Two articles in the Guardian over the weekend picked up on recent research by Sweeting, West and Young into the well being of young people. They studied 15-year-olds in the same location in Scotland in 1987, 1999 and 2006 and compared the results.
Oliver James began his piece like this: 'Your 15-year-old son may be a bit daft but the chances are he is a lot less emotionally distressed than his female equivalent. In fact, a new study suggests that 15-year-old girls – and especially offspring of the class of person who reads this paper – are probably the most mentally ill single group of people in the whole country: a staggering 43% of them are seriously emotionally distressed (ie mildly depressed or anxious) and 27% are suffering a full-scale major mental illness (severe depression or anxiety).' Initially the rise in distress among teenage girls was thought to be linked to their greater success in exams which happened around the same time, particularly as middle-class girls were suffering the most. However the latest study in 2006 found that girls of all social classes were exhibiting the same kinds of distress so perhaps it's not just academic pressure that's causing the problem.
Meanwhile Madeleine Bunting linked this research into wider studies that suggest that women's happiness relative to men's has declined in the last 25 years. She wonders whether it's because women have unrealistically high expectations of themselves, linked to a consumerised, commercially driven version of femininity, which will inevitably lead to frustration. She says, 'Girls are more compliant and eager to please – that is how they have always been socialised – but now the dominant social expectations of them are deeply destructive of their happiness. Breast augmentation quintupled in 2006 in the US. The expectations of girls and women have multiplied and intensified – on every front, from passing exams to looking good and having more friends and better photos on Facebook. One possibility is that women's identity has always been framed around relationships – as mothers, daughters, wives, friends and sisters. "Relationality" is still central to how women see their lives, and yet it is entirely at odds with an individualistic, intensely competitive, narcissistic culture. Women, brought up to seek social approval, battle between competing frames of reference, and many end up feeling failure and inadequacy on multiple fronts.'
Incidentally, Oliver James' Family under the microscope series often has interesting perspectives on gender - for example how the gender stereotyping of TV puts girls at risk, and how early puberty in girls could be triggered by the absence of their dads.