Physical Changes and External Pressures

It is important to note that the internal and external psychological process described above happens at the same time a young woman is changing physically. In a way, it is her own physical body that betrays her and forces her to join the world of women. After all, the physical passage into womanhood is not a voluntary act, and it carries with it new experiences and responses from those on the outside. Whereas before she might have been welcome at neighborhood football games, the development of breasts causes the young men to see and respond to her differently.

Her body, which has been a place in which she fully lived and roamed freely, becomes curved and awkward, and menstruation brings new issues such as cramps and bleeding with which to contend (Maniglia and Albrecht 1995).

The young woman also becomes more aware of how her physical state measures up or does not meet society's standards of beauty. "Girls become looked at, objects of beauty (or not), models for idealized or fantasized relationships" (Debold, Wilson and Malave 1993, p. 14). Less attractive young women often judge themselves as not worthy of positive relationships and friends. They make poor decisions sometimes in an attempt to feel wanted or accepted for their physical bodies. This is particularly true for young women who have experienced sexual abuse as children and so carry into adolescence confused feelings and thoughts about the purposes of their physical bodies. Therefore, issues around the acceptance of their physical bodies become treatment issues for staff at all levels of the juvenile justice system as they speak to a young women's basic identity and self-esteem.

Unfortunately, attractive girls do not fare much better, as their self-image can easily become entirely connected to their physical appearance and the response it draws from those around them. Society creates negative stereotypes about beautiful women, and so pretty young women may struggle to be recognized for their intellectual capacity. Relationships with teenage boys are often tainted by the tendency to see attractive girls as only sexual objects or trophies. The world seems less safe and secure as these young girls are often faced with sexual harassment before they know how to respond or before they have developed their own strong sense of identity (Maniglia and Albrecht 1995).

These external pressures influence many young women to develop harmful eating patterns such as anorexia or bulimia and lead many others to simply develop a lifelong negative self-image (Llewelyn and Osborne 1990, p. 34). However, there are also many young women who never develop eating disorders and yet struggle with their physical self-image. Cultural standards of beauty vary, and the pressure on young women to meet a particular cultural standard can be just as harmful as trying to achieve society's generic standard of beauty. As Simone de Beauvoir said, [to lose confidence in one's body is to lose confidence in oneself] (quoted in Pipher 1994, p. 57). The pressure to conform to certain physical standards may keep many young women from using their talent or reaching their full potential.

These young women are not found just in the general population, but often appear in the juvenile justice system. Therefore, it is critical that treatment staff understand these key issues and are equipped to assist young women in dealing with them appropriately. For many young women, finding an effective solution to a negative self-image may be the key to making improvements in her harmful or destructive behavior. Therefore, the following strategies might be considered:

  • Creation of structured groups, led by adult staff, that address issues of body image and society's perceptions of beauty.

  • Creation of programs to teach young women about the details of how their bodies function, particularly in relation to critical female specific issues such as menstruation and pregnancy. This type of knowledge can create ownership for young women over their physical bodies.

  • Creation of structured group or individual therapy opportunities for young women to address specific body-related issues such as eating disorders, sexual abuse, and sexual identity issues.

  • Creation of opportunities for young women to practice advocacy around issues of societal pressure. Examples might be writing letters to the editors of magazines or newspapers, identifying and discussing particular media images and then responding to them, and contacting advertisers to express pleasure or displeasure at their methods of portraying young women.

Juvenile Female Offenders: A Status of the States Report October 1998