Girls Today: Moving Beyond ‘How Do I Look?’

March 8, 2017

Alexandra lives in a peaceful, leafy subdivision in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, with her parents, a brother, a sister, and at the moment, five dogs—her family rescues dogs. Alexandra, who is 22 years old, rescues people.

In high school she was president of the teen board of a suicide hotline. Before that, she and friends had founded a blog on Tumblr for suicidal adolescents. She gave out her cell phone number and counseled people who called, tracking down their Facebook friends and even calling the police.

When adults found out, they told her to stop immediately, terrified that amateurs might inadvertently do harm. “I had no training—it was really reckless on my part,” Alexandra said. “At that time I saw it as heroic. Now part of me thinks I was trying to save them because I couldn’t save myself.”

As early as first grade, she was comparing herself with other girls. They were more popular, prettier, thinner, smarter, more interesting. “I remember just really wanting to be someone else,” Alexandra said. “Even innocently—just spending a day as someone else. But that thought became more intrusive and obsessive.”

In high school Alexandra was depressed to the point of contemplating suicide. She wanted to change everything about her appearance. “I knew I had friends and family who loved me. I knew I had potential. I knew I was intelligent. But I was almost disgusted with myself.” (The last names of some people in this story have been withheld at their request to protect their privacy.)

Alexandra resorted to self-harm, a strategy some teenagers use to try to deal with their emotions, or even to punish themselves. She started burning the inside of her arms with her hair straightener, covering the burns with bracelets.

From ninth grade through 12th, Alexandra secretly skipped meals, and on days when she ate three meals, she would feel suicidal afterward. She was already thin—a serious ballet dancer, taking classes every day after school and all day on Saturdays—but wanted to be thinner. “I grew up in front of a huge mirror,” she said.

In a way, every girl in America grows up in front of a mirror. The normal existential struggles of teens—Who am I? Am I worthy of love and respect?—are too often channeled through another question: How do I look? For girls the most significant social pressures they face as teens are to conform to conventional notions of beauty.

Coping with this is easier today in some ways and much harder in others. Easier because America has become gentler on kids who are different: Beauty still rules, but our definition of beauty encompasses people previously excluded. Harder because social media—a factory for the mass production of insecurity—is transforming everything about adolescence.

In extreme cases this pressure can trigger the onset of anorexia—the disorder with the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. Alexandra’s eating disorder was serious enough that she spent months of her senior year of high school in a daytime hospitalization program.

Restricting food allows a girl to seize control of one of the few things she feels she can control. “I thought that if I achieved the societal ideal of thinness, everything in my life would be perfect,” said Estrella, 23, a friend of Alexandra’s who was hospitalized for anorexia. “I would be controlling all the chaos of my life—which now I see is privileged and not very chaotic,” she said with a laugh.

Alexandra and Estrella are part of a group of young Dallas women, all of them survivors of eating disorders, who are trying to create a different way for girls to grow up: valuing themselves for their inner beauty, free from body shame.

Until recently in the United States there were only a few sure paths to high school acceptance for girls; the most obvious was being a beautiful, sleek-haired cheerleader. Now, in much of the country, a girl can be a geek, goth, jock, prep, nerd, emo, punk. “I’ve been called weird; I’ve been called strange,” said Desirée, a 15-year-old in Cranford, New Jersey. “There was a moment when I decided to be myself. In seventh grade I found my people, found my village.” Her village was nerds, she said, kids who loved Broadway musicals and video games.

There were fewer villages when I was in school, and they were harder to find. Now the Internet can make life hell for teens, but it can also help those who are different or who feel different. Girls who can’t find their village at school might find a version online. They can find other girls who bake Hello Kitty cupcakes, raise money to save elephants, practice mixed martial arts, love Barbra Streisand, build robots, or believe that Ross and Rachel on Friends should still be together. With Wi-Fi, no one is truly alone.

There were few women of color in the fashion magazines I read, few models who had normal curves. None was disabled, or transgender. Rarely was there even a model with curly hair. Now all are more common. The pressure to be beautiful is still oppressive, but beauty is increasingly seen as coming in all colors and a wider spectrum of shapes.

Life has improved in many ways for LGBTQ youths—most dramatically for gay, lesbian, and trans teens. These teens have always been victimized. They are nearly twice as likely to be bullied as heterosexual teens, and more than four times as likely to attempt suicide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that nearly 30 percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens have attempted suicide.

But in major cities and increasingly in parts of rural America, these teens are more accepted and suffering less. About half of gay teens report having a gay-straight alliance club at their school, for example, double the number from 2001.

The same stigma, harassment, and rejection that lead to victimization and suicide also put gay, lesbian, and bisexual people at higher risk for eating disorders. Catherine Ratelle went to the prestigious Hockaday School in Dallas. Her eating disorder began when she was 15. This was also when her parents told her they were divorcing. “That was my world falling apart, and the world I wanted to control and fix.” Her secret eating disorder, she said, was embedded inside another secret: She was in a relationship with a girl.

She went to college at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth—“an environment even more difficult than Dallas,” she said. “I made it hard on myself. I wonder sometimes if I did that on purpose so I could prove to myself it was just a phase. In the heteronormative families I was growing up with, I didn’t see my reflection anywhere.”

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