All is not well with women....

I have copied the article below from the Age online:

THE standard assumption is that women’s lives have dramatically improved in the past 50 years. They have considerably more personal freedom, and opportunities for education and employment have been transformed. As a result they have much greater financial independence, which has given them more power to shape their lives. So far, so easy.

But something odd is going on. These huge social changes are not making women happier, and, according to several significant studies, women’s happiness relative to men’s has declined in the past 25 years. This includes women of all age groups, and is evident in many countries, particularly the United States and Britain.

Let’s start with the most alarming evidence. It comes from a study by Patrick West and Helen Sweeting of 15-year-olds conducted in exactly the same place in Scotland in 1987, 1999 and 2006. The 1999 results show that the incidence of common mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks and anhedonia (loss of capacity to experience pleasure) had increased for girls from 19 per cent to 32 per cent. The increase for boys was only 2 per cent.

But the latest results are even more dramatic. There has been an increase for both sexes: boys are now on 21 per cent, and girls are at a staggering rate of 44 per cent.

More than a third of girls agreed ‘‘they felt constantly under strain’’; those who ‘‘felt they could not overcome their difficulties’’ had more than doubled to 26 per cent. The number who agreed with ‘‘thinking of yourself as a worthless person’’ had trebled between 1987 and 2006. These findings could partly explain the recent reports of sharp rises in girls’ binge drinking and aggressive behaviour.

The first thought is that perhaps this gender gap is a teenage thing. Other studies showing a marked increase in mental ill-health of teenagers have prompted speculation that the transition to adulthood now is much more difficult and demanding. But the gap in mental ill-health between men and women is just as striking in other age groups — a recent study showed that between 1993 and 2007 common mental disorders had risen by a fifth for women aged between 45 and 64 (there had been no change in men), and were twice as likely in women as men in the over-75s.

Various explanations are put forward. Women’s levels of serotonin are more vulnerable, it has been suggested, but that doesn’t explain the change over time. Women are now struggling with work and family, looking after their elderly parents, or coping with an empty nest. Thirty years ago, women reported higher rates of subjective wellbeing than men in the US. This advantage has been eroded, and in many instances it is now men who are happier. So how did women end up, after a generation of advances in gender equality, less happy typically than their mothers at the same age?

There are no easy answers. One finding is that women’s satisfaction with their financial situation has declined while men’s has remained stable – one possibility is that there has been a change in expectations for women so that their lives are more likely to come up short.

This latter is key to the work of an American psychologist, Jean Twenge, who has analysed what she describes as a ‘‘narcissism epidemic’’ in the US that is disproportionately affecting women. Her meta-analysis covered 37,000 college students. It found that in 1982, 15 per cent got high scores on a narcissism personality index; by 2006 it was 25 per cent – and the largest share of this increase was women.

Narcissists have huge expectations of themselves and their lives. They make unrealistic predictions about what they can achieve. They seek fame and status, and the achievement of the latter leads to materialism – money enables the labels and lavish lifestyle that are status symbols. It is Paris Hilton syndrome across millions of lives.

Twenge points to the fact that in the 1950s only 12 per cent of college students agreed that ‘‘I am an important person’’, but by the late ’80s it was 80 per cent. In 1967, only 45 per cent agreed that ‘‘being well-off is an important life goal’’, but by 2004 the figure was 74 per cent.

The problem, Twenge believes, derives in part from a generation of indulgent parents who have told their children how special they are. An individualistic culture has, in turn, reinforced a preoccupation with the self and its promotion.

The downside is that narcissists have a tendency to risky behaviour, addictive disorders, have difficulties sustaining intimate relationships, and are more prone to aggressive behaviour when rejected.

The evidence of narcissism is present throughout highly consumerist, individualistic societies – and women suffer disproportionately from the depression and anxiety linked to it.

Girls are more compliant and eager to please – that is how they have always been socialised – but now the dominant social expectations of them are deeply destructive of their happiness.

The expectations of girls and women have multiplied and intensified on every front, from passing exams to looking good (breast augmentation quintupled in 2006 in the US) and having more friends and better photos on Facebook.

One possibility is that women’s identity has always been framed around relationships, yet this is at odds with an individualistic, intensely competitive, narcissistic culture.Women, brought up to seek social approval, battle between competing frames of reference, and many end up feeling failure and inadequacy on multiple fronts.

Madeleine Bunting is a Guardian columnist.


What do you think about this? What is going on... and what on earth can we do about it?

Comments

Amanda Morrice said…
Can't believe I missed this for so long...

Why do I think women are unhappy? It is to do with unrealistic expectations, but I don't think these expectations come solely from themselves. Our feminist culture has put huge expectations on women. In the 50s, a woman was a success if she ran a household and cared for her children. Now she is a failure if she does not run a household, raise chidren, work full time, contribute to her children's school functions, keep herself fit/slim, be beautiful and somehow stop global warming. If you are not super-mum, there is something "wrong" with you.

The super-mum syndrome is now being passed on to the next generation of women, who are growing up self-obsessed because it is the only way to 'keep up' with a world on success overdrive.
Janet Woodlock said…
Great thoughts Amanda!

You know, I would like to point an accusing finger at the advertising industry in general as one of the destroyers of human happiness... they spend enormous amounts of money in research as to how to make people feel discontent and desirous of goods and services that will supposedly fix the problem. It works a charm to generate spending... but at a terrible cost. Yes, you can generate money for the "diet industry" and the cosmetics industry and the fashion industry by making women feel inadequate as they are... but at what cost to their health, well being and self-esteem?

Makes me really cross, if I stop to think about it. Which I just have.

It's not only the advertising industry of course... but this does feed on and exacerbate the pathology of our society.
espanola said…
Dear J,
The article, and Amanda's comments, are pretty spot on. Add in the advertising industry and the use of children in ads and you have a serious problem of the medium being the message. The sexualisation of children by films and images means that those 7 year olds who years ago would be climbing trees and playing with dolls and riding bikes and reading books and playing games (although not all these activities had positive repercussions) are now dressing up like 17 year olds, saying they're too fat and refusing to eat.
Janet Woodlock said…
Oh, it's awful isn't it? Seems to impact little girls more than little boys... still, I was chatting with a mum a couple of days ago who said everyone in the grade 4 class seemed to be watching "Two and a Half Men" by the way they speak. There's little sense of what may or may not be age appropriate by many parents it seems. Childhood should be a wonder age... not a time when adult anxieties and issues are foisted upon developing young minds. Alas...

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