Last Thursday was international women's day and – in a bid to avoid the tedious situation whereby I spend the entire day explaining to whining bigots when international men's day is (19 November) – I orchestrated a social media led discussion about the intersection between mental ill health and the experience of being a woman in 2018.
There were many themes running through the subsequent contributions to the conversation. Expectations of "perfection" from women and girls – a notion first introduced to me some years ago by a Year 10 pupil who said: "I thought feminism was about girls being able to do whatever they wanted, not having to do everything and do it flawlessly" – featured strongly. As did the widely held idea that women and girls are always emotionally articulate and very talkative, with women who don’t conform to that particular stereotype saying their mental health issues flew under the radar at school. Parents, teachers and peers tend to assume that if a girl has a problem she must necessarily be talking about it.
By far the commonest complaint, however, was from women who had been dismissed as attention seekers, exaggerators and drama queens.
Attention seekers and people pleasers
This chimes with an exercise I often do in my classes when exploring unconscious stereotypes. I ask pupils to shout out words they typically associate with men and women and, for the latter, "attention seeker" often features. On my travels around the UK’s schools, I am far more likely to hear adults describe a female young person as an attention seeker than their male counterparts. Indeed, a cursory glance at branded products designed for girls shows the term "drama queen" splashed all over their pink and sparkly surfaces.
"Attention seeking" is a problematic term. It implies that the subject doesn’t have a "real" problem and that their needs are superficial in their nature and therefore best ignored. Yet happy people don’t desperately crave attention without being able to distinguish between the "good" or "bad" types. The act of seeking attention inherently suggests some kind of emotional distress, which is why so many educators implore us to substitute the phrase "attention needing".
There is also a strong correlation between so-called "attention seeking" and "people pleasing". Again, the latter tends to be more prevalent in girls. Girls internalise from a young age the notion that the greatest virtue they can bring to the world is that of being useful to others. Simultaneously, boys grow up in a culture where they learn that anger is a more acceptable expression of emotion than sadness. Is it any wonder then, that domestic abuse is so prevalent, when we exist in a society full of women conditioned into believing they have the power to "fix" and appease their angry partners?
Some people will read the above paragraph and their instinctual response will be "men are abused too". Indisputably, they are. However, 4 per cent of men have experienced domestic abuse, according to the ManKind initiative. Male victims need help, support and inclusion in wider dialogues, but shouldn’t be used as a weapon with which to derail conversations about women.
The nature of prejudice
This type of silencing technique happens all too often. Just last week, when female MPs including the SNP’s Mhairi Black instigated a discussion around online misogyny, how any woman in the public eye is inevitably subjected to a barrage of highly sexualised language, rape and death threats, the Conservatives’ Phillip Davis responded with a thinly veiled accusation of hypocrisy, asking why misandry wouldn’t fall under the same category of a hate crime.
What Phillip Davis and others fail to understand is the structural nature of prejudice. Sexism isn’t just about discrimination, it’s about power. In the context of a country in which a woman is raped every six minutes and more than two women every week are murdered by their male partners, online death and rape threats can and do make women feel genuinely intimidated. Accusations of having a tiny penis, while undoubtedly annoying, don’t tend to have the same impact.
When any attempt to talk about the shared experiences of women is inevitably shut down in this way, is it any wonder that girls feel they must go to more and more extreme lengths in order to adequately convey the depths of their distress? It isn’t attention seeking, it’s shouting as loudly as you have to in order to be heard.
The Times reported last month that nearly half of girls aged 16-25 have self-harmed. In light of what last week revealed about the common experience of having concerns dismissed as exaggeration, elevated incidents of self-harm in girls can be viewed as an attempt to convey their turmoil in a way which is physical and therefore unequivocal.
Having said that, I have sometimes wondered about the impact that "attention seeker" rhetoric has on boys. Rightly, there has been a drive to encourage boys and young men to be more open about their emotions and mental health, in response to the fact that a man dies by suicide in the UK every two hours. But how can we expect them to do so when they see girls being ridiculed and punished for doing the exact thing which is being asked of them?
Last week, chair of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health Luciana Berger said: "We are in the midst of a mental health crisis. And I don’t use that term lightly." This crisis can feel overwhelming and insurmountable, particularly for teachers. Yet, my research has shown that a proactive step we can all take immediately is to drop the phrases "attention seeker" and "drama queen" from our vocabulary and encourage the parents and pupils in our orbit to do the same.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here and preorder Natasha's book A Beginner's Guide to Being Mental: an A-Z here
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