The Joy of Communal Girlhood, the Anguish of Teen Girls

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OPINION  JESSICA BENNETT New York Times December 31st 2023 

OK, I’ll admit it. When I learned of hot girl walks, I tried it: Go on a walk, think about how hot you are, do not talk (or think) about men.

I thought girl dinner was pretty funny, too. Adult woman dinner meant preparing dinner for others. But a girl dinner? It was just delicious — or at least edible — morsels tossed on a plate to please you and you alone. No prep, no cleanup, just me and my wedge of cheese and a handful of stale almonds, toppling the patriarchy with snacks.

But then, it seemed, there was suddenly a special girl version for everything: Weird girls were quirky fashionistas who refused to conform to sartorial blandness. Clean girls were subverting beauty standards — or something like that — with “no makeup” makeup and skin that looked like glazed doughnutsSnail girls prioritized self-care over ambition, while rat girls — perhaps the most clever of the girlie trends — scurried about town, not a care in the world, shirking society’s expectations that women cater to others by prioritizing only themselves.

I’ve followed these phenomena over the past year with some combination of bewilderment and delight. Decades after my mother’s generation tried to dissuade the use of “girl” to refer to grown women, that four-letter word, with all its connotations, still seemed to make things involving women more playful, less shrill, a little more fun. And who didn’t want to be fun? Surely there was nothing harmful about the idea, however silly, that a simple dinner could be a feminist act or that light physical exercise could be an exercise in self-confidence. Honestly, if only I could be as confident and unbothered — and simultaneously menacing — as a New York City rat.

And yet I still found myself mistrusting something about all of this: In 2023, it felt as though the world was glorifying girlhood, or an exaggerated version of it, more loudly than at any time I could remember (or at least since I was 16 and dressing as a Spice Girl for Halloween). Was it just coincidence that this embrace came at a time when girls themselves seemed so very miserable?

If the year in girl culture were to be charted, you might say it began with Beyoncé, who became the most decorated Grammy artist of all time, climaxed with Barbiemania, which broke studio records and led to a shortage of pink paint, and ended with Taylor Swift, whose Eras Tour became the highest-grossing music tour in history and who was just named Time’s person of the year. Girlhood literally boosted the economy.

But it wasn’t just the commercial aspects of girlhood that defined the year; it was the celebration of it — in mothers and daughters posting selfies as they belted the lyrics to “Fifteen,” in childhood girlfriends, now grown women, traversing the country to see Beyoncé perform onstage with her 11-year-old daughter and leaving a trail of silver in their wake. Girlhood was in the flash mobs that broke out early this year, as little girls mimicked the high school dance sequence in “Wednesday,” the Netflix smash hit about a teenage girl with a penchant for the macabre who seemed not to care about boys or rules.

In many ways, these displays of girly euphoria have been a delight to watch: pure, unfiltered, even un-self-conscious, in a time that is the opposite. They also felt like an antidote or maybe a carefully calculated distancing from the realities and difficulties of being women. “There’s not a lot of joy in adult womanhood in this time,” said the journalist and feminist critic Susan Faludi. She and I had been circling this point for months, ever since we saw the “Barbie” movie together, which she interpreted as a parable about abortion. “I sort of feel like, OK, you know, who wouldn’t want to be a girl?” she said. “I think we all feel so frightened and insecure and unsafe, maybe what we’re longing for is to be a particular kind of girl — one who is comforted and shielded from the world.”

Of course, that idea of girlhood is — and perhaps has always been — a fantasy. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past year, it’s that girls, however strong, however able to endure, however good at pretending, are not OK. As study upon study over the past year has shown, girls face record sadness and hopelessness, double that of boys. They’re anxious. They are inundated with conflicting, and constant, messages about whom they should dress like, look like, act like, be, on platforms that have been shown to be toxic to them and where they also face frequent harassment. In the real world, even amid celebrations of so-called body positivity and endless reminders (usually in the form of product placement) that you are enough, girls face record rates of eating disorders and body dysmorphia; they’re wearing anti-aging products designed for middle age.

Girls, whose confidence often drops below that of boys during adolescence — and never catches up — describe feeling more alone than ever, even as their online networks surge.

I charted some of these contradictions this year, when I shadowed a group of 13-year-old girls throughout their eighth-grade year, as they navigated middle school, puberty and friendships amid constant access to a phone. In many ways, their experience was familiar to anyone who’s ever been a girl. But what stuck with me was how those devices seemed to ensure they could never get a mental break from the insecurities of adolescence. From the moment they woke up until they fell asleep, whether or not that phone was locked away or they had access to social media, there was an underlying anxiousness about the things happening on it — friend drama, rumors, grade alerts, DMs — in ways no study could really capture.

“I just feel like I need it, you know?” a girl from Michigan, Addi, told me of her relationship with her phone. “Like, it helps me get through the day.” In reality, of course, it often did the opposite: increased her anxiety, contributed to her self-consciousness, created drama with friends and family.

There has always been a difference between the performance of girlhood and the reality of it, between the selling of girl culture and the actual experience of being a girl. But something about today’s mélange — girls finding empowerment in a movie about a retrograde doll while the success of that movie makes the corporation behind the doll makers (even) richer, girl dinners touted as subversive on the same social media platforms making so many girls sick — feels particularly convoluted. No, not everything with “girl” in the title has to be indicative of something bigger. As Ms. Faludi put it: Let’s not mistake TikTok trends for political movements. But that doesn’t mean they’re devoid of political meaning.

“I think a lot of what girls are celebrating the loudest tend to be the things that we’re actually really struggling with,” said Freya India, a 24-year-old from London, whose newsletter, Girls, I had admired from afar. She wondered whether some of what we were seeing online was an effort by young women of her generation (but maybe also mine) to reclaim an innocent time that was lost: to social media, to the beauty industry, to world events that ask children to grow up too quickly, to the incessant cultural forces that have always plagued girls but are now on overdrive.

“What I think is tragic is there’s that kind of short window of time when you’re young, where you’re carefree and authentically yourself and you’re not insecure yet,” India said. “Now those anxieties are starting way earlier, and girls in particular aren’t getting time to just enjoy being a girl. Like, if you’re a girl on TikTok who’s categorizing herself and having a sad girl summer, that’s not a childhood to me. You are branding and marketing yourself before you’ve even had time to just not be self-conscious.”

I got to thinking about the work of Lauren Greenfield, whose 2002 photography book, “Girl Culture,” I read in college. It was groundbreaking at the time for its arresting, gritty portraits of American girls against the backdrop of the garish consumer culture of the early aughts: a girl scrunching her face in dismay at the sight of her breasts in a dressing room mirror, girls glammed up like women in beauty pageants, girls at quinceañeras, girl athletes, girls at an eating disorder clinic, girls at prom. In some ways, the portraits were a visual manifestation of a decade of work by scholars like Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown, who first brought girls’ faltering sense of self into public view during the girl power era of the ’90s. But Ms. Greenfield’s portraits zeroed in on the juxtaposition of girls’ inner thoughts and their outward expressions — an “unhappy symbiosis,” as the book’s introduction put it, between their psychological needs “and the superficial, narcissistic content” they were consuming.

Two decades on, what is the state of that symbiosis? Girls’ psychological needs seem to have only grown more complicated, fueled by a far greater swell of content. But was it all superficial, narcissistic? I’m not so sure.

I did not see Taylor Swift or Beyoncé in concert this year, but I talked to some of the girls and women who did. Women who described the experiences as transcendent, magical, sacred and divine, a kind of “collective uplift,” as Stephanie Burt, the Harvard professor who is teaching a new class on Swiftology, put it. “I put it up there with my wedding night,” my friend Smita Reddy told me, of attending a Swift show with her daughter. A few minutes in, her 9-year-old turned to her and said, “Mom, I don’t feel like I’m alive.”

One of the differences between when Greenfield’s book came out and now is the extent to which women are the primary creative drivers behind much of the culture girls are consuming — which might be why it seems to be speaking to so many of their lives so powerfully. Peggy Orenstein, the author of “Girls and Sex,” who has been writing about girls for 30 years, likened these experiences to a “release valve.” “It’s such a complicated world, and girls and women feel such pressure,” she told me. “Maybe Barbie or Taylor offers a release from the pressures of mental health and gives you this moment where you can just live the fantasy or relax or be seen or feel like you don’t have to be seen or just watch the damned movie.”

I’d started out thinking of this year as a contradiction that needed untangling — the state of girlhood versus state of girls. But maybe there was never actually anything that contradictory about it; one serves as an outlet for the other.

I may not have gone to a girl concert this year, but I did go see the Eras movie with a couple of tweens, the daughters of one of my own girlfriends from middle school. It was a dingy, not very full theater in Seattle, with popcorn spilled between the seats. Not that anyone noticed. Girls with neon bracelets up to their elbows filled the aisles, hand in hand, singing, dancing, screaming every word to every song. None were on their phones.

I watched, a bit mesmerized, as my friend’s 9-year-old, who had made me a “Lavender Haze” friendship bracelet for the event, was mouthing every single word to every single song (she had studied the lyrics on her parents’ Spotify, with the subtitles on).

Looking at her was like peering into that perfect window of girlhood that the blogger Freya India had been talking about: when girls are old enough to know who they are but before the self-consciousness hits.

And maybe that’s part of this, at least for women: In all these girly spaces, in all these silly TikTok trends, there are cracks that let us step back into that time and remember what it feels like to think of nothing but ourselves, our friends and the lyrics to the song in front of us.