The Necessity of BFF’s: The power of girl gangs amidst a crisis in mental health
(Names in this essay are changed per requests of the subjects)
CW: Sexual Assault, Suicide
In a cramped New York apartment recently, a few friends ogled over Bella Hadid's latest post. Her slender frame was coated in tight white latex as she beamed for a Charlotte Tilbury body cream advertisement.
With the “Supermodel Body Cream,” for only $50 dollars you can have blemish-free “heavenly, post-holiday” skin too!” reads the product’s deceptive advertisement.
"Ugh, she's perfect," they lamented over a box of Joe's Pizza and bodega wine.
Their worries seemed momentarily alleviated when Ice Spice (a rapper praised for her curves, big hair, and freckled skin) blared into the speaker. As her song “Princess Diana” roared, one friend, with a usual surge of Ice Spice-induced gaiety, stood up to dance. We all raised our glasses and cheered.
"See, Bella Hadid can't shake ass like that," I encouraged. She took the compliment and perched herself on the table to dance harder. She has her mother's hips. For a moment, her natural Cuban curves didn't seem like peaks she would never surpass; they were glorious carvings from generations of women before her.
My feminine experience has been all of these ordinary things, the pre-game and primping before parties, memories of hair braiding and face masks, and hour-long conversations itemizing the difference between sending "hey" and "hiii" to the boy from 5th period — essential trivialities of girlhood.
Yet, more quintessential to femininity seems to be the propensity toward pain and trauma. The Washington Post recently reported nearly 1 in 3 high school girls have considered suicide, and nearly 15% have been forcibly raped. The CDC described American teen girls as being " engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence, and trauma."
Only 20 now, to me, these statistics are unsurprising. As a college student in New York City, all of my female friends have experienced sexual assault at some point in their lives. Countless have been roofied, harassed, and experienced domestic violence. The mental health crisis amongst America's young girls is ever-present: the number of girls with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders has skyrocketed.
Melinda Rosenberg, a 17-year-old girl from Brooklyn New York, says she has suffered from AFRID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder) throughout her formative years. Outside of her close female support group, she explains her life "revolves around social media," and she is stuck in a cycle of consistent comparison.
Melinda suffers from Instagram’s perpetuation of "unrealistic expectations," which “make it seem easy to lose or gain weight." For many teen girls, even when made aware of the harm social media can inflict, it is not as simple as simply putting down the phone. Melinda says the "validation becomes addicting," and she is not alone; social media has been compared to drug addiction in recent medical reports.
"The only time I really feel comfortable being myself is with my two closest girlfriends," said Melinda, "they always see me better than I see myself." While amid a national crisis in mental health, Melinda and her friends have been able to rely on each other.
Along with the violent impacts of social media on women's health in the United States, young girls are experiencing a sexual assault pandemic. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 3 women will experience rape between the ages of 11 and 17. Among the LGBTQAI+ community the numbers are staggering. While 13% of lesbian women experience rape in their lifetime and 17% of straight women, for bi-sexual women that number is 46%. The statistics are similar in the transgender community, as 47% of the population will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime.
Audrey Brown, now a senior at Parson's, was raped in high school by someone she met online. At the time, she said, her social media presence consisted of photos of her modeling her fashion designs (which ultimately earned her a place in Parsons) and other pictures with friends. After her assault, she said, "I took all the posts down; I couldn't help but blame myself for trying to look too sexy." She was 16.
"I don't know what I might have done to myself if my friend hadn't been going through the same thing," said Audrey. According to a study at UCLA, friendships among women and femme-identifying people are essential to women's health. Spending time with women to whom you are bonded increases serotonin and oxytocin levels in the brain and can be linked to longer life spans.
Following her rape, Audrey began a support group within her high school for all persons having experienced assault. The numbers were staggering, and the attendees were almost all women. She was shocked by their capacity for shared vulnerability and the likeness of their pain. They started to call the support group their "Girl Gang."
My personal Girl Gang have become my most influential instructors in love, both for myself and for others. My success and confidence are odes to them all. Without these women behind me there is a dimly lit path forward. My Grandma is one of my best friends, her wisdom and fearless pride propels me to women equally as outspoken. My mother and older sister are consistently the smartest people in any room, and my childhood best friend is my first soul sister — a steady rock in a sea of turbulent adolescence, and the epitome of a bad ass in a male dominated field.
A “Girl Gang” comes in many forms, traversing color, sexuality, and even gender identity. In its most elemental form, it is a community rooted in shared vulnerability and ferocious encouragement and is, very literally, invaluable.
Within girlhood and its punishing embedded discord, our pain has the capacity to be one of our greatest teachers. Intermingled in the tragedy of widespread violence and mental illness amongst young women is also a profound capacity for communal healing.
These statistics send a clear message. In the midst of the modern "crisis of Girlhood," our connections to other women should be our first and primary recourse. This crisis needs to be addressed by expanding mental health resources and the destigmatization of asking for necessary assistance. However, on an interpersonal basis, harnessing femme-centered and empowered communities is essential to the defense of our nation's young women.
In friends, we find the capacity for sober dialogue — eyes unaccustomed to our own unique beauty. In friends, there are people who reckon with your tattered and torn parts and still manage to notice your pretty eyes or how effortlessly your hair curls at its ends. When we are beaten down and dispirited, it is other women who will align with our suffering and douse us in panacea.
Edited by: Ava Emilione