Sugar, spice, and all things nice: the pressure of perfection on adolescent girls


What are little girls made of?

What are little girls made of?

Sugar and spice

And all things nice

That’s what little girls are made of

This passage from a 19th century nursery rhyme is well known, and it highlights the social pressures that are so deeply ingrained in our society. While young boys are paralleled with ‘snips and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails’, young girls are likened to ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’. Unlike boys, who are forgiven for boisterous behaviour, girls are expected to be sweet, kind, and delicate.

For so long, we have been inclined to adopt a blasé attitude towards the conduct of young boys and men. We are quick to brush off their actions with a flick of the wrist and a ‘boys will be boys’ carelessly rolling off the tongue. Phrases like this are used so casually, yet beneath the surface are deeply damaging. We sow seeds in the minds of men that aggression and wrongdoing is forgivable and cannot be helped. Simultaneously, we tell women that they are not allowed to act a certain way, exclusively because of their gender. When a man does it? No problem. When a woman does it? She is unladylike.

Which begs the question: from where does this idea stem that acceptable behaviour is gendered? The answer is likely rooted in the biological. It is true that young men, abundant with testosterone, are more likely to exhibit aggressive, risky behaviour. The circulation of this hormone in boys and men is often used to justify their actions. This is what can lead to these seemingly throwaway ‘boys will be boys’ comments that are actually far more harmful than one might anticipate.

Men are taught not to cry or show sensibility

It is also true that young girls reach puberty sooner than young boys. Not only this, but they have also been found to mature faster, perhaps as much as two years earlier than adolescent males. In particular, girls form stronger connections far sooner between the areas of the brain which control impulse. Perhaps then, a woman’s biological makeup is part of what contributes to the pressure she will experience to behave more perfectly.

This month, a BeeWell research project revealed that teenage girls feel more pressure to be the ‘perfect teenager’. The study found that girls are three times more likely than boys to report serious emotional difficulties. This ‘pressure’ on girls can manifest in a number of ways. This includes but is not limited to the pressure to perform well academically, to be physically attractive, to maintain a glamorous social media feed, and to be emotionally supportive to others.

In my experience, I did often find myself under pressures that my male peers were not. I remember one particular occasion, on which I was told by a science teacher that the reason I was struggling to grasp a concept was because it came ‘more naturally’ to boys. I also noticed growing up that fights between boys in the playground occurred more frequently, and yet were more likely to be ignored. Instead, if two girls got into a physical confrontation, it was immediately followed up by disciplinary action. These kinds of responses and reactions occur all the time in day-to-day life; they are entirely normalised in our society.

Of course, that is not to say that pressures are not placed on adolescent men. Perhaps, part of the issue lies in how internalised these pressures are. While girls are encouraged to speak quite freely about their feelings, men are taught not to cry or show sensibility. Coupled with the pressure to be physically strong, boys are expected to fit the mould of ‘the provider’. This goes hand in hand with the pressure women experience to be ‘the nurturer’, and to satisfy motherly, domestic duties. Although these values are beginning to shift, and people are starting to accept the notion of a stay-at-home dad or a working woman, it is undeniable that these more traditional stereotypes and expectations remain.

People are starting to accept the notion of a stay-at-home dad or a working woman

In essence, both genders are pressured by societal standards. By telling girls that they must lead glossy, pristine lives, they feel the pressure to appear perfect both in how they look and act. Instead, by telling boys that it is okay to act recklessly, they feel the need to outdo their peers, exercising a greater degree of dominance and machismo. This leads to men and women who wish to engage in activities typically assigned to the opposite gender becoming ostracised.

In our day and age, it is evermore important to address these pressures. We are finally able to speak more openly about sexuality and gender identity than we ever have been before. It is therefore time to strip away the archaic stereotypes attached to these. We must begin to look beyond the binary, and acknowledge that gender does not determine the rules by which we must behave, or the roles to which we must conform.

Image: Melissa Askew via Unsplash

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