for "The Triple Bind" book while studying girls with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at the all-female summer programs that he has been leading since 1997. Tracking these socio-economically and ethnically diverse girls from childhood through their late teens, he said he noticed that they had the same adolescent problems as boys with ADHD "plus a whole lot more." He sought to understand the reasons why.

In his research for the book, Hinshaw learned that the average age of onset for depression in women has fallen from their 30s to their 20s, with an ever-growing number of girls starting in their teens. Also, rates of "cutting," which involves nicking or slicing one's skin with knives or razors to relieve emotional pressure, appear to be skyrocketing, while obsessive dieting and binge eating are alarmingly prevalent, he said. Following puberty, girls are much more likely than boys to become depressed and anxious. But in the last decade, not only have such trends accelerated, but girls are becoming more aggressive. At the same time, aggression in boys has declined, Hinshaw said.

"Certainly, genes and other biological factors 'up the ante' for all such conditions," Hinshaw said. "Yet, the recent changes in girls' mental health problems cannot be explained by changes in genes, which would take generations to appear. Issues in the culture at large are the key focus of the book." However, a parental tendency to overvalue a child's achievements also plays a major role in the triple bind, said Hinshaw. He asks parents to be careful "not to succumb to the overwhelming social messages of insisting on top grades, top teams, top everything all the time."

"The Triple Bind" weaves together anecdotes and personal observations with a review of current research and sobering statistics. Topics include the culture of "busy-ness" that surrounds teens; the stress of homework and sleep deprivation; the ever-increasing sexual objectification of young females; today's relentless cyberculture; and how genes and environmental pressures are combining forces to compound a teen mental health crisis.

To resist the triple bind, Hinshaw advises girls to focus less on themselves by finding a wider sense of purpose, such as volunteering at environmental and civil rights organizations, or at an animal rescue shelter or program for at-risk youths. Volunteer work can provide a much-needed perspective for teens who obsess about their failures and imperfections, he said. He also urges parents and schools to promote self-discovery over rote achievement, and to stop putting pressure on kids to pad their resumés with ever more extracurricular activities.

Provided by UC Berkeley

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4 / 5 (2) Feb 11, 2009
Uhm... And guys do not get this why? I mean teenage boys get pretty much the same expectations (at least amount wise) so why don't we see that with boys?

And the proposed solution is volunteer work? You want them to have MORE expectations?
1 / 5 (4) Feb 11, 2009
Christ! they've always got something to bitch about
3 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2009
@gwargh - Guys do get it, they just don't talk about it, but I do agree; loading on volunteer work in addition to everything else seems a bit...counter-productive?
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 11, 2009
Did anyone see that clip of the young girls watching last year's results show on American Idol? When their favorite wasn't chosen, they started crying, shrieking, and one collapsed on the floor. What about old videos of girls watching the Beetles and...sobbing.

When we see these videos, nobody thinks "that's odd." Why? Because we know that girls are "wired" differently than guys. Perhaps this has some relation on why the girls at least appear to be having a harder time.

As for volunteer work, the assumption might be to replace some activity with volunteer work at the least. It would allow them to be in a drastically different environment that doesn't place those same expectations on them. It's like the Japanese who pay to use sleep booths in malls just to get away from the continuous stress of their daily lives.

Right or wrong, that's one way to interpret this.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2009
...What about old videos of girls watching the Beetles and...sobbing. When we see these videos, nobody thinks "that's odd." Why? Because we know that girls are "wired" differently than guys. Perhaps this has some relation on why the girls at least appear to be having a harder time...

That may be it in part for some girls. When I was growing up (30 years ago), the pressures really weren't much different. The pace was maybe a little slower because we didn't have cell phones and computers, but we did have fewer conveniences so we had more chores and everything took more work to accomplish. "The" model was painfully thin Cheryl Tiegs and the Charlie's Angels girls - they were Barbie-like enough to be impossible for most girls to emulate successfully. We had gangs, we had drugs, we had "devil" rock and roll. We were competing with returning Viet Nam vets for space at college, and ours was the generation that either got an MBA or would be stuck flipping burgers at McDonald's for the next 20 years. So I guess the overall stress was about the same.

What we didn't have was the pervasive media and crap on TV like American Idol. We could still get away from the artificiality and the hype.

I think it would be interesting to study the girls who *don't* manifest the hysterical and neurotic behaviors, and instead deal with things more like a guy. (This is not a lesbian thing, BTW, although in my observation it is rather closely linked to superior intelligence and ability in math and science.) I would like to know the common factors in these girls - how they were raised, what their lifestyles are, whether they have any mental quirks other than intelligence...and how this is different from the hysterical girls.

I think this is important because the women my age that were hysterical as teens are still hysterical, still make decisions based on false criteria (voting for a candidate because he's cute), and they spread damage wherever they go. If there are some adjustments we can make to raising our girls so as to eliminate the hysteria, this would go a long way toward making equality real, not just in name.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2009
@ Keter

I can't believe you really just suggested that most of these girls affected by this are less intelligent! Up until that point I was totally with you.

Keep in mind there is a truly massive difference between being intelligent and memorizing facts. That someone doesn't know much about a certain topic is not an indication of their intelligence. They could be brilliant, but not care enough about that subject, or consider the subject of little importance. And THAT is the real problem here. Our society is telling our youth that they MUST do this or MUST be that in order to succeed, or to be accepted by their peers. Kids (and many parents) have a skewed view of what is really important, and will go to extreme lengths to please their parents or peers.
not rated yet Feb 16, 2009
It all goes back to education. Sure, there are many societal pressures, but the educational system of this country is where it all starts. Sadly, schools can't teach children (girls or boys) about these subjects, and can't address the societal pressures of their students. It is left up to the parents, and sadly not all take the mantle.

If fundamental changes in this country's educational system don't occur, then we will continue seeing more news stories like this.
not rated yet Feb 23, 2009
Welcome, young ladies, to the "mans' world!"

It is not the "mans' world" because men choose to make it so deliberately, we men did not get together in a secret world wide meeting to shape the world to pamper mans' attributes of masculinity.

It is that way because of economics - if you want an A-grade life, you better be prepared to give A-grade results, all the time, without any complaints.

From the time you begin Grade 1 until you die from the stress related disease such a life style causes.

It is not fair, it is what it is: life in the modern world.

It is not fair to men. It is not fair to women. It is not fair to children. This modern world is competitive, because there are only so many jobs and far too many people to fill them. Listen carefully to what I am saying "There are too many people!" not too few jobs. (Jobs are created by people, to serve a purpose - not for people.) If people are not creating jobs, because it would not make more money, then there are too many people not too few jobs.

If you are not serving the purpose of that particular job - the bosses that created the job will find someone who will. Secondly, if the bosses no longer require that service you provide, they will retrench you. Simply because it makes economic (business) scenes.

When a guy clambers over you, stomping on your face, to get that promotion you deserve and then he gets it, in spite of you being better for the job than he is. It is not fair! You are right!

But don't be surprised by it. If you are surprised by it, you live in a socioeconomic delusion, where you think the world owes you something, or the world should be fair. (This is not male chauvinism and anti-feminism; it's desperation and competition.)

You could try what guys do, to relieve a bit of stress; punch something, drink something, or screw something. (Sometimes all three together) It's terrible, I know, but that what some guys do.

The other guys, you know the ones, those you would have no romantic interest in. The geeks, the nerds, they exercise, meditate, plan, study, take on more responsibly, work overtime without extra pay, make themselves indispensable to the company they work for, and excel. Eventually becoming the dept. head/director or CEO.

You could try this approach, of course. But to do it you would have to give up your emotions, little fits of hysteria, nervous breakdowns, PMS, soccer moms meetings, PTA (it would be best not to have children at all, you know maternity leave, etc.)

I know what you are thinking, "That's unfair." and you are correct, it is unfair! (in a perfect world)

This real world, however, does not care about what is fair. It only cares about what the "bottom dollar." Your boss will lose his job if he does not get the work done. If you are the boss, you would lose the job if your work was not done.

That nerd did not give up anything to be successful. Right? Wrong! He gave up romantic interests, he gave up a home life (you know - happy wife two well adjusted kids,etc.[in fact he got divorced because his wife didn't like that he was never at home], he gave up his health (to stress), he gave up his emotional outlets, he gave up his hobby. In fact he is hardly even a man anymore - he is a robot. He is your boss, and he thinks if you can't give up what he had to then you aren't pulling your weight. He is also thinking that maybe he should get someone else who will.
not rated yet Feb 23, 2009
OK, that explains the career of the successful male.
That is what most boys can look forward to.

Now the love life of the successful male. Oh, yes, there isn't much of one, because he does not have the time!

Yet, woman expect to be woo-ed (is that correct?) and swept off there feet, by Brad Pit look-a-likes. They (women) seem to be off in a fantasy world. And to top it off they also expect us to buy them what they want, in spite of the fact that we are competing for the same jobs in a very limited market place. (fat chance) You can't have your cake and eat it!

All I can say is: good luck with Brad Pit, and his seventeen million other female and gay fans (I hope I am correct to say some gay men also find Brad Pit handsome).

My advice to my daughter is simple - be rational - do everything that you choose to do, because it is what YOU want, not what others expect (not even me [when she is an adult, of course]).

Choose what YOU want, know the price (the toll) of it and the responsibility of what you choose. Then do the necessary work to get it done, step by step. And if at first do don't succeed, learn from your mishap, make changes to your plan, and then try again. Whatever you do, do not bang your head against the same wall. Learn from your mistakes.

And I would give the same advice to other girls and boys as well.

But what are the chances they will listen and hear what I have to say and apply it their lives?

Not good! but then again I am not a man that takes chances. So I will say it again and again and again until my daughter knows it and applies it.

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