OPINION: Teen girls need feminism

IT has been some time since I was a teenager, and 18 years since I taught English to teenagers. While I observed issues confronting this challenging, lively age group when my now 21-year-old son moved bumpily through adolescence, I have been way out of the loop when it comes to the experiences of teenage girls.

That was until five months ago, when my 14-year-old niece moved permanently into our spare room with her trinkets, DVDs, cut-off denim shorts, hair straightener, array of make-up and social media obsession.  In a short time I have been thrust into an alien world and what I glimpse is frightening.

I have kept abreast of the debate about post-feminism’s relevance and dip into feminist writing by the likes of Caitlin Moran, Natasha Walter, Emily Maguire and Anne Summers, whose new book The Misogyny Factor will be published in May. Moran has been derided for advocating a populist form of second-wave feminism, the right has criticised Summers for her ‘‘blind’’ support of the Prime Minister... blah, blah, blah. This is all just white noise, and a distraction from the core issue: young women need feminism more than ever.

Immersed in raunch culture and the bare-it-all dimension of social media where posting photos of yourself in a bikini is de rigueur, teenage girls appear to be trapped in soul-sapping superficiality. Primping and preening are as old as humankind, but what has ramped up  is the unfettered consumerism that underpins femininity now. Fake nails, blonde hair, tanned skin, narrow thighs, expensive smartphones, fluoro Nikes – these are the accoutrements of adolescence. And while the message teenagers, and the rest of us, are being sold is couched in terms such as ‘‘empowerment’’, I can’t help but feel we are all being duped.

Then there are the confronting statistics about eating disorders and self-harm: between 1995 and 2005 the prevalence of disordered eating behaviours doubled among Australian females (An Integrated Response to Complexity – National Eating Disorders Framework 2012) and this from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists: ‘‘In any year, more than 24,000 people are admitted to hospitals in Australia as a result of self-harm, and thousands more are treated in emergency departments and not admitted’’. I am not suggesting these issues are limited to young women; statistics show they are also affecting an increasing number of boys and young men, too.

Steve Biddulph, whose influential guide Raising Boys has sold in the millions, writes in his new book Raising Girls, ‘‘To understand our daughters, we have to realise that their childhood is not like ours. To put it bluntly, our 18 is their 14. Our 14 is their 10. Never before has girlhood been under such a sustained assault, ranging through everything from diet ads, alcohol marketing and fashion pressures, to the in-roads of pornography into teenage bedrooms.’’

You only have to be Facebook friends with a teenage girl to fully realise what a potent and destructive mix all of the above are. Status updates take on a confessional tone – and are often thinly veiled pleas for reassurance, acknowledgement and support. There are also blunt references to sexual exploits, and bullying features far too frequently.  Name-calling, belittling and shaming happens on an extraordinary scale thanks to the scale of social media connections and the ability it affords to avoid face-to-face conflict.

Yes, adolescence is a chaotic and tumultuous time, but it is made worse by a lack of sure-footed role models (don’t get me started on Rihanna and her gun jewellery and on-again, off-again relationship with the violent Chris Brown). This is where feminism has a place in terms of decoding the subtle and not-so subtle bombardment of sexist messages.

When I read Natasha Walter’s 2010 book Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism – I can’t help thinking that it never really disappeared – in which she paints a confronting picture of contemporary life, ‘‘one where young women are told the best they can be is a pole-dancing glamour model, and where the embrace of biological determinism (or the idea that gender differences are physically ingrained rather than socially constructed) enforces a glittery pink world in which discrimination and inequality are dismissed as reflecting ‘natural’ preferences’’, I could not relate to her thesis on a personal level; my only daughter was just weeks old.

Fast forward a couple of years and her research is back to haunt me.

I have a message for my niece and her peers: feminism is as essential as your Facebook update. And for your birthday you will be receiving a copy of feminist Emily Maguire’s young adult book, Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice.

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