Doctor: What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.
Cecilia: Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl
--The Virgin Suicides

For many, adolescence recalls a time of turmoil, a bleak era we would prefer to bury in our subconscious, vowing to forget. My childhood was a fog of sorrow and loneliness but also of great fantasy. Once I reached puberty and pulled back the curtain on my active imagination revealing the harsh realities of Jr. high I began to fall apart in many ways.

According to lectures by Stephen Hinshaw of the department of psychology at UC Berkley, until the age of 11 boys are much more apt to fall into a depression than girls. Once kids reach the tender age of 11 or 12, something happens. Girls quickly spiral ahead of boys in the realm of depression, eating disorders and anxiety. From the age of 16 on, girls have 2 to 2.5 times more chance of having depression than boys, Hinshaw reports. Teen suicide has been on the rise since the 1950’s, but in the past decade these numbers began to rapidly rise. In just two years, from 2003-2005 the suicide rate for teenage girls went up 76%.

At puberty the body begins intensely secreting hormones, giving a rush of up to 10,000 times more hormones to the body than before. These are the hormones in girls that are in part responsible for activating the genes that grow breasts and hair during puberty. According to Hinshaw these hormones may be activating a “depression gene” in girls as well, but something is switching this depression gene on earlier and earlier in recent years. Hinshaw speculates that perhaps it is something environmental (since girls’ genes don’t change dramatically over the course of a few years). Hinshaw concludes that because of this environmental change, all girls are more at risk for depression. When the environment changes, the most genetically vulnerable really need to be cared for, but everyone becomes more at risk, everyone is in more distress.

Jr. high is a time of upheaval. In addition to the stress of having all of those new hormones, 6 teachers and a new brutal social network, girls must also begin to endure contradictory expectations from society. As a girl at this point in your life you are expected to adhere to feminine roles more than ever before, which traditionally mean being caring, nurturing and gentle. But recently being all girl also means being overtly sexual and physically attractive to a point of unattainable “perfection.” According to the report of the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, during Jr. high girls begin policing each other for conformance and hotness and boys begin objectifying and harassing girls. All the while girls are also now expected to fill the traditionally male roles of being competitive and cerebral, too. You are expected to go for that scholarship, go to college, be athletic, look hot and act feminine while doing all of it. I didn’t experience a lot of encouragement from teachers or my parents on the athletic or academic side, which left me feeling stuck, I was aware that these things were expected in the world and with the contradictions and discouragement that faced me, it felt impossible.

The girls coming of age in this decade were raised in the “Girl Power”, “You can do Anything” 1990’s but matured in a time of backlash. 2003-2005 saw a blanketing of anti-role-models: Paris, Nicole, Britney, Lindsay and a strong branding of Disney ditsy tanorexia. During this time of heavy media scrutiny over the bodies of young women it’s no surprise that eating disorders in girls would be on the rise. There is a switch in popular music also, the decade before this was a time of powerful women artists: riot grrls, songstresses like Tori or Fiona, the lillith ladies and even the Spice Girls. But suddenly these faces disappeared and replacing them were the bodies of hyper-sexualized over-glossed popstars. During 2003-2005 eighteen covers of Rolling Stone magazine featured women (mostly the likes of Britney, Jessica, Beyonce and Gwen). Of those eighteen covers, seventeen were over-the-top sexualized, featuring the women in underwear, midriff baring tops and anything that showed lots of airbrushed skin. The lone un-sexualized cover was of The White Stripes and featured Meg White standing behind Jack, only partially visible. These are the models of femininity for young girls to study and emulate; these images are hard for a grown woman to process, let alone a younger girl whose body and sense of self is still being formed.

The report of the APA Task Force on Sexualization of Girls explores the dangers of these over sexualized images and the fact that young girls seem to be sexualized in our culture more and more, younger and younger. Over the past few years something of a mainstream Lolita culture has emerged as the norm for little girls; there are endless stories in the media about pre-teen bikini waxing, kid sized thongs, child dieting, etc. The Task Force on Sexualization Report found that when children are imbued with adult sexuality it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them. However — and especially in the case of teenagers — a child can choose the path of self-objectification. According to the study, girls who engage with mainstream media usually have a stronger endorsement of gender stereotypes and place appearance at the center of a woman’s value. While I don’t think a parent should have total control over what their child wears or consumes, I think there is no way self-objectification could get that far with proper parenting.

I think the clue to much of this problem lies not in the contradictory messages from the culture, not in the anti-woman propaganda of the media but in the home lives of these girls. One thing that happened from 2003-2005 that may account for a percentage of the suicide increase is that anti-depressants were given a warning label that included specific rare side effects. While this may not have affected the prescriptions of a lot of pre-pubescent girls, it may have done so indirectly by affecting parents going off their meds. According to Hinshaw, when a parent is depressed or is repressing emotions the child is often conditioned to feel and manage the parent’s feelings for them. As someone who was made to experience this parent-management, I know this is a very subtle and deeply ingrained feeling. It is something the parent grooms the child for from a very young age and it seems to become a part of you. For me this shows up in several areas of my life: friends, co-workers and even strangers tend to connect with me only to dump their emotional baggage onto me, as though an electric neon sign hung above my head reading “Come drain your problems here.” According to Hinshaw, when puberty hits these girls they take on excessive guilt, rumination and hyper-worrying (negative thought patterns which are symptomatic of depression). These girls are already more at risk for depression because their mothers suffer depression. This rings very true for me; I was hysterical when I finally realized at age twenty that I had been spending all of my teen years doubled over in excessive anxiety, guilt and sadness.

This can go further in some parent-child relationships resulting in Parentification: a reversal where children end up taking on a parenting role. Parentification often takes form in in broken or unhappy marriages where the child is made to fill in the role of a husband or wife. According to a study by Stein, Riedel and Rotheram, parentification is extremely harmful as children are not emotionally ready to handle these roles, and forcing this upon them not only robs them of their youth but leaves lasting emotional and psychological damage.

Another modern and problematic parenting style is a pattern of over critical parenting, more common in the suburban middle and upper middle classes. According to Hinshaw, these parents will often send the message overtly or indirectly that you must get perfect grades, you must do many extra curricular activities, and you must be nice with an attractive appearance no matter what. It is an early exposure to hyper-active perfectionism, filling the parents’ model of the perfect child. During the middle school years this activity can be at it’s highest, however the middle school years are a time of change, growth and uncertainty that require a delicate balance of independence and emotional connection with the parents. These parents also tend to over-schedule and micro-manage their kids, without any real bonding or consent and input from the child. These homes can be a child’s first exposure to contradictory and impossible standards, leaving them vulnerable to these messages from media and society.

Any of these types of parenting mixed with the onset of a triggered depression gene, contradictory expectations and dangerously vapid girl culture becomes a perfect storm.

I remember how hopeless I felt at 13. I remember my self loathing and the feeling of utter imprisonment. But it was not until recently that I was able to connect with this inner-child part of myself. For years and years I wanted to deny this part of myself, bury it, forget it, holding this part hostage in my past. It was hard for me to look at myself as I was then, I felt rage every time I came close to connecting with this part and the deep self-hate and the smoggy sadness that followed me and filled my world back then. I cannot stress enough how much my heart goes out to all of those young girls who took their lives.

I think from here the only thing to do is to try to create a better future for girls; perhaps together we can make 2003-2005 the all time high for teen suicide. I think it is important to first process our own dark pasts. Like me, have you tried to bury your past because it is too hard to handle? Can you for a moment, imagine that tortured adolescent inside yourself? Stop, close your eyes and picture that person. What are they doing? What do they look like? Will they let you get closer to them… How do they feel? Building the bridge to this part of yourself is the first step in helping those that are held captive in the present. I think empathy is the key in beginning to break the walls; if you have empathy for the part of yourself that remains imprisoned then you can empathize with those living it, and begin to help.

If you or anyone you know is leaning towards suicidal behavior or thoughts please contact Samaritans and please refer to a psychologist for help.

Author's Bio: 

Rachel Rabbit White is a freelance writer and blogger in Chicago, IL. You can find her at