By Imogen Hensler, MRes Anthropology at University College London, 2020-2021
We can all remember what it was like to be a teenager, with the umm-ing and err-ing of trying to figure out, “who am I?” and “what do I want to look like?” It was exciting yet painful at times. Could these questions be more than just an identity crisis all about yourself, but more of a crisis of self in relation to society and culture?
I recently completed an MRes Anthropology research project at UCL as part of the Adolescent Sociality Across Cultures project, where I investigated the conceptions of femininity among adolescent girls from London, England. In this particular project I was interested in how the societal messages linked to femininity impacted a specific group of teenage girls from London. The results illustrated more than just the individual female experience - but how our society and culture intertwines with our conceptions of femininity, and how they may impact teenage girls during this crucial period of self-discovery.
An uncertain perception of self
In this project, I conducted two online focus groups with teenage girls aged 16-18 living in London. I then conducted discourse analysis to understand how femininity is conceptualised, and its implications, within this group of adolescents.
One key finding was that the standards of femininity - which my participants defined as being passive, emotional, having long hair, and conventionally pretty - contributed to the feelings of being judged and scrutinised. Participants talked about how they changed how they acted and presented themselves to other people, like how they dress and talk, to avoid being perceived as “ugly” or not being respected or treated well (like being ignored and not listened to).
The adolescent girls in my study were therefore hypervigilant to others' perceptions of them - a finding in line with previous research that shows that adolescence is a time of extra sensitivity to the social environment. The socio-cultural standards of femininity that was experienced by the girls in my study not only impacted their behaviour, but impacted their opinion of themselves and self-identity. In particular, changing yourself to "fit in" with femininity overlapped with my participants being unsure of their “true self,” leaving them to wonder what they would be like if they weren't trying to appease these standards of femininity.
How can we use this research?
My findings not only inform us about the London adolescent female experience, but can point us towards understanding how cultural and societal messages affect this crucial developmental period where we build our self-perception and identity. I aim to build on these results in future research projects, exploring the process of how norms around femininity develop and are passed through to adolescent girls and women, and what impact this has on their wellbeing. These are important mechanisms to investigate, as evidence suggests that girls are more likely to experience low subjective wellbeing compared to boys.
If this project has interested you please contact me for more information at imogen.hensler.17[at]ucl.ac.uk.
The project has been reviewed and approved by UCL (UCL Ethics ID 20487/001).