One and the Same: A Cultural Comparative Analysis of the Societal Pressures and their Effects upon the Emotional, Social, Behavioral, and Sexual Development of Adolescent Girls in Taiwan, China, and the United States

 

Wenting Chen, Chia-Hua Chu, and Garrett S. Griffin

 

This comparative analysis seeks to examine negative cultural pressures on female adolescents in China, Taiwan, and the United States, through the theoretical lenses of developmental psychologists like Carol Gilligan and Erik Erikson. Gender stereotypes, depression, body image, menstruation, adolescent pregnancy, eating disorders, and more, are included in this report. This study is divided into three sections and a summative conclusion. The first sections illuminate societal pressures on female adolescents in the three homelands of these authors, using research from each respective country. The conclusion offers a comparison between the three. It is the hope of these authors that understanding the forces acting upon girls will better equip citizens and professionals of all three countries, particularly their educators, to work for social change.

 

Societal Pressures on Female Adolescents in China

Psychologist Carol Gilligan conducted research on moral reasoning development and saw developmental differences in gender. Gilligan’s three stages of moral reasoning (Ethics of Care) include the pre-conventional stage (selfishness and survival), the conventional stage (serving others is right and true), and post-conventional stage (one must care for oneself as well as others, so that selflessness does not cause self-harm). Having been influenced by the ideas promoted by Freud and Erikson, but rejecting the emphasis on males, Gilligan’s model is female-centered. As Gilligan knew, differences exist between boys and girls, and men and women. The authors of this comparative analysis acknowledge the existence of these differences, but emphasize society’s role in shaping the development, thought processes, and behavior of females that differ from those of males.   

In China, a patrilineal culture in ancient times, males were historically much more powerful than women; they were even allowed to have more than one wife. It is easy to imagine the powerlessness of women and how vulnerable they felt within their families and in society at large. Having persisted through this situation for thousands of years, until the modernization of the country, there is renewed interest today in the importance of women and in balancing the relationship between genders. In the decades since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, more people have begun to view females as “half of the sky,” but due to stereotypes and lasting traditions, females are still living under unique pressures and inequity in Chinese society. Adolescent females, being in a stage of identity development, are at particular risk to negative effects of such stressors.

In the past 20 years, much research has investigated adolescents’ psychological well-being, identity development, cognitive development, gender differences and roles during adolescence, sociocultural influences, and so forth. For example, Cheung (1996) wrote of gender role development in Growing Up the Chinese Way: The Chinese Child and Adolescent Development. The work discusses the gender roles which “are prescribed in traditional Chinese societies where stereotypical gender roles are socialized primarily in the family, and reinforced by other social institutions. The only place delegated to women was in the family, where they would play the instrumental and supportive roles of managing the home and supplying male heirs” (Cheung, 1996, p. 45). While familial and cultural traditions of Chinese perspective on gender differ from those of Western societies, females suffer to the same or even greater extent sex-typed values, motives, and behaviors than American girls.

Historically, Chinese girls were taught to be extremely obedient and tolerant at home and in public. They were raised to enter as quickly as possible and remain within Gilligan’s conventional stage. Parents decided almost every single aspect of their lives, including marriage. They had little choice in their lifestyles or plans for their future. Fathers were naturally the master of the family, while mothers were symbolic authorities who impacted few important decisions. Girls were not educated if the family could afford schooling for only one child. Boys were always the unquestioned choice of the family to be educated. Society largely regarded “good girls” as those who stay at home, those who remained “innocent” (less-educated). “Although education is an important value in Chinese culture, aspirations for educational achievement were focused on boys rather than on girls. Women were not allowed, nor encouraged, to receive formal education until the beginning of the twentieth century” (Cheung, p. 47). Fortunately, much has changed in modern Chinese society. Many women are completely independent and self-oriented. For many, fathers and mothers are no longer the only ones with decision-making power, and girls own the same legal rights as their male peers. Women as a whole have emerged on the post-conventional stage.

Even so, there are still concerns for the female psyche in Chinese society. Body image and dissatisfaction are two heatedly debated issues in discussion of female adolescence. As Xu and colleagues (2010) illustrated in Body Dissatisfaction, Engagement in Body Change Behaviors and Sociocultural Influences on Body Image Among Chinese Adolescents, this issue is becoming more and more significant because when females enter adolescence, they focus more on appearance and how other people think of them. Xu’s investigation shows the sociocultural pressures on body image, and the relationships between these variables. A large survey study which involved over 9,000 Chinese children “found that rates of body dissatisfaction were comparable to those reported in Western populations. Among the children classified as healthy weight, only 46.5% of boys and 43.0% girls were satisfied with their bodies, and preferences for thinner bodies increased with age” (Xu, Mellor, Kiehne, Ricciardelli, & McCabe, 2009, p. 156). This posits that girls care more about their body image. In China, it is often “required” by external influence that girls keep fit. Body size is a standard of beauty.

Further, eating disorders is a common issue that occurs amongst adolescents, especially girls. Research has examined young girls struggling with eating problems due to social judgment. A survey of eating disorder symptomatology among female adolescents in China was conducted in 2002 by Gail Huon, Mingyi Qian, Kylie Oliver, and Guanglan Xiao. It was designed to comprehensively document the prevalence of signs, symptoms, and associated features of anorexia and bulimia nervosa among female students. The results showed that a surprisingly high level of weight-related concerns amongst schoolgirls across mainland China (six main cities covering North East, Central East, South East, South West, and North). 1,246 Chinese female students ages 12 to 19 years old took part in the surveys. The researchers used questionnaires with different criteria, including weight status, weight-related attitudes and feelings, dieting, and vomiting and purging. The responses reveal the female adolescents’ attitude on weight: “More than one-fourth of the girls indicated that body weight was ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important in determining their evaluation of themselves” (Huon, Qian, Oliver, & Xiao, 2001, p. 196).

Beyond this, women are considered responsible for taking care of the family. Raising a child is usually a mother’s priority. Although women today are more independent and have more privileges, no longer required to be full-time wives and mothers, girls are still influenced and in some ways educated to be virtuous, gentle, quiet, and “in the hall and next to the kitchen.” It is said that mothers should guide Chinese children in how to properly live and study. It is almost always mothers who shop, entertain friends, and attend parents’ meetings at school. Just as Cheung wrote, “The traditional achievement for Chinese women is to be married to a good provider for herself, to bear male children for his family, and hope these children will be successful” (p. 46). Some fathers are deeply involved in a child’s development; however, they are usually professionals working to provide financial support, to give their child a better life. Further, fathers are more likely to be less emotionally connected with their children, not because they are unconcerned, but because society has encouraged them to not express emotions as readily as mothers.

With females playing such a significant role in the home, they are more likely to be drawn away from the workplace. In many instances, women are not treated equally as men in professional world, despite what the law says. For example, many of positions in companies are open for both men and women, but employers who believe in women’s “social obligations” prefer hiring men. They know female employees will have to take care of their children once they get married, and they have many “inconvenient” privileges which are protected by the law, such as a 14-week maternity leave. This breeds discrimination in the workplace. Thus, female adolescents are under pressure to seek jobs while completing their education, to start a career at a younger age. Some have gone to great lengths to land a job; for instance, some young female graduates go to the plastic surgeon, attempting to change their appearance because they know improved looks will help them find employment. Others resist getting married and having children because they are afraid of being substituted while on marriage or maternity leave. Although under the law they cannot be fired, they would still be considered the next candidate for dismissal. Many Chinese women must live daily with such apprehension.

 

Societal Pressures on Female Adolescents in the United States

In the United States, a plethora of societal stressors and expectations change the way girls think, feel, act, and even develop physically. This section will examine, in the Eriksonian spirit, how the adolescent female’s identity is affected, and in some cases abused, by such cultural pressures. Topics such as parent nurturing and peer relationships, ideal body image, self-conscious emotions, depression, self-value, puberty, and women in the workplace will be discussed as we move through the years of an American girl’s development.

In Impediments to Identity Formation in Female Adolescents, Drs. Dianne Ollech and James McCarthy write that “female adolescents bury their subjectivity and constrain the strong sense of self that was theirs during the latency years” and that they “experience greater increases in anxiety, conflict, shame, self-doubt when faced with choice” than boys (1997, p. 66). Psychologist Carol Gilligan posited that adolescent girls lose their “voice,” that while speaking truth and opinion forcefully is innate, they are taught doing so is selfish (Gerson, 1994, p. 494). How can this be? What in society is warping self-confidence, and even emotions themselves? According to these researchers, and others, it begins at birth, with the most direct and obvious factors being the mother and father and their relationships with the child.

Though exceptions multiply, the American mother is largely responsible for raising children. Rather than biological differences, Ollech and McCarthy argue it is a cultural ideology that acquiesces to male desires that perpetuates this arrangement (p. 67). American society approves, or is at least resigned to, father absence. Nurturing children and housework are still viewed as the woman’s duties, and the man is still “the head of the household.” This teaches young girls that males have the prerogative, the authority. “[Nancy] Chodorow (1978) saw that women’s monopoly on childcare and men’s abrogation of this task assured the devaluation and derogation of all things feminine and the idealization and blamelessness of the masculine” (Ollech & McCarthy, p. 67). Girls begin losing their voice because society teaches them their needs are less important than those of males, and begin to emulate the mother in her role as an inferior and a nurturer (p. 68).

In addition, psychoanalyst Mary-Joan Gerson of New York University emphasizes the role of peer relationships. Essentially, the parental influences carry over into peer groups (again, rather than differences being strictly biological). While girls are learning at home that their needs are secondary, boys are learning their own are primary. Therefore, boys in all-boy groups will be more commanding, argumentative braggarts, while girls in all-girl groups tend to be more agreeable and conforming, and less likely to interrupt (p. 499-500). Gerson suggests when adolescence arrives and opposite-sex interaction increases, girls find themselves disadvantaged due to these differences (p. 500), which may contribute to the overall problem. Professors Amanda Rose and Karen Rudolph had similar findings, concluding that girls are more empathetic to the feelings of others and more likely to seek emotional support, while boys are more self-interested, controlling, and competitive (2006, p. 125). The authors write, “Several of these sex differences increase over the course of development,” and while there can be positive aspects to these differences, “female-linked relationship processes may…heighten vulnerability to emotional difficulties. Male-linked relationship processes may interfere with the development of intimate relationships and contribute to behavioral problems” (p. 125). Obviously, when girls and boys come together as friends, classmates, co-workers, or lovers, these opposing psychological mindsets preserve a patriarchal system.

As the American female grows, society’s sexualization of women becomes a more obvious and powerful force, with often harmful side-effects. Jennifer Bradford and Trent Petrie of the University of North Texas write that “sociocultural pressures to be thin may lead women to internalize a thin-ideal stereotype, which is thought ultimately to produce eating disorder symptomatology through its influence on body image” (2008, p. 247). This ideal, distributed widely through American media, is another offspring of a patriarchal society that deems male desires and expectations superior to those of females. Consider:

Males hold the power and prerogative to project on females what they find repugnant in themselves and to define females accordingly. Males have therefore retained the “clean” realm of rationality and independence and have relegated physicality and dependence to females. Females are culturally defined by their bodies, and girls’ reproductive capacity forms the foundation of their identity. (Ollech & McCarthy, p. 67)

If women are defined (by men as well as women, who judge others as they themselves are judged) by how closely they align with the thin ideal, there exists enormous pressure to conform. A dangerous cycle can emerge in which a girl grows depressed due to negative body image, binge eats to cope with the bad mood, creates dietary restrictions for herself or purges in reaction to the binge, which in turn increases shame and depressive symptoms (Bradford & Petrie, p. 260). The psychological damage the sexualization of girls causes can hardly be overstated.

It is in adolescence that these societal pressures reach a crescendo and their effects become most evident. Researchers in 2012 published a study that examined the differences in “self-conscious emotions” (SCE) between men and women. “SCE are moral emotions that function to facilitate our social interactions and relationships by motivating us to adhere to social norms” (Else-Quest, Higgins, Allison, & Morton, p. 948), such as shame and guilt. They found no relevant difference between boys and girls in regards to shame and guilt until adolescence (when girls begin to suffer these emotions more frequently), paralleling findings that marked adolescence as the time when girls experience increased depression and decreased self-esteem (p. 965).

In Pubertal Transition, Stressful Life Events, and the Emergence of Gender Differences in Adolescent Depressive Symptoms, Xiaojia Ge and his colleagues examined when depression arose in boys and girls, and how these processes were different. In 1994, they found that girls suffered from depression much more than boys in early adolescence (Ge, Conger, & Elder, 2001, p. 414). Seven years later, they saw that while the gender differences arose at age 13 or 14, those differences remained throughout adolescence (p. 413). The researchers also emphasized the role that the onset of menarche plays (p. 413), which will be discussed in a moment. The big idea is that depression becomes a more significant part of girls’ lives than boys’ in early adolescence. The effects will only worsen. In adulthood, rates of depression are two to three times higher for women than men (p. 404). When women are devalued by society, such an influence affects self-perception and feelings of self-worth, and depression is a predictable side effect.

All these social stressors can affect girls’ sexual development and identity. For instance, Jenée James and colleagues from the University of Arizona and Vanderbilt University write that in their study:

Among girls only, father absence (a) directly and uniquely predicted earlier timing of sexual debut and greater sexual risk taking; (b) had a significant indirect effect on earlier pubertal maturation through quality of family relationships; and (c) had a significant indirect effect on increased sexual risk taking through earlier sexual debut. (James, Ellis, Schlomer, & Garber, 2012, p. 698)

When the responsibility of raising girls lands solely on the mother, American girls tend to become sexually active sooner, and are less likely to have safe sex. Combining father absence with depressive effects and a culture of sexualization, the risks only multiply. James et al. go on to say that a wealth “previous research indicates that girls growing up in father absent homes tend to experience menarche 4–6 months earlier than do those from father present households” (p. 698), but caution that more research is needed with more reliable variables. If the research holds true, it is significant because Ge et al. demonstrated that girls who experience menarche sooner in life tend to suffer greater bouts of depression (p. 413). If father absence can cause earlier menarche, which can cause more frequent and persistent depressive symptoms, which can cause poor self-image and disordered eating, then such absence can be even more psychologically (and physically) harmful than previously discussed, where girls are taught their desires come second and their place is in the home.

Gender differences will later affect women in the workplace, and career choices. Researchers at the University of Missouri cite studies that indicate “awareness of one’s gender is…important, further shaping adolescents’ early perceptions of available and attainable careers” (Lapour & Heppner, 2009, p. 479). Social Cognitive Career Theory (while also considering race and class) examines whether or not women believe they can succeed in a given occupation, evaluating the societal pressures that push girls into choosing “gender-appropriate” careers (p. 479) (i.e., nursing and teaching, rather than science). There still exist cultural pressures that try to confine women to a narrow set of occupational options, those determined appropriate by the opposite gender. Bonita London of Stony Brook University and fellow researchers looked at gender-based rejection in the workplace. Essentially, women who feel undervalued or treated unfairly at work due to their sex tend to self-silence (hold back thoughts, opinions, feelings, and behaviors) in order to avoid further rejection (London, Downey, Romero-Canyas, Rattan, & Tyson, 2012, p. 963). This of course limits their potential for growth, innovation, and advancement. Further, the researchers found self-silencing led to women feeling ostracized, unmotivated, and less self-confident (p. 975), and more likely to expect sexism in the future (p. 961). This study echoes remarkably Gilligan’s idea of adolescent girls losing their “voice,” suggesting that in the current patriarchal society of the United States, where women are deemed less valuable than men, there is little change in the female experience from adolescence to adulthood.

 

Societal Pressures on Female Adolescents in Taiwan

The Taiwanese have different perspectives on men and women. In traditional society, females would stay at home and take care of the children. Females had worse chances of attaining an education or employment. Males were dominant in society. Today, although females can work and have opportunities to compete with males, they still have obstacles to true equality Taiwanese society.

For instance, most Taiwanese still cling to gender stereotypes. In one study, An Investigation of the Gender Stereotyped Thinking of Taiwanese Secondary School Boys and Girls, researchers examined boys’ and girls’ viewpoints on learning. The result indicates boys believe themselves superior to girls in certain academic areas. “The present results indicate that the strongest gender stereotyped thinking for higher academic school students concerns their belief that boys are superior to girls in logical thinking, mathematics, and science, whereas girls are better at language and liberal arts” (Hong, Veach, & Lawrenz, 2003, p. 502). This will have grave consequences for gender equality.

Owing to this perception, females have greater difficulty finding a job in mathematics and science. Many schools don’t have female teachers in these subjects. When females seek employment in these fields, they are at risk of rejection if employers believe males are biologically better equipped to do the job. These stereotypes allow adolescent girls to lose their confidence in mathematics and the sciences. Girls understand that if they choose one of these as their major, they might have fewer chances gaining employment.

Male attitudes toward menstruation can further exacerbate the problem. While society determines differences between females and males, physiological differences can warp those same societal pressures. The menstrual period can bring discomfort, cramps, mood swings, and trouble concentrating. In Taiwan, some female workers may be absent during menstruation, and, if they are at work, male supervisors may consider them less effective.

In a study called Taiwanese Adolescent Gender Differences in Knowledge and Attitudes towards Menstruation, researchers investigated males’ and females’ views on menstruation. The results show, perhaps unsurprisingly, male students have more inaccurate attitudes towards it than females. For instance: “In response to questions about their knowledge of menstruation, 48.3% of the male participants believed that women cannot exercise during their period” (Cheng, Yang, & Liou, 2007, p.129). Males also have more negative views. The article mentions that “72.2% of males believed that the woman was likely to be ‘ill-tempered’” (p. 131) during menstruation. Further, a stereotype exists in Taiwan that males have more energy and more passion for their jobs, which only adds to the problem. These perspectives keep females in lower societal positions. Educators and parents must provide positive information on menstruation to males and females alike to remedy this issue.

Body image issues are also social stressors on females. In Taiwanese society, a woman’s body plays a significant role. The idolization of the female form is a modern concept. In traditional society, body image was not near as important. Today, if females aren’t concerned for their figure, they may lose ground in the competition with males for good jobs. Overweight girls may be less confident in the search for employment. Thus, beauty shops and plastic surgery are prevalent in Taiwan. This social pressure prompts females to keep careful control their weight and buy cosmetic products in great sums.

One 2010 study, Body Image and Physical Activity Among Overweight and Obese Girls in Taiwan, examined body image perspectives, looking at the attitudes of overweight and obese girls’. The results indicated that body image plays a dominant role in the development of overweight girls’ motives, creating barriers to physical activity engagement. Boys’ weight- related teasing and girls’ “fat talk” can have a profoundly negative effect on overweight females. In addition, media portrayal of the thin ideal is a major problem. Female adolescents usually discussed the thin ideal in relation to pop stars: “The most frequently reported socially ideal female image was that of Lin Chi-Lin, who is the most popular model in Taiwan with a BMI of 17.7 (weight 52 kg, height 174 cm)” (Chen, Fox, & Haase, 2010, p. 238).

The final issue for this section is adolescent pregnancy, a critical issue in Taiwan. Taiwanese conservative culture does not believe adolescent pregnancy is acceptable, nor pre-marital sex. Most parents will set up an abortion plan for their child. When pregnant adolescents seek employment, they will likely be rejected. While public schools and the government seek to provide positive, safe-sex education, traditional society frowns when things go wrong. In Factors Associated with Adolescent Pregnancy–A Sample of Taiwanese Female Adolescents, researchers compared sexually experienced (but never pregnant) girls with pregnant girls. The results pinpoint differences between pregnant and never-pregnant female adolescents. Varying beliefs, personal values, family backgrounds, and attitudes toward contraceptives will change the likelihood of pregnancy. It also shows safe-sex education is not working as effectively as it should: “In this study, 32.2% of never-pregnant adolescents used contraceptives every time, and 14.3% used them most of the time” (Wang, Wang, & Hsu, 2003, p. 38). Clearly, more needs to be done to reduce adolescent pregnancy, to avoid the effects of such behavior that hold women back in Taiwanese society.

 

Conclusion

Women in China, the United States, and Taiwan face similar challenges. Many still largely consider mathematics and science to be male-appropriate fields, and there exists, from men and media alike, tremendous pressure for girls to maintain the thin ideal. Girls who seek employment in these areas or fail to meet body weight standards are often met with condescension. The authors of this comparative analysis see the thin ideal in particular as an impediment to women reaching their full professional potential, as women are sexualized, being hired and valued based on appearance.

Body dissatisfaction is a widely recognized mental state that has negative impact on girls. Plastic surgery is popular in all three countries. Numerous studies have proved girls are over-concerned for their bodies and confused by various external societal judgments. Research indicates girls suffer from emotional issues like depression, low self-confidence and self-esteem, guilt, and shame more than boys. Further, perceived gender roles still impact women. All three nations are emerging from patriarchal societies. In such environments, women are regarded as the family caretaker. Excess privilege and authority of men diminishes the privilege and authority of women, as seen in the workplace, where stereotypes of females affect the hiring process. Women are still discriminated against, even when protected by law.

It is important to note that in three different societies, beliefs and social stressors will not be identical. In Taiwan (and indeed the U.S.) for instance, the government doesn’t have any policies restricting the number of children per family, unlike China, where couples can have but one. If they have more than one, they will be fined by the State. Fewer children may provide women more opportunity and time to engage in the professional world. Regardless, similarities overpower differences. These authors believe that raising awareness of these important issues and building an education system geared toward social goals is the best way to achieve gender equality. This report is meant to contribute to that end.

 

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