A recent special issue of National Geographic, titled Gender Revolution, makes a fascinating study of how youths around the world are increasingly pushing the boundaries of gender and sexuality to mould a sense of self that is more fluid and non-binary. This shift can only happen in the context of generalised growing social acceptance and awareness of the limits stained male/female, girl/boy binaries. A spin off is a progression towards gender equality. Of course, some societies are better at accepting these changes than others.
In spite of these transformations in gender acceptance and classification, this special issue highlights how girl children in particular continue to live precarious lives. Estimates are that some 200 million girls and women worldwide today have endured genital mutilation (FGM); 120 million girls globally have experienced sexual violence, over 700 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday; 16 million 15-19 year old give birth each year, which is 10% of all global births.
An equally shocking estimate that has been playing on my mind is that suicide is the leading cause of death for girls globally between the ages of 10-19. This prevalence in suicide (along with sexual violence) cuts across cultural, geographic and economic divisions. This becomes clear when the study on girls’ precariousness globally is followed by commentary on the ‘American Girl’ specifically. One reads about the fate of girls in Sierra Leone, for instance, where 90% of the female population have endured FGM, and poverty intersects with teenage girls being forced into marriage with much older men, followed by a very different story of hyper-commercialism, social media and eating disorders. In spite of these divergences, a tragic number of young girls, rich and poor, take their own lives each year.
Consistent in the ‘privileged west’ (represented by American society in this study) and ‘global south’ is the concern that the female body is a battle ground. As much as we are increasingly pushing the boundaries of gender norms, control over the female body in particular remains a leverage for ideological and social influence. This influence bleeds into financial power. The way a female body is presented in society is a an issue fought over, explicitly and implicitly, and the most vulnerable girl children are sucked into this tousle. Their self-worth appears to be most prominently affected as they attempt to negotiate the realities of their life experiences and identity in relation to these societal pressures. Of course, young men undergo similar difficulties in meeting notions of the masculine, yet it would appear from this study that their opportunities to opt-out and struggle against the grain are on the whole far greater.
The vastly differing notions of female beauty are intricately related to a girl’s sense of self-worth. The pressure women internalise in the pursuit of matching up to these notions of beauty (be they virginity, high fertility, small feet, big bosoms, long hair, pale skin, missing front teeth, culinary adeptness, weight or wealth related) is especially intense. Reports indicate that suicide may be resorted to because of the lack of opportunity for independence in decision making to relieve pressure (that young men often do possess - the ‘opt-out’), and lack of a trusted confidents to talk to. Indeed, so many of the issues young women may face that leave them feeling desperate are still taboo - notably sexual violence, sexual health and status. Self-worth, sexuality and beauty seem to mingle and feed off each other in complicated ways.
The feeling of loosing control of one’s life circumstances can also be internalised and adapted into an effort to exert extreme measures of control over one’s own body. There may be differing scales in this regard - taking your own life may be the most extreme, self-mutilation/self-harm and eating disorders may be a differing expression of this same drive. Indeed, this is often the experience and rationale of those who develop eating disorders - as was the case with me in my teens. Suicide rates amongst teens (both girls and boys) with eating disorders are remarkably high. In my case, my world fell apart around me in a shocking and brief span of time which was promptly followed by enrolment (also out of my control) in a strict single sex boarding school far from home. Desperate to make sense of my world, I wrestled control over my life through my eating habits and body weight. In this way, the experience of lack of control over my life choices, a drive to find some sense of control through body harm, and external pressures of female beauty fused.
The National Geographic study on the ‘America Girl’ concludes with a weak message of positivity by describing a Yoga School that runs summer courses for teenage girls to assist them in bolstering self-confidence, self-love and a positive body image. Admittedly, it is not entirely misplaced to mention yoga and eating disorders: My path to recovery was kick-started by yoga and I am now a yoga instructor who has seen multiple people over years gain tremendous relief and benefit from yoga for a range of issues, metal, emotional and physical. However, this reference was lacking in critical perspective for two reasons.
Firstly, the practice of yoga is remarkably effective in releasing anxiety and guiding one into a place of mental clarity and calm that can be spoken of in terms of mindfulness (the studies on mindfulness and mental health are substantial). Notwithstanding this potential benefit, there is an emerging culture in yoga studios, advertising and circles that seems to promote obsessive control over weight and extreme degrees of body anxiety. The ‘yoga body’ is being sold on social media in the vast ‘yoga economy’ of affiliated merchandise. This ideal is not only promoting a typical representation of mainstream cultural tropes of ‘thinness’, but is oftentimes coupled with veganism and restrictive eating patterns. I can say this because I have been anorexic and am a yoga lover - yoga culture can, at worst, reproduce the framework for body harm. Indeed, there is a term gaining currency that seems to best describe this type of mental disorder - orthorexia nervosa. Sadly, not enough is being done to promote healthy yoga bodies and images to counter the marketing successes of the likes of Alo Yoga, a leading yoga merchandise store who leverage appeal on unreal imaging and social media endorsements.
Secondly - a point linked to the first - yoga is contemporarily marketed and conceived of as expensive and illusive. Many are intimidated by yoga classes given that mainstream yoga advertising has not done enough to accommodate differing body-types and cultures. Yoga is part of an elite lifestyle and inaccessible to too many of the girl children that this outstanding National Geographic edition has otherwise carefully considered. For yoga practice and knowledge to fulfil its potential and be truly positive and global in its contemporary influence we who are invested in it need to work harder at making it accessible, affordable and focused on sustainable wellness, not just the business of beauty.