There is an insecurity epidemic that is raging among teenage and preteen girls in our society. Last year we saw it most vividly in the spread of “Am I hot or not?” and “Am I ugly?” videos on YouTube, which not surprisingly led to vicious, hateful comments by anonymous commenters. This year, there will inevitably be a new trend that highlights the ubiquity of this societal problem.
For educators, parents, and other observers, these trends are unfortunately not surprising. Far too many girls are being stripped of their childhood and subjected to pressures and events that destroy their authenticity, sense of worth, and trust in others. They are transformed from little girls who will speak their minds, dance and sing in public, act silly as they play blissfully, and eat whatever they feel like without hesitation to sullen, insecure adolescents, obsessed with their image, popularity, conformity, and physical appearance.
The most serious repercussions of this transformation are truly pernicious, including self-harm (cutting), eating disorders, depression, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, and suicide. In addition, academic performance often suffers. The reality is that too many girls face a joyless childhood filled with anxiety, which tears at their souls and hinders their spiritual development. The impact of these repercussions of unhappiness and insecurity do not stop with the end of adolescence, but unfortunately often have an enduring impact on the well-being of countless women.
A cultural revolution is needed to reverse these pernicious conditions. Catholic schools should be the vanguard of this revolution. And this week, Catholic Schools Week, is the perfect time to think about what steps we might take to achieve this goal.
Catholic schools are charged with creating conditions and fostering values that lead to the full intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual development of every child. This demands creating safe communities that protect girls from indirect, covert forms of aggression that prey on their insecurities (and make them more insecure) and teaching values that are currently countercultural, particularly among teenage girls.
In Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons describes ‘girl bullying’, the use of “backbiting, exclusion, rumors, name-calling, and manipulation to inflict psychological pain on targeted victims.” It involves relational aggression, using the closeness of one’s relationship to others as a weapon to inflict emotional pain. It leaves many girls mired in uncertainty, anxiety, and insecurity. This breakdown in trust can result in victims later becoming bullies themselves.
Schools often downplay girl bullying, treating it as a minor matter compared to physical violence. Often it is seen as a natural part of girls’ development. It is not, and its prevalence in no way indicates its acceptability. Another unfortunate tendency is blaming the victim, something I witnessed as a teacher working for an incompetent principal. It is already difficult for many girls to come forward and alert school authorities when they have been subjected to this type of aggression. They are thinking: Did I bring this upon myself? Did I do something wrong? When the student actually does work up the courage to ask for help and it turns into an interrogation instead, she will likely be reluctant to speak up again and other students will likely be similarly deterred.
Because this problem is so pervasive, finding a solution requires a multidimensional approach. Simmons offers some solutions that should be incorporated into Catholic schools. Catholic schools should have policies that make it crystal clear that this behavior is unacceptable, and they must enforce these policies consistently. Not only that, it is essential for schools to explain why this behavior is intolerable. And students should play an active role in addressing non-physical aggression, for instance by helping to create class contracts that set community parameters on what behavior should not be tolerated. In addition, in the 21st century, no approach can be complete without addressing cyberbullying, particularly bullying via social media.
The first step is to bring this issue into the light of day. Students need to hear about the impact of this form of aggression from administrators, teachers, and other students. There need to be safe forums where they feel comfortable expressing their experiences with insecurity and conflict. This might be through journaling, counseling, class discussion, or simply by having a teacher act as a sounding board. This can only happen if cultures of trust are developed, where teachers and administrators authentically love their students and students sense this commitment and love.
Second, teachers must model the behavior they wish to see. It is essential to be positive, honest, and clear in communication. School can be a grind, teachers are not immune from becoming frustrated and annoyed, many have their own insecurities, and sometimes psychological ploys can offer an easy shortcut, but teachers must avoid aggression, pettiness, bitterness, and manifestations of their own insecurities. There is a responsibility to be kind, forgiving, and affirming, to recognize the value and uniqueness of others, and to show that life and the faith can be lived joyfully. And this cannot just be an act, because students will sense the inauthenticity and grow cynical in reaction to the hypocrisy. It has to be rooted in virtue, particularly love, or else it is bound to fail. This is no small task.
Third, Catholic schools have the unique opportunity and responsibility to engage in religious instruction. For Catholic schools to fulfill their responsibilities, they must offer students a different worldview than the one presented by the media, popular culture, advertisers who profit off of insecurity and superficiality, and insecure parents who attempt to live vicariously through their children. This requires directly confronting the underlying causes of insecurity, indirect aggression, and inauthenticity.
One thing that can be done is to draw a sharp distinction between acting nice and being kind. While being kind is an obligation rooted in love, acting nice may be right or wrong depending on the context. “Acting nice” means abjuring from aggression, anger, and conflict, regardless of the context. But conflict is sometimes necessary for ensuring justice and human flourishing, in addition to maintaining one’s integrity. Even Jesus was known to flip a table or two. Openness and honesty should not be discarded to preserve one’s image as a “nice girl” or “good girl.” There are times when acting nice is perfectly ethical and suitable for a particular situation, but one’s authenticity should not be surrendered in order to put on a perpetual show. To be kind, since it is a manifestation of love and directed by wisdom, one must be concerned with what is right and just rather than simply acquiescing to the desires of others simply to preserve one’s image of niceness and to avoid disagreement and conflict.
If girls avoid these to preserve a “good girl” image, as many do, it can hinder their emotional development by disconnecting their emotions and reasoning, which might very well reflect the reality of the situation, from their actions. They will not be able to trust how they feel. They will feel compelled to hide their authentic views, beliefs, needs, and desires. And they will be unable achieve unity in mind, heart, body, and soul. Further, the aggression that they so desperately want to avoid will often occur anyway, but in covert forms, hidden behind the facade of niceness.
A second step might be confronting the adolescent obsession with popularity. Simmons notes that “popularity changes girls, causes a great many of them to lie and cheat and steal. They lie to be accepted, cheat their friends by using them, steal people’s secrets to resell at a higher social price.” This race for popularity is “as dangerous an issue for girls as weight, appearance, or sexuality.” A key step is to build authentic community in the classroom, something for which Catholic schools should be particularly well-suited. Catholic classrooms should seek to build a family-like environment where caring about others is a shared norm, even if students will not always be able to live up to that standard. Not everyone will be best friends with everyone else, but in this type of environment, friendships will be more likely to have a foundation in compatibility rather than being the product of social ambitions.
There needs to be a constant emphasis that the only close friends worth having are ones around whom each girl can be herself and who share her inclination to keep it real. By developing real relationships, instead of ones where they use others or are used instrumentally, girls can see the benefits of friendship and trust, instead of losing their ability to trust those close them.
It should be stressed that Catholicism contains the important message that each person’s worth is innate, rooted in the fact that each person is made in the image of God, entirely unique and infinitely valuable. This is a hard concept to grasp, but if this message is taught, constantly reinforced, and seen to shape the behavior of teachers, administrators, and others, girls will be able to increasingly disconnect their sense of self-worth from their popularity or coolness. Given the type of behavior that is inspired by the quest to be cool or popular, this is a very worthy goal.
Another valuable message is to teach girls to be women for others, to seek excellence in pursuit of the common good. Turning away from superficiality and the chase for popularity is much easier when girls have a strong sense of purpose, when they are determined to utilize the gifts they have been given. Despite the shattering of numerous glass ceilings, women who are strong, confident, and driven are often viewed more warily than men in similar positions who have the same attributes. Witness the recent, rather pathetic slandering of Susan Rice’s character.
This is not to say that Catholic schools should be teaching girls to be prideful about their innate abilities and developed talents or obsessed with achieving success in the workplace at the cost of everything else in life. It means Catholic schools should be trying to remove the social barriers that deter girls from pursuing excellence by linking it to a transcendent cause, so that their ambition is rooted in a desire to do God’s will and advance the common good, regardless of the obstacles they face. It means teaching girls to be comfortable with their gifts and successes, so that girls can focus more on how they will use these in a worthwhile way than on how these impact their image or popularity. This will reduce the likelihood of girls developing self-defeating behavior, such as feigning humility, that inhibits their ability to reach their full potential as persons.
Finally, Catholic schools need to directly address insecurity by teaching their students that their joy, sense of security, and the way they feel about themselves should not be based on their natural intelligence, social status, wealth, or physical appearance, but on their character, their most authentic selves. Each girl’s sense of self-worth should not be rooted in pride, which offers neither fulfillment nor joy and inevitably crumbles into insecurity, but recognition of the worth and dignity they have as children of God, made in God’s image.
The first step in eradicating insecurities is to expose them, to release them from the inner recesses of their hearts where they wreak havoc. Exposing them is not enough, however. Teachers must show students an authentic path to conquering these insecurities.
Perhaps no pervasive form of cultural prejudice merits a more forceful response than notions of superficial attraction and beauty. Girls are bombarded by the message that they need to be pretty, beautiful, cute, hot, and sexy. They are pressured to embrace superficiality and consumerism or risk alienation from those who conform to capricious societal standards.
The very act of judging someone’s external appearance against momentary standards of cultural or personal prejudice is itself a fundamentally dehumanizing act, one wholly incompatible with the Christian commitment to human dignity and love for others. It is an attack on the unity of the human person, as the person is treated like an inanimate object, devoid of an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual nature. Teachers must spell out that treating others in this way is unethical, irrational, and harmful. Teachers must help students to internalize this message so that they will reject not only the objectification of others, but also judging themselves based on illegitimate, irrational notions of attractiveness.
In the end, Catholic schools have the unique opportunity to teach values that will make it easier for girls to be authentic, secure, and more likely to reach their full potentials as persons. It is an opportunity that should not be wasted.