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Power and Identity in Adolescent Girls
It is hard to be a teenager these days. As educators, parents, and social service professionals know, the current generation faces the struggles of growing up common to all adolescents. But, they also face the particular challenges of coming of age as part of Generation X, in an era in which economic futures are uncertain. Values can be hard to sort out as teens spend more time exposed to the mass media and less time exposed to the opinions of caring adults. Parents are simply less available due to work pressures and divorce (Rubin, 1992), and today's teenagers spend more time than any other generation in front of TV, movie, and computer screens (Postman, 1992). The adolescent years are a time when young people begin in earnest to make sense of who they are within the larger context of the society in which they live. As theorists of identity formation have long recognized, the struggles for self-formation are distinct for young men and women (E. Erikson, 1950; Lykes, 1985; Sampson, 1985). Expectations of what it means to be a boy/girl or man/woman structure our personal institutions such as the family as well as our public institutions such as schools. Gendered notions also profoundly affect our sense of who we are and who we can become. Though the struggles for identity can be challenging to both young men and women, girls are particularly vulnerable to negative messages from the mass media (Kilbourne, 1995). Girls also see their economic futures as considerably more grim than boys do (B. V. Brown, 1997).
For these reasons, this article reviews theories of identity formation and examines the specific difficulties adolescent girls today face in forming a confident adult identity. Particular attention is given to social/economic status identity, body image identity, and the effects of the mass media. As scholarship on gender equity increasingly acknowledges, educators must go beyond the provision of equal programming to acknowledge the wider social and cultural forces that affect the education and development of girls (Sadker & Sadker, 1994).
To contextualize discussions that refer to broad social and institutional trends, material from qualitative interviews and classroom observations of the lives and experiences of adolescents and their teachers is included in the form of narrative vignettes. As Frederick Erickson (1990) describes,
The narrative vignette is a vivid portrayal of the conduct of an event in everyday life, in which the sights and sounds of what was being said and done are described in the natural sequence of their occurrence in real time.... The meaning of everyday life is contained in its particulars and to convey this to a reader, the narrator must ground the more abstract analytic concepts of the study in concrete particulars. (p. 163)
The stories included in this essay refer primarily to students attending a suburban midwestern 9th- to 12th-grade high school with just over 1,800 students. Although most of the narration is based on the experience of one class, certain details derived from research in other classrooms and at other school settings are used both to provide coherence and protect anonymity.(1) Also, although one setting is featured, the themes addressed in these stories are consistent with data from two other settings, an urban magnet school of more than 3,400 students and a similar suburban midwestern 9th- to 12th-grade high school with 1,325 students.
By using information from observations and interviews to re-create scenes and tell stories in a mode that reads as fiction does, this work creates what William Tierney (1997) calls "an openness in qualitative writing." He asserts, "As we explore the epistemological no-man's-land between factual realism and fiction we will enrich our ways to explain the worlds we study, interpret and create" (p. 31). In addition, writing in a way which presents a full picture of a young woman's situation in the context of her peers and school setting encourages the reader to acknowledge both her complexity and her humanity. In more traditional presentations of inquiry, such contextualized detail was often lost in the name of objective science. In Foucault's (1983) critique of science, the inherent objectification involved in scientific modes of writing and classification reflects a process by which humans are made subjects, losing humanity through reduction and classification.
Yet, narrative vignettes that recover context and detail and approach a fictionlike reading seem less authoritative to many readers. This loss of authority, however, is deliberate. Narrative writing returns voice and power to the scientific subject while also reminding us of the postmodern impossibility of telling the one true story. Narrative writing which conjures up specific images in the mind's eye can be a powerful reminder of the inescapable subjectivity of all interpretations, both a writer's interpretation and a reader's interpretation. However, as Schwandt (1997, p. 307) reminds us, a researcher's worry about authority and subjectivity does not mean that "all interest in knowing" is abandoned. Instead, this worry motivates "the continuing search for new and better answers.... What is a good satisfying, useful, intellectually and morally responsible way to compose a text that represents the postmodern condition of social life?"
Carolyn Ellis (1997) explains her use of narrative by writing,
I want to reframe the narrative voice in ways that open up social science discourse to a larger and more varied audience, that make social science more useful, that allow for the silenced voices of others and the silenced parts of ourselves to speak themselves. (p. 134)
By providing recognizable descriptions of the difficulties adolescent girls face in forming a confident identity, this work aims not only to inform scholars, but also to motivate educators, parents, and social service professionals to work for change.
AN EDUCATOR'S CHALLENGE: THE GIRLS OF FOURTH PERIOD
It is 12:35 p.m. and Emily Caine's fourth period 10th-grade English class is beginning to straggle in after their lunch. Emily had stayed at her desk during lunch, sitting with a blank notebook, hoping to come up with ideas for this afternoon's staff meeting on the needs of adolescent gifts. Across the top, Emily had scribbled "chose literature and assignments that address issues/meets greatest needs." But, what were their needs? Could there be a curriculum that would be meaningful to the 14 unique girls of fourth period? What should teachers do to give these girls their best chance? Emily looked up from her notebook and out into her classroom.
Kara was already in her seat in the second desk of the second row. Now that it was springtime and she was wearing shorts, the dramatic thinness of her thighs was even more noticeable. In fact, Emily noted, her knee was almost bigger than her thigh. Kara was clearly suffering from an eating disorder, in this case, anorexia. Emily had her suspicions about Kim, Blair, and Amy as well. Occasionally, in an attempt to make lighthearted conversation, Emily would ask the students arriving from lunch what they had eaten. "So what did you have for lunch? Anything delicious?" The responses of these three were likely to be disturbing. "No lunch for me. I totally pigged out last night and I feel really gross," Kim answered recently, grabbing her thighs and shaking them, and puffing her cheeks out in a mock display of obesity. In response to the same question, Blair had once given Emily a detailed itemization of calories and fat grams. And Amy, a slender athletic Asian girl, had taken it as an accusation. "What do you mean? The chocolate milk and the cake? Why did I have that? Well, I didn't eat breakfast; I never do, and I have track after school today." Only Lisa did not seem preoccupied with weight, retorting to Amy, "Who cares what you ate? Get over it. How many people on this planet ever have chocolate cake?"
Emily no longer asked. Besides, Alicia Schroeder was in this class. Alicia was an overweight girl suffering from social ostracism. It could possibly draw attention to her to discuss food. Earlier in the year, Emily had sent Brad Miller to the office for announcing loudly that Alicia had eaten "a can of Crisco" for lunch. Emily was distressed to see that Carrie, once Alicia's friend, joined in with the others laughing at her. Rosalie Morales, one of the gym teachers, had told Emily that Alicia was coming to the practices for cheerleading tryouts. Jennifer Meyers, a popular 10th-grade cheerleader and president of the Future Business Leaders Club, had been seen imitating Alicia's moves to the amusement of those around her. The teachers, Emily and Rosalie, had agonized over ways to soften or prevent the inevitable teasing and disappointment but had come up with nothing. Rosalie had even suggested to Vince, the vice principal, that they rethink the cheerleader judging criteria to allow for a more diverse squad. It did not go over well. Vince had said,
It's important to teach them that the most competitive will win. We can't coddle them. That's what real life is about. Every girl wants to be a cheerleader. Why should some girls get special treatment? It would be unfair. Parents would be calling. Besides, think of how it would look to have Alicia cheering at a basketball game.
But at least Kim, Blair, and Amy responded when Emily talked to them. Some girls did not. In response to any attempts at conversation, Ashley would just roll her eyes and give a disgusted smirk. Today, Ashley and Tammy came sauntering in, late as usual, from the far end of the students' parking lot, smelling of cigarettes. Now that they were wearing short sleeves, Emily could see the tattoo on Ashley's shoulder and scars from self-inflicted wounds on her arm. Apparently, Ashley had a …