Desire to fit in, unrealistic expectations affect teen girls’ lives

Manal Salim

Photo illustration by Rose McManus
Wisps of fine chestnut brown hair frame a pale face that appears in the reflection. As sophomore Sam Ryan scrutinizes her features, she notices specks of freckles on the bridge of her nose. Her doe-like eyes are shaped like almonds lined with full lashes.
But as she steps back, Ryan’s face contorts with disgust; her features scrunch, brows furrow and lips purse. For as she looks at what Mother Nature has bestowed upon her, Ryan is utterly discontented with the person that appears before her in the mirror.
This recent dissatisfaction and negative self-image has been swallowing the lives of many teenage girls, causing them to become obsessed and absorbed with what they say or how they look.
“I want to make sure I make a good impression on people,” Ryan said, “but sometimes I worry too much about how other people think of me that I can’t always be 100 percent myself.”
Lacking self-confidence can severely impair the development of teens. Psychologist Deborah Wright, Ph.D., said teens should offer help for others to improve self-confidence.
“When teens primarily focus on their own needs/desires, they will likely delay the development of true confidence,” Wright said. “Thus, engaging in activities that require discipline, hard work, responsibility and sense of commitment to others will foster confidence.”
Molly DeJong is a petite sophomore with a blonde, shoulder-length bob. Her piercing blue eyes indicate that although her personality may seem shy, she is eager to voice her opinion.
“Sometimes people say things or look at you in a certain way that shows they are judging,” DeJong says.
Sometimes teens like Ryan find it difficult to hike up their confidence when they feel like their peers are always judging them.
“It’s hard not to feel like people aren’t judging you, if you are quietly judging them,” Ryan said. “I know for myself that I can be a very judgmental person.”
In order to please their peers and individuals around them, teens strive for a balance between finding their own true sense of self and also finding ways to meaningfully connect with others.
“Adolescence is a time when individuals are exploring and developing their sense of self. It is a time when teens ‘try on’ various behaviors and explore personal values. It is also a time when teens feel especially vulnerable around issues related to identity and self-worth. All individuals, teens included, have a strong, innate need to feel intimately connected, loved and valued by others,” Wright said. “Thus the pull to explore one’s personal values and to express those values in a personally meaningful ways may also mean pushing against what the majority of their peers are doing. The individual can risk losing acceptance within their peer group.”
While teens may feel displeased with their self-image, many like Rany wouldn’t want to change who they are in order to be the ideal individual. Although society encourages people to fit the stereotypes, Ryan does not believe altering herself is the solution.
“I try to just be the best me I can be. When I worry about what people think of me, my reaction is not to change myself, but to hide myself in a way or shrink into the background to be less noticeable,” Ryan said. And for people who think they need to modify themselves to please others, Ryan suggests “that they take a step back and really evaluate who they are and what they want. I believe they would not be truly happy until they considered their personal likes and dislikes.”
For these teens, Wright recommends, “they find a small group of true friends who will accept them for their fundamental values and personal beliefs. Being connected to others who share a similar philosophy of life, similar values, and similar interests allows us to find places of support.”
In fact, according to a study by Midlife in the United States, social support buffers life stress and extends the lifespan.
And stress hasn’t been kind to many teens, either. DeJong said when she is stressed out, “my stomach problems act up and I am in extreme pain where I’m either puking or shaking.”
“Stress causes me to only worry about me because I’m so overwhelmed with what’s stressing me out that I don’t consider other people as much,” Ryan said. “I’m too focused on de-stressing myself.”
Wright’s research clearly shows that many young women will engage in some level of “disordered eating” includes restricted intake or food choice, binge eating, vomiting, use of laxatives or over-exercise. When these behaviors become frequent, they can become habitual patterns of coping with feelings and life stress. As they become more habitual, they also become difficult to control. Eating disorders require knowledgeable, kind and respectful treatment. Without treatment, these habits can lead to serious health problems and possibly death.
“While I too strive to be the taught version of perfection, I like being me much more,” Ryan said. “I think other people do things like this [eating disorders] in an attempt for universal acceptance or because they think becoming ‘perfect’ will make life easier.”
Sophomore Breta Phillips agrees. The media presents the ideal woman as having bleach blonde hair, bronzed bodies, make-up compacted faces, flawless skin and slimmed and toned features.
“I think the reason people do these kinds of things [eating disorders] is because they want to be the kind of people society presents us with through the media,” Phillips says.
The face of any beauty magazine is an impeccable cover girl. A common saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a motto that usually rolls off the tongue of many individuals carelessly. For some, however, the meaning has depth and value that applies and preaches to the problems many teenage girls face. This generation of teens has been quite frequently been labeled “Generation Me” describing the focus on the “me” rather than the “we” and an over-emphasis on self rather than other.
Phillips believes that this generation, herself included, “is very constrained on our own needs, future and happiness.”
“Research clearly shows that life happiness is related to being involved in personally meaningful activities, activities for which we have a passion and activities that involve giving to others in meaningful ways,” Wright said.
For now, society through the media has led teens to believe they have to be perfect based on the unrealistic lives see in mainstream media. Many teenagers, especially girls, are becoming obsessed and severely concerned with their images of themselves due to societal pressures. This obsession can stem from or lead to extreme stress, unhealthy eating disorders and even discomfort with oneself.
“Unfortunately the more important aspects of life are not emphasized,” Ryan said. “We have been taught that everyone’s ultimate goal is to live rich, stay thin, and be beautiful.”
 By  Manal Salim