Teenage girls are kind of a mess, according to the Telegraph. In Britain more than one in three girls aged 14 to 15 suffers from anxiety or depression. Of the girls surveyed, 37 per cent had three or more symptoms of psychological distress.
Nick Harrop, of YoungMinds, says: “Stress at school, body image worries, early sexualisation, bullying on and offline and uncertainty about the future after school are all piling on the stress … Social media also puts pressure on girls to live their lives in the public domain, to present a personal ‘brand’ from a young age, and to seek reassurance in the form of likes and shares.”
Girls are taught to see each other as competitors, and boys are taught to stroll in and pick up the pieces. Just as self-doubt is peaking, kids are pushed to literally rate each other on how sexy and confident they appear. They have no support, only impossible goals and hypercritical peers. Craving affirmation, more and more girls dish themselves up as free porn to any stranger who asks.
Depressed and anxious? Is that all? It’s a wonder they haven’t all thrown themselves into the river like so many spray-tanned Ophelias.
Catholic parents may feel a panicked urge to swaddle their daughters in floor-length purity uniforms, walling them up in social quarantine until they’re safely married. It seems the only sane response to a world that’s in sexual, psychological crisis. But if it’s perverse and dehumanising when children treat each other as objects to consume, it’s equally perverse and dehumanising when they treat each other as objects to fear. Kids who are quashed and segregated grow from stunted teenagers to stunted married adults. One variety of dysfunction replaces the other, and the anxiety, depression and alienation flourish. “There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me.” Maybe Ophelia had it right.
Or maybe there’s still some hope. Maybe we can help girls learn to relax, to worry less about their consumability, to remember their own dignity, and to extend respect to others.
There is hope in friendship. Yes, friendship. Sounds naïve, right? But let’s look at what has happened to friendship in the last few decades. The word “friend” on Facebook, Snapchat and other social media merely means someone who has access to us, and who can savagely humiliate us with a single fingertip.
What about friendship between celebrities? No such thing. Any male-male or female-female public affection is instantly reported as homosexual. The only love we can imagine is erotic love.
Baby boutiques sell leopardskin vests and leatherette pants to keep our newborns sexy, and pre-school children mimic what they see on television, waging monstrous feuds over who’s cheating on whom. We train kids almost from birth to think in terms of coupledom, and then we call girls open-minded, low-maintenance and empowered if they agree to use and be used, no love required.
Drama between the sexes is nothing new; but that drama goes up to 11 when erotic love is the only way to make contact. Without friendship, there are no companions to turn to, no allies to guide, support, solace and restore us.
As we lose sight of the meaning of friendship, we clamour more frantically after something to replace it – and this clamour sets up a sympathetic vibration of depression and anxiety in our teenage girls, who so acutely feel the need for love.
If we want to repair our children’s understanding of sexuality, we must first bolster their understanding of friendship. We must build them up to recognise true friendship, and to intentionally extend true friendship to others, girls and boys.
How can we do this? Encourage boys and girls to talk, work and play together, rather than segregating them to keep them pure. John Paul II both encouraged and modelled this approach. When we routinely engage with each other as whole persons, rather than as dangerous and enticing traps to be white-knuckled past, then we’ll naturally become averse to treating each other as objects.
Talk openly about what friendship means – how to be a good friend, how to identify a false friend. True friends encourage and appreciate our virtues. They never mock or exert pressure, and they never use friendship as a prize that can be won or withdrawn. A friend will defend us when we’re hurt, and not press their advantage.
Remember that trustworthy adults can make excellent friends for teenagers. Parents should try to foster friendships with our teens, constantly offering affection, and resisting the urge to go berserk with grief or anger when they go astray. We must also be open to letting some other adult be a confidant, if our own relationship is strained.
Model respect and affection between the sexes at home, avoiding an adversarial us-versus-them attitude. When fathers treat their wives and daughters with courtesy, affection and self-sacrifice, girls learn to expect nothing less from their male peers, and everyone benefits. We are created to relate to each other. When teenagers rediscover uneroticised friendship, it will strengthen them to withstand (or at least recover from) the perversions of an oversexed, anxious, commodified world.