Warren Wilson College
CPO# 7381 WWC P.O. Box 9000
Asheville, NC 28815-9000
This paper examines what issues a group of young African American girls deal with on a daily basis. Observations, a focus group, and limited questionnaire responses were used to determine three main stress factors. These factors are parents, peers, and boys. These categories were analyzed to discover how the group of girls talk about these stresses, how they interact with parents, peers, and boys, and finally how they empower themselves through female unity to negotiate the boundaries of growing up.
I went into this research looking for pathology. Having read an army of books and articles about what is wrong with American girls today, I expected to meet young women who were starving and cutting themselves as a way to attempt to control a society that is so brutally uncaring of its youth. I have no doubt that these things do occur frequently; because our society is brutally uncaring, especially to its African American youth; but this is not what I found. Instead I found a group of girls who work together as friends and as females looking for answers to growing up.
The research took place at a YWCA after school program, where myself and another researcher made observations and then conducted a focus group. We hung out, we gossiped, we watched from the sidelines, and we laughed and told jokes sometimes more then we took notes.
I began my research by asking myself the simple question: what issues are these young women dealing with and finding stressful on a daily basis? I found my simple answers during our focus group: family and parents, peers, and boys. Unfortunately the analysis was not so simple. I examined how the girls talked about these identified stressors, how they interacted with family, peers, and boys, and then I looked at how they deal with this stress. This is where the theory came in. I realized that all of my previous research was inappropriate. The young women I worked with did not deal with stress by binging and purging, by cutting and burning, or by taking drugs or alcohol. I thought, “maybe they are still too young” or “maybe they are just not telling us”, but the reality seems to be that they are simply supporting each other as they test the waters of adulthood.
Growing up female in the United States is hard. Young women have to deal with significant societal pressures to be beautiful or to be white while combating violent racism and sexism at the same time. Young women in the United States have shown a higher prevalence of unhealthy coping mechanisms such as eating disorders, substance abuse, and self-injury than their male counterparts (Pipher, 1994), and researchers such as Carol Gilligan and Naomi Wolfe (1997) have become famous describing the different social and institutional obstacles that women must face as they mature.
I wanted to conduct this research because I have been aware of the problems that young women face, but I was interested in hearing it right from the source. I wanted to know what girls feel and think about and how they deal with life. The research turned out nothing like I suspected it would, and I am so glad that it did. This experience has been eye opening and empowering for me as a woman who desires to work on gender issues in the future.
In the following section, I will outline two different ways that feminist theory approaches the development of young women.
Feminist theory deals with gender inequities in society. It is an important framework through which to view the status of young women in America. Feminist theorists see the capitalist, patriarchal system that much of the Western world lives under as oppressive towards women, people of color, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, and non-Christians. This oppression manifests itself towards women in many arenas such as rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment, discrimination in economic opportunities, encouragement of unhealthy body types and unrealistic beauty standards, physical and mental abuse, etc.
Often women cannot see the oppression that they are living in. Sexism is so ingrained in our society that young women conform to it in a process of hegemony as described by Antonio Gramsci (Gramsci, p.274). Hegemony occurs when oppressed people participate in the establishment because their lives are so deeply fused with it that they cannot see the system for what it is. Women trapped in these institutions are raised to believe in the naturalness and rightness of this system, and consequently forced to support that system.
The internalization of oppressive ideas is especially detrimental to African-American young women who must confront internalized racism as well as sexism. As Patricia Hill Collins (1991) writes, "Domination operates by seducing, pressuring, or forcing African-American women and members of subordinated groups to replace individual and cultural ways of knowing with the dominant group's specialized thought".
African-American women’s experience has also been systematically excluded from mainstream socialization, making Black women virtually invisible. This exclusion makes formation of identity difficult for African-American women. Because our society refuses to acknowledge “Black woman” as a valid and real identity, these women must balance between being a woman and being African-American.
Though much is wrong with our society today, it is important to note that not all feminist views focus on what is wrong with girls today, but on what is right. Young women have, through all of history shown an amazing ability to triumph through the worst of conditions. As Alice Walker (1974) describes in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, women have always managed to express themselves and find empowering ways to live in the midst of oppression.
This other view of feminism sees how Pipher’s (1994) analysis of young girls today can often be damaging because it continues to focus on a description of young women as weak and unable to rise above their challenges. Focusing on eating disorders and self-harm also rewards sickness by bringing attention only to girls who are displaying this behavior. This thinking does not attempt to diminish the severity of self-harm, but merely to show how creative and strong young women really are and how these traits deserve as much if not more attention so that young women can grow up believing in themselves instead of believing that they are set up to fail.
The other important aspect to consider in this feminist analysis is how much race plays an important role. For example, Pipher (1994) mainly looks at the experience of white girls, while the young women in this study are all African American. Several studies showed that white women have more problems with disliking their bodies than black girls tend to. For example, Ingrassia and Springen (1995) stated, “there’s growing evidence that black and white girls view their bodies in dramatically different ways…while 90 percent of the white junior-high and high school girls studied voiced dissatisfaction with their weight, 70 percent of African-American teens were satisfied with their bodies” (66). Given this evidence, it is difficult to say if the unity and support I witnessed during my research would be present in a study of white girls.
Methods and Setting
I designed this research project to attempt to evaluate what issues a group of 11-14 year old African-American girls at the YWCA find themselves dealing with or that cause stress for them. The information from the research will be used in developing an after-school program to provide young women with the empowering tools they can use to cope with the difficult situations in growing up.
Evangeline Simmons, a fellow Warren Wilson College sociology student and I conducted the research for this project. We participated in the after school Support Our Students (S.O.S.) program and observed student interactions. We also conducted a focus group discussion for and hour and a half one afternoon with six girls. The focus group could be considered the meat of my research because it provides the most straightforward answers to my research question, which is, what are the main issues that young girls are finding stressful? The field note observations were useful for examining interactions between students and for analyzing how the girls talk about the different issues in their lives. Following the focus group I handed out questionnaires that recounted basically the same questions as the focus group. I gave this questionnaire to all the focus group participants, but I was only able to get one back. Evangeline followed the focus group with personal interviews on her subject of peer perceptions about dating and violence.
The YWCA of Asheville runs the S.O.S. program. It is a program that is designed to have parents, students, teachers, and program facilitators work together in support of the students. Kathy*, a friendly and outgoing woman is who intimate with each student in the program, is in charge. She is also on close terms with all of their parents, and manages to keep a thorough understanding of how each student is doing most of the time. The other two program facilitators are Mary and Jennifer, whose main job is to keep the students in line and keep them from arguing, and to facilitate learning and healthy interactions, etc. Mary and Jennifer also do a lot of helping with homework.
The program takes place in the classroom section of a large church downtown. Every day after school there is one hour of homework time from 4pm to 5pm. At 5pm, the students have activity. This varies from going to the park to having a sex education session. Every month the girls get to go out with Kathy for dinner where they discuss some topic of interest. The girls get to choose where to eat and what to talk about for
their “Girls Night Out”.
The students who participate in the group are not always consistent. Several students that we observed at the beginning stopped coming altogether, and others began coming later in the semester. The six girls used in our focus group have very consistent
attendance, and therefore often appear in the field note observations.
The information from the focus group, the field note observations, and the one
*All names have been changed.
questionnaire response were all analyzed using the Nud*ist program. I categorized my focus group transcription and observations into eleven main categories and 16 subcategories. I then used these categories to make a qualitative analysis of what specific elements of their lives the girls found to be stressful, what caused this stress, how they talked about it, how they interact with stress-causing individuals, and finally how they usually deal with these stressors.
The girls specifically identified three areas that cause them the most stress. These are ‘other people’, which I called peers, boys, and family. Each of the identified stressors deals with a relationship to other humans. This paper will discuss each of these areas and analyze what role each plays in the lives of these girls, how they discuss and interact about these areas, and what these areas mean to their experiences as adolescent girls.
It is important to mention that during the focus group, the girls also identified school as a source of stress and concern, though it is not one of the main categories. During the focus group Vanessa was asked what kinds of things she thought about during the day. She answered by saying, “Oh I be thinking about my grades. My grades are very important like, I think about tests and how I’m gonna do this…” Other students identified school as something they must devote a lot of attention and energy to. Maureen stated, “I think about how hard my work is”.
Though the girls mentioned school on several occasions, it was not identified as a significant source of real stress. I believe that it is important to recognize the role of school in the lives of these girls, but I would like to focus on the three main areas of life that these girls claimed to be most concerned with.
Parents whose children are in the S.O.S. program have, for the most part, a good relationship with the program facilitator. There is a Parent Handbook to the S.O.S. program, and the facilitator stays in contact with every student’s mother or father. The relationship that these children’s parents maintain indicates the high level of commitment and involvement in their children’s lives.
The girls in the S.O.S program mentioned their parents in several capacities. During the focus group, parents were identified as often causing stress. Parents caused stress in two main ways: rules and embarrassment. None of the girls described guardians as playing a role in their lives, but several did point to other family members as significant, as we shall see later on.
Going to the mall, the Community Center, and the movies are common weekend activities for these young women. When asked what kinds of activities they participated in, going to the mall was second to home activities such as watching television or talking on the phone. The third most popular activity was going to the movies. For example, Jania and Lori discussed their activities this way:
J: When you gonna go to the movies to see your little boy?
L: I know, I do wanna go see somebody though. That’s why I like to go at night cause everybody be there.
These activities all require going out, and because the young women are between 11 and 14 years old, they also require permission from their parents. This proves to be problematic when the girls desire more freedom than parents are willing to give. More often than not, parents were reported to be stricter when it came to dating boys. Lori illustrated this during the focus group when she was discussing wanting to go out to the movies with her boyfriend, “I wanted to go to the movies like, so my brother was gonna go, and I said I can go by myself. But then my friend couldn’t go [or brother], then my parents [said] you can’t go by yourself.” Kira and Tamara expressed similar sentiments: “K: My mom won’t let me go to the mall by myself. TM: If you go with a friend they don’t mind, but if you go by yourself then…"
The girls demonstrated that they are well aware of how their parents feel about them dating boys. When asked during the focus group when it was okay to start kissing and ‘doing things’ with boys Kira commented, “It’s not really okay now, but I still do, but I know what my parents would say. Yeah, my mom would kill me.”
The young women also noted the discrepancy between their parents’ attitudes towards boys when they were very young and now that they are beginning to become adults:
K: Your parents be like oh how cute when you like little, but when you get older they be like
L: When you get older they be like
K&L: uh uh.
TM: it’s like when you’re small they don’t care,
The way that the girls discuss boys with their parents also caused some frustration and embarrassment, though it was mostly expressed in a light-hearted way. Kira and Lori talked about being teased by their parents when discussing boys. “K: So when you say somebody asked you out, they be like where you going? L: It’s like no; they didn’t ask me out to go nowhere. Then she keep saying where you going, where you going.”
Parents also cause stress for the girls through embarrassment. This sentiment was not expressed by all of the girls, but was brought up by several of them. The main place that parents were able to cause embarrassment was at the mall. Kira commented, “they be calling you out, and they be embarrassing you in the mall, that’s the worst place to be embarrassed cause everybody’s there.”
The stress that girls recognized being caused by their parents was mainly caused by being embarrassed in public places or in discussion about boys and in the rules that they set. These issues seem like fairly normal parental issues during adolescents when teens are attempting to assert independence from their families. In the literature the main problems I found that dealt with daughter/parent relationships explored separation anxiety and learning to form an identity as a woman at the exact time that young girls are supposed to be pulling away from their main role model for this development, their mother. Stress about separating from parents and developing a sense of womanhood at the same time has been discussed in Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994) by Mary Pipher. Pipher states, “daughters are as confused as mothers by our culture’s expectations. Girls are encouraged to separate from their mothers and devalue their relationships to them…growing up requires adolescent girls to reject the person whom they are most closely identified” (103).
The young women in the S.O.S program did not explicitly express such concerns; however, the only time that we discussed parents was during the focus group, which could paint an inaccurate picture of all of the different elements of a parent/daughter relationship.
Other members of the family played an important role in the lives of the young women I studied. Brothers were discussed in several different capacities, once as a figure to take out aggression on, once as an annoyance, and once as someone to confide in. Vanessa mentioned that she talked about sex and other issues with her older brother. She denied discussing the same things very much with her friends.
When Kira was asked how she dealt with stress, she said, “I hit my brother. I just start a fight with him. Annoy him or something, it makes him feel bad, but it makes me feel better.” Tamara also expressed a tendency to “get on [her] brother” when she was stressed out.
I believe that these two brother scenarios deal with younger brothers, while Vanessa’s brother is older. Vanessa interacts with her brother in a different way, using him for advice and not for stress relief. She also mentioned participating in activities with her brother. When she was taking care of an electronic baby as part of the “Baby Think it Over” project, Vanessa and her brother took the electronic baby to the mall. Kira and Tamara did not express that they participated in constructive activities with their brothers.
There are several instances of interacting with extended family that I believe it is important to highlight. Extended family can often be a significant part of young people’s lives. Both Kira and Tamara discussed members of their extended families during the focus group. Kira talked about how her grandmother nags her to clean her room and does and even better job of embarrassing her at the mall than her parents do. “She be checking out old people shoes when I be going to buy me some shoes. She be getting all in, oh Lord…” She also mentioned having an uncle in her life who takes her out places and out to eat.
Tamara revealed that she felt close to an aunt that she could confide in easier than anyone else in her family.
Like sometimes I call my aunt. My momma call my aunt up and then our aunt is like, let me talk to them childrens. So I talk to her and I tell her about things that going on in school and stuff, what I’m dealing with at home and stuff.
Family interactions are a very important aspect of these young women’s lives. They depend on family for guidance and growth, yet still desire to resist parental and grandparental rules and conditions. This contradiction can cause stress for young women who are torn between a desire to grow up and the wishes and recommendations of parents who care about them.
Other Girls (Peers)
Much of the literature that I have read concerning interactions between girls focuses on girls’ ways of interacting in relation to boys’ ways of interacting. Joyce Canaan (1999) and Barrie Thorne (1993) have closely studied these different interactions. Canaan’s article mostly examined modes of communication such as passing notes. She discussed how status within groups of girls is determined by who has the inside information about what is happening in the lives of the most popular students. For example, the most popular girl is upset or stressed out, and the person that she talks to about it receives improves status. Thorne (1993), on the other hand questions the widely accepted theories that girls and boys interact in totally different ways. She challenges what she calls the different-cultures approach by showing how girls and boys may have more similarities than researchers choose to recognize. Different-cultures theory often describes girls as more likely to work in small groups and pairs. These pairs, or alliances, shift so that girls are always hanging out with someone. This kind of behavior was common with Kira and Maureen, Jania and Lori, and Vanessa and Angela, except that these pairs remained constant and were not subject to the underground conflict and elitism that different-culture theory describes. Throughout most of the study, these girls worked within the abovementioned pairs. They sat together during homework time, ran around together at Stephens-Lee Park, sat together during the focus group, and generally hung out at other times.
For example, all of the S.O.S students had to sand and paint chairs for a community auction that the YWCA held. Jania and Lori worked together on the same chair, and Kira and Maureen also worked together on a different chair.
Tamara and Ramona, on the other hand, spent most of their time sitting and working alone. To go back to the chair example, Ramona sanded her chair with Evangeline, Nikki (a girl who did not come very often and kept more to herself), and me, while the other girls worked in their usual pairs. Tamara sat by herself during the focus group and through most of the homework time at the church. Tamara mentioned this loneliness during the focus group. She said that she faced ridicule at school and that the other girls in the focus group probably had lots of friends, but that nobody at her school wanted to be her friend. Tamara's exclusion was exacerbated by the fact that she does not attend the same school as everyone else.
Tamara acknowledged her exclusion by whispering into the microphone of the tape recorder so that others in the group could not hear her. She stated that she had trouble with being called names and being excluded especially at school. This teasing carried on during the S.O.S after school times, but boys were often the perpetrators of teasing of Tamara. This exclusion and teasing is very common in Thorne (2000), Pipher (1994), and Canaan’s (1999) work about the way young men and women interact. As Pipher (1994) and Wolfe show, this can be a significant source of stress for the young people being teased or excluded. Tamara exhibited proof of this stress because she did not feel comfortable addressing her feelings to the whole focus group.
In her discussion of the way girls act Thorne also mentioned conflict. She related that different-culture theory portrays conflict between females as under the surface. This includes talking about each other behind the other’s backs and switching alliances in order to cause conflicts. Thorne describes it this way; “Girls often carry out the activity of constructing and breaking dyads and maneuvering alliances through talk with third parties” (94). The girls in the S.O.S. program did not talk extensively about each other behind each other’s backs, except in a playful manner. Conflict among these girls was much more open and freely expressed.
Conflict was expressed within small friendship groups with other females, as I’ll discuss later, bit it also came up within the larger group. Canaan (1999) demonstrated that girls were less likely than boys to raise conflict out loud in group situations, and more likely to express animosity through silent or manipulative maneuvers. I did not find this to be true. The girls I studied did not hold back any more than boys in overtly expressing conflict. The same was true for out loud teasing in the group sessions, which was a common activity of both sexes.
Many times conflict came up within the tight-knit pairs, but was fleeting or was quickly solved. For example, Maureen and Kira argued over an incident at the mall when they got in trouble with their parents. Kira started by saying, “…me and some friends go out to the mall; one of my friends got me in trouble.” Maureen responded, “No, it wasn’t my fault.” Kira: “Yes it was okay.” Maureen: “No because no.” This conflict quickly ended when the subject was changed, but it was obviously something they had argued about before.
Jania and Lori demonstrated similar behavior when we were discussing peer pressure during the focus group:
L: I’m not a boring person, but I don’t really, sometimes I do things, but I don’t really on the weekends, wash my clothes…
J: Lori, we’re talking about peer pressure, doing things that your friends wanna do.
L: I know, I’m just saying that I don’t really go through that.”
Jania and Lori often argued in an authoritative manner. For example, in this last quote, Jania was pointing out to Lori what she was doing wrong. On another occasion, Jania made Lori sit down and have her finger nails sanded by an electric wood sander. Several times she jumped and said “Ow”, but Jania told her to continue.
Vanessa and Angela displayed a different kind of conflict than any of the other girls. It is difficult to know what to make of these interactions, and I am not sure if it is even possible to describe it as conflict. At Stephens-Lee Park Vanessa and Angela and I went to sit out in the van because they were tired of being inside the gym. One of the S.O.S boys named Marcus soon followed us. This is an excerpt from my field notes, which illustrates the dynamic between Vanessa and Angela and Marcus.
Angela and Vanessa sat in the back seat, and Marcus sat in the next one up. He asked Angela to sit with him, and he rubbed her back for her. [In the field note I mentioned that Vanessa had said earlier that Angela and Marcus might be dating.] During this, Vanessa kept whispering in Marcus's ear. When they whispered to each other they bent their heads together in a very personal and close way. After the whispering Angela did not seem to be bothered or jealous, though from what Vanessa was saying Marcus and Angela were going together. After the whispering, Vanessa was teasing Marcus out loud. Vanessa kept teasing them, and eventually they were wrestling over the seat. She kept grabbing him and eventually she stole his hairbrush. Angela, who is quieter, left the van, and I tried to get Vanessa and Marcus to stop, as they appeared to be causing some real pain to each other. They did not stop. Marcus pulled on Vanessa's ponytail, which is a weave, so it didn't hurt her, but it physically prevented her from moving. Vanessa screamed and laughed a lot, and this went on for a while. Eventually, Vanessa escaped from the back door of the van, but Marcus had her jacket. They ran around outside the van and eventually decided to make a truce and they traded items. This happened with a bit more hair pulling and yelling. Marcus went over to Angela on the playground and asked her to sit with him in a little playground dome. Vanessa was yelling to Angela not to sit anywhere with him. She did, though, and Vanessa and some of the other kids went over there and proceeded to chat and tease.
The way that Angela and Vanessa dealt with this situation was very interesting to me. Angela seemed to want to avoid confrontation, and she left the van. She did not indicate that she was annoyed that Vanessa and Marcus had begun to fight in what appeared to be a fairly flirtatious manner. When Marcus eventually went over to the playground to sit with Angela, Vanessa yelled to Angela that she should not be hanging out with a boy like that. Her warnings show friendship and concern; that she worries about Angela hanging around with Marcus. But Vanessa yelled this warning across the whole playground, so it is also possible that she was just trying to further irritate Marcus.
Perhaps Vanessa and Angela use play to negotiate their friendship. Because they often interact on this level of play and teasing, it is possible that this is just how their friendship operates.
It is difficult in this situation to determine how Vanessa and Angela's friendship is affected by the presence of a boy like Marcus, but I think it is safe to say that there is a definite effect. It is also difficult to tell if this was a situation of conflict or merely one of play. My suggestion would be that Angela was feeling some sort of resentment at the refocusing of attention but could not express it either because of fear or shyness or because of the intricacies of her friendship with Vanessa. The fact that Angela left the van leads me to believe that she felt some kind of dissatisfaction with the situation. Later on, I will revisit this field note for an analysis of interactions between girls and boys.
During the focus group Evangeline and I brought up the subject of being concerned about situations or actions that their friends could be involved in that might cause them to worry. The main concern that the girls identified was fear of pregnancy. Jania indicated this by saying, “I don’t care what they be doing as long as they don’t get pregnant. They get pregnant, then it’s my business cause that’s my friend.”
Our discussion of pregnancy was very interesting to analyze. The girls in the group are not sexually active, yet they have a fairly advanced knowledge of sex and pregnancy. They have also experienced through real life how pregnancy can seriously affect a young girl’s life. Pregnancy was portrayed during the focus group and during several sex education discussions as something most definitely negative. Vanessa talked about pregnancy this way:
Sometimes I think about teen pregnancy and how it would feel if I was actually pregnant like…A lot of little girls, they ain’t even fully, how they gonna take care of a baby? L: When they can’t take care of themselves. VA: Amen…I know a person, really personally… and they pregnant, and I don’t think she ready to have it cause she real little and you know the baby gonna have low birth weight uh and a lot of things premature, just a lot of things wrong with it. It ain’t gonna be a healthy baby cause she’s not fully developed, and I don’t think she ready to carry all that weight.
Vanessa’s knowledge of the nature of pregnancy is fairly developed. She participated in Baby Think it Over, and all of the girls have attended a sex education class session once every week for the whole semester. The girls seem to have a concept of what pregnancy can mean for young girls and of how they ought to look out for each other in that respect.
Gossip is a major factor in young people’s lives. During the focus group we asked what the girls talk about among their friends. The resounding answer was “other people!” Lori stated, “All people do is talk about other people” and Kira backed her up by stating, “We always talk about other people.” Jania admitted to gossiping in this manner too, though she maintained that she talks on the phone to her friends about “reality and real things, not people… like what’s going on in my life, how I feel about something.”
During the focus group the girls often talked about other people’s sexual activities. Kira mentioned a boy that she knew that was short, twelve years old, and not a virgin anymore “because of certain happenings with [her] friend’s cousin.” This fact was pretty interesting to Kira and other members of the group who knew the person. This phenomenon was repeated in the discussion of the girl they all know who is having a baby and appears to be too small and underdeveloped to healthfully give birth to it. Vanessa, Lori, and Jania discussed the pregnant girl, stating that she acted slow, walked slow, and was “forever smelling.” Though they showed genuine concern for her situation when they discussed her pregnancy, the girls also scrutinized and gossiped about her actions and appearance.
Several times I heard the girls talking about other young women in the S.O.S program behind their backs. During one homework session Jumpy and Vanessa and Winston were talking about a time at the movies when Vanessa had put her tongue on the back of Jumpy’s neck and he had jumped away, earning the nickname “Jumpy”. Somehow during this conversation somebody mentioned that it might have been Lori’s tongue. The girls’ response to that was, “if it was Lori, check if you got rabies”.
Another instance where talking behind each other’s backs occurred was while we were sanding chairs at the YWCA. Nikki, Ramona, Evangeline, and I were working at one chair, and yellow dust was flying all over everywhere getting in our eyes and hair. Kira’s mom pulled up while we were working, and Kira got ready to go home. As she was leaving Ramona yelled, “Bye Kira!” Nikki, a fairly quiet girl, looked at us and said, “now she know Kira don’t like her.”
This type of talking behind each other’s backs was documented in Thorne’s description of how different culture theory sees interactions between girls, but it was not a common occurrence in my experience at the S.O.S. program. Face to face confrontation and conflict was much more common, but still rarely bad natured.
Over all the girls in the S.O.S. program displayed a certain level of devotion to each other, especially in the face of their male counterparts, as we shall see in the next section. Their conflicts were almost always between friends and lacked real viciousness or anger. The few occasions where girls talked about other girls behind their backs were isolated and uncommon.
One incident, which is described later, occurred where two boys were telling a rumor about Angela. Angela wanted to know what they were saying about her, so Kristy came over and told Angela the rumor. This kind of camaraderie leads me to believe that these girls work together and support each other instead of having a complex, but superficially determined hierarchy of popularity as Canaan (1999) described. Devotion to each other allows the girls to maintain confidence and resist the pressures society puts on women. One must wonder then if girls without a tight social network or partnership are a greater risk without having someone to depend on and confide in.
This is the topic I have avoided writing about until the end. The big b-o-y-s. The topic of boys was the most commonly identified source of interest and stress by the sheer fact of how often the girls talked about boys. Because the S.O.S. program is coed I was able to observe many occurrences of girls interacting with boys, and I also got to hear during the focus group how girls talk about boys in an all female setting. These contrasting settings allow for several different angles from which to view the boy question.
One might wonder at the exclusion of homosexual possibilities from this text, but the attitude that I observed of the students in S.O.S towards homosexuality is one of humor. They do not generally treat the subject with seriousness and respect. Often times the boys in the group made derogatory remarks about homosexuality, especially during the sex education sessions. These comments always invoked laughter from the larger group of both girls and boys.
Several times the girls made references to homosexuality with in their group of friends. For example, one afternoon after we were sanding chairs at the YWCA, Kira accidentally bumped into Danielle’s arm while we (Evangeline, Kathy, and I) were all walking on the sidewalk. Danielle said to Kira, “I didn’t know that you swung that way Kira!” Kira protested while Kathy interrupted and asked, “Swing what way?” The girls giggled and told Kathy that she wouldn’t understand.
Lydia, the only white girl in the group gave the impression of having an androgynous attitude towards her appearance. This does not indicate anything about her sexuality, but at the same time she was not a fully integrated member of the group. I am uncertain if this has more to do with dissimilarities because of race, or gender presentation, or something else. Lydia was not shown any disrespect, but she was not usually included either.
Because the group did not generally accept homosexual relationships as a reality, the focus on romantic relationships was about men. This subject is broad, so I would like to first talk about the way the girls discuss men, and then cover how they actually interact with boys.
The girls talked about boys in several important and distinct ways. They identified boys as an annoyance, then as inferior in some way. Labeling boys as inferior is affirming for girls and helps them build unity and support with each other. The girls also discussed each other’s experiences with boys in a way that seems to give higher status to the more knowledgeable. The following section expands upon the ways that girls talk about boys in their lives.
Through the focus group, boys were labeled as one of the main causes of stress. This stress comes both from male peers bothering and harassing the girls and from romantic relationships with boys. Kira noted several times that she had trouble with male peers at school:
I be cussing somebody out at school cause people they be, they be annoying you, some boys be annoying you and stuff, and you be ready to cuss somebody out…
Some boys, they think they like smarter than girls, but you know girls actually smarter than boys cause we’re born with a nub in our brain that they don’t have till they’re 11.
Jania who stated, “Women can take more pressure, peer pressure and stuff”, mirrored the last assertion about female intellectual superiority. Kira backed her up, “we’re wiser in the end; we know what common sense is… some men are okay, but just some men, just some men…”
Kira’s final comments about men sound relatively sophisticated for an 11 year old. She expresses exasperation with men in a way that might indicate that she has some knowledge about them. Jania, who actually has a boyfriend, also spoke of female superiority, but she did not display the same frustration with boys that Kira did.
The way the girls talked about female superiority seems to be an empowering point for them. It is possible that their belief about their own strength helps them to handle the stress that boys cause. For example, Kira talked about wanting to cuss out and beat up boys at school who bother her. This indicates that she does not feel inferior to them or that she has to take their harassment simply because she is a girl.
This empowerment also helps build a unity between the girls, as I mentioned in the last section. Often during the focus group, the girls would back each other’s statements up with words of approval or by expanding upon the opinion. The next quotation shows how the girls expand upon each other’s ideas and create a communal opinion.
The empowerment of believing in their own strength was visible again during the focus group, when we discussed what an ideal relationship is. The girls could clearly see what they deserved from a relationship with a man:
EV: Well, what do you think a good relationship is like if you have a boyfriend, what’s a good relationship?
K: You should, you could talk to ‘em.
J: and, and
J: and you, y’all have stuff in common, and you know that that person won’t get jealous if you talking to somebody else like it was another boy and you just talking to him as a friend, they don’t get jealous.”
Vanessa followed these statements by explaining several bad relationships that she and women she knew had been in. She discussed one relationship that she had had where the boy was very jealous of her talking to other boys, but then turned around and flirted with other girls. Vanessa described how she would not put up with that kind of behavior.
“I talked to another boy, like say I was talking to another boy and we could’ve, I could just give him a friendly hug, and it’s like “what you doing with him?” “Nothing”, and you know how that go, and anyway, when he be like talking to other people, I be on his case like oh, “you better stop touching her, what you think you doing” smacking him and stuff like that, but he ain’t never put his hands on me, cause if he put his hands on me, he be in jail somewhere…”
The belief in the strength of women could possibly come from the girl’s home situations. Many of the girls mentioned their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers when we discussed stress that families cause. The only male family members mentioned were brother and uncles, generally relationships that do not have the same role modeling set up that the mother and grandmother relationship have.
The girls talk fairly often about boyfriends and who is dating whom, and what kind of physical affection people they know are participating in. Jania was the only girl in the focus group with a verified, real boyfriend. She discussed their relationship a little bit during the focus group.
J: Well me personally, since I have a boyfriend, we talk about a lot of stuff, we don’t really tease, but like if we tease it’s not like about big stuff, it’s about little bitty stuff and then we stop before someone gets mad.
L: How old is he anyway?
J: I can’t tell you.
J: He got left back, he’s stupid.
We discussed kissing and who had kissed people and who hadn’t. Kira claimed to have kissed a boy in third grade, the same boy who stole a bottle of his mother’s perfume and gave it to Kira. Jania claimed to have never kissed anybody, but later admitted, “I will if I like the person.”
The way that the girls discuss kissing and dating appears to give status to the more experienced. Kira, who is 11, talked a lot about having had boyfriends and knowledge of men. For example, Evangeline asked whether girls had to do things like kiss in order to have a boyfriend. Kira responded by saying, “no, but it’s more fun… cause he spend money on you.” Williams’ (1999) article on teenage girls’ representation of themselves as invulnerable and manipulating in sexual relationships seems applicable here. Williams (1999) talked about how girls present a front of maturity to protect them in relationships. Though they are still kids, the girls she studied attempt to display nasty or shocking knowledge about sex. These mechanisms help protect the girls from being hurt in romantic relationships or protect them from having to be vulnerable. Kira is not interested in a love relationship or in receiving care and comfort from a significant other, she is merely interested in the benefits that such a relationship might have for her social status and for the pure fun of it. Using Williams’ analysis, Kira may be demonstrating this attitude towards relationships to make herself appear sophisticated.
When it comes to the actual act of sex the girls do not try to claim the same level of experience. For example, Kira tried to get Maureen to admit that she had done something with a boyfriend back in Washington. Jania addressed her about it:
J: Y’all had relations?
M: What, who me?
J: Y’all had intercourse, y’all had relations?
M: I’m too young to do that.
Maureen’s attitude represents well the feeling that most of the girls have: sex this young can be pretty dangerous. This is best exemplified when the girls asked us about our own sexual experiences. At the end of the focus group Kira asked Evangeline and I if we were virgins. They responded to our answers with giggles and shock when I told them that I lost my virginity at 14. Their display of shock demonstrates how far removed sex still is from experience for them. This could be credit to the sex education classes that they receive as part of the S.O.S program.
Through their discussion of boys, one can see how the girls regard them as an important issue in life, something that takes up a lot of time, thought, and energy, but not as superior beings that they should look to for validation and support. The way the girls discuss the superiority of women and how flippant Kira and others are about relationships leads me to believe that these girls do not feel dependency on boys or on attention from them.
The attitude that this group of girls has shown towards men may be very much in line with the feminist framework. The girls have a strong understanding of their experience as women in this world, which is evidenced by the way that they discussed sexuality in the Sex Ed classes. They answered questions accurately, did not participate as much in giggling about sex (though it definitely happened), or in looking at it as an accomplishment the way that the male students tended to. Many male students also displayed sensitivity and maturity too.
These girls also have not, for the most part, bought into the societal ideal that it is important for women to be meek in comparison to men; for example, they feel it is appropriate to beat up boys who offend them. Because they believe in superior female characteristics, these young women often support and back up each other. Female unity, especially at younger ages is an important principle of many feminist dialogues.
Throughout the course of the program I had many opportunities to witness interactions between girls and boys. There stood out to me three ways that girls and boys interact at the S.O.S program. These are by separating themselves, through flirtation, and through physical and verbal teasing. Flirtation only took place among the older students in the program. It was rare that actual relationships were formed, and often the line between flirting and teasing was unclear and hard to discern. Teasing is probably the most common interaction, taking place within and among all of the students in the program at various times. Normal conversations often turn into teasing, and this practice, when harmless, was also more or less accepted to a certain extent by the facilitators of the program. First I will discuss how the students separate themselves by gender, and then I will examine how they use flirting as a means of interaction. I will then finish by examining teasing interactions.
The first thing that stood out to me was the way that girls and boys voluntarily separated themselves in seating arrangements for homework time and other activities. This was most common among the students who tended to group anyway. Students who did not hang out in pairs or groups often sat next to someone of the opposite sex. Most of my field notes that include a seating arrangement diagram show small clusters of girls sitting at one end of the table and a small cluster of boys at the other end. When they are in the larger group this way, the students spend a lot of time yelling jokes and insults around the classroom.
This seating segregation reinforces the fact that girls most often look to other girls for their friendship and support, as I discussed in the closing paragraph of the last section examining how the girls verbally express feelings about boys. They often mix to tease each other, to gossip about something, or in several cases to flirt.
Flirtation attempts were fairly common from boys, but Vanessa is the only girl who regularly went out of her way to flirt with boys. Angela also occasionally flirted, but in a much more reserved manner. Jania rarely flirted with the S.O.S. boys, but when she did it was in an authoritative manner.
Vanessa’s method of flirting is the most blatant and pronounced. She often spent her homework time trying to get attention from boys or being in arguments with them. For example, during one homework session “Vanessa kept referring to Winston as her boyfriend. At one point he was showing me a video game on his calculator, and Vanessa was across the room saying his name over and over … He was saying, “Hold on!” When Winston had trouble sitting still at the end of the day, Vanessa was saying, “look at my boyfriend, he’s all drugged up!”“
Jania coyly flirted with one boy who was only in the program for a day. This is an excerpt from my field notes:
Jania was whispering questions to the new boy, who was white and had apparently attended the summer YWCA program before. Mary asked him where he goes to school, and he said at Enka. I asked where that is, and Jania and Lori giggled. Jania said, “It’s out in the boondocks.” Then she said sorry to him, but we were all giggling a bit. Then Andy [the new boy] and Jania talked about the summer camp. Andy said, “She never talked this much last summer. She just sat in the back like this.” And he bit the top of his water bottle and put his head down. He also mentioned some boy that had been interested in Jania. Andy said, “you liked him.” Jania: “He liked me!” Andy: “You liked him.” Jania: “He liked me.”
The girls’ flirtation with boys is very much on surface level. The girls do not really invest themselves in these interactions, and can switch whom they are flirting with at any moment. The fact that the girls are not emotionally invested with the people they are flirting with reinforces the earlier assertion that the girls function independently of their male counterparts and only flirt in this way as a means of testing their womanhood and appeal and as a way of asserting their independence and maturity.
The line between flirting and teasing is very fine, and often difficult to see at all. Much of the interactions between girls and boys were of a teasing nature. From my field notes I recognized two different ways of teasing. Those are physical and verbal. Verbal teasing often took place in the classroom setting, in passing, or when there were a lot of people around. Verbal teasing could even arise in the middle of a sex education session, but this always resulted in disciplinary consequences.
One example of verbal teasing took place one afternoon just as the program session was winding up. A group of the students were sitting around the tables waiting for 6 pm to come. The teasing began with rumors.
First was a rumor that Jumpy ate clit. He responded by saying, “Aw, why you always gotta be spreading things about me?” There was a lot of laughing and other comments were thrown around until Kathy told them to stop harassing Jumpy. Eventually Jumpy said that he knew a rumor about Angela. He whispered it to Vanessa, then walked around the room and whispered it to Winston. Kristy (who only attended one session that I was there for) figured out what the rumor was and told Angela who had moved to sit next to Kristy. Angela had food and had just told Winston that she would feed him if he told her the rumor. She gave Kristy some food for telling her.
Often the verbal teasing was of a sexual manner such as Jumpy eating clit. Sexual comments arise as a way for the students to begin discussing and dealing with adult ideas, without having to commit to a mature conversation. This is similar to the way that young girls flirt playfully to being testing their sexuality and independence. Although, as I mentioned before, students can deal with sex in a sophisticated manner, it seems that joking is safer.
Physical teasing is another common way that girls interact with boys. Physical teasing was less common in the classroom, though I did observe it several times. On one occasion Vanessa and Jumpy were physically interacting in the classroom:
Jumpy said to me, “excuse me while I beat this young woman.” He had taken off his belt and both him and Vanessa were laughing. Vanessa and Jumpy then began throwing pencils around the room at each other. Jumpy fell on the floor, and Vanessa hit him with a marker. Winston jumped in and hit Vanessa’s leg with his belt.
The physical teasing that the students were involved in often seemed severe. For example, when Vanessa and Marcus were fooling around in the van at Stephens-Lee park they showed no mercy for each other. The most interesting thing about this is that, although it was fierce playing, the students were always laughing; things did not get taken so far that people got seriously hurt.
Another interesting aspect is who participates in this kind of physical teasing. I witnessed Vanessa’s physical teasing with boys the most, and she is also one of the most common flirters. This indicates that teasing and flirting interactions may be more closely related than I originally thought.
It seems to me that the students in this group use verbal and physical interactions to begin playing with adult ideas such as sexual relationships. They use sexual talk as means of insulting, and they often touch each other as a way of teasing. Through these interactions girls still maintain unity with girls and boys continue their alliance with other boys, but they mix up the gender barriers as a way of testing adult waters. This is similar to the way that the S.O.S. girls dealt with trying to negotiate expanded autonomy and independence from their parents by slowly pushing limits and becoming frustrated with old rules and standards.
The theoretical conclusions that I came up with converge around the idea of empowerment feminism. My observations from this study point me to displaying how these girls support each other and maintain a female solidarity that helps them maneuver through this stage of adolescence.
Black women have historically managed to survive through the horrors of United States history using creative strategies to survive. Walker (1974) wrote, “How was the creativity of the black woman kept alive, year after year and century after century, when for most of the years black people have been in America, it was a punishable crime for a black person to read or write”(2385). She answers this question by showing that black women used whatever was available to them to express creativity and manage to survive. For example, women could sing, create gardens, or sew as a way to express creativity in the face of total oppression. “And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read” (2385).
Walker’s writing relates to the young women at the S.O.S. program because these girls are also innovatively coming up with solutions and alternative ways to deal with society. These creative ways of coping include supporting each other, believing in female superiority, and separating themselves from boys enough to maintain female cohesion. Backing each other up is evident in situations such as this one during the focus group when we were discussing different kinds of abuse:
V: …Like if you talk about a woman’s weight, and you keep on, she’ll really feel that way and have low self-esteem—that’s abuse to me.
J: Yep, right on sister.
J: Playing mind games with you.
In this situation Jania validates Vanessa’s statements by verbally supporting her. This is especially important because the girls are discussing types of violent relationships. Showing support for each other around such a significant subject for women helps them to feel solidarity about problems such as violence in relationships.
In several areas of the focus group I described how the girls discussed female superiority, and through the section on interactions with boys we discovered that the girls flirt and tease boys, but maintain a distance that keeps the genders separate and autonomous.
This study effectively answered the original research question that I was exploring. I found out that this particular group of girls feel that peers, parents, and boys are stressful. I also managed to have some insight into the way girls talk about and interact about these stressors. I believe there is a lot more to look at concerning how adolescent girls deal with stress, but from this limited research, it is my conclusion that many girls are finding ways to manage the pressures of growing up in our society by working together. These girls are on a path to succeed in growing up without falling into the trap of self-hate that our society so desperately wants them to.
This conclusion is very optimistic because this study cannot provide a complete picture of how things will turn out for the girls involved due to limitations on its duration. It is important to note that this study could possibly be much more effective if it followed the girls throughout their entire adolescent experience.
Another important thing to note is that there are many ways to view the experience of these girls, though I tried to use grounded theory as I developed an analysis, one can never say that findings are completely unbiased or affected. I tried to avoid concentrating on only the popular students, but by virtue of classifying flirtation as a method of interaction, I ignored the students who do not participate in such rituals. In studying a group it is always easier to focus on the participants who normally get the most attention, but their experience cannot speak for the whole in any way.
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