For the 3,000 students at the high school that bills itself as the largest in the British Commonwealth, the third week of January was one to be survived rather than enjoyed. Outside the temperature was hovering around -20° C, forcing those who wanted a quick cigarette or a breath of fresh air to huddle in tight clusters at a side exit of the enormous redbrick building. Inside Fredericton High School, the temperature was warmer but the atmosphere just as bleak: it was the fourth day in a row of final exams. And for Grade 10 student Stephanie O’Neill, 15, the pressure to perform academically was compounded by another nagging concern—her weight. Standing five-foot, three-inches tall and weighing 115 lb., the young woman is one pound below the average weight for women of her height. But she had been fasting for several days—eating only half a bologna sandwich in the 24 hours before she spoke with Maclean ’s. “I see women on TV, in magazines. I see people in the hallway with skinny little waists and I want to be like them,” said O’Neill, who added that the stress of exams had sometimes led to sneaking a sweet snack in the evening. “When that happens,” she said, “I start to exercise—pushups, sit-ups, jogging, anything that will take it back off.”
Like many teenage girls, O’Neill—thin and pretty—is convinced that she is neither. In fact, 42 per cent of the young women who took part in a Maclean ’s/Decima poll said that they had been on a diet in the past year—compared with only 13 per cent of boys. And teenage girls feel badly about more than their looks. Although 72 per cent do say that they are smart, 81 per cent of boys feel that way. And the older girls get, the less confident they feel: by the time they reach their late teens, they are only half as likely as boys to “strongly agree” that they are intelligent.
Those findings, say many experts, present a disturbing portrait of how popular culture can eat away at young women’s self-esteem. Three decades after feminism began its assault on misogyny, Canada's teenage girls are still struggling hard to like themselves. And they are not always winning the battle. “The message these young women are really getting,” said Eliane Silverman, co-author of We’re Here, Listen to Us!, a 1992 survey of 3,207 Canadians in Grades 8,9 and 10, “is that they must
begin to restrict their inclinations towards a life of intellect and of creativity—that they must begin to reshape themselves in a more straightforward way that men will desire.”
Like O’Neill, many teenage girls say that the media are the number 1 cause of the lack of female self-esteem.
“You see actresses on TV and models on the newsstands,” said Martha Mann, 15, “and it’s like, ‘Oh my soul, I’m not five-foot-10 and I don’t weigh 105 lb.—but I want to by next Tuesday.’ ” The Grade 10 student at Kennebecasis Valley High School, in rural Quispamsis, 25 km north of Saint John, N.B., identifies the television show Beverly Hills 90210 and pop idol Ma-
25% OF BOYS AGED 17 TO 19
"STRONGLY AGREE" THAT THEY ARE SMART; ONLY 12 PER CENT OF GIRLS THAT AGE "STRONGLY AGREE."
donna as major obstacles in the struggle for self-acceptance. It is a struggle that, in extreme cases, leads to such eating disorders as anorexia nervosa, when young women starve themselves, and bulimia, which involves compulsive bingeing and vomiting. Mann’s schoolmate, Ellen McKinney, 17, said that people look at the idealized media images and “they just can’t get them out of their heads.” Added McKinney: “That’s where the anorectic comes from. That’s where the suicide starts.”
Judging: The media’s worship of women who are sexy and svelte affects boys’ expectations of girls, as well. Although he says that he tries to resist judging girls on their looks, Kennebecasis’s Colin Fowlie, 15, said that he would expect “to be teased by other guys” if he dated an overweight girl. “I mean, definitely,” added Fowlie. Other teenagers claim that even some male teachers belittle girls with less-than-perfect figures. Andrew Cogswell, 18, noted that, although most of his instructors go out of their way to treat both sexes equally, one of his teachers at Fredericton High School last year “made it really hard for girls to learn and concentrate” because of his constant references to their physical appearance. “He was joking,” added Cogswell, “about things teachers shouldn’t joke about.”
But despite the prevalence of shapely icons and sexist ideas, many girls are clearly hungry for role models that flout the hyper-thin norm. Several young women pointed to comedian Rosearme Arnold as a welcome break from the parade of TV pulchritude. “I love Roseanne,” said Kennebecasis student Tamara Page, 18, of the hefty star’s popular prime-time show. “Sure, it’s funny,” said Page. “But what I really like is that when I watch it, I don’t have to worry about my opinion of myself because nobody on that show is over-beautiful.”
Seeing women succeed by using their brains instead of their bodies can be enormously inspiring to teenage girls. According to some experts, it is the comparatively high profile of working women in Quebec that explains another dramatic finding of the Maclean ’s/Decima poll: 25 percent of teenage girls in that province “strongly agree” that they are smart, compared with only 15 per cent in the rest of Canada. As well, only 34 per cent of Québécois girls dieted in the previous year. For young women outside the province, the figure is 46 per cent. And although Quebec teenagers of both sexes are likelier than their EnglishCanadian counterparts to consider themselves smart, Silverman suggests that the self-image of Québécois girls in particular has been enhanced by the professional strides made by women in that province since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. “You are much more likely to see Quebec women in labor unions and in places of economic and social power,” said Silverman. “The message that women can be strong and intelligent is not lost on the young women of Quebec.”
For many teenagers of both sexes, life on the home front, and especially relations with parents, has long played a prime role in the development of self-esteem. “I get a ‘C’ and my parents say I can get a ‘B’. I get a ‘B’ and they want me to get an ‘A’,” said Christopher Hamilton, 15, who
attends Hampton High School, 10 km north of Quispamsis. “It’s like, ‘Get off my back, you know. I’m doing my best.’ ” For others, selfconfidence comes under siege from parents who push them to take up pastimes, or work towards careers, that do not interest them. Said Kennebecasis’s Leo Arongaus, 18: “I think where parents are going wrong with their teenagers is trying to control them. Parents have to learn to guide more—and control less.”
Those who deal with young people agree. “The less teenagers are allowed to be who they are innately, the lower their opinion of them-
selves will be,” said Marilyn Belleghem, a family therapist in Oakville, Ont. She points to the example of teenagers who show a keen interest in music and academics, but whose parents are determined that they excel at sports. “In that case,” said Belleghem, “self-esteem can just get tossed out the window.”
And while the self-image of many girls is undermined by what they see in the media, Belleghem and others contend that it is boys whose genuine sense of self is more commonly
diverted by parents—and particularly by fathers. “A lot of mothers have become broad-minded about the paths their daughters will take,” said Belleghem. “But even as some young boys are starting to see gentleness and understanding and caring as important parts of being a man, many fathers are still offering role models based on the idea that getting ahead of the next guy is the most important thing in life.”
‘Wimp’: As well, the premium that many of their male friends place on masculinity continues to prevent some boys from getting in touch with a deeper sense of self. “I find with girls you can talk about everyday feelings,” said Hamilton. “Do that with guys and they make you feel like, ‘That guy’s a moron, he’s a wimp.’ ” Arongaus says that he has “always been judged by other guys as oversensitive and over-caring.” His solution: “I don’t stop feeling that way, but I just won’t let the whole world know.” That tough outer shell may explain boys’ tendency to report higher levels of self-esteem. “It's not part of the acceptable male role to show if you feel insecure,” said Paula Caplan, a professor of applied psychology at Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. The result, noted Caplan: “layers and layers of protective screens that conceal self-esteem
problems even from young men themselves.” What parents and teachers should be doing, Caplan and other experts contend, is to help all teenagers judge themselves less harshly. Said Caplan: “We have to tell them that they don’t have to always be looking over their shoulders and thinking, ‘I’m a girl, is it okay if I try this?’ or ‘I’m a guy, can I feel that?’ ” That is a sentiment with which Kennebecasis’s McKinney agrees. “People have to learn to accept themselves for who they are,” she said. “As it stands now, guys think it’s important to say ‘Nothing fazes me,’ and girls walk around saying ‘I worry what everybody is thinking about me, I care about everything.’ ” Added McKinney: “Let’s face it, that’s no good for anybody.”
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