Fitting in to that wedding gown may not be an immediate concern for most teenage girls, but the thinking behind it-that a girl must be thin to be attractive-is reinforced countless times a day, especially in the life of a young girl. Teen magazines, popular TV shows and movies, and music videos all project an unrealistic image of the ideal girl, what some call the Britney Spears effect.
According to statistics posted by the National Institute on Media and the Family (www.mediafamily.org), by age 13, some 53 percent of American girls are unhappy with their bodies; that figure grows to 78 percent by the time girls reach 17. In another study on fifth graders, 10-year-old girls and boys told researchers they were dissatisfied with their own bodies after watching a music video by Britney Spears or a clip from the TV show Friends. And adolescent girls who viewed commercials depicting unrealistically thin models felt "less confident, more angry, and more dissatisfied with their weight and appearance."
"Girls today have an entirely different set of pressures when it comes to body image," says Gresh. "A lot is being thrown in front of them. Sometimes it leads to eating disorders, sometimes to sexuality. But whatever it is they're dealing with, they need to start dealing with it so much earlier than they feel comfortable with."
Indeed, sexual activity among girls is starting at an earlier age, and the ramifications can be complex and longstanding. A case in point is Renee, who at age 15 sat across the desk from her therapist talking openly about her sexually active lifestyle. She felt stuck, she said. She wanted to practice abstinence, but she didn't know how to. Her friends were all having sex; in fact, that was part of what defined her clique. They were among the girls who were willing to "do it."
Renee (not her real name) is just one of the teenage girls Teri Fusilier sees on a regular basis in her job as a counselor with the Minirth Clinic in the affluent Dallas suburb of Richardson, Texas. Renee's story is not an unusual one; neither is her history. Like some of Fusilier's other Christian patients, Renee began having sex on a regular basis when she was 13. She is now in high school.
"There's tremendous pressure on girls in that age group," Fusilier said, referring to younger teens and pre-teens. Forced by their peers into making decisions they lack the emotional maturity to fully understand, girls who are only trying to fit in end up making choices that have devastating consequences throughout their adolescence and beyond. And all too often, their good Christian parents have no idea what the girls are really going through.
Even when girls are in full command of their faculties, they often fail to understand why they've agreed to have sex. Seldom at that age is it for pleasure, says Lisa Graham McMinn, a sociology professor at Wheaton College and the author of Growing Strong Daughters. Instead, teen girls give in to sexual pressure in order to feel loved, or, like Renee, to fit in with a certain crowd, McMinn notes. Girls often admit they don't know how to say no, nor do they know how to avoid situations that make them vulnerable to a boy's advances. Though the number of unmarried teen girls age 15 to 19 who has had sex declined in recent years, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (www.teenpregnancy.org), the proportion of sexually active teen girls age 14 and younger has increased.
As difficult as it may be for mothers to understand the pressures their daughters are dealing with, Teri Fusilier stresses the need for women to remember not only what it was like to be a teenager but also the many mistakes they made at that age. And they need to be aware that for girls, the inability to handle pressure can manifest itself in the form of depression, a disorder Fusilier sees all too often. Because girls are generally more sensitive than boys, they "take the hit much harder" when they fail in any way or experience a loss of any kind, says Fusilier.