Teenage girls are treated really badly by society.
This is something I learned to be true when I was a teenager. And now, at the age of 21, I see my younger friends experiencing the same challenges.
Teenage girls are affected by both ageism and misogyny: They’re oppressed both because they’re young and because they’re girls. Because of this, society fails them in a number of different ways.
Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that teenage girls aren’t the only people affected by both sexism and ageism. Young non-binary people also face a great deal of erasure, invalidation, and oppression – even more than what teenage girls do! That said, I can’t presume to speak on behalf of non-binary people as I’m not a non-binary person myself.
For our activism to fight against misogyny and ageism, we need to look at where the two oppressions intersect: in the way we treat teenage girls.
So let’s look at a few examples of how society fails teenage girls – and then let’s try to do better.
1. They’re Represented Badly in the Media
Something that frustrated me as a teenager was how badly we were represented in the media.
While there’s definitely no lack of movies with teenage girls as the central characters, I found that they were often represented as superficial. In movies and series where tragic things happened to teenage girls, the characters weren’t deeply written. They never seemed realistic to me, as the characters didn’t seem well-rounded.
And it’s not just movies. Other forms of media represent teenage girls as similarly glib. The only exception, in my experience, is literature, which bursts with excellent representations of teenage girls, some of my favorites being Katniss from The Hunger Games and Sahar from If You Could Be Mine.
But overall, teenage girls are stereotyped as superficial, vain, silly, manipulative, and/or overdramatic.
This is especially true for teenage girls with multiple marginalized identities. Queer girls, trans girls, girls of color, and disabled girls – to name a few groups – are represented particularly badly, if at all.
Representation is important because it shows us what we can be. When the media implies that we don’t take teenage girls seriously, we discourage them from taking themselves seriously.
2. We Don’t Give Them Proper Sex Education
The importance of quality, accurate, compassionate sex education has been discussed at length by my colleagues, but it bears repeating.
The way we fail to teach teenage girls about sex, sexualities, and health is one of the worst ways we can let them down.
When we don’t give them the proper sex education they deserve – or worse, when we teach them myths about sex – we’re actually putting them in a really dangerous position where they’re unsure how to prevent pregnancy and STIs, how to take care of their bodies, and how to discern and respond to sexual assault.
This puts them in an incredibly vulnerable position.
3. We Sexualize Them, But Vilify Them For Showing Sexual Agency
When I was fourteen, I started experiencing street harassment. I began to notice how girls scarcely older than myself were sexualized in the media. Old men – men old enough to be my father, sometimes – started flirting with me. I felt like my body had magically grown a neon sign that said “Available for Sexual Activity!”
But when I started dating, exploring my queerness, and having sex, my actions were often shamed. I was seen as “too young” to display any interest in sex, while older men were free to display interest in having sex with me.
These mixed messages are incredibly harmful to young girls – especially those who are struggling with their sexuality because they’re queer or because they’ve experienced sexual abuse.
4. Their Ambitions, Opinions, and Interests Are Dismissed as ‘Fads’
A few years ago, someone pointed out that the current wave of feminism is often seen as a phase or a fad by anti-feminists because it’s increasingly popular among teenage girls. And, as she explained, we never take what teenage girls do or think seriously.
While anti-feminist responses have changed over the past few years, her comment stuck by me. So often, I see teenage girls express feminist views, only to be met with dismissal because of their age.
Of course, this doesn’t just happen to girls who are feminist. Anything that girls, in droves, like – from gaming to flower crowns to certain musicians to political ideologies – is trivialized or mocked.
When I was growing up, I was a very serious and politically minded kid. Even at the age of thirteen, I remember noticing that adults who took me seriously assumed me to be the exception to the norm.
When I expressed political views, I was always praised for being different than “most girls.” This confused me because in my experience, many teenage girls can be very thoughtful and interested in sociopolitical issues – they just aren’t given the platform to express it.
The problem with dismissing their interests and opinions as fads is that it perpetuates the idea that teenage girls are superficial. And when we send the message that teenage girls are glib, we teach girls to lose confidence in themselves and to be ashamed of what they think, feel and enjoy.
5. We Don’t Take Their Mental Health Issues Seriously
As I mentioned, teenage girls are often associated with being attention-seeking, superficial, and unable to feel and think deeply.
So when they need us to take their emotional and mental well-being seriously, we don’t.
This is incredibly dangerous for teenage girls who are struggling with their mental health.
Throughout my teenage years, I displayed a number of symptoms of depression, PTSD, and anxiety. I was suicidal and engaged in self-destructive behavior, including self-harm and disordered eating.
These symptoms were often dismissed as my seeking attention or being overdramatic. And, as with many teenagers who menstruate, my mental issues were often seen as symptoms of PMS – even when they clearly weren’t.
I felt like my age and gender meant my pain was never taken seriously by my family, friends, teachers – and even myself. This discouraged me from seeking the treatment I desperately needed.
I managed to survive being a teenager and find validation and treatment for my mental illnesses, but not all teenage girls are that lucky. Recent statistics have shown an increase in suicide rates in the US, especially among teenage girls. According to a recent report by the World Health Organization, suicide is the leading killer of teenage girls worldwide.
If we want to care for people with mental illnesses, it’s imperative that we challenge the stereotype of teenage girls as glib and overdramatic.
Being a teenage girl is tough, especially when you have to face being stereotyped and harmed by society on a daily basis.
Hopefully, by being more aware of the issues teenage girls face, we can attempt to eradicate the ageism and misogyny that makes the world such a difficult place for so many of them.
We owe it to teenage girls to do better.
Sian Ferguson is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism and a queer, polyamorous, South African feminist who is currently studying towards a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and Anthropology. Originally from Cape Town, she now studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, where she works as vice-chair of the Gender Action Project. She has been featured as a guest writer on websites such as Women24 and Foxy Box, while also writing for her personal blog. Follow her on Twitter @sianfergs. Read her articles here.