About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

#79 - The Triple Bind

I finished The Triple Bind: Saving our Teenage Girls from Today's Pressures, by Steven Hinshaw (Ballantine, 2009), last Tuesday. As you may have guessed from my last few reviews of books about the perils facing adolescent girls in contemporary U.S. culture, it's rare for a book on this topic to impress me -- but The Triple Bind did. In my partially-informed layperson's opinion, it's of interest not just to parents and teachers, but to social scientists interested in female adolescence. If I actually had a reader base, I'd encourage you/ them to correct me if I'm wrong, but c'mon now ... let's get real.

All right, self-deprecating humor aside, Hinshaw's main thesis is that today's teenage girls are caught in what he calls a triple bind: the expectation that they excel at 1) all the traditional "girl" stuff, i.e., being pretty and nice; 2) most of the traditional "guy" stuff, including sports and Ivy League-level academics; and 3) at the same time, conform to a narrow, unrealistic set of standards and make the whole package look effortless. As the title of the first chapter ("Impossible Expectations") suggests, that's no mean feat -- and the book is generously laced with accounts of accomplished young women who crumble in the attempt, sometimes with devastating results. This isn't to say that the book's alarmist or overly sensational; it's not. Yes, Hinshaw includes the occasional extreme example (the chapter on cyberculture begins with the well-known story of Megan Meier's suicide), but the majority of case studies portray girls whose injuries are far less extreme. His point (and this is where he differs from other similar books like So Sexy So Soon and The Lolita Effect, which pretty much stop at illustrating a disturbing trend and tossing off a few obligatory recommendations for countering it in the last chapter) is that the triple bind has specific, measurable negative consequences for girls: specifically, high rates of depression, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and increasingly, aggressive behavior.

As a one-time economics student, I was intrigued by Hinshaw's linking the triple bind to the global and uncertain nature of today's economy. Citing Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat (one of many, many items on my ever-expanding Wanna Read list), he suggests:
"[W]e're in the process of moving toward a global economy, one in which work is almost infinitely transferable to anyplace on the planet. ... Reading between the lines, however, you get a much more disturbing story, one in which no American, no matter how well qualified or well trained, is safe from the prospect of losing not only a job but the very possibility of having a job."
He also cites Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch, which I have read, toward a similar end: For a whole host of complicated reasons, the insecurity that poor and working-class workers have long known has crept upward, and is now part of the middle-class reality as well. In short, there's more pressure on everyone to do whatever it takes to succees in today's workplace -- girls, boys, whoever.

The book then goes on to define depression, and handles the nature-nurture question (do people really still debate this anymore?) quite adroitly (in brief, you can inherit vulnerability to depression, but your life experiences still play a big part in whether you ever develop the illness and how bad it gets. Um, no kidding.) Interestingly, too, Hinshaw also talks about the particular dangers depression poses for teenage girls, stating that even one bout of major depression in adolescence dramatically increases both the odds of another such episode later in life, and the severity of any subsequent episodes that do occur. (Um, no kidding, again. Can you tell this book struck a nerve or 3 with me?) He argues that the risk is compounded by the typical busy, sleep-deprived life of the average teenage overachiever, the loss of intrinsic meaning of the many activities cramming their schedules, and the belief that girls are not only supposed to excel at all this stuff, but they're supposed to make it look easy. Other chapters talk about "the popular culture of 'self-erasing identities,'", i.e., "the very images that seem to offer a girl alternatives for discovering her identity in fact demand that she erase herself so as to better blend in with the crowd;" the hidden dangers of empathy; the objectification of female sexuality; cyberculture; and female agression. I could go on, but in short -- this is an interesting and compelling book, and one I'll recommend to others interested in the subject matter.

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