By The Bathroom Mirror: Teenage Girls & Identity
By Melissa Brown Posted on January 14 2010
It’s an age old question passed from one generation of men to the next: Why do girls always need to go to the bathroom together? As I female, I can confidently answer that we do this just to annoy you. Well, that’s the not real reason. We really do it because we females are very relational and most activities become an opportunity to connect and talk. Yes, this includes going to the bathroom, which I realize violates the man rule that states men should never, under any circumstances, talk to each other in the bathroom. While going to the bathroom in groups may seem odd, trips like this are crucial as teenage girls form their identity. Most teens have difficulty figuring out just who they are and what they were created to be and do. I recently did a self-portrait exercise with a group of ninth to twelfth graders, mainly females, and they had problems defining who they are. For a couple minutes, they stared blankly at their papers and then looked at my self-portrait for an example of what to draw. Even after they drew something, their views of themselves were very narrow and focused on just a couple of their interests, mainly just their art, which they spend many hours of the day doing. My heart ached for them, especially the seniors who were ready to leave us and still didn’t know who they are.
“Who am I?” is one of the major questions teens are asking right now, outwardly or subconsciously. A couple years ago, Youth Specialties’ Core Training focused on ministry to guys and girls, and the three basic questions an adolescent must have answered: Who am I? Do I and my choices matter? Where do I fit? While both girls and guys deal with these questions, it is important to understand the answers to these questions are very different.
Because I live with high school students full time in a residence hall at an arts conservatory, I interact with students at meals, on campus, and in hallways on a daily basis. I also get the unique opportunity to sit at a main desk at least 14 hours of the week while ninth to twelfth graders either walk by during their day, stop to talk with me, or hang out with their friends and classmates in the building.
In What's up with Boys? Crystal Kirgiss gives the top 16 ways teenage guys and girls are different. Some of these differences include “girls focus on people; guys focus on things,” “girls make conversations; guys make noise,” and “girls focus on intimacy; guys focus on independence.” I see all of these on a daily basis. It’s common to see a group of six girls walk by laughing, giggling, and talking a mile a minute. They may be on their way to eat a meal, going to class or practice, or just hanging for hours, but they are doing it together. It is unusual to see a girl by herself, and when I do, it is usually only because she is racing off to class, going to meet someone, or because occasionally she wants time to herself.
On the other hand, the guys tend to be by themselves. When they are in groups the discussion is about where they are going and is more subdued. The guys usually hang out in pairs, silently playing ping pong for hours, or jamming on guitars and then later quietly watching TV together in their rooms. As I check on the girls at night, they are usually on the phone or computer, again talking and connecting with others. Girls are much more verbal and communication is a key component to their relationships, whereas guys can just hang out together and everything is cool.
Since girls focus on people, conversations and intimacy it’s no surprise that teenage girls “define themselves in terms of their relationships and the quality they deem those relationships to have” (Footnote 2). There are so many relationships in their lives, almost too many to count. Parents, siblings, extended family, friends, peers, boyfriends, coworkers, classmates, teachers, youth leaders, church families and even the actor or musician she has a crush on all help answer the questions “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit?”
Peer Groups and Identity
Peer groups are often the hardest places for teens to form relationships as everyone is going through the same identity formation and struggle together. Yet it is a significant place their identity questions are answered. They are working on developing their identity separate from their parents and need opportunities to gather as peers.
Youth workers who care about helping girls with their identity need to create opportunities for just their teen girls to spend time together as females. This needs to happen in an environment that is safe both physically and emotionally. In these groups we can help them see what their identity is: she is a loved child of God, whose presence is important to us. Before they are open to Christ, though, they need to have relationships with believers. InYouth Ministry in the 21st Century, Rick Lawrence reminds us that “teenagers will welcome a relationship with Christ after someone welcomes them into a community of loving Christians.”
Coed Peer Groups
Coed peer groups offer girls the opportunity for healthy interactions with guys and can answer to the question “Do I matter?” While participating in a book discussion of Captivating by John & Stasi Eldredge, an all female group I was part of identified with the statement “we feel unsought – that no one has the passion or courage to pursue us, to get past our messiness to find the woman deep inside”(Foot note 3). If you watch a female with guys, even with ones who are ‘safe’ and purely friends, she responds differently than when she is just with her girl friends.
Last weekend a girl came hesitantly out to meet her date for dinner. As they approached each other, she blushed to his reaction of her outfit and his compliments to her. This same girl had spent the previous couple months hanging out in her room at nights, not spending time with others. Now she has been hanging out with him and all the new people in her life since that night. She is now seen and known by more of our community, thanks to his seeking her out, spending time with her and introducing her to other peers; and in turn he is impacting her identity.
Within their search for identity amongst peers, teens encounter a lot of pressure to make choices to go with the crowd. At this crucial time, their identity is poised between childhood and adulthood and the choices they make constantly teeter between each stage of development.
Teenage girls run out in the rain celebrating life in pretty dresses at their prom. They try to play a recognizable song on the BIG piano at FAO Schwartz after checking out all the toys on a trip to NYC that they planned and are leading for their peers and adult chaperones. And we love them for it. Girls will play “run around the person” (played exactly like the name) for thirty minutes after coming out of the practice room where they were working on an opera piece, just to sit down and spend time with their boyfriend after the game is over.
We need to let them be teenagers while they can and answer yes to the question “do I and my choices matter?” They need to be taught decision making skills and be reminded that they have the strength to stand up to their friends when needed. As caring adults we have to the opportunity to affirm their wise choices and acknowledge when they have made a choice, even it we don’t like it.
Frequently I have a teen come by and ask me to listen to her schedule for the day and encourage her to make healthy choices- whether it is studying, going and getting lunch or having some much needed time with friends. I just sit there, listen and encourage her to make the right choice; she knows what it is already and just needs me to say that it’s good she is making this choice.
She and other teenage female adolescents need us to teach them how to make choices, to seek God for answers and affirm that they have made a choice, not just give them answers, or quote scripture. There are some times when they will make poor choices and we’ll have to step in and call in help for them such as their parents, trained counselors, or medical professionals or make the choices for them, such as taking away the keys from a drunk teen. Those times, however, should be the exceptions. Most of the time, we should be able to affirm their choice, and when they make poor ones be able to say, “I don’t like your choice but I love you.”
While our female teenagers will continue to ask and find answers to these major questions throughout their lives, we can help them best identify who they are right now by providing them with safe peer communities, encouraging healthy relationships, affirming decision making, and not rolling our eyes when they all troop off to the bathroom together.