[Comment is free] Listen to the boys, not just the girls

This piece was originally published by the Guardian

A lot of words get spilt over the inner lives of girls in the UK. Have they been over-sexualised by Bratz dolls and padded training bras? Do they aspire to have productive lives, or have they all been seduced by glamour and celebrity? Now the Girl Guides has released a detailed and thoughtful survey, showing that girls value their friends, are close to their mothers, worry about the environment but are nearly all happy most of the time.

The survey has been reported widely – but none of the headlines pick up on any of those heartwarming little details. Instead, they’ve highlighted the just under 50% of girls who reported that “pressure to look good is a disadvantage of being a woman” (illustrated, naturally, with a picture of hot Kelly Brook captioned, “a bad example?”). A few reports have worked a clumsy cut-and-shut with the figures: the girls surveyed said they thought smoking and alcohol were the biggest threats to their health, so we get “Academic stress ‘pushing young girls to alcohol and cigarettes’“, which seems like a bit of a reach.

The idea that girls are vulnerable, troubled and self-destructive easily fixes in our imaginations. When we try to define the being-a-girl experience, we tend to come up with something fearful and grey – even the Guides’ own video features a grim-faced little girl with a figure about the number of teens and pre-teens who say they’d consider plastic surgery. Jolly stuff.

That’s a sad and partial version of girls’ lives to reflect back at them. And one of the saddest things is, we don’t even know if these things are especially pertinent to girls – because no one seems to be doing the same sort of survey work on boys. Without the inside line on how boys view themselves, we can’t really say what gender means for children as they grow up.

It seems obvious that girls are afflicted by unattainable physical role models (hello, hot Kelly!) in a way that boys aren’t; but unless we’re asking boys the same questions, it’s very tricky to say for sure that low self-esteem is the special domain of girls. After all, despite what are portrayed as crippling personal issues, girls have been outperforming boys at GCSE level for the last two decades. If the Scouts were to do a similar survey to the Guides’ one, maybe we’d know more about what forms the apparently different attitudes or experiences of school-age boys and girls. Or maybe we’d just find out that, actually, boys and girls have a lot of the same preoccupations and anxieties.

It’s in later life that inequality really starts to skew against girls, with lower pay and glass ceilings. And while we worry about internal factors, it’s the external ones that are most effective at holding women back: last weekend, Ben Goldacre pointed to a study showing that a woman’s chance of getting a job increased when her sex was hidden. However positive your personal body image is at 16, it won’t help if future employers already think of your ladybits as a reason not to hire you.

If our aim is to understand young people, we need to do something other than spend all our time scrutinising the female half for neuroses while treating the male side as lumps of protein with nothing to say. Studies like the Guides’ one are an opportunity to listen to what girls and boys have to say, not tell them what the adult world already thinks they are.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; photo by tee.kay, used under Creative Commons