Girls Talk About the First Time They Felt Powerless

From the age of 10, girls start to lose confidence. We spoke to young women to find out how we can fix that for future generations.

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Jul 26 2016, 11:05pm

Illustrations by Sophie Wolfson

If people found out you didn't shave off your pubic hair, you were both disgusting and a lesbian. If you got a boyfriend, you were a slut; if you had a boyfriend but didn't sleep with him, you were frigid, and if you didn't ever have a boyfriend you were a freak. When you went on holiday, you had to take a whole Facebook album's worth of photos of you looking as thin as possible. Your group of friends start only eating soup or an apple for lunch. You start eating an apple for lunch. The thought of ever having to be a teenage girl again is enough to make me feel like I've got a hand physically around my throat.

Nothing surprises me about the new study from Girlguiding. Their poll of 1,627 girls and young women showed that confidence rapidly drops away from girls at the age of 10. Ninety percent of nine- and 10-year-old girls felt they would have the same chance as boys at succeeding in their chosen jobs, but this dropped to 54 percent among 11- to 16-year-olds and to 35 percent among 17- to 21-year-olds. Only a quarter of the older group said they felt "powerful", compared with a third of 11- to 16-year-old girls.

Anxiety is a multi-causal illness, but the fact that women feel worse by the time they're an adult than they do when they're a teenager is a troubling tell-tale sign of time spent lacking in confidence and feeling powerless. Women are nearly twice as likely to have anxiety than men. To find out more about these sad stats, I asked girls and young women about the first moment they felt like they'd lost their power and what to do to ensure this stops happening to the next generation of women.

Jennifer, 19, London

It was at the beginning of secondary school when people started making fun of me for being smart. I started worrying about why they weren't saying it to guys, so I began hiding being clever. I felt I wasn't being what a girl was supposed to be like. I was even told by a family friend that girls being clever intimidated guys. Not being honest with myself or standing up for myself made me feel so powerless.

It got worse when I was 13 or 14, as you worry more about what people are saying about your looks. One time after a chemistry test where I got full marks, this boy from my class came up to me and said, "Were you the one who got 100 percent?" I nodded and he said, "Why do you always do that? It's so unfair." A guy in my class also got 100 percent but he said nothing to him about it, only me. I felt like I'd done something I should be ashamed of as I'd made a boy feel bad. It's only now I see it doesn't matter how I make men feel.

If we want to help girls there needs to be a real focus on PSHE and SRE – which should definitely be mandatory and good quality – to teach girls about their own value and how to treat themselves.

Carissa, 18, South London

It was when I first went to high school. Suddenly, you're expected to not look like a kid any more and you have to be an attractive woman. It's make-up, shaving, waxing and everything. It all comes at once. If you can't keep up with that it can be a big problem for you. The people that were considered popular did it first and then there's the pressure to follow them and do whatever they're doing to get by. That's when your insecurities come in, you notice the differences between you and other people – how you present yourself, how you look and your relationships. As you get older, it gets worse. Your self awareness grows and you have the added pressure of being an adult on top but you're still carrying those pressures that started when you were 12 or 13.

It's difficult to fix because the media has a lot to do with it and no one can control that. But inside school environments, it's about educating people on those topics rather than ignoring them. I don't remember ever being told about confidence or gender imbalance at school. If there was a talk as a year group, it was always about drugs or alcohol or maybe safe sex, but never about more mental issues. Now when kids are that age they don't just have Facebook either, they have Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and we see celebrities and people older than us and we want to live that life and hold ourselves to those standards even though we're kids. Social media definitely makes this worse but how can you regulate how much time people go on it for? It's hard.

Alice, 13, Norwich

One day I was watching a movie and realised it was always the woman being the victim or unable to protect themselves. The woman was never going to beat the bad guy. They just go off with the guy and the guy gets rewarded. People and adverts say, "You're a girl, you can do what you want!" but it doesn't feel like that in reality. It feels like you get punished. In our sex education talk someone asked, "Why are men superior to women?" and the teachers just ignored the question and wouldn't discuss the idea further.

For me to feel more powerful, we'd have to get rid of a lot of the sexist people in the world.

Amena, 21, Birmingham

As soon as I lost confidence in one thing, I snowballed and lost confidence in any area. Before you hit puberty you either have baby fat or you're thin. If you have that baby fat, you're looking at the opposition before you hit puberty and it plays on your mind. At 11 or 12, you start looking at who's popular, and it's the girls wearing make-up and older clothes. It's harsh for girls, you're completely judged on your appearance. We felt powerless in the changing rooms. During PE, some of my friends would go into the toilets to change rather than be in the open. It's that age when you transition from knickers to boxer shorts to proper underwear. Everyone's looking around the gym to see if they're behind or if anyone's not wearing the right thing.

This got worse later on for me. Now I can't even leave the house without wearing make-up. I feel like as I get older I'm losing power. I'm increasingly critical and I think that's true of most girls I know. We're so hard on ourselves.

I'd say if young girls deleted celebrities and people who don't make them feel good about themselves on social media, that'd help. Now I only follow people who inspire me. People who do really cool art or make-up, for example. Workshops on how to deal with your body differing for other women's, and how you should fight to be equal to men in the workplace should be mandatory. Teachers are too scared to waver from the curriculum. School is the biggest part of socialisation so they should be allowed and encouraged to talk with kids about what goes on outside the classroom.

Esme, 15, London

If a boy wanted to be a musician, he is judged on how well he can play the saxophone. But I feel like if me or one of my friends wanted to be a saxophonist, first people would look at me and if they liked what they saw, they would then listen to my music. Knowing that makes me feel powerless.

I have no idea what could be done to make girls have more confidence. When you find out let me know. There should probably be more realistic portrayals of adolescence in mainstream media. It doesn't help my self-confidence to look at Olivia Newton-John in Grease and think that's what 17-year-olds are supposed to look like, when in reality she was like 28 when it was filmed. I want to see teens actually in their formative years, spots and all. There should also be more advice from school too. We have wellbeing lessons on gender identity and fluidity which have been surprisingly progressive but as for power and confidence, we've never heard anything about that. Even if we did, it would almost definitely be all together as opposed to separate by gender and too broad to be helpful.

India, 21, Cardiff

I started secondary school as a long-haired, long-limbed girl who could pull on and off my size four skinny jeans without unbuttoning the front. I lost power the minute my body started to grow, as I'd internalised the notion that to be thin was to be happy. I remember crying in my bedroom at 14 when I could no longer fit in my size six clothes. Around a similar time I was travelling home on the school bus and the boy behind me was telling me in detail how I was considered an "ugly" one of the girls. I walked home in tears and went to the bathroom to realise that I'd started my period. That was the time I realised I was no longer a neat or perfect girl.

I don't think there's an external solution though. We're always going to look on Instagram or at other people in magazines or the street. It's about naturally cultivating friendships and relationships which make you feel better about yourself and developing constructive habits and hobbies. I started competitive dance training to inhabit my body properly instead of living in my head. For me at least, it's been a good decade of struggle. Traditional parent or teacher interventions never worked for me or anyone I know. Perhaps trying to cultivate a culture at school and home where girls feel valued or worthwhile somehow would help.

Ruby, 19, Bristol

Having moved to a new city and having been going out to various different events and clubs, I have witnessed or been subjected to various accounts of groping and grabbing. Boys that seem to either be slightly younger than myself or the same age think it's fine to treat the girls around them in the clubs like a piece of meat that's on display. I immediately feel powerless as a young girl when, in response to having my bum grabbed, I tell them to stop and not to touch me, I get various slurs and hand signals shoved in my face. One of the only ways to get them to listen is to say "I have a boyfriend". Sadly it seems they are more likely to have respect for another guy than a girl. When in fact the only thing that needs to be said when you don't want someone touching you is "no".

I think in schools, from a younger age, maybe around 10, girls and boys should have open discussions in classes with supervision and direction from an elder about relationships, treating people with respect and that nothing is expected of you from someone. It's okay to say no and that's the only reason you need to give, should you feel that way.

@hannahrosewens

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