As a counseling psychologist, I often listen to harrowing stories. Three young girls aged 16-18 have confessed in the past month about their desire to commit suicide for different reasons. But underneath the surface differences in their stories is a depressing sameness. And these were just three girls who found the space and courage to speak and seek help. There are many others who at this moment are either contemplating, trying, or have ‘successfully’ ended their lives. And many others are regularly engaging in self-injury by cutting themselves or starving themselves. These girls come from middle-class homes. They are not deprived of education or nutrition. They are not the unplanned, unwelcome daughters born in poverty.
So what’s going on? What is so depressing about our middle-class lives that so many girls are ready to bid farewell to life in their teenage years? Why aren’t they looking forward to becoming young women, getting married, and having careers and families of their own?
What does society dish out to girls to bolster their budding self-esteem? In a fairness, thinness and breasts-obsessed culture, how does a non-fair, non-thin girl or one not endowed with bountiful breasts feel? One slightly overweight 17 year old told me her father insisted she join a gym so she could attain the ideal weight to please a prospective husband. Her father also subjected her to laser treatment to permanently remove excessive facial hair. He was a concerned father. He was concerned about her future: Tum ko koi larka nahi milega (You won’t find a groom). She loves to paint. But the fact that she wants to become a painter doesn’t count as much as her thinness and hairlessness. Well-meaning public information campaigns like the one launched by WOW of Chennai are trying to address teenage body-image problems, but girls are getting far more toxic messages about their unsatisfactory looks from the media and their families. Looks count. Everything else is secondary. Future success for a middle class girl still comes through marriage at the right age to the right man. Her family’s preoccupations to ensnare the right groom begin in adolescence or even childhood. Higher education or employment isn’t ruled out for her, but that’s like icing on the cake. The cake is called marriage.
Another beautiful 16 year old tells me with suppressed sobs she knows she’s ugly. She’s not like the other girls. She’s too dark-skinned for boys to notice her. Too dark. Too short. Too fat. Too hairy. When will girls feel just right about themselves? Too many girls are reaching adulthood saddled with an extremely poor self-image, an unrealistic and negative cognitive coping style, marked by low self-esteem, helplessness, suppressed rage, and a passive-aggressive approach to life’s conflicts.
But just think: before the age of 11, most girls exhibit no such cognitive and emotional helplessness. So what goes wrong when girls hit the teenage years?
Depressed girls go on to become depressed women.
Depression in women can manifest as consistently dejected mood, irritability, low self-esteem and negative expectations of the future, low motivation, appetite loss or overeating, eating disorders, sleep disorders, loss of interest in sex, poor concentration and chronic fatigue. According to one study conducted in the United States in the 1990’s, in the 15-24 age group, women have a 21% lifetime incidence of major depressive disorder compared with only 11% for males. One out of five women is likely to become seriously, clinically depressed but many more suffer from what can be described as low-grade depression or prevalent sadness. It’s not that women are naturally prone to sadness, hopelessness and helplessness. Women and girls’ higher prevalence of chronic sadness must be understood in the socio-cultural context in which their lives are lived.
Here I’m talking about most women, not the exceptions. A small percentage of women manifest clinical depression or other serious psychiatric illnesses. But I’m talking about ordinary, reasonably well-adjusted girls and women. Other factors have to be taken into account to explain their pervasive sadness. Factors such as sexual abuse, poor body image, inequality and gender-based violence and discrimination and limited opportunities for self-development. Limited regard for their creativity, limited opportunities for pursuing higher education or a career path of their choice, and little cultural acceptance for a life of economic and emotional independence. Again, I’m not saying educated women don’t get to work outside the homes. But their work is almost never considered as necessary or as important as their role as homemakers and mothers.
One of the girls I counseled had thought of killing herself many times. But mostly kept her emotions under tight control. She felt excessively guilty about times when her anger overflowed and she expressed it verbally. Since she was a child, she had been emotionally and physically abused by her father. Recently, sexual abuse had also been added to the repertoire of abuse. Sexual harassment and sexual abuse for girls peaks in adolescence. A girl is sexually abused by her father in her own home. Who can she turn to. Who can she talk to about this shameful, unnamable thing? How does she express what she doesn’t have words for? If she’s lucky, her mother or a teacher will listen. But if the mother herself is a powerless woman, trapped in an abusive marriage and is dependent upon the father, which is what happened in the case of my client, what will such a mother tell her daughter? ‘It’s your fault. You must have done something.’ You must not have dressed properly, behaved properly, walked/talked/laughed properly. In short, you are responsible for what your father did to you.
What is the proper way to dress, behave, walk and talk for a girl? Can you hold a daughter responsible if her father wishes to sexually abuse her? How should she dress or talk or behave with her father, uncle or cousin who is supposedly much older than her, who is more powerful, whom she respects and trusts? He perhaps takes her to the movies, gives her love and affection, buys her gifts and helps her with homework? But one day, out of the blue, he starts fondling her? He says: Don’t tell anybody about it. He whispers: This is our special secret, ok? Or he can threaten her: Shut up! If you tell anybody, I will……..
What can we do to heal girls who feel powerless to change their situation? Respectful listening is the first step towards healing and change. Girls are willing to talk if there’s somebody willing to listen without judging and blaming them. Without moralizing. I asked the girl who was being sexually abused by her father: ‘What are your strengths?’ She couldn’t think of a single strength. She was a very bright and creative young woman. So I assigned her homework: ‘Make a list of your strengths. Make a list of what you like about yourself. Ask friends/teachers to tell you what they like about you.’ She said as she was leaving: ‘I know I will find nothing to put on this list.’
She came back for next appointment with a blank sheet of paper.
‘Didn’t you tell me you like helping your friends with their homework? Didn’t you tell me you enjoy painting? Didn’t you tell me you like basketball? Didn’t you………..” As we talked, we discovered her many strengths, passions, and personality traits that showed her to be a sensitive, caring, honest, creative and strong girl. And soon we had a list of at least ten things she enjoyed doing or was good at, but had never thought of as personal strengths. She was more surprised to see the list than I was. ‘I want you to keep adding to this list. And whenever you feel like you don’t have any strengths, look at the list.’
I’m not sure that unconditional positive regard is a strong enough palliative, an effective enough antidote to counter the emotional venom delivered over a lifetime in slow, regular doses to girls and women. But it’s a start. Until patriarchal cultural values change radically to make space for girls and women to feel truly good about themselves, we’ll have to keep lighting such candles in the dark.