- The 10 things our girls need most

Nearly 20 years ago, in what would become a landmark piece of research into the way men and women look at themselves, researchers had a series of American college students go into a dressing room, get changed into a swimsuit, and take a maths test.

A second series of students also went into a dressing room to take the same maths test, but instead of swimsuits this group wore sweaters.

What the researchers found was that the students' test results were exactly the same regardless of what they wore - so long as the students were men.

For women, it turns out, the act of wearing a swimsuit rather than a sweater makes them far worse at maths.

The heavy emphasis our culture puts on the appearance of women's bodies, the researchers theorised, was leading the swimsuit-wearing women in the study to objectify themselves. By putting such a heavy focus on their own bodies, the women were using up much of the mental space they would otherwise have applied to the test.

In other words, the objectification of women is a powerfully negative force.

This objectification, and the marketing and advertising industries that have made it so pervasive are one of Steve Biddulph's key targets in his new book, 10 Things Girls Need Most. He understands these problems, he's angry about them, and he wants to do something about them. At times, he sounds less like a parenting guru and more like a revolutionary.

Biddulph says that, as a psychologist, his goal is to go where the disasters are. He says that in 1997 when he wrote his best-selling book, Raising Boys, for instance, boys were far worse off than girls.

Then, a decade ago, with a teenage daughter of his own, he says he started noticing the 'terrible statistics' illustrating the change in girls' mental health. 'I thought, 'I can't let that be,' he says. 'It was personal and I was angry at the way the world was treating girls.'

Biddulph's new book about girls comes four years after his last book about girls, which he says made no difference to what he describes as the 'downturn in girls' mental health'. That book, Raising Girls, included frightening claims, like this one:

'About five years ago ... we began to see a sudden and marked plunge in girls' mental health. Problems such as eating disorders and self-harm, which once had been extremely rare, were now happening in every classroom and every street. But more than this, the average girl was stressed and depressed in a way we hadn't seen before.'

The new book begins in similar fashion, with Biddulph asking us to picture a classroom full of 15-year-old girls, then outlining the series of problems afflicting them: three or four of them, he says, might roll up their sleeves to show evidence of self-harm; three or four will be in the early stages of an eating disorder - most likely bulimia; half the girls will be on diets; four or five will be sexually active, but only doing it to please boys and to be interesting and special; one in five will be on anti-anxiety medication or anti-depressants.

'Our kids are being educated by people who don't give a damn about their wellbeing,' Biddulph told me.

'So we have to not just be feedlot animals that wander through shopping malls and do what

Biddulph also writes that a girl needs a dad who treats her as important and a mum who has time to talk. When asked about that claim, and why it's not the other way around, he replies:

'It could be the other way round. Sometimes these are based on the current situation, where it's a corrective, like giving your sheep the missing boron they haven't had in the paddocks. In another year, they might have too much. I'm needing mums to slow down because they're the ones who do the heart-to-heart talking, mostly about friendship and things like that, but it could just as easily be the dad in another family and another time. All of these gendered things, you really should have at the bottom of every page: 'But it could be reversed.''

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17 April 2021

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Steve Biddulph

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