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- Girls are seven times more likely to be diagnosed with depression than boys
- Girls are more likely than boys to attempt suicide
- Girls are 2-3 times more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders compared to boys
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Stereotypes and the Psychology of Girls
By: Melissa Donadio, M.A.
Since 1848 at the Seneca Falls Womens’ Rights Convention, females have fought for equality in American society. Their fight for equal rights to males grew out of oppression as they have been historically treated differently. Gender stereotypes of females being dependent or less talented continue to influence how girls are treated, which can be seen within school settings. For instance, boys are more likely to be encouraged to participate in math and sciences activities at school while girls are more likely to be placed in home economic activities (Lavy & Sand, 2015). Likewise, during adolescence, girls’ confidence related to math- based tasks decreases, and they are less likely to take optional math and STEM related classes (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2007). In addition, girls may hear phrases such as, “you throw like a girl”, which can influence their interest in and decision to participate in sporting activities (APA, 2007). To explain historical stereotypes of girls and their impact on female behavior, psychologists coined the phrase Objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997).
Objectification theory suggests that society teaches girls to treat themselves as objects to be viewed and judged since their appearance (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Similarly, through direct and indirect messages in the media, girls learn to internalize others’ expectations of their bodies. In other words, girls learn that their appearance matters, and they realize that they are treated differently based on society’s perception of beauty. Similarly, they learn to behave in ways that are consistent with societal expectations. For instance, research suggests that girls exacerbate their self-surveillance, which can lead to increased body shame, anxiety, and disordered eating (Schaefer et al., 2017). Likewise, when girls believe that their bodies are their most important characteristic, they are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors and to accept violence in romantic relationships (APA, 2007). Therefore, society’s portrayal of girls and their consequential behavior offers an explanation to mental health differences between genders.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (2007) girls experience a higher rate of mental health disorders compared to boys. Research suggests that this may be because females learn to internalize stereotypes about themselves and experience distress when their authentic selves are not in line with society’s expectations (Fredrickson et al., 1998). This can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, shame, guilt, and stress, which is shown by the rates of depression that are seven times higher for girls than boys (Lewinsohn et al., 2001). Likewise, girls are significantly more likely to attempt suicide during childhood than boys (Ruch et al., 2019) and are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, 2001). Fortunately, caregivers can help girls mitigate the effects of stereotypes and promote resilience.
The first step caregivers can take in minimizing the effects of stereotypes is to teach girls about what they experience in society by providing labels. Since girls may not have the vocabulary to express their experiences, caregivers can teach girls what society has historically and currently expects from females by defining and explaining stereotypes. Moreover, it is important to consider female stereotypes that are unique to different cultures during these explanations. Once girls have a better understanding of stereotypes, caregivers can encourage authentic self-expression and validate behaviors or feelings that are different from expectations. Caregivers can also model authentic self-expression and provide media representations of girls who do not abide to stereotypes. In addition, positive social connections can expose girls to healthy relationships which protect against depression and anxiety. Therapy can also be useful for girls to explore their identity in a supportive and safe environment, and it can offer opportunities to gently challenge any internalized beliefs they hold about themselves. Lastly, caregivers can engage girls in activities that promote resilience and identify exploration, such as those listed below:
- Encourage girls to imagine themselves in different roles for themselves and their future selves.
- Help girls label different aspects of their identity with aids such as the Gender Unicorn (https://transstudent.org/gender/).
- Talk to girls about self-love and the importance of valuing what makes them unique.
- With older girls, assist them in making a mock commercial to highlight how media influences society’s idea of beauty.
- Ask girls about the pressure they face in society.
- Support campaigns and companies that advertise positive images of girls.
- Encourage extra-curricular activities that emphasize talents and interests over physical appearance.
American Psychiatric Association. (2007). Guidelines for psychological practice with girls and women. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/practice/guidelines/girls-and-women
American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf
Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T.-A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21(2), 173–206. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.x
Fredrickson, B.L., Roberts, T., Noll, S.M., Quinn, D.M., & Twenge, J.M. (1998). That swimsuit becomes you: Sex differences in self-objectification, restrained eating, and math performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 269-284.
Koenig, A. (2018). Comparing prescriptive and descriptive gender stereotypes about children, adults, and the elderly. Frontiers in Psychology, 26. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01086.
Lavy, V., & Sand, E. (2015). On the origins of gender human capital gaps: Short and long term consequences of teacher’s stereotypical biases. National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from: https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w20909/w20909.pdf
Lewinsohn, P. M., Rhode, P., Seeley, J., & Baldwin, C. (2001). Gender differences in suicide attempts from adolescence to young adulthood. Journal of American Academy for Child Adolescent Psychiatry, 40. 427-434.
Ruth, D.A., Sheftall, A.H., Schlagbaum, P., Rausch, P., Campo, P., & Bridge, J.A. (2019). Trends in suicide among youth aged 10 to 19 years in the United States, 1975 to 2016. JAMA Netw Open, 2(5). doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.3886
Schaefer, L., Burke, N., Calogero, R., Menzel, J., Krawczyk, R., & Thompson, K. (2017). Self-objectification, body shame, and disordered eating: Testing a core mediational model of objectification theory among White, Black, and Hispanic women. Body Image, 24, 5-12. doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2017.10.005
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women’s Health. (2001). Women’s health issues: An overview. Washington, DC: National Women’s Health Information Center.