By Sophie Szew
I was 10 years old when I decided my girlhood was over. Growing up — bullied for my size and isolated due to learning disabilities — my girlhood was one of privilege and a loving family; of itchy, sparkly dresses; obsession over whether my hair part was straight and drinking chocolate milk on the white couch with my little sister (and pinching my stomach afterwards to make sure it hadn’t changed). I loved being a girl but hated girlhood.
So, on that fateful day in 2013 when my iPod-touch screen lit up with Instagram-explore-page-graphics about “how to get abs in two minutes,” I decided I’d begin what I called a “health journey.” I would transform into a body that I wouldn’t associate with my girlhood. I made a promise to myself that I would do every exercise on every graphic that made its way onto social media, even if that meant working out all day. I’d try every diet that promised it would cure my fatness — which I was conditioned to believe was the underlying condition for my “symptoms” of bullying and self-loathing.
I looked in the mirror and decided I was a budding young woman who was finally taking control of her life — a woman who would no longer struggle to gasp for air in this all-consuming wave of sadness and loneliness. The shore of thinness and adulthood was so close that if I sank just a bit deeper, I could feel the sand tickle the soles of my tired feet. But I didn’t take the undertow into account. The more I tried to reach the shore, the harder I was pulled away into the ocean of sadness, loneliness, isolation, confusion and frustration over the fact that I was still deep in a helpless state of girlhood.
10 years and 13 eating-disorder-related hospitalizations later, I now know that I was not alone in that ocean. A recent CDC report highlighted in a PBS NewsHour episode concluded that “girls in the U.S. are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence and trauma.” According to the research, 25% of girls experienced suicidal ideation, 14% experience sexual violence and 22% of queer teens have attempted suicide in the past year.
Folks’ reactions to those numbers, I’ve observed, seem to be something along the lines of “I am saddened but not shocked.” Why, as a nation where gender equality is far too often painted as something that has already been achieved, are we not shocked that girlhood and queer adolescence is riddled with suffering?
Looking back at the reactions from adults to my attempts to voice my struggles with mental health and self-esteem, my experience was often dismissed as “a normal part of growing up,” pushing a narrative that went something like “you’re a moody depressed teenage girl. You’re supposed to feel like this.” The normalization of teenage mental health struggles is justified by the cultural narrative of the “moody teenager,” what my Argentinean family calls “abhorrecencia” — which directly translates to “abhoresence,” a wordplay combining the words “abhorrent” and “adolescence.” For many members of my community, mental health issues and real, traumatic experiences are pinned as a “normal part of growing up” or “just a phase” until they become so serious that they require immediate intervention.
For example, when I first came forward to teachers and trusted adults to share my experiences with bullying, I was told I was being dramatic— and that it’s perfectly normal and acceptable for kids to be mean. I was told that if I wanted more friends, I should be less judgmental about their behaviors and stop taking everything so personally. I came to internalize that I was not being bullied (even though I very clearly was) and that if I wanted my problems to go away, I just needed to stop being a “dramatic teen.”
While this cultural narrative of teenhood being an inherently difficult period being (and the root cause of youth mental health struggles and symptoms of trauma) may have been beneficial to validate teens’ emotions as a natural part of life, the report by the CDC is demonstrative of a tragically overlooked side-effect of this framework. Teenagers, especially teenage girls, are facing life-threatening mental health challenges that are being brushed off as simply being “hormonal teens.”
The very real and tragic effects of this are that teenagers who have experienced sexual assault and struggle with depression and suicidal ideation may feel forced into silence because they have had their experiences minimized by this narrative. Or they believe the narrative themselves, thinking that they are supposed to feel overwhelming waves of sadness and that time and that adulthood heals all. I know I certainly belonged to this second category of teenagers, and it took me encounters with multisystem organ failure, a lot of trauma therapy and a whole lot of learning and un-learning to recognize that no, this is not simply “teenage girl hormones.” Because I was so used to hearing the voices of others telling me that I was sad because I was a teenage girl, those voices soon began to transform into my own. Even from my hospital bed, I felt that my disordered behaviors were a normal —and even healthy — reactions the conditions of teenhood, and that I was simply one of the unlucky ones who ended up in life-disrupting treatment because of them.
The statistics in the article are not shocking because we all realize that being a teenager is hard. But now it is time to take that work a step forward and radically reframe how we view the difficulties teenagers face in America today. Adolescent mental health is a public health issue, not a “hormone issue.” And no, society is not going to just “grow out of it.”
Sophie Szew (she/they) is a Los Angeles-born Jewish and Latina mental health activist, writer, and public speaker and an undergraduate student at Stanford University. She was a youth leader at MTV’s Mental Health Youth Action Forum at the White House where she shared her story with President Biden to help guide the administration on how to best serve the needs of youth in the mental health care system. Sophie uses knowledge from her lived experience in the mental health care system to advise organizations on youth mental health, including Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, Mental Health America, the California Mental Health Consortium and NAMI.
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