Women live in a patriarchal world, and while the media has been making an effort to emphasize strong young women — and toys designed to get girls interested in science and math — girls still face a dangerous trend when they hit adolescence.
Its a phenomenon called “losing their voice,” where even the most bold and out-spoken girls become more cautious about speaking out and less likely to assert themselves.
I can personally testify to this phenomenon. I remember the days of youth before societal norms placed their debilitating effects on my thoughts and actions.
Most of my college classes were participation based, teachers hoping to encourage students to share their thoughts and opinions with the rest of the class.
Day in and day out I found myself not raising my hand or speaking up because constant worries and doubts of potential embarrasment or even backlash ran through my head, that what I would say wasnt smart enough or worthwhile for anyone to hear.
Yet only a minute or two after I had been contemplating saying something, someone else, usually a boy, would raise their hand and say exactly what I had been thinking.
He would receive praise and I would once again berate myself, this time for giving in to my doubts and not speaking up when I had the chance. Eventually, not speaking became my default and speaking up took extreme effort and contemplation.
I never viewed it as a gender-related phenomenon. I simply thought I was shier than the others and therefore, couldnt bring myself to speak my mind in front of a big group.
But now in retrospect, I realize that countless girls experience the same phenomenon. It continues to pervade the minds of brilliant young women that if educated and encouraged properly, could do great things for this world.
So why does this happen to so many confident and independent girls?
It boils down to their self-esteem and the culture in which theyre surrounded.
Navigating the world between being children and women is an uncertain and scary one. When that uncertainty is met, combined with the pressure to fit in with peers and high expectations of parents, girls are often reluctant to assert themselves.
They continue to struggle with speaking up and asserting themselves later in life and eventually they stop expressing their opinions, shutting down communication completely.
In addition, girls receive tremendous pressure from society and media to adhere to a feminine role. They are taught to be passive and nice, that its preferable to keep the peace than to speak up with an opinion that might be unpopular.
Heres what you can do to encourage young women to be the confident individuals they are meant to be:
- Encourage her passions, whatever they may be
Everyone has natural strengths or talents. For some girls its dance, cheerleading or cooking. For others its mathematics, soccer or chess. Whatever pursuits they wish to pursue must be met with full acceptance and encouragement.
There are no girl-specific hobbies or interests. If she wants to build a robot, you let her build the best darn robot she possibly can. In addition, being surrounded by individuals who share the same interests give a young girl the confidence to speak her mind, unafraid of judgment or critique with malice. This can act as a touchstone to build confidence in other areas of her life.
- Point out external pressure from media, including social media
The media is guilty for portraying unrealistic expectations of women and putting pressure on girls to look and act certain ways. In this modern world, most of what children experience is somehow manipulated by the media.
Social media adds yet another layer to this challenge. Girls become vulnerable to cyber bulling and brutal criticism when exposed to Instagram or Facebook, which can only further lower their self esteem. Unless parents or guardians are monitoring interactions on social media and other digital formats, they might miss communication that is contributing to loss of voice.
- Watch what you say
Girls and young women hear and internalize what older women talk about, whether it has to do with dieting, weight or looks. This may cause them to view these issues negatively and think its normal or natural to be so concerned with losing weight or wearing make up and heels.
Sometimes, women inadvertently send messages to their daughters by focusing on their weight and their appearance. [They say] Oh I need to lose weight or I dont look good or I need to get Botox to remove these wrinkles, and then that sends a message to the girls that they need to focus on their appearance and that their self-worth is connected to their appearance.
- Provide a comfortable and safe place for them to express their thoughts and feelings
- Talk about the phenomenon
Its important for young women to have people around them who allow them to speak out so they may feel comfortable doing so. Adolescent girls have opinions and insightsask about them and avoid reacting negatively, even when those opinions and insights might not reflect your own
When young women became more familiar with the phenomenon by hearing others talk about it or reading into it, they begin to recognize the loss of voice in themselves. Sometimes, talking about it and helping young women see that this happens at their agebut it doesnt have tocan be a strong antidote.