Volume Nine, Issue 1
Roars: A Feminist
Analysis of the Anesthetization of
Dr. Cheryl van Daalen-Smith *
Introduction: Whispers and Roars
There is value in listening to one’s inner voice --
voice that whispers ‘you are good and have intrinsic value’. Anger
whispers too. Its whispers illuminate injustices shedding light on the
otherwise invalidated. Anger travels with whispers that can -- if
heard -- enable authentic self-knowing. In my experience, affirmed
emancipates the roar of girls’ authentically boisterous selves, and
frees them from the confines of narrow gender-role prescriptions. That
girls are lured into narrow gender roles before they truly develop an
authentic self-defined selfhood is not new. But to cover anger with a
shroud of shame in the name of femininity, and to anesthetize
chemically and/or socially an emotion meant to be a signal, is an
injustice that must be named and collectively challenged.
The Chameleon Study
I had been a school nurse for many years, and during that time, I
became increasingly concerned about the all too common practice of
medicating young women’s anger, sadness, and anxiety. This
“pill-for-every-ill” approach was becoming so commonplace that I
realized I could no longer remain silent and therefore complicit in
what could only be considered to be the chemical restraining of female
youth. Upon reflection, I realized that the majority of young
women with whom I had worked were either on prescription
antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications (many of which have not
been proven safe for children or adolescents) -- or had been strongly
encouraged to take them by their physicians when feeling emotional. It
was this critique of the overmedication and anesthetization of girls
and young women that led me into a two-year national study entitled
Living as a Chameleon which sought to explore this phenomenon.
Initially, it was my intention to expose the
overmedicating of girls and young women, and the pharmaceutical
industries’ possible role in perpetuating damaging messages to girls
and about girls. But I kept returning to questions regarding what it
was that brought girls to their doctors in the first place. What was
going on? Why were so many of their visits ending with a prescription?
What were their actual needs? What was common in their lived
experiences? I came to realize something profound; this
realization cemented my decision to initiate a project that would
give voice to girls’ and young women’s anger. In all the years that I
sat beside girls and young women as a school nurse, I was privileged to
listen as girls described their anger. Stories of dismissal, rejection,
harassment, abuse, depression, addiction, and denied rights are just
some of the anger stories I was both privileged and angered to hear.
They came to their school nurse to be heard, affirmed, and respected.
They left experiencing, sometimes for the first time, an opportunity to
speak about their lives from a position of authority and to speak of
their anger without fear of judgment, relational disruption, dismissal,
or pathologization. I was never a subscriber to the belief that girls
needed to learn anger management.
I decided to conduct a study that would explore and expose the lived
experience of anger among diverse girls and young Canadian women aged
14 to 24; the study had a particular emphasis on (a) what generates
girls’ anger; (b) their experiences surrounding the expression of
anger; (c) their relationship with this emotion and (d) how their lived
experience of anger affects their emotional well being or mental
health. Sixty-five girls and young women between the ages of 14 and 24
were consulted either in focus groups or in one-to-one interviews. The
girls were invited to draw on aesthetic representations of anger, as a
starting point, in order to assist them to find words to describe
something that, for many, had no language. The two years spent meeting
with girls across Canada was enlightening and forms the basis for this
feminist commentary regarding the anesthetization of girls’ anger (van
Anger- Setting the Context
Anger is a fundamental message that
something needs attention in our
interpersonal contexts ... and how women and girls learn to feel, think
and behave around this crucial emotion deserves our exploration (Cox,
Stabb and Brukner, 1999
, p xii).
Much has been written of late about girls and anger.
But most newspaper opinion pieces have been misleading to say the
least. Anger continues to be erroneously equated with aggression, an
error that contributes to the silencing of this all-important emotion.
Girls are never supposed to be angry -- this is clear from the
and escalating pathologization of this emotion when exhibited by girls.
And so this commentary must begin with a critical distinction. Anger is
an emotion while aggression is a form of behaviour. Anger is a human
emotion. It is not hostility, aggression nor violence. For centuries
anger “was considered a sin, a weakness, and a madness to be avoided or
contained” (Thomas, 1993,
p. 390). In fact it is still listed as one of
the seven deadly sins along side covetousness, envy, gluttony, lust,
pride, and sloth (Worldbook
Media Encyclopedia, 2001). Around the
time of Freud, the western view of anger began to change. Not only was
the suppression of anger now deemed harmful, suppressed anger or anger
turned inward was widely viewed as a factor in the prevalence of
depression in women (Thomas,
Emotions provide us with important information about what is going on
around and within us. Emotions are messages about our experiences and
the experiences of others. Cox,
(1999) view emotions
as mobilizers around injustice and have argued that anger has a pivotal
role in enabling self-definition. Carol Gilligan (1990) views
“the political emotion par excellence -- the bellwether of oppression,
injustice, bad treatment [and] the clue that something is wrong in the
emotional surround” (p. 527). Jean Baker Miller (1985)
has argued that
“women’s assigned subordinate position generates anger” (p. 1).
She further states that subordinates (including women) are made to feel
that they are at fault for feeling angry, and that there is no cause
for the anger. The conclusion to be made is that there must be
something wrong with them. Women, she argues, have been convinced that
being a woman means being completely without anger; hence being angry
will predictably feel threatening to a woman’s sense of self,
especially if it is wrapped up in notions of hegemonic femininity.
believes that years of repressing one’s anger lead to
depression, perceived unworthiness, passivity, and poor health.
Dana Jack (1991)
suggests that, “a woman’s anger stems from (a) unmet
relational needs; (b) self blame for giving up her own needs and goals
for the sake of a relationship with a man; and (c) the prescription of
behaviors and a “feminine” identity including requirements to be
selfless, self sacrificing, emotionless and good” (pp. 179-80).
Similarly, in It hurts most around
Thomas, Smucker and
Droppleman (1998) argue that anger is rooted in emotional pain and
treatment that is unfair and disrespectful. Miller (1985) believes
that rather than anger itself, it is the constraints on both the
expression and recognition of anger by women that is problematic. She
believes that “our culture continually produces anger both at the
social level and during the course of individual psychological
development” (p. 181). Being in a subordinate position will, according
to Miller (1985),
constantly generate anger -- anger that is unwanted and
dismissed by the dominant group. Miller (1985) believes
that the recognition
of and the expression of anger are key in the initiating the
resolution of depression in women.
For these reasons, among others, anger is not something to be managed,
or avoided. It is something to be understood and listened to. Building
on the work of Judith
Duerk (1989), it may be understood that anger is
a gift. It brings with it the chance to strike root in deeper ground
within oneself, forcing one to listen to the voice of the self within.
Anger comes as a gift asking that a young woman recognize the
not-so-quiet, steady voice of her own truth.
Feminist Perspectives on Anger in the
Lives of Girls and Young Women
There has been substantive feminist interest in anger as experienced by
girls and women. For example, in Meeting
Psychology and Girls’ Development, Brown and Gilligan (1992)
interviewed over 100 girls aged 7 to18 over a period of four years;
they found that a majority of the girls interviewed had received the
same messages and responses as women receive about anger, just as
Miller (1985) had
earlier proposed. Several girls spoke about “giving over”
their strong feelings of frustration, anger, or fears of abandonment to
“happy endings” (Brown and
Gilligan, 1992, p. 47). The girls and
young women further reported needing to or being expected to retract,
dismiss, or deny their desires based on their experiences of both
subtle and overt suggestions to reframe or dismiss their “perceived”
needs. When asked, the girls suggested that one of the most fundamental
sources of their anger was the experience of abuses of power over them
on the part of adults. As well, like the women Miller (1985) spoke
girls also expressed a fear of losing relationships if they stuck to
their true feelings -- feelings that were most often received as
In her doctoral dissertation, Brown (1989) found
that, in adolescence, girls begin to aspire to attaining the impossible
ideal of the “perfect girl”; one that appears to be free from
“un-loving features”. Brown
(1989) discusses a central lesson that an
adolescent girl learns about how to be the perfect girl: she does not
get angry. Anger, Brown (1989)
explains, is an emotion that makes girls
vulnerable to isolation and criticism. Brown (1989) suggests that
psychological strain experienced by girls to be good and therefore
banish all traces of unacceptable anger, is a key root cause of many of
the ailments including depression, eating disorders and cutting. For
instance, in depression, a woman’s burying of her protest and unhappy
submission to her prescribed yet devalued gender role may play a large
role in producing her outward signs or symptoms, namely lethargy,
flatness, disordered eating, or risk taking behaviors.
demonstrated that both girls’
resistance and their anger stems from enforced conventional femininity.
She also found clear examples supporting the notion that girls do
indeed understand the basis of anger, at least for some part of their
developmental journey, when they were being themselves and when they
were pretending, performing or impersonating the right kind of girl in
order to maintain relationships or satisfy someone else's definition of
“appropriate” behavior for girls. According to Brown (1998), they became
astute observers and judges of hypocrisy in themselves and others.
believes that girls’ and young women’s
anger must be expressed in order to ensure psychological health. She
wishes that all of us would encourage girls’ strong feelings, (e.g., Go
ahead and get pissed!) and take seriously their social critique of
their life circumstances and the world around them. She believes that
girls’ open resistance to the “psychological and physical denigration
inherent in dominant cultural definitions of femininity is disturbing;
and it is disruptive, and to many, frightening” (p. xii). She
sternly tells adult women, that when we turn away from girls’ anger, it
sends a confusing and dangerous message: the same message we’ve
received about our own anger and its antecedents. Encouraging girls’
anger and all the politics surrounding its causes and its oppression,
she concludes, is a radical act with potentially transformative
The Anesthetization of Girls’
Anger -- Key Findings
Women have often felt insane when
cleaving to the truth of our
experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have
a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our
reality as candidly and fully as we as we can to each other (Rich,
What was supposed to be a project tapping into girls’ wisdom pertaining
to anger turned into an opportunity for girls to begin to think about
anger. Not only had all these girls and young women never been asked to
think about and embrace their lived experience of anger, they had never
discovered their relationship with this emotion nor its association
with many experiences along their life path.
I came to understand that, in order to speak
from their knowing, I needed to ask them about themselves and their
life path. The questions in the inquiry emerged as the study did, (i.e.
one focus group built on the next and one interview developed from
another). Questions like “do you think girls and young women experience
anger?” shifted to “Tell me about your relationship with anger” or
“Lets talk a little about what's happening in your life right now and
how that's linked to anger” or “Tell me about your life and your
relationship with anger”. What emerged were stories of abuse, neglect,
pain, longing, forced inauthenticity, marginalization and frustration.
In order for them to speak about themselves, we often had to start from
a place off-centre from anger, for anger was unknown, uncharted and
anxiety producing. Never wanting to lead each dialogue, I had to engage
the girls in dialogue about their lives and eventually ask them to tie
it to anger. The ties, however, were almost always loose and uncertain:
“I don’t even know how to think about anger” (Severin, participant).
What were the sources of anger for the participants? Injustices were
paramount: they experienced gender-based expectations, being socially
othered, judged, made to feel not good enough and not important, and
not being listened to or taken seriously. They had little or no agency
in their lives or in their interpersonal relationships. In other words,
their rights were infringed upon if not denied. The majority of the
time when the young women told stories of anger it was about their
needs being discounted, feeling unappreciated and treated as
unimportant. More than anything, what generated anger for these girls
was the constant experience of being judged. A participant stated: “I’m
afraid of how other people are going to react” (Belinda, participant).
The girls whose lives informed this project were judged for their
thoughts, actions, sexualities, disabilities, parental status, race,
appearance, adherence to familial and/or gender based expectations, or
style of expression of anger.
Many of the participants described confusion and doubt about the
emotion itself including its validity at the source or its validity in
expression. They were more often than not made to feel that it was
wrong. Due to the reaction of others, they came to experience anger
along with fear and shame. Their relationship with anger can best be
described as that of doubt, anxiety, guilt, poor insight, a lack of
language and an inability to define it comprehensively, as well as fear
and shame. Their relationship with anger soon became one of finding
diversions for it, because of its negative anxiety producing quality
for them: “Anger is an unsettling emotion that makes me upset. I just
want to know how to deal with it” (Virginnia, participant).
It was the troubling paradox associated with expressing anger that best
illuminated the anesthetization of girls’ anger. Whether a girl
expresses or doesn’t express anger, the consequences bring with it
serious negative implications. The decision to express oneself or not
is a catch-22 situation leaving the girls and young women in this study
with an additional source of denied agency in their lives. Either way,
the outcome for the participants was disconnection from not only the
emotion itself but also an eventual self-silencing. If they did speak
of their anger, they were judged, viewed as mentally unstable or called
a bitch; the participants always experienced disruption in the given
relationship within which the anger was generated. The lesson learned
around anger is powerful -- don’t be, as is explained by Elsie:
I never wanted to be seen as a bad girl
and was extremely afraid. So I
kept it all in. I think that people in authority positions or who are
older just tend to want to take the easy way out with girls. They don’t
let them express their true emotions. Instead we are just pulled apart
and expected to act appropriately (Elsie, participant).
The overall lived experience of anger for girls included being
disbelieved, discredited, punished, pathologized, and feeling
confusion, loss and disenfranchisement. A participant, Peck, told me
“I’ve had a lot of people telling me that I’m not very good. It’s had
an impact”. A central theme emerging in these girls’ experiences with
anger was that of injustices and denied rights; these were central to
the generation of their anger. A powerful catch-22 associated with the
expression of anger emerged as the central reason for the
anesthetization of their anger. Because their lived experience of anger
arose within the context of relationships, and since anger was more
often than not experienced as a relationship disruptor, the girls and
young women learned to self-silence. They learned to get along and
“give up relationship for the sake of relationships” (Brown and
Gilligan, 1992). They soon became disconnected from this emotion,
Western culture reveals no language to girls that allows them to
describe their lived experience of it.
We’re supposed to be polite and
pleasant or fall into a pile of tears.
We’re not allowed to get physical when we vent our anger. We have to be
the feminine version -- in a corner crying. I hate that (Virginnia,
There is no language. We have words
like frustration or “she’s anal
retentive”. That’s what we use to co-opt what anger is supposed to be.
And so I think that, because we don’t have language, we act out and
that in itself is a language. Young girls grow up using language that
doesn’t help them define what it is (Anne, participant).
The girls had very little insight into the sources of anger or its
validity. To them, anger was something to be feared, avoided or
doubted: “Until recently, I never really thought much of myself and I
never really thought that my opinions or my anger meant much” (Paula,
participant). “I feel small when I’m angry” (Elsie, participant).
Participating in the study was the first time
the participants had been invited to speak about their anger and they
reported a beneficial impact from having time either in focus groups or
in one-to-one meetings to explore anger and their relationship with it.
They spoke of coming away knowing that they had a right to feel angry,
a right to express it; the experience was a beginning point in their
understanding of the politics surrounding anger for women.
Discussion: Denied Anger Denies
Some girls and young women must detour
their direct, honest
relationship with anger in favor of some less authentic experience or
expression. These compromises to genuine, spontaneous affect become
ingrained in ways of knowing -- cloudy lenses through which to view
and the world at large (Cox,
Stabb and Bruckner, 1999
, p. 3).
My findings have identified common threads
across the lived experiences of anger in the lives of the young women
who participated in this study. These include: injustices, denied
rights, a lack of agency, the catch-22 of anger expression, their
disconnected relationship with anger and the value they articulated in
having an opportunity to explore anger from an anger affirming
standpoint. From the findings, three issues emerge as central to
understanding the mental health impact of the lived experience of anger
for young women. Firstly, the pervasiveness of oppression stands out as
key to understanding anger for young women. Secondly, knowing the
sources of their anger, but also of what they are able to do with it,
is critical. Lastly, and most crucially, the findings demonstrate that
denied authenticity was linked to the most serious mental health
consequences of the lived experience of anger for young women.
The Pervasiveness of Oppression
From source, to expression and to impact, a key
defining factor of girls’ lived experience of anger is that of
oppression. Oppression serves to marginalize those considered to be
“other”, such as females, lesbians, and racialized women, among others,
and dismisses them as insignificant, unimportant, invisible, different,
of less value and not normal (Gerrard
oppression experienced by the girls came in many forms at each stage of
their experience with anger. This included being ignored, dismissed,
silenced, rejected, controlled, disbelieved, constantly being compared
to others, devalued, victimized, scrutinized, judged, made to feel not
good enough, not important, not listened to or taken seriously; they
believed that they had little or no agency in their lives or in their
interpersonal relationships. In other words, their rights were
infringed upon if not denied.
All through grade school, all the
outings, field trips and gym class I
was excluded. I was the only kid with a disability in the school so I
was kinda set aside from everything else. The teachers said “oh well”.
This affected me for a long time. I was angry but imagine a kid in a
wheel chair getting angry? I’d probably have been put in a room (Joan,
The majority of the time when the young women told stories of anger it
was about their needs being discounted, feeling unappreciated, being
treated as unimportant, rarely if ever, being listened to and
having no agency. “When I’ve expressed things that make me angry in the
past, usually the other person gets upset and angry too. And the issue
doesn’t go anywhere but in circles” (Gail, participant).
Societal marginalization is another form of oppression, and many of the
participants were marginalized either because of their gender, race,
ability, appearance, sexual orientation, or because they were pregnant
or were young mothers. Gender role expectations and prescribed
femininity for girls and young women are other forms of oppression
stemming from a patriarchal culture. Girls learn that they must
sacrifice themselves by caring for others and maintaining
relationships, being inauthentic (i.e. being agreeable when one is not
feeling that way), and avoiding anger and conflict (Tolman and
Porche, 1999, p. 5). I would argue that the defining one’s self in
relation to her connections to others, is yet another example of strict
gender based expectations for girls and women as was also explained by
scholars at the Stone Center. Bepko
(1990) identified a
Code of Goodness which, they
believe, females are socialized to live
by. The code includes (a) being attractive; (b) being a lady (a good
woman stays in control); (c) being unselfish and of service; (d) making
relationships work; and (d) being competent without complaint. To be a
lady and stay in control is directly related to the societal
constraints placed on the expression of anger for girls and women. The
expectation to make relationships work also influences girl’s and
women’s ability to express their anger in relationships, thus leading
to eventual self silencing.
Keepers of the Drum: The Centrality
of Relationships and the Eventual
Process of Self-Silencing
For the 65 girls whose lives inform this commentary,
the lived experience of anger arose and played out within the context
of relationships. The injustices and denied rights stemmed from
participants’ relationships with teachers, parents, friends and
partners. During my time spent with the Native young women’s group,
they taught me that within the Native family, women are expected to be
“keepers of the drum”.
We have to be strong. I find that in
households it’s the women who have
to be strong because they are the keepers of the drum. The ones who are
supposed to keep all the people together, make everything okay, to keep
the family together and to be brave (Paula, participant).
demonstrated that girls are taught to define themselves
in terms of their relationships and that mental health disturbances
arise from disconnections in relationships. It makes sense, then, that
girls and young women will avoid relationship disruptions in order to
avoid relational losses. And so, many girls silence their anger in
order to prevent any further disruptions in their relational surround.
The lived experience of anger in the lives of the
girls and young women in this study led to an eventual process of
self-silencing. The experience of being devalued, dismissed,
judged, ignored, disrespected and having many of their human/child
rights violated led to anger. In attempts to speak of their anger and
its source, the young women were pathologized or medicated by the
health care system, disbelieved, criticized and further marginalized.
“Girls and women are anesthetized by the fear of what others think of
them” (Regina, participant).
Because of the way in which their anger was received, their
relationship with this emotion became one of fear, shame, doubt,
self-loathing, internalized pathologization, guilt and self-silencing.
They learned to “stuff it away”, disregard it, divert it into other
things, and not say anything. “For me, it’s easier to let things go
The Role of Anger in Knowing
Emotions provide us with important information about what is going on
around and within us. Emotions are messages about our experiences.
“Emotions provide important information about the self in relation to
the environment and direct our awareness to what is personally relevant
in order to mobilize the self for action” (Greenberg and Safran, 1989
cited in Cox, Stabb and
Bruckner, 1999, p. 4).
Anger is an emotion of authentic self-knowing. It is
a political emotion, in that it has self-protective qualities. Its
suppression is also political and, in my view, is rooted in a
misogynist culture that fears the angry (i.e. powerful) girl, young
woman or woman. For the participants in this study, anger arose within
the context of their relationships and given that girls and women are
socialized to define themselves in relation to others, and that any
relationship disruptions create emotional distress, anger produces fear
and trepidation. In addition, gender role prescriptions rooted in a
patriarchal western culture place expectations on girls and young women
to attend to relationships at the cost of self. Within the context of
relationships, injustices, denied agency and denied rights were what
generated anger for the participants in this study. If they “chose” to
speak of their anger, they were met with further dismissal and negative
repercussions, not the least of which was further relationship
disruption. Soon, their relationship with anger became one of fear.
“Society thinks that you are crazy and that you should be calm and not
show anger. Otherwise you’re a bitch or are rude” (Yvonne, participant).
Over time, the participants spoke of the decision to
just let things go, that their anger would get diverted elsewhere, or
that it would be displaced onto the wrong targets. They rarely knew how
to describe their anger, its source, or its impact, and this
represented a disconnection from it. Because anger is a message about
self, and aids in self knowing, it is my argument that the overall
lived experience of anger in the lives of the participants in this
study leads to an erosion in their ability to live authentically
particularly within the context of interpersonal relationships. To be
disconnected from anger, is to be disconnected from self. “The ultimate
loss is the loss of the self never known” (Peck, participant).
Living as a Chameleon: The Outcome
of Anesthetized Anger
Girls stop being and start seeming (Pipher, 1994, p. 23).
A chameleon is an interesting creature: it is one that, in my view,
captures the mental health impact of anesthetizing girls’ anger.
Chameleons change themselves in order to blend in and protect
themselves from harm. They become undetectable through a process of
constant change. They move quietly and cautiously with their eyes
darting every which way in an almost frantic attempt to read their
ever-changing surroundings. Ultra adaptive, a chameleon lives not for
its own colour but for the colour of its surroundings. A chameleon is
the ultimate metaphor for being other-defined, not self-defined (van
Like the chameleon, the young women in this study learned to be highly
adaptive and to monitor their relationships out of fear of disruption;
they learned to blend in, be quiet and adapt themselves in order to
protect themselves from harm. “I tried to be a chameleon and blend in”
(Anne participant).Over time, the experience of loss, dismissal, and
reprisal stemming from attempts to reveal their anger led to
disconnection from the emotion. Eventually when the participants
experienced anger, they felt fear and guilt. This fear and guilt leads
to self-silencing surrounding their anger and its source. Over time,
the participants became disconnected from the emotion, and in so doing,
became disconnected from their own sense of needs and feelings. To be
disconnected from the message of anger, creates a disconnect to self
and eventually denies one’s ability to be authentic to self and/or
The eventual mental health impact of anesthetizing anger was a denial
of authenticity of knowing themselves and being themselves. Instead
they learned to live as gender-prescribed chameleons: adapting,
quieting, ignoring, diverting, and suppressing, so as to avoid being
judged and being seen in order to blend in safely.
So What’s the Problem? A Patriarchal
Fear of Women’s Power
Girls’ lived experience of anger is, in my view, an
experience that stems from a patriarchal social system that denies
women power. Anger is an emotion of power: to know it is to know self,
and to act upon it is to have agency, self-knowledge and power. This is
dangerous in a culture that has been built upon a hierarchical power
base in which, through compulsory heterosexuality and systemic
misogyny, girls and women have been led to believe that they are
inferior and that their selfhood is entirely rooted in their
affiliations with the dominant sex. Anger is just one of many
experiences controlled and affected by patriarchal pressures. The same
denial of knowing can be said for knowing ones’ sexual desires (Tolman,
1991), sexual orientation (Zemsky, 1991) or one’s abilities (Robinson
and Ward, 1991). Anger, women’s’ sexuality, and women’s’ capabilities
are all about power and women’s power is dangerous to a patriarchal
Patriarchy maintains itself through oppression. For
girls, the experience of anger is one of oppression. Oppression
generates it, and oppression denies its expression. The dismissal of
their needs, the continual scrutiny under which they live and the
denial of an opinion -- especially if oppositional -- are all parts of
system of subordination; and this continued subordination reinforces
the message to girls and young women that their needs are not
important -- nor are they.
To maintain girls’ relationship with anger as one of
confusion, trepidation and fear keeps young women in their assigned
place: they remain subordinate and other-defined. Eventually, young
women become complicit in their own subordination as they learn to
self-silence and their core self becomes other to their masked self.
The hyper-vigilance of a chameleon is not unlike the constant
adaptation the young women learned through their lived experience of
anger. Anger is key in self-definition, in self-protection, and in
agency, power and lived authenticity. Girls’, young women’s and women’s
anger threatens patriarchy. The very gender role constraints that teach
girls and women to suppress, divert, or doubt their anger are the same
constraints that maintain women’s subordinate position in the home, in
intimate heterosexual relationships, and in society in general.
Hearing the Whispers, Affirming the
To be anesthetized is to induce a loss of sensitivity to pain in all or
a part of the body. It is known as a state of apathy or mindlessness
and is related to or produces a loss of sensation and unconsciousness.
To be unconscious is to be unaware of something -- unable to see, hear
otherwise sense what is going on. To be conscious, however, is to be
aware of something and to attach importance to it. It means to be
capable of thinking, choosing and perceiving. It is to be awake
(Encarta World English Dictionary, 2004).
In this section, I outline five key recommendations
the focus groups and interviews with diverse Canadian girls conducted
as part of this study. These recommendations include the necessity to
reframe anger, to root anger in the political, to stand beside and bear
witness, to practice introspection surrounding our own beliefs and
values about anger, and to practice feminist consciousness-raising.
These are key strategies that all of us can employ as we confront the
anesthetization of girls anger, awaken the whispers and affirm the
The first recommendation that emerges from the
experience of asking girls and young women to speak of their lived
experience of anger pertains to the necessity to reframe anger from
that of something that is sinful, negative and wrong, to something that
is valuable, important and that brings with it a chance for
authenticity. As long as girls are told that anger is bad, a sin, a
sign of mental instability or is violent, girls will continue to be
disconnected from it. To know one’s anger is to know one’s self, for
anger brings with it a message about what we need, believe we ought to
be, and how we are experiencing the world and our relationships. The
emotion of anger is a gift: it tells us that something is wrong
and that our needs are not being met. It is not anger in and of itself
that is wrong, negative, or sinful. Anger must be unhinged from
aggression since the latter is a type of behaviour while the former is
To reframe anger as a valuable emotion with an
important message has far reaching mental health and relational
implications. Girls’ and women’s mental health is linked to an inner
sense of connection with others, and “psychological crises in women’s
lives stem from disconnections” (Brown
1992, p. 3). To
continue to view anger as something negative reinforces the vehement
expectation to suppress it and doubt its validity.
Shifting the Lens: Rooting
Anger in the Political
Anger is political. Girls’ anger arises within a
societal context, and the power relations within that context
necessitate our attention and critical analysis. In other words ‘the
personal is political’. Feminist social worker Helen Levine (1989)
believes that “ the helping professions have historically located the
key source of most personal pain and trouble within the individual ...
and accordingly, the emphasis in practice, regardless of intention, is
focused upon individual pathology ... deficits of personality... and
ultimately upon adjustment at the personal level” (p. 247-8). The
sources of anger, the options afforded regarding its expression, and
the repercussions of action all arise within a social structure that
privileges its silencing.
The Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers
recognizes the important role social work plays in changing damaging
social structures. Its Code of Ethics (OCSWSSW, 2008)
states that a social worker
or social service worker shall advocate for change that is in the best
interests of the client, and for the overall benefit of society, the
environment and the global community. To shift the lens on anger to its
political roots is wholly congruent with the scope of practice of
helping professionals such as social workers.
The rigidity of prescribed roles and behaviors for
girls and women -- involving caring for and about others as well as
looking pretty for boys and men -- makes for predictable identity
confusion, anger and depression. Research has demonstrated that girls
who conform to societal
prescriptions for behavior were more popular, less neurotic, happier,
and better adjusted than non-conforming girls. Levine (1989)
agrees about the predictability of emotional difficulty for women who
do not conform, but adds that inevitably whether or not girls or women
conform, they are caught in a vicious catch-22 situation: conform and
lose yourself; do not conform and lose credibility and social
acceptance. “The inevitable conflicts created by the severely
circumscribed life patterns set for girls and women result in
pronounced personal difficulties at one point or another in our lives”
(p. 238). She astutely argues that learning to be female demands that
we give up the self, and thus what generates anger for girls is
political and so is what girls and young women are allowed to do with
Bearing Witness … Standing Beside
Asking girls and young women about their
anger, its antecedents, and affirming their stories is to bear witness
to a girl’s life as she interprets it. However, to stand beside
bit more of us. According to Brown
(1998), when adult women turn away
from girls’ anger, it sends a confusing and dangerous message. Turning
away from girls’ anger, especially when in a powerful position as a
helping professional, reinforces the silencing, and, in my view, is
complicit in the erosion of girl’s boisterous selves during early
adolescence. Encouraging girls’ anger and all the politics surrounding
its causes and its oppression, Brown
(1998) states, is a radical act with
potentially transformative consequences.
The girls I met over the span of two years expressed a desire for
someone to listen and not leave their side as they expressed their
anger. When I asked the participants how nurses and other helping
professionals could best support them around their anger they asked
that they not be judged, that they believed and that they be allowed to
be angry. They wanted the nurse to demonstrate that she cares, believes
them, takes them seriously and does not see them as weak or sick.
Therefore to stand beside and to bear witness, is a key recommendation;
it is also central to all the recommendations put forth by the
participants of this study.
Introspection as an Ethical Imperative
Before we can listen to, affirm and enable insight
and development in the girls and young women we seek to support, we
ourselves must be introspective about our own anger. The College of
Nurses of Ontario (CNO) (2007) and the College of Psychologists
(CPO) (2009) have guidelines for professional ethical practice for
members. Applicable to my recommendation surrounding introspection is
the CNO’s (2007) directive
own values in client
situations and identify where a conflict of one’s own values interferes
with the care of clients” (p. 7). The CPO (2009) calls for
to ensure professional objectivity. Girl-serving professionals need to
be in touch with not only their own anger but also, in the course of
listening and bearing witness, they must be in touch with how the story
is affecting them and whether they are still bearing witness or are
being triggered about their own lives. In any interpersonal
communication this occurs, but given that anger is taboo, rarely
discussed, and misunderstood, we must be diligent in our introspection
before assisting girls and young women to know and affirm their anger.
Critical reflection on all professional dialogues is an imperative not
new to nursing, psychology or other girl-serving professions. However,
given that anger and its reception are critical to mental health, I
believe the necessity to be introspective and critically reflective is
even higher. If we are not clear about our relationship with anger, we
can unknowingly impinge on girls’ lives by imposing our own un-checked
values on them. Not only is this potentially maleficent but, in my
view, it is unethical.
Feminist Consciousness-Raising with
Women have often felt insane when
cleaving to the truth of our
experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each we have a
profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our
reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other. (Rich, 1979,
A key feminist intervention in working with girls
and young women is that of feminist consciousness-raising (CR).
First-wave North American feminist Hogie
Wyckoff (1977) wrote of
the importance of women coming together in order to understand their
own lives within the context of other women’s lives. Betsy Warrior
(1970) envisioned CR assisting women “to clean out their heads,
their anger, learn to understand other women and discover that their
personal problems are not only theirs” (p. 253). We must teach girls
how to identify what generates anger for them and help them to believe
it and affirm it. The girls who participated in and informed this study
unanimously felt that it was beneficial to come together in a climate
of respect that was free of judgment. By having the opportunity to meet
together, several of the focus groups evolved into CR groups. For
example, the queer group quickly established itself into a CR group
with remarkably astute analyses, while the young mother’s group emerged
into a discussion group where listening partners were established. The
Native young women’s group and the young women with spina bifida group
both transformed themselves into CR groups as the focus shifted from
question and answer sessions to free dialogue and to trust and
affirmation of one another. The experience of coming together gave them
the opportunity to be heard and also to learn about other girls. By
listening to one another they felt that they were somehow not alone.
They learned that they were normal. “I had a chance to speak. It taught
me to understand my anger better. It’s an outlet” (Mandy, participant).
Another participant stated, “I feel its ok to express anger now and not
just shove it down. I didn’t want to express it before because it
wasn’t acceptable. We never had the okay-ness we’ve had here” (Helvi,
Now is the Time
The path is the goal. If there’s any
possibility for enlightenment,
it’s right now, not at some future time. Now is the time. This very
moment is the perfect teacher. Pema Chodron (2005)
Girls need us now, perhaps more than we imagine. Let us meet them at
the 'crossroads' that Brown and
Gilligan (1992) speak of. Let’s actually
head them off at the so-called pass and encourage girls to resist
conforming to damaging notions of femininity. A feminist presence is
not as palpable as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Let us change that.
us make sure that every girl, over the course of her life, has someone
who gives her permission to question ‘the way it is’, who helps her to
confront confusing expectations, to rename experiences for which she
has blamed herself, and to reframe herself as a capable person worthy
of respect, dignity and self-expression. Let us join together with the
goal of ensuring that every girl hears her own inner whispers, trusts
her roars of injustice, indignity and denied self-definition. Now is
the time for change. Imagine how your life might have been different if
this had happened for you.
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Dr. Cheryl van Daalen-Smith is a feminist nurse and girls’ health
scholar. Her years as a school health nurse and a public health nurse
fuel her scholarly interest in exposing the risks associated with
narrow gender role expectations for girls (and boys). She teaches
Canada’s only pediatric nursing course rooted in the United Nations
Convention for the Rights of Children, is an advocate for children’s
rights in health care settings and is currently researching women’s
lived experiences of electroshock. She is an associate professor at
York University in the School of Nursing, with a cross appointment in
both the school of Women’s Studies and the Children’s Studies Program.
She is currently leading an initiative to found a Centre for Studies in
Girlhood at York University.