The struggle to be the perfect girl
Teenage girls spend their secondary school years trying to conform to unrealistic images of perfection and ideal girlhood, new research suggests.
Failure to do so means running the risk of being labelled a "slut" and being shamed and bullied by classmates, according to Jessica Ringrose, senior lecturer in the sociology of gender and education at the Institute of Education, University of London.
In her new book, Postfeminist Education?, Dr Ringrose writes that teenage girls must spend their secondary school years coping with the subtle shift from the almost exclusively female friendships they enjoyed throughout their primary years, to a culture in which relationships with boys are becoming increasingly valuable.
"The most pressing and effectively charged conflicts between girls at school related to sexualised status, identity and competition, where girls sexually regulate and shame one another," she says.
Dr Ringrose conducted a series of interviews with students from Years 8 and 9 at a Welsh comprehensive. The results show that girls struggle to deal with the images of good girlhood and ideal femininity that they receive from the adult world.
Asked to describe her ideal girl, one said: "Sporty, pretty, funny, intelligent, friendly, kind and fits in. Gets along with everybody, not just in one group. She is, like, in everyone's group." But asked whether she knew any girls who fitted this description, the girl answered: "No."
Dr Ringrose points out that such qualities of goodness and prettiness are invariably set against their opposites: meanness, ugliness and vanity. "I think that girls can be really nice, and then they can be really, like, horrible," one teenager said.
Any girl who does not conform to the rules of expected female behaviour risks slipping from "nice" to "horrible". By contrast, the teenagers said that boys are allowed simply to punch one another, with no concomitant judgement.
The most extreme point on the scale is "slut". The girls were expected "to be attractive, but not inappropriately sexual", Dr Ringrose says. And they were all very quick to judge one another's behaviour around boys.
"She's kind of a slut," one girl said of another in her year. "She looks horrible. She has got a nice figure, but, like, she shouldn't show it off to everyone ... Boys are taking advantage, because ... they think she'll do stuff with them."
It is a fine balance: having a relationship with a boy can confer status and popularity. But, equally, it can end in being called a slut and being shunned by peers. One girl, for example, talks about a classmate who is "stunning to boys ... because she lets people do things to her".
Another girl added: "Even though she's got a boyfriend ... she lets boys come up to her and touch her bum ... I think she likes it."
And a girl called Katie was excoriated by her former friends for "dressing up in skirts the length of her knickers ... She made herself small."
Such sexual regulation of one another was vital to the way in which the girls understood their own femininity. Once again, the polarised definitions come into play: girls are either good or bad, nice or slutty, innocent or sexually experienced.
When teenager Katie lied and claimed she had kissed a boy, a tale she told to impress a group of older girls, her friend Elizabeth felt shamed by her own inexperience. This led to an extended conflict, and Katie was eventually transferred to a different school.
However, Katie's classmates vociferously deny that they bullied her, because being a bully is not within the definition of desirable femininity. And, if Katie was the slut, they must be the good girls. "We didn't shout at her, we didn't gang up on her ... we didn't bully her," Lucy said.
Another girl, Gwyneth, said: "Girls can be mean, but not more than anyone else. Adults get mean and, like, babies get mean ... it's like everyone gets angry. Dogs get angry ... Like they are trying to spread it around, like all girls are horrible."
However, many of the girls resisted a future dominated by such definitions. "I don't want to get married," one said. "If I get married ... I'd be, like, not worried about my career, but worried about what he wants me to worry about ... He wouldn't exactly worry about my career, would he?"
"Boys don't let their feelings out. They don't talk about personal stuff, and girls will ... No girl keeps their secrets to themselves."
"I think that girls can be really nice, and then they can be really, like, horrible. Everyone slags someone off behind their back."
"She's got a stunning figure. That's why boys like her ... Even though she's got a boyfriend, she lets boys come up to her and touch her bum ... I think she likes it."
"At one stage, she was dressing up in skirts the length of her knickers ... In other words, she makes herself small."
Ringrose, J. (2012) Postfeminist Education? Girls and the sexual politics of schooling (Routledge).
Jessica Ringrose, Institute of Education, University of London.