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Language, Girls, and Mental Health

Gender and Mental Health: How Girls Navigate Perfection Through the Use of Language

This project is a requirement of the GOA Abnormal Psychology Course. Using the process of design thinking, a challenge in the world of mental health was identified, interviews and research were undertaken, and a solution prototype was developed. Below you will find information about the identified area of concern and my proposed solution. Please feel free to provide feedback on this prototype, using questions such as “How might we…”, “What if….?”, “I wonder….”, “I like…”, and “I wish.” Keep the comments positive, please. For more information on the process of Design Thinking, click here.

BACKGROUND:

I am an eighteen girl living in suburban Connecticut; I live in one of the richest towns in America and there always seems to be a pressure to look and act perfectly in adolescents in order to achieve the same success as your parents, however this obsession with perfection can lead to very negative psychological drawbacks for girls specifically. The reason that I wanted to study mental health and the way in which it applies to women specifically is because I have personally noticed the girls around me suffering immensely. For example, several of my friends struggle, or have struggled with, an eating disorder- including myself. This stems largely from the “pressure of perfection” that surrounds the culture we are immersed in- in schools, at home, and with our own peers. In order for the society to be more equitable when discussing mental health, disordered behavior can and should be catered to the specific gender, as both genders are not feeling necessarily similar societal pressures. From this I decided I wanted to learn more about how girls experience mental health in my school community, and in my broader community. In the case of this research and project, the word ‘girl’ includes anybody who identifies as female and therefore relates to this specific culture of perfection.


THE CHALLENGE:

After identifying a subject that I thought was relevant to my community and heavily embedded in my abnormal psychology curricula I was faced with the challenge of deciding how to research and what to research. Originally, the biggest challenge was pinpointing the origin of the “pressure of perfection,” as I had understood that as the most detrimental factor in the girls’ mental health in my school community. As this project affects girls most, I conducted interviews with girls that felt comfortable enough to talk to me about how they felt in regards to the pressure on them to look and act a certain way. What I concluded from this was that the language used to label and propel girls in peer to peer interactions and faculty to peer interactions was gender normative and enforced the notion that girls had to work harder than boys to achieve similar success. For example, many people that I interviewed had trouble answering this riddle. Try it now for yourself (don’t read ahead for the answer!)

Like some of you, many students that I interviewed genuinely struggled to identify that a woman can be a doctor. How does this relate to mental health? Working harder in order to receive average recognition encourages a culture of perfectionism among girls. This is detrimental to mental health because, as stated in a New York Times article linked in the ‘sources’ section of this webpage, personal pressures and stress have been leading to an increase in suicide rates in students. This increase can also be seen in girls having eating disorders, as they seek to control every aspect of their lives as a cause of this obsession with perfection.


THE SOLUTION:

There is no easy fix to this issue, as no one person can change an entire culture of perfection and perfectionism. However, as I previously identified from my interviews, one way that girls can be presented with a more equitable school environment is through the gender neutralization of commendations and critiques. Below are two word clouds, the one on the left including key words found in criticism of girls and the one on the right doing the same of boys.

As you can see in the word cloud describing boys, the word mastery is used whereas in the word cloud representing girls there is no suggestion of expertise. By allowing a girl to be called an expert, she would then be on an equal playing field with the male gender and would feel less compelled to abide by the “culture of perfection”, as it would no longer exist so inequitably in regards to the other gender.


WHAT’S NEXT?

I plan on giving a presentation to the current administration at my school that teaches the health class, as well as I have already presented gendered language in relation to mental health to many faculty members in order to decrease its prevalence. However you could help me greatly by continuing my research. Please click the link below to be taken to an anonymous survey that will help you think about how you use language and its affect on others.

https://docs.google.com/a/gfacademy.org/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSe_KA3Q7Tszwc1iGCH5lA1zzC1RxTrgr2i2eFu1sgQDxIHx4g/viewform?usp=sf_link

As well, feel free to leave questions. These are especially helpful if they begin “What if….?” “How might we….?” and “I wonder…..?”

Thank you so much for taking the time to understand my project on gender and its affect on mental health in my community!


SOURCES CITED:

https://www.girlshealth.gov/disability/types/mental_health.html

Click the Image below to by brought to a NYT article entitled ‘Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection’

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matilda_effect

How Do Adjectives Promote Sexism?

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COMMENTS: 2
  1. April 27, 2017 by jfellows

    Your work is so important in educating us on what may be obvious and often habit that we don’t recognize as harmful. We need to break the mold in education and work harder on all aspects of our language and how it affects girls. I would love to see how if the interviews that you conducted might be different in an all girls high school or college? Well done!

  2. April 27, 2017 by jason.cummings

    Such a great topic, so important! I would be interested to know if this kind of implicit bias in language affects girls in similar ways across other demographic lines (e.g. race, class, etc.) or does it work in different ways with different populations?

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